Conversation with Daniel Braum – Part 2 of 2

Today I’m talking to Daniel Braum about his short story “The Monkey Coat” from the recently released Nightscript 4 anthology edited by C.M. Muller. You can read part one of our conversation on his blog, where we discussed my story, “The Thing in the Trees.”

JP:     “The Monkey Coat” deals with duality and identity, which brought to mind, for me, Jekyll and Hyde. Whenever June tries to be with Andrew (who is referred to as a good guy), she loses time and wakes up next to Randall (the bad guy). Whether these connections were intentional or not, I’m curious: to what degree do you take inspiration from classic horror fiction, and if you do, then how do you take that inspiration and use it to create something new and fresh?

DB:     In “The Monkey Coat”, and most of my fiction, there is no direct, conscious inspiration. I intentionally added the word “conscious” because I’ve read many stories of people “doing strange things in the night”, things that are different or opposite from their “day time”. So I see how the story readily evokes Jeykll and Hyde.

One story that comes to mind with this question is “The Saga of the Alien Costume” storyline from Spider Man comics in the 1980s. In those comics when Peter Parker is wearing a new black costume he becomes stronger and the costume is seemingly the cure for all his problems.

However he becomes more violent, experiences lost time, and finds himself waking up wearing it when he had no memory putting it on. It is ultimately revealed that the costume is more than is perceived and has been affecting him. While it is a very different story and kind of story than “The Monkey Coat” I can not help but notice that the similarities are there. I can’t think of one at the moment but I am sure there are many folk tales from around the world that are also similar.

One approach to making a classic monster (or something classic) fresh is to intