The 17th Annual “Dead of Winter” Writing Contest

Stories submitted to the 17th Annual Dead of Winter contest (December 2017) must use the theme NEVERTHELESS SHE PERSISTED (your entry must follow guidelines below).

This year’s theme is inspired by women and their resilience.

SPECIAL:

Horror has long given us female protagonists and antagonists, both in literature and film. Your entry will not only follow the theme NEVERTHELESS SHE PERSISTED but also give us strong female characters facing and/or creating horrors in original ways.

We want them to be challenged by forces within and/or without; they might not make it to the end of your story. The threat your main character faces might be female or she may be female herself (or both). Your story may feature one woman or one girl or several females but at least one major character in your story should be a female who is persistent.

EVERY YEAR:

  • Stories MUST be based on the theme provided.
  • Stories MUST be set in winter.
  • Stories MUST fall in the horror genre
  • The word count range for DOW2017 is 3000–5000 words.

HOW TO ENTER:

The contest opens October 1, 2017 and the deadline for submission is 11:59 PM ET December 21, 2017.

Email entries to dow2017[at]toasted-cheese.com with the subject line:
Dead of Winter Contest Entry

Follow general contest guidelines and general Dead of Winter guidelines

 

Horror and Sorrow and Beauty: Interview with Mercedes M. Yardley

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Mercedes M. Yardley writes “whimsical horror.” Her happy endings might have every character die or go mad. Her characters might have holes in their hands, through which stars fall to Earth (incidentally, stars can prevent you from peeling Granny Smiths by knocking knives out of your hole-free hands). She would tag her new novel with #lovehurts and considers herself a “pantser” when it comes to her characters. She won Reddit’s /r/Fantasy 2013 Best Short Fiction “Stabby” for Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love.

While reading her work, you don’t want to put it down. Then you realize you have to put it down in order to go find more (and sometimes to eat, drink, see the sun, etc.). Her delicate yet powerful prose sends unique characters on fascinating journeys and she has cultivated a faithful fanbase. Her first novel, Nameless, was published this month by Ragnarok Publications.

Interview with Mercedes M. Yardley

Toasted Cheese: Let’s start with important stuff. Tell us about the connection to your close personal friend Gloria Gaynor.

Yardley1

Mercedes M. Yardley

Mercedes M. Yardley: Gloria and I are like this. BFFs. She calls every morning to get my fashion advice. I totally tell her to go with the white hat. Nobody can rock it like she does.

Ha, no, actually, I’m one of many authors in an anthology that she put out. Somebody sent me an email saying there was a call for submissions and she thought it might be up my alley. The theme is how Ms. Gaynor’s song “I Will Survive” has inspired us in one way or another. I sat down and wrote an essay about being knocked flat once or twice (or a million times) in life, and how I was trying to get my roar back.

Being in the book is a fangurl’s dream for me. Ms. Gaynor personalized my copy of the book and the CD she made to go with it. I’m a real geek when it comes to things like this.

TC: I discovered your work through Shock Totem. How did you get involved with the journal? Could you share a little about your journey from contributor to contributing editor to editor emeritus (so to speak)?

MMY: I wrote a black, funny little story called “Murder for Beginners”. It was one of my very first sales, actually, to a new and intriguing dark fantasy magazine called Shock Totem.

The staff was nuts. Ken Wood, the editor, sent this awesome rejection letter that was irreverent and hilarious. I later found out that he had originally rejected “Murder for Beginners” but the other staff liked it enough to fight for it. Thankfully mob… er, majority rule is how Shock Totem works.

I started hanging out on the forums. It was the first forum I ever frequented, and it was just a lot of fun. The staff and I hit it off beautifully. After a while, they asked if I would be interested in coming aboard.

It was a big decision, quite honestly. I loved the staff and the stories and the magazine, but I was afraid that it would take too much time from my own writing. I was also afraid that the dark subject matter would get to me. But ultimately I decided to jump, and it was one of the very best decisions I ever made. I loved it. Loved all of it. Seeing things from the other side of the desk was amazing. Staff became family for me. Shock Totem became a huge part of my life.

But things change. I have three kiddos now, and two of them are medically fragile. Three kids are so much more difficult than two. I started publishing a little bit more, and I realized that I was being stretched too thin. I was sick all of the time. I was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. I was dropping balls left and right. I really felt like a failure.

I realized that I had to make some changes to keep myself healthy in every way. I started cutting things out. Eventually I realized that I needed to let Shock Totem go, and it was really tough. I miss it every day. But it’s time to focus on writing novels full time. Everything has a season.

TC: I recently had to make a declaration that if it wasn’t about family, my own writing, or Toasted Cheese, I had to let it go. You’ve just done something similar. Do you feel freer and more productive yet or is an “overstretched” element hanging on?

MMY: I admire you for making that commitment. I know it isn’t easy.

I hope to feel freer. Right now, I’m still exhausted and over-committed. I don’t prize my time like I should. I need to be more selfish with it. Right now I dole it out left and right and then I’m surprised when I look at the clock and it’s midnight. I’ve done things for everybody else, but what about my manuscript? ARG!

TC: You belong to a writing group. Is your group face to face or online? What does it give you to belong to a group? What happens in your group (writing talk, commiseration, editing help, brainstorming, etc.)?

MMY: My writer’s group is called The Illiterati, or The Interdimensional Wombats. Don’t ask, because I’ve long since forgot how that all came about.

Yardley2We meet face-to-face in the Wombat Lair every Tuesday for about three hours. And we do everything. Read each other’s work. Brainstorm. Edit. Fight. Eat pizza. Hold write-ins. Celebrate birthdays. We’re family in every sense of the word. We even argue like it, sometimes.

We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We know each other’s potential. Our main goal as a group is to make sure that we don’t let each other send something out that’s subpar. Anything less than our best.

Ideally, we’ll all move to a commune together. We’ll raise bees, grow our own vegetables, and hold writer’s retreats at our place. There’s an island in Chile that would be perfect for us. You know. After we buy it for twelve million dollars.

I’m also in a secret online group called The Pit Crew. It’s cobbled together by a few Illiterati, some members of Shock Totem. My literary nemesis takes part. There’s another horror writer whom I adore. This one is much more laid back. More quick reads and minor suggestions. Questions about the business.

The Illiterati is out for blood. The secret Pit Crew is backup. Though I guess we’re not secret anymore. 😛

TC: That makes me want to do an evil laugh and rub my hands in little circles.

Do you have an Ideal Reader? Is it a real person or a construct? Describe the person or audience for whom you write.

MMY: I actually wrote Nameless for my friend, Janyece. We’ve known each other since we were two or three. She’s my oldest friend. So in that sense, she was my first and only Ideal Reader. I’ve never specifically written for somebody before.

Yardley3Well, perhaps that isn’t true. I write the book for the characters. I write as though they’re reading, and I’m telling their stories. My short story “Black Mary”, for instance, is about a kidnapped little girl. Am I telling her story honestly enough? Truthfully enough? Delicately enough. Am I handling the situation with the respect and tenderness that it deserves? I’ve come to the realization that people identify with the characters and situations, especially the dark, painful ones. Sure, I’m writing about a person that doesn’t exist, but the pain she experiences is real. I’ve been astounded at some of the emails I’ve received, saying how people identified with characters, especially Montessa from Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love.

So I write to her. Montessa and Mary and Azhar and Reed Taylor and the characters I’m writing about. It’s perhaps a bizarre way to do it, but keeps the story true.

TC: Tell us about Nameless, which comes out this month. Who are your main characters and what do they want? What’s the journey they undertake?

MMY: Ah, Nameless! Nameless is one of my favorites. I wrote this very quickly, originally. I was writing a chapter a day for my friend. Then I lost two of my triplets at birth, and I couldn’t work on anything for a bit. It was a joy to come back to, when I finally did.

Luna Masterson has been able to see demons from a very young age. Everybody thinks that she’s crazy except for her father. He checks out while she and her brother are still fairly young, so they’re growing up on their own.

She’s mouthy. She rides a motorcycle, partly for the thrill and partly to keep people away from her. Sorry, there isn’t room for anybody else on here. Them’s the breaks. But she loves her brother, Seth, fiercely, and especially his baby girl, Lydia. She’d do anything for them, and she does.

Seth is very organized and logical. His ex-wife was a beautiful and vindictive woman named Sparkles, and she left Seth and Lydia for another man. So he’s trying to pull himself together, keep a job, and raise his daughter by himself. That’s where Luna comes in.

Reed Taylor is one of my favorite characters of all time. He’s a recovering addict who doesn’t see demons, but he falls for Luna. He has his own secrets.

And Mouth is a demon of some import, fairly high in the demonic hierarchy. He’s hanging around Luna for his own reasons. He and Reed Taylor loathe each other. I love putting them together and hearing the retorts fly.

They’re a diverse group of people. Ultimately, they’re all lonely and they’re trying their very best. They’ll get it wrong, of course. But they’ll also do some things right. If Nameless had a tag, I’d say it would be “Love hurts.”

TC: You’ve written several short stories, published a collection of shorts, and now you’re putting out novels. Do you have a preferred story length?

MMY: I adore flash fiction. It appeals to my short attention span and it allows me to tell several stories versus telling one story in a novella or novel. But in a longer piece of work, you get to explore things in a way that you can’t in a short story. It’s allowed to be a little more lush. I really enjoy that.

I think I’ll always think in short stories, but novellas and novels are my new playground.

TC: Do you write on a regular basis or as the mood (or your schedule) allows?

MMY: Excuse me while I sit in the corner and laugh uproariously.

TC: Yeah, every writer likes that one, along with the advice to “write at least (random word count) every day” when there are full time jobs, parenting, illness, and life in general competing for your time.

MMY: I would love to write every day. Ideally, that’s the case. And I try. But things always seem to get in the way. So I write as my schedule allows. I’m always in the mood. Writing is what I want to do more than anything else, besides spending time with my family. But real life seems to demand its time, too.

TC: You’ve said that you write quickly and passionately, then go back and give the pieces a couple of light polishes and that’s it. Have you always worked this way or is it a method you’ve developed to suit your work, needs, or time schedule?

MMY: Not only is it the way that I work, but it’s the way I live my life. Whatever project I’m doing at the time, I’m 110% into it. Passionately, wildly. It consumes me. I throw everything I have into it, and do so until something else comes up and interrupts. Then the flame cools and I can go back over it with a more refined eye later.

Short, intense bursts, and then reality. I’ve always done this, and it works well for me.

Yardley4TC: When I read your collection Beautiful Sorrows, I was moved by its magical realism, how you handle it with a light touch while it’s intrinsic to the stories. Do you find readers to be excited, put off, or a combination of both when they encounter something like a talking star or river?

MMY: Of course every reader is different. Some really seem to like the delicacy of magical realism. Pixie eggs grow in the corner of windows. The desert leaves footprints as it stalks around your front door. Boys hang stars, naturally. I think there’s charm to it, and some readers really seem to enjoy the sweetness.

Then again, I get readers who are very vocal in their distaste. There needs to be a reason for the pixie egg. Why do they grow there, exactly? Is it the humidity? A nexus? A blessing or curse? It drives some people crazy that these things aren’t explained. “So that guy just walked through the wall and began brushing her hair? How does he do that? Why?”

Their brains are beautifully mechanical. Gorgeously logical. That isn’t how my mind works. Dig too deep into the meaning of things and it loses its magic. Don’t tell me why. Simply show me that it happens, and I’ll follow you there. I want to believe.

TC: Speaking of magical realism and genre, your stories have strong horror elements, maybe even a bit Gothic or outright romantic. In terms of genre, do you like to color within the lines or do you like something a little more like watercolor that runs and blends together? Also could you tell us about “whimsical horror”?

Yardley5MMY: “Whimsical horror” is a description that I made up. My work isn’t tra-la-la light and it isn’t straight-up horror. It’s stuck somewhere in the middle in a genre that I’m told doesn’t exist. I needed a way to describe it quickly so people’s eyes don’t glaze over. So I found the phrase that was most apt, and “whimsical horror” was it.

Your description of watercolor that blends together is beautiful. And I think that’s how I write. I write what I find lovely and/or horrifying at the time. I find that horror and sorrow and beauty are closely linked. They all cause this type of exquisite pain. I also find that writing helps me work through my current thought processes and issues of the moment, so naturally my emotions come to the forefront. Horror, despite the stigma that is associated it, is all about emotion. So I find that lovely.

TC: You say that the main characters in Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu are “wonderfully, beautifully broken people.” When creating characters, do you have their flaws in mind from the outset or do they develop as you work?

MMY: Lu had a fire within him. Montessa was dead, only her body hadn’t caught up with her soul. They were going to fall in love, and it would be wonderful and tragic.

That’s all I had when I started. I’m a pantser to the extreme. I have a gem of an idea and then sit down and write. The characters are fleshed out as I go. Ha, even the plot is created as I go! I have no idea what’s going to happen. In my favorite novel that I ever wrote, I didn’t know if the main character would live or die until I wrote the final chapter! So I don’t have their flaws in mind when I sit down to create. I’m as much of a reader as I am a writer. I sit at the keyboard and I’m excited to see what’s going to occur in the story that day.

TC: Two themes I find consistent in your work are hope and love. Is this a conscious statement you’re making with your work or something else, like an extension of your personality that naturally comes through?

MMY: I want there to be hope in the story. Of course, my idea of hope is usually a little different than most people’s. One of the guys in my writer’s group, Ryan Bridger, and I got into a friendly little brawl about my definition of happy endings.

“All of my stories have happy endings,” I said. “They’re all about hope.”

“Which happy ending?” he said. “The one where they all die?”

“They don’t all die!”

“Or how about the one where she’s abused, freezing to death, and possibly crazy?”

“She escaped, Ryan. Doesn’t get much happier than that.”

“What about the one where—”

“Just shut up, okay? Shut. It.”

I guess what I’m saying is that life is bleak. It just is. But we’re survivors. Humans are resilient. There’s always a silver lining. Always something worth striving for. I hope that’s something that always comes through, because it’s something that I very much believe.

TC: You seem to be a natural creatrix, not just with words but with food and you’ve tried knitting (i.e. “stabbing …beautiful yarn with sharp sticks ”). What are the last few things you’ve made that didn’t involve words?

Yardley6MMY: Oh, I love to make things! I make all sorts of things. I like to work with paper, so I make a lot of cards. I also make different types of jewelry. I especially like to work with stones. Wire wrapping, beading. I made a few sets of really fun dragon horns. I love baking. Trifles. Cakes. I make my own Twix candy bars, and my own peanut butter cups. In fact, one of my favorite things was getting all of the horror writers to help me make peanut butter cups at 2:30 in the morning at Killercon convention this year. We didn’t have any rolling pins so they crushed up the graham crackers with tequila bottles. It was definitely memorable!

I like making things. It really makes me happy. Really gives me joy.

More Mercedes:


14-01

Imaginable Horror

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror.
Apocalpyse Now; screenplay by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola; based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness

Horror fiction might seem to be everywhere these days, from prime time TV to sparkling vampires. Truth is that horror is probably the oldest form of genre fiction. Some of the earliest English-language fiction has horror elements. Today’s Young Adult sections are full of horror-tinged series (and have been as long as “young adult” has been on the shelf). Horror is for everyone, to some degree.

Think of early short stories, novels, and films. Horror is almost always the first genre storytellers use (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Frankenstein, short 19th century films by Georges Méliès). It hits us at our most primal points, which is why horror so often uses or implies sexuality as well as the horror itself. The Count Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel is hardly a romantic figure but the metaphor of vampiric possession as sexual awakening has caused the character and his ilk to evolve into Byronesque figures. Gary Oldman’s “old” Dracula in the Francis Ford Coppola film is closer to the novel’s description while his “young” Prince Vlad is what audiences responded to and closer to how vampires are portrayed on screen and page today.

Horror binds us together, like the group of kids who have to work together to defeat a boogey man or the humans who work as a team to defeat the invading aliens. We’re all on one side and the horror is on the other.

Passed down for generations, horror stories and urban legends serve as warnings that serve to protect or inform. The story of “Dead Man’s Curve” can remind a teen driver to slow down when you get to that spot the locals call “Devil’s Elbow.” Don’t forget: if you go parking with your sweetheart, you’re likely to get home and find a hook hanging from the car door handle. Listen around a campfire of elementary-aged scouts and you’ll hear tales of mysterious creatures that lurk in the very woods around you.

What is horror?

Horror is written to scare, horrify, or unsettle the reader (see our Writer’s Glossary). There’s no set of rules for antagonists, situations, etc. Horror can be subjective simply because what frightens Reader #1 might not frighten Reader #2. You’re not even limited by your ending; it can be upbeat (they get away!) or downbeat (they all become cyberzombies!).

Your objective as a horror writer should be to get into your reader’s gut as well as her mind. The most successful horror stories literally haunt the reader, sometimes to the point where the reader is torn between walking away to regroup versus finishing a compelling story.

You can say anything with horror. You can speak out about a social issue, give advice, correct a slight, live out a fantasy—all the things you say with any type of fiction writing. You can put any other element with horror—think romance or humor, for example—and it will work. These two examples work particularly well with horror because they are so basic to humanity.

I was taught (in health class of all places) that there are really only three human emotions and that everything else falls under them: love, anger, and fear. Sounds like the building blocks for a horror story, doesn’t it? Don’t feel that your horror story—or the characters in it—is limited to only expressing horror. Horror is the chilled spine around which your story wraps. Your characters can express love, joy, anger, and desire all while experiencing fear, uncertainty, or even madness.

Horror, above all other genres, is about humanity. Horror forces humanity to face its one commonality: mortality. When we write horror, we hold that mirror up to humanity and force it not only to acknowledge but to accept the fact of mortality.

What horror fiction isn’t is a story with horror elements stuck in for fun. Horror readers are a fun and generous lot but they can spot this in a second (as can editors).

Understand the reader

Like all genre fans, horror readers have expectations that should be met. With horror, this is particularly tricky as people—including editors—define horror in myriad ways. Some readers love “splatter” horror with lots of gore and violence whereas other readers despise a horror story that wants to look like a blood-soaked film.

The best rule of thumb is true for horror as much as any other type of fiction: write what you would want to read. If you’re writing to publish, horror journals and anthologies will provide guidelines for you to let you know if your story is right for them.

As is true in all fiction: show; don’t tell. This is especially true in horror. Horror won’t work if you tell the reader he should be scared. Your goal is to weave a tale that gets under his skin and makes it crawl. Bring your reader along for a thrilling ride rather than put on a show for him to watch.

Different things are scary to different people

My six-year old son has innate fear of spiders. He’s not a fan of bugs in general but the very mention of a spider will send him screaming from the room. As a Florida native, I have yet to meet the bug that creeps me out (and am therefore the designated bug killer in the household). So I could read Charlotte’s Web and be fine whereas my son would consider it a horror story.

This isn’t to say we can’t identify with the horror (Frankenstein’s monster, King Kong). You’re not limited to the victim’s point of view when writing horror. Using the horror as a narrator or empathetic element could be chilling for your reader.

One of the guidelines we have in Dead of Winter every year is not to use clichéd monsters as the antagonist in a story. We have seen too many vampires, werewolves, zombies, and people who don’t know they’re dead. It’s not that we don’t like these horror baddies; it’s just that they’re so rarely fresh. We’ve found that ghosts, for example, seem to get writers to be more creative simply because there’s no standard definition of “ghost.” If you want to use these classics, think of new ways to present them. It’s fine if your vampires sparkle in the sunlight. To some people it’s ridiculous but to some it’s a fresh take and a long overdue addition to vampiric canon. The Incredible Hulk is a variation on a werewolf. Think outside the Universal Horror films when you’re deciding what these creatures are in the world you’re creating.

Bad choices

Bad choices are essential to move fiction forward, especially in horror. Why else would the teenager, knife clutched in her trembling fist, continue up the stairs toward the boogey man instead of simply running to the neighbor’s house to call 9-1-1? Because her bad choice not only moves the story forward but it also triggers our protective instinct. Then again, jaded readers might think that if you’re making an obvious bad choice you deserve what you get, Character. But what if there is no good choice? Make sure your characters have reasons—or at least excuses—for what they do.

As the creator, you get to choose what’s in the darkness beyond each fork in the road. Maybe your character hears scratching at the window. He can decide to investigate or to hide deeper in the house. If he goes to the window, he could be attacked or distracted. If he hides, he could become trapped.

So long as your characters are active and resourceful, you can keep a reader along for the ride. If your characters are idiots, your readers might stay with them but start rooting for them to meet their ends. If you’ve ever watched a lazily-written horror film with a group of people, you’ll find the tide turning toward the horror picking off the weak rather than rooting for the potential victims to get away.

One way horror writers get off the hook with characters’ choices is that our characters’ decisions don’t necessarily have to be rational or realistic due to the fear clouding their judgment. This might happen in other types of genre fiction (for example, a character making a poor choice due to being blinded by love) but horror readers tend to be forgiving because this fits in with human nature. Making bad choices is part of human nature as well (see any daytime talk show or court show) and when you compound them with being made under the duress of fear, you can get away with a lot.

Don’t forget that your horror—be it a monster or a vague sense of unease—is also a character. It has motivations, limits, choices, and what it does is under your control. Think of what the horror wants, what it will do to get it, and what the stakes are should it fail or succeed.

What to show and not to show

When Bruce the animatronic shark didn’t function properly, Jaws director Steven Spielberg had to come up with a way to have a shark in his shark movie. So the shark was represented by its dorsal fin, by an actress whose character’s demise opens the film (she was pulled back and forth by ropes below the water), and by yellow barrels jetting across the surface of the sea. Spielberg later said, “The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen.” In other words, the shark—the horror—became scarier because it existed in each audience member’s imagination rather than being onscreen.

All horror readers expect to be frightened or disturbed. One advantage written horror fiction has over horror films and TV is that we can draw as little or as much of the horror as we like, allowing readers to fill in the blanks. Think of how your mental picture of a character changes once a film of the book comes out. We have every physical detail of the character filled in.

There’s a word for horror that shows violent detail: spatter/splatter. If that’s what you want to write there’s no shortage of journals whose editors and readers love it. That said, don’t assume that all readers want blood and guts strewn across the page. There’s more to horror than that. Even within the fanbase, there are degrees and limits as to what people want to experience.

Can you go too far in horror? Ask yourself if anything is “too far” in any kind of fiction. If you fear where your story wants to go, follow it. Don’t worry about being able to shine a bright light into dusty corners. It’s more interesting if you’re on the last hurrah of a weak set of batteries.

So how do I start?

Writers get inspired in a lot of ways, especially horror writers. A horror writer could find inspiration in an antique shop, a bakery, a pet store, an insurance office.

Write what you find frightening. Someone else is also frightened by it. It could be spiders, clowns, or pocket squares. Write it well and when you get uncomfortable, push further into that discomfort. It’s fun to scare yourself and how often do you get the opportunity?

Horror hinges on humanity. The horror can be as fantastic as you can imagine but it should touch something in the soul of the reader. Horror can be as fantastic as your imagination allows so long as it has a root in genuine humanity to anchor it to our world and to your reader.

Horror is about choices, reactions, and fear. Stakes may be high or low. The monsters may be without or within. Horror is the human condition at its most vulnerable. Horror readers accept that vulnerability, going along for a roller coaster of a ride. Part of your job as a horror writer is to make them feel like once the ride is done, there’s something following them home.

Final Poll Results

Creating a Monster: Interview with Shock Totem Editor/Creator K. Allen Wood

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Shock Totem is an American print literary journal specializing in horror and dark fantasy (horror-infused fantasy). Issue 1 was released in mid-2009, Issue 2 in mid-2010, and Issue 3 in January 2011. Editor K. Allen Wood (@kallenwood) is a friend to many of us here at Toasted Cheese and he was kind enough to take some time to discuss writing, editing, music, and giant Nazi chickens.

Toasted Cheese: Most important things first: what’s the latest addition to your music collection? What are you listening to these days?

K. Allen Wood: I like your style, Stephanie. Let’s see. I’m not sure I know what my latest addition is. I do have a small pile of recent additions on my desk, though; it includes albums by Foo Fighters, Cavalera Conspiracy, Therapy?, Jet Red, Cynthesis, Anathema, Ari Hest, Bad Religion, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, KMFDM and, get this, a 1992 demo by Wicked Maraya… on cassette!

As for what I’m listening to these days, it’s always an eclectic mix. I typically set iTunes to shuffle and press play. Currently iTunes shows that I have 85,758 songs on my external hard drive, so it’s always an interesting mix. For instance, the last ten bands played, according to Last.fm, were Queensrÿche, Shootyz Groove, Twilight Ophera, Ultimatum, Stuck Mojo, Incubus, 3 Doors Down, Live, Sprung Monkey, and Project 86.

It never gets old.

TC: What made you decide to create Shock Totem as a print rather than electronic journal? Do you ever feel pressured to create an electronic version?

KAW: Well, in the beginning we were going to be an electronic journal. I knew the traditional print cost for magazines was far beyond my budget. I’d seen too many publications close for that very reason, so I knew I couldn’t manage it financially. I didn’t even want to try. So creating an online journal was more practical, if less appealing.

But then Apex Digest shut down as a print magazine. I was bummed. They were my favorite magazine (I need issue 3, if anyone has an extra). I wanted Shock Totem to at least have the potential to sit on someone’s bookshelf like Apex sat on mine.

So I decided to look into print-on-demand publishing, which would all but eliminate the upfront cost of traditional printing. I tried a few different companies before choosing the one I felt was best and just went for it. I knew the stigma behind POD publishing would be a hurdle, but I also knew that it wasn’t the technology that was the problem, it was the horrible writers using it and the foolish critics that couldn’t comprehend the difference between the two. Done right, done well—which I think we’ve achieved with Shock Totem—it’s arguable that POD publishing is better than traditional publishing, at least for small-press outfits.

And no, I never feel pressured to turn Shock Totem into an electronic journal. It would save me some money, but I think we’d lose a lot of readers.

TC: Would you mind retelling how the title “Shock Totem” came to be, including the discovery that there already existed a book named Shock Totem (by Thom Metzger)?

KAW: It’s all John Boden’s fault. We’d been tossing around a long list of potential names for a while. Most were terrible, some laughable, and others kind of cool. But nothing really stood out. We had a short list of favorites—Nightfall Overture, Scrawl, Shades & Shadows, Blood Tells—but nothing really seemed fitting. It was basically a Best of the Worst list.

One day, John mentioned Shock Totem. Nick and I immediately liked it. It just sounded cool, you know. When asked where the name came from, John said something like, “I don’t know. The words just popped into my head earlier today.” So we added it to the list of potentials and kept thinking of more possible names. But we kept coming back to Shock Totem. At this point we’d already decided to be print magazine, so given that and taking into account the definition of shock and totem, it was the perfect name. And so it was decided.

Sometime later, Nick broke the bad news. He’d Googled the name and found out that it was also the name of an old book by Thom Metzger. That’s when John remembered he’d actually read the book back in college. Doh!

Of course, at that point, we were set on using it. We didn’t want to think of something else, so we decided to go ahead and keep it. We found that Thom Metzger taught at a college in New York, so to be gracious and professional, John contacted him and asked him if he’d be okay with us using the name. We didn’t have to ask, you know, as titles can’t be copyrighted, but we felt it was the right thing to do.

Thom gave us his blessing, and thus, we exist.

TC: Your cover art is amazing and diverse from issue to issue. Is it solicited or submitted?

KAW: So far the artwork for each issue has been solicited. From the beginning I had a very clear vision of what I wanted in terms of artwork. I don’t know that Nick and John were on board with that vision at first, but I think they dig it now. I just really like the digital medium, things that are fantastical but look realistic. Artists like Travis Smith have been a big inspiration to me and I wanted to see that kind of work as the face of our issues.

When we branch out into non-magazine releases, which will be later this year or next year, then we’ll go for a different kind of style.

That said, we are open to artwork submissions.

TC: How does the editorial process work for Shock Totem? In other words, once an author sends you a submission, what happens to it?

KAW: First, a team of five pigmy lady-boys transcribe each submission into handwritten script. Each story is then placed on a gold satin pillow, packaged inside a miniature Kiss Kasket, and flown out to each team member via a murder of crows. Most never arrive, for whatever reason, but those that do make the magazine. It’s unorthodox, but it works for us.

Some people probably think that way of doing business is unfair and unprofessional, so here’s the hooey-fooey but more acceptable answer: These days we have a submissions management system through which authors upload their stories. It’s a great system and much easier for us to interact with the authors. For me in particular. (You’d be amazed—and probably baffled—if I told you how submissions were handled for the first two issues.) While I may be the Head Cheese, we’re a team of five and we all have an equal voice. So majority rules. Three votes either way seals the deal.

TC: Are you able to meet face to face with your editors or do you handle much of Shock Totem’s business via Skype, email, chat, etc.?

KAW: We do most of our work through email and on super-secret forums. This past summer, though, Kurt Newton and I drove down to Pennsylvania and met up with John and Nick. I’d met Kurt at Rock and Shock the year before, but other than that it was the first time any of us had met. We stayed at John’s mother’s house, way up some mountain in Orbisonia. It was a ridiculously ridiculous week. (Ask Nick about the tragic and hilarious eruption of Mt. Pissuvius.)

This coming July, John, Nick and I will be at Necon, and I imagine it’ll be a good time. Next year, we hope to meet up with Mercedes at KillerCon in Vegas.

But I think it’s best that we handle Shock Totem business online and in emails. We joke around so much it’s a wonder we get anything done as it is; we’d never get anything done if we put this thing together in person.

TC: I’m positive that every submission is given a fair shake but what would make you stop reading a submission (a subject, a phrase, a technique, anything)? Is there anything you’ve seen enough of in the inbox?

KAW: Since I’m the one that does the main editing, I’m more inclined to quickly reject stories that have a lot of grammar issues, problems with flow or spelling or formatting. The other guys tend to look past those things. They read for story, but I don’t have that luxury; I have to think about what happens after.

We accepted a story for our first issue that had a lot of issues. There was a great story there, but it needed work, it wasn’t fully realized. Being new to editing and a little too inexperienced, I naïvely thought, with the author’s cooperation, that we could make the story shine. Unfortunately, it was a nightmare. The author fought me every inch of the way. In the end, after about six months, the story was getting worse not better, so I reluctantly passed on it. The author wasn’t pleased, to say the least.

So that’s why I quickly vote NO on stories that would require too much editorial involvement. There may be a good story in some of those, but I now realize it’s not my job to fix it that much. Typically, though, we all read the majority of submissions through to the end.

As for things we’ve seen enough of, there are a few things that elicit a collective sigh. The eat– or kill–the–baby endings are really lame. You can see those coming a mile off. I could do without the whole Nazi angle. We’ve gotten stories with Nazi zombies, Nazi werewolves, Nazi were-raccoons, giant Nazi chickens, and many more. Sadly. But we’re still open-minded enough to know there are exceptions to everything, so we have few restrictions on what we’ll read.

TC: You don’t do “themes” yet the stories always fit well together. Your reviews are eclectic—books, films, music, games—yet cohesive with the creative content. Is that due to consistency in the editors’ tastes or do you consciously choose pieces that jive thematically?

KAW: Well, I think our diverse tastes help with that, believe it or not. John likes surreal, bizzaro kind of stuff; Mercedes is into dark and whimsical tales. I like stuff that is more fantastical. We each have our favorite styles, we all dig a broad range of styles beyond that, but at our collective core, we like the same thing: dark fiction. And everything is tethered to that core.

I also think most if it comes down to us having the integrity to stay true to the standards we set before our first issue came out. And that really comes down to one thing: Publish stories that we enjoy. If you publish fiction for any other reason, you simply don’t care enough. We don’t publish our friends because they’re our friends. We don’t publish stories because the author is popular. We print what we enjoy.

TC: Shock Totem has earned a reputation for being a “tough” journal in which to be published. Do you enjoy that reputation and do you think it has an impact on the submissions you receive?

KAW: At first it was like a badge of honor. When you see other publications accepting eighty percent or more of their submissions, it feels good to not be like that. But it’s a childish way to look at things. Having a low acceptance rate doesn’t mean you’re a good publication, you know.

And I do think being a tough market makes it harder for us. I can’t tell you how many authors have complained to me about how many times we’ve rejected them. Some people do it to bust my balls, but others are clearly angry about it. A few have even told me they’re never going to submit to us again because we’ve rejected them too many times, as if the act of sending us five different kind of stories should guarantee an acceptance. It’s baffling and sad, especially when you know they’re good writers.

So yeah, I think having a low acceptance rate makes it harder on a certain level. Of course, if it were easy I guess there’d be a lot more magazines out there.

TC: Is the content of Shock Totem similar to what you write or is it simply what you like to read?

KAW: A little of both, I think. Probably for all of us.

TC: Shock Totem 3 is almost the size of Shock Totem 1 & Shock Totem 2 together. When did you notice an increase in submissions, considering the timeline of when you launched until today, and did the quality of the submissions follow suit?

KAW: We got an obscene amount of submissions at first. Like forty a day for the first few months. And most of them were atrocious. The moment we upped our pay rate to 5 cents a word, the quality increased tenfold. Eventually the amount of submissions dipped a bit, for whatever reason. Maybe because we’re considered a tough market, I don’t know. Now we average about ten to twenty submissions a day.

Our third issue is bigger because we got a large number of quality submissions during that reading period. If only it were always that plentiful! We probably should have saved a couple stories for Issue 4, though, because Issue 3 was damn expensive. Haha.

TC: Do Shock Totem‘s sales support your paying writers or does that come out of your own pocket? Has this changed over the course of the journal’s existence?

KAW: Profits from sales help, but the bulk of the cost comes from my pocket. Nick and John help when they can, and I’m grateful for it, but they have families, you know, so that comes first. But to give you a little more insight, we have recouped from sales half of what it cost to do Issue 1. But Issue 1 sold a hell of a lot of copies—over a thousand—in its first year of release. Unfortunately, Issue 2 and 3 have sold less. But I think—or hope—that says less about the product and more about why so many people bought our first issue.

In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Stephen King talked a bit about short-fiction outlets. In part, he said, “…a lot of the people who read those magazines are only reading them to see what they publish so that they can publish their own stories.” I think that’s why Issue 1 sold so well: A lot of writers were checking out the new pro-paying market, not necessarily the new fiction magazine.

That’s okay of course. We may be selling less now, but we’re still selling well. And hopefully our upcoming digital editions will increase our sales, thus reader base. We also have a few more things planned for this year that should help as well. My wallet could use the break. Haha.

TC: Has Shock Totem introduced you to new subgenres or writing styles? Are there subgenres you’d like to see more of as submissions?

KAW: I’ve always been a reader with broad tastes, so I don’t know that I’ve been introduced to new subgenres, but doing this magazine has definitely given me new insight into writing styles, or what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve learned much more than I would have otherwise, I think. Or at least much quicker.

And personally, I’d like to see more steampunk come our way. Of a darker sort, you know.

TC: Very often I say to someone, “You have to read this story” and hand them the journal (Brian Rappatta’s “The Dead March” in Shock Totem 1 springs to mind). Do you notice yourself especially eager to get an issue to print because you have to share your discoveries with your readers?

KAW: Of course. Traci L. Morganfield’s “The Music Box,” Leslianne Wilder’s “Sweepers,” John Skipp’s “Worm Central Tonite!” and Aaron Polson’s “Wanting It” come to mind. “Beneath the Weeping Willow,” by Lee Thompson, is one from our upcoming issue that I can’t wait to see what people think of it. It’s a heartbreaking tale, and the ending is so bittersweet.

But depending on the person, I may suggest any story. I really like them all.

TC: Shock Totem had a flash fiction contest in 2010 (the winning story “Ruth Across the Sea” by Steven Pirie was published in Shock Totem 3). Will you run the contest again this year? Do you plan to add more contests?

KAW: Yes. It’s ongoing. Our third bi-monthly contest started May 1. There will be two more after that. (The contests take place on our forum, for those interested.) The final judging will be done after our September contest is complete, and the overall winner will then appear in Issue 5.

And we plan to have other contests, just one-off deals, you know, where people can win books or CDs, things like that. Our new website—which is updated constantly and far more interactive than our previous site—is where we’ll hold those kinds of contests.

TC: In what ways has Shock Totem evolved away from your original expectation for the journal (for better or worse)?

KAW: We’re almost the complete opposite of what we first set out to be. We opened our doors as an e-zine paying 1 cent a word, and now we’re a print magazine that pays 5 cents a word. And despite the additional cost to us, we’re definitely better for it.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of Issue 1, our overall vision remains the same: Shock Totem is a magazine full of stories that we, as readers, enjoy the hell out of.

We’re also pissing fewer people off. Or I am, anyway. Haha.

Final Poll Results

Agents to Zombies:
Author Mira Grant from A-Z

Absolute Blank

By Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Mira Grant is the author of the Newsflesh Trilogy—a story of a post-zombie-apocalypse America that, among other things, explores the effects of “The Rising” (the moment that people started rising from the dead in search of tasty, tasty brains) on politics and media. Deadline, the second book in the trilogy, will be released on May 31.

As Seanan McGuire, she has published four books in the October Daye urban fantasy series. Seanan was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her novel Feed (the first book of the Newsflesh Trilogy) was named as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2010.

I interviewed Mira using the the A-Z interview, the brainchild of my husband, Rand Bellavia. Here is his explanation of how it works: “The structure of these interviews is simple: I email the interviewee 26 words/phrases, each beginning with a different letter of the English alphabet. Then it’s up to them. The interviewee is free to respond to each item as completely or as curtly as they wish.”

So I made my list, sent it off to Mira, and watched her go.

A is for Agent

I probably tell the story of how I hooked up with my agent a little more often than is strictly necessary, partially because I’m still a little amazed that I have her, and partially because she’s so perfect for me, and I sort of want to say, “See? You can get the right agent for you, if you keep looking, and don’t settle for someone who can’t handle your particular variety of crazy.” She’s my personal superhero. She rooms with me at conventions and doesn’t kill me when I leave my laptop slide show running all night. She understands my passion for My Little Ponies, the color orange, and Monster High dolls. Basically, she proves that sometimes when you’re very, very good, the Great Pumpkin gives you what you ask for.

B is for Buffy

Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn’t my first fandom—that dubious honor goes to either Doctor Who or My Little Pony, depending on how you want to measure things—but it was the fandom that saw me through my teenage years and into my twenties. It was the fandom I grew up during, and that means that it will always, always be precious to me, no matter how much I may sometimes want to shake the show until its metaphorical teeth rattle. Buffy changed the game. It really did. For better or for worse, the landscape we’re playing in today, as authors and as readers and as people who enjoy this genre… it’s not the landscape we had before Buffy came along. My favorite characters are Anya and Faith; I am a shameless line-quoter and soundtrack singer; and I once flew to New Jersey just to sing Buffy Summers in a cabaret performance of “Once More With Feeling.” So yeah, this show kinda means a lot to me.

C is for Candy Corn

I took an experimental psych class in college. And one of the assignments was to basically self-condition. To create a passion or a phobia centering on something small, so that we could see how malleable the human brain really is. I chose candy corn, which I’d always been fairly neutral about, and spent three weeks convincing myself that it was the best! Thing!! EVER!!! It worked, maybe a little too well, since I remain passionately fond of the stuff… but only when it’s fresh. Fresh candy corn is the ambrosia of the gods. Stale candy corn is a punishment upon the wicked. People who say that they’ve just been re-selling the same three hundred pounds since candy corn was invented (you know who you are) have clearly never had the fresh stuff.

Oh, and here’s a fun candy corn fact for you: did you know that it’s seasonal not because of any specific ingredients, but because the original process of making it was so involved that it took weeks, and required that the molds be sufficiently cool to set? So they couldn’t make it in the middle of the summer, even if they wanted to. The candy wouldn’t harden properly.

D is for Dialogue

Writing dialogue is so much easier now that everyone has a cell phone. I just hold it up to my ear while I argue with myself, and everyone assumes that there’s another person on the other end, rather than it being just me, solo, running “lines” to make sure that everything sounds natural. It makes a nice change from the days where people would assume that I was crazy and cross the street to get away from me.

E is for Elvis

I loved Lilo and Stitch. Did you love Lilo and Stitch? Great movie. It was the last movie I saw with my grandmother before she died. This exhausts my knowledge of Elvis and his ways. Elvira, I can talk about for days. Elvis, not so much.

F is for Feed

This is what the cats want me to do for them.

More seriously, when I started writing Feed, it was a standalone novel called Newsflesh, and it was pretty much an accident. I sat down one day, and fifty pages of zombie science fiction adventure just fell out of me. I could tell just by looking at it that the rest wasn’t going to be nearly that simple… and that I wanted to find out just how hard it could be. It turned out to be harder, and easier, and more rewarding than I had ever dared to dream that it might be. I mean, everyone wants to write the book that moves them to tears, right? With Feed, I actually got to do that. Parts of it still make me cry, and I’ve read them and lived with them and agonized over them longer than anybody else.

G is for George Romero

The father of the modern zombie. I hope he’s proud of what he’s managed to do, and not just faintly puzzled and appalled.

H is for Habits

I am a creature of habit. Sometimes this is a good thing, like when my rigid adherence to word counts means I don’t miss my deadlines. Sometimes this is a bad thing, like when my rigid adherence to the to-do list causes me to neglect the twenty new things that have cropped up over the course of an evening. I have a planner that basically contains my entire brain, because without it, the bad habits would overwhelm the good, and I’d wind up sitting in my back room watching carefully hoarded episodes of So You Think You Can Dance? and iCarly for the rest of time, rather than actually finishing any of the books that I currently have approaching due.

I is for Influences

My influences are many and varied and faintly insane. I mean, you’ve got the literary, like Stephen King and Shakespeare and Tanya Huff and Diane Duane. But you’ve also got Wes Craven and Chris Claremont and everyone who wrote for Warren Comics during the Creepy and Eerie era, and the writers for the old 1980s horror television, like Monsters and Tales from the Darkside. Peter S. Beagle, Walt Disney, the Brothers Grimm, Sir Child, whoever wrote the scripts for the My Little Pony cartoons, the Counting Crows, Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld, Joss Whedon and Stan Lee… I’m like a weird human magpie that just sort of grabs things, mashes them together, and then attacks them with cookie cutters until they start looking like the literary equivalent of food. I’ve give up trying to make any sort of sense of them. You should probably do the same.

J is for James Gunn

He needs to call me.

K is for King, Stephen

The only two authors I wasn’t allowed to read when I was a kid were Stephen King and Robert Heinlein—Heinlein because Mom had heard that he was dirty, and King because she’d heard that he was scary. Naturally, I became obsessed with reading them, and managed to sneak a few of their books. I got a good King for my age—Cujo—and a bad Heinlein; I don’t even remember what it was. I decided that I had to be allowed to read Stephen King or I would actually die. I started to pester my mother, and believe me, I was a Grade-A pesterer when I wanted to be. I cajoled, I whined, I begged, and when all that failed, I wrote a twelve-page essay explaining why, after reading Lovecraft and Poe and Barker, King really wasn’t that big of a deal. Mom finally gave in, probably to avoid more footnotes. I was nine. Stephen King has been my favorite author ever since. I read him when I want to be comforted by the way he uses words. I recently reread IT for the first time in over a year, and it’s amazing how good that was for my mental stability.

L is for Lycanthropy

I am, like, the queen of accidentally stumbling over new projects when I’m not looking for them. One of those projects is a series of young adult novels about a teenage werecoyote named Clady Porter, who likes to watch horror movies, but never wanted to actually live in one. The first book is called Lycanthropy and Other Personal Issues, and it’s about her first year in the lycanthrope world. She’s probably one of the heroines I have the most sheer fun writing, because she’s a lot like I was in high school. Plus, you know, periodically shape-shifting into a predatory canine and eating the neighbor’s poodle. I really hope I get to publish these someday. I want to spend a lot more time with Clady.

M is for Music

Music is a hugely important part of my life, both creating it and listening to it. My favorite “retail therapy” involves crawling for hours and hours through the used CD racks at my local Rasputin Records. I even love the recording process. When I’m really stressed out, I start work on a new album. It’s very immediate and visceral for me, in a way that writing isn’t. You finish your part of a song, step back, and wait to see what the next person is going to do. It’s an amazing process. I’ve been listening to a lot of country recently, for reasons that are unknown even to me, and the new Christian Kane album is essentially auditory perfection.

N is for Nextwave

I randomly quote Tabitha Smith in conversation with people who do not even read comics. I have no shame over this fact. Tick tick tick boom.

O is for October Daye

Toby is my imaginary friend. Rosemary and Rue was the first book I really finished, and the process of writing it is what taught me how to write—it’s what taught me that I could write, that there was no length so impossible to overcome that it meant I should just throw my hands up and admit defeat. I’ve lived with Toby for literally over a decade. I know her so well I could never put all the little details into a book. And that’s why she’s so real to me. It can make reviews a little uncomfortable sometimes, because not everyone likes her, and it’s sort of “Oh, yeah? Well, I don’t like your talking banana!” Yes, my brain is a little odd at times.

P is for Poetry

There’s this old poetry exercise, where you ask for three words and then you use them to write a poem. For several years, I was doing a modified version of this exercise, called Iron Poet, where I would take three words and an optional poetic style from anyone who wanted to play, and I would write them a poem. I got some really good pieces out of that game. I also got some total crap. I miss having the time to play Iron Poet. I hope I can do it again someday.

Q is for Quidditch

The scoring system of this game makes absolutely no sense, and I’ve played Dragon Poker.

R is for Research

Research is like ice cream. There is no such thing as too much, and if you try to swallow it all at once, you’re probably going to give yourself a stomachache. Learning good research habits is almost as important to a writer’s career as learning good editing habits. Probably a little less painful, too.

S is for Seanan McGuire

Seanan is my good twin, which means she gets to wear fluffy orange and pink dresses and prance around declaring herself the Princess of Halloweentown, while I have to spend all my time bribing the monster under the bed to not eat the cats. Whatever. Who wants to be a stupid ol’ princess, anyway? I just wish she’d share the tiaras…

T is for Twilight

There’s this big hill near my house, covered in trees and scrub grass and little winding dog trails, and the absolute best time to climb it is when the sun’s going down, because the grass turns this sort of dusty gold, and the crows are all crying to each other, and the eagles come home to roost, and sometimes you’ll even see a coyote. Man, twilight on that hill is just plain magical.

U is for Unilateral nuclear disarmament

If we can take the toys away from absolutely everybody, I’m all for it. If we can’t, then I have no idea, and will let people who studied this sort of thing in college deal with it. I studied fairy tales. Ask me about unilateral magic lamp disarmament, and I’m there.

V is for Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars was one of the best things on television. There were a few bad episodes, and the show as a whole never found a mystery to rival the question of who killed Lily Kane, but it was an incredible ensemble, the writing was amazing, and I still miss it. Veronica + Logan forever, yo.

W is for the West Wing

When I started really working on Feed, I watched all seven seasons of The West Wing in like, three months. I was doing almost a full season a week. It was a hugely intense experience, and I will love this show forever. No one does political dialog like Aaron Sorkin when he’s bringing his ‘A’ game.

X is for X-Men

Someday, I am going to write for the X-Men. And on that day, I will have fulfilled every goal I set for myself when I was eight years old, and I will finally be able to return to my home dimension. Also, Emma Frost is totally the perfect woman for Scott Summers.

Y is for YA

I love love love what’s going on in young adult literature right now. There’s so much story, and so much risk, because it’s basically this wide-open field where no one says “you can’t do that, it’s a cliche” or “you shouldn’t do that, you’ll never do it as well as so-and-so did.” You know what? Who cares. We’re doing it. And so everything is amped-up and awesome and totally exciting, and it’s just incredible. I want to be writing YA so bad. I’m going to be writing YA eventually, just as soon as we can find the right excuse to set me loose on a whole new series. And it’s going to be awesome.

Z is for Zombies

Zombies are love.


Seanan’s LiveJournal
Seanan’s Twitter
Mira’s Twitter

Final Poll Results

Delicious Morsels:
Interview with Bizarro Fiction Author Jeremy C. Shipp

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Jeremy C. Shipp’s writing includes short fiction, novels, a screenplay and more. Visiting his website is like taking a trip through a liquid funhouse with the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson. Naturally we snatched him up for an October interview, coinciding with the release of several delicious morsels of new work.

Toasted Cheese: October is a busy month for you, with Cursed and Harlan County Horrors both being released. What other work do you have coming out?

Jeremy C. Shipp: I love October, because of Samhain/Halloween, and so this is an extra special month for me. I also have stories upcoming in Cemetery Dance, Apex Magazine, and other publications. I’m not sure exactly when these stories will be published, however.

TC: For your Harlan County Horrors anthology story “Kingdom Come,” you were given a setting—Harlan County, Kentucky—for a horror story. Where did you go from there? Tell us about your process for writing the story and what it’s about (without spoiling the surprises). Was the process typical of how you work?

JCS: My process for writing “Kingdom Come” was not typical for me, because I don’t often research a specific place before writing a story. With “Kingdom Come,” I read everything I could about Harlan County, and found a place I connected with, Kingdom Come State Park.

With “Kingdom Come,” I wanted to write a dystopian tale that reflects, in a fun-house mirror, the systemic evils that Harlan County has faced in the past. The story is about a man who goes on vacation with his family, and begins to lose everything. His family, his mind. And only by losing everything does he find the truth about himself, and about Kingdom Come.

TC: In other interviews, you’ve said that the theme of equality—and the danger of hierarchy—runs through your work. Is this a conscious choice or something you discovered in looking back at your work?

JCS: I never attempt to convey certain messages in my writing, but my worldview is reflected and explored in my writing. I believe whole-heartedly that hierarchical thinking is one of the greatest evils in the world, and so many of my characters must face this evil. I do what I can to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of ways, and so my characters do the same.

TC: Even though you write fiction that encompasses multiple genres, do you consider yourself primarily a writer of “bizarro” fiction? How fluid do you find genre and how do you play with it and the reader’s preconceptions?

JCS: I never set out to write a bizarro or horror or dark fantasy story, but these are how many of my tales are categorized. And I’m glad. Genre, to me, has more to do with community than literary conventions. The bizarro and horror communities have embraced me and my writing, and I have embraced them back. Within these communities I’ve found writers and readers and editors who connect with my writing. This is a blessing.

As far as my actual writing process goes, I write what’s in my heart and mind and spleen. I try to open my mind, and travel beyond the boundaries of my own preconceptions of what a story is or isn’t. This is not only a meaningful experience for me. It’s fun.

TC: Tell us about the theme of “transformation” and how you use it.

JCS: The transformations in my stories are usually emotional, spiritual, ideological transformations. For example, Bernard in “Vacation” experiences a major paradigm shift. And his shift reflects my own ideological transformation.

My characters aren’t heroes. They’re ordinary people, with insecurities and prejudices and weaknesses. Sometimes they must help save the world, by defeating the darkness in themselves. They must learn to love and accept themselves. They must discover their inner power. And so, they must transform.

TC: Darkness and humor aren’t what some would consider a natural combination. Tell us something about your opinion on the combination or separate elements.

JCS: First of all, on the subject of darkness, I want to say that while I believe in evil systems and ideas, I don’t believe in evil people. In my mind, everything in existence is inherently worthy of respect. Anyway, I believe that humor can be used to battle evil. Also, the darkness of our world is often ridiculous and absurd. And so, for me, darkness and humor go hand in hand.

Of course, I’m very conscious about my use of humor in stories. My goal is never to make light of serious situations. But humor and absurdity often exists, even in the darkest of times.

TC: You write a lot of strong, central female characters. Tell us about some of your favorite female characters and how they evolved as you worked on their stories.

JCS: My goal is always to create characters who will be viewed as whole human beings. I don’t want to create stereotypes or archetypes. And so, my female characters are strong, fragile people. Because everyone in the world is strong and fragile.

My favorite character so far, probably, is Cicely from Cursed. She’s a passionate, creative, weird human being. When I first started writing Cursed, I didn’t understand her completely. She was a stranger to me. As the story continued, my understanding of her deepened, and she became more and more complex. This is the reason why I love writing novels so much. I get to stick with the same characters for so long.

Another character I’m very fond of is Bridget, from the novel I’m working on now. Bridget is a depressed, unhappy person, with a lot of love bottled up inside her. There are forces in the world that want to claim her, and hopefully, she’ll find the strength to follow her own path. She believes she’s an uncaring and unworthy person. She hates her body. But I hope she’ll learn to love herself. I’ll do what I can to guide her in that direction, but in the end, she’ll have to make all the hard decisions herself.

TC: Do you find that fans gravitate toward a certain aspect of your work? How vocal are your fans?

JCS: Judging by the feedback I’ve received over the years, my readers seem to be people (and yard gnomes) who enjoy stories that are both entertaining and thought-provoking. I try to write stories that are socially, emotionally, and spiritually conscious, and my readers appreciate this. I’m very lucky to be a cult writer who has a very vocal and very supportive fan base. It’s because of my fans that my readership grows every day.

TC: Have you found that online/electronic publishing opens your work up to a greater audience or is it difficult to find readers open to taking that ride?

JCS: Most of my readers seem to enjoy both online and print media. Many of my online stories are free to read, which is nice, because this allows readers to try out my work without spending any money. Then, if they connect with my writing in a positive way, they might end up buying my print books or subscribing to Bizarro Bytes.

TC: Tell us about Bizarro Bytes.

JCS: Bizarro Bytes is my story subscription service. For $12, subscribers get twelve new, previously unpublished bizarro tales written by me. They get a new story every month, delivered to their email, in the e-book format of their choice. Higher level subscribers also get added bonuses, like their name in one of my stories. You can read more about Bizarro Bytes here.

TC: Who are your influences (not only writers but directors, musicians, artists, etc.)?

JCS: Myriad artists inspire me. Hayao Miyazaki, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Takashi Miike, Terry Gilliam, Jim Henson, Chan-wook Park, Pink Floyd, The Flaming Lips, David Firth, George Lucas, Joss Whedon, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Arundhati Roy, and many, many others.

TC: What inspires you? What challenges you?

JCS: I’m inspired by all the wonderful artistic creations that I love. I’m inspired by my friends and my family and the people I overhear in the grocery store. I’m inspired by the horrors of our world. Civilization as a system challenges me. At times, I have to work hard to stay hopeful and positive. So every day, I write out ten blessings. Ten things, big or small, that touch my heart. This helps.

TC: What writing advice do you wish you’d heeded sooner? What writing advice do you wish you’d never listened to?

JCS: I’m lucky, because most of the advice I’ve been given over the years has been helpful in some way. And when someone gives me bad advice, I can usually recognize that fact.

TC: What are you consuming lately?

JCS: I’ve been consuming daal, green smoothies, bizarro books, American Born Chinese, The Dark Crystal, Return to Oz, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Let the Right One In, Kare Kano, Naruto, and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.

TC: What are you working on?

JCS: I’m currently working on a new novel called Bridge, a story collection called Fungus of the Heart, a short film that might end up being called Fairy, and a comic series. I can’t say much about any of these at this point.

TC: Please tell us about your short film Egg and the process of creating it.

JCS: Jayson Densman, director extraordinaire, is a fan of my books and stories, and he approached me about doing a project together. So I wrote the script for Egg, specifically for him. Egg is the story of a man’s shattered psyche. He’s searching for the truth about his past, but this is difficult, because his memories are always changing. You can watch the trailer on YouTube.

TC: Finally, what do we need to know about the gnomes?

JCS: Yard gnomes are compassionate, magical creatures that live in hunter-gatherer-based eco-villages. They believe that every word they speak and every muscle they move should be an act of love. Also, they’re doing everything they can to prepare for the collapse of civilization, but they try not to worry too much about it.


Jeremy C. Shipp is a weird author of bizarro, horror, dark fantasy, and magic realism. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in over 50 publications, the likes of Cemetery Dance, ChiZine, Harlan County Horrors, Apex Magazine, Pseudopod, and The Bizarro Starter Kit (blue). While preparing for the forthcoming collapse of civilization, Jeremy enjoys living in Southern California in a moderately haunted Victorian farmhouse with his wife, Lisa, and their legion of yard gnomes. He’s currently working on many stories and novels and is losing his hair, though not because of the ghosts. His books include Vacation, Sheep and Wolves, and Cursed. And thankfully, only one mime was killed during the making of his first short film, Egg.

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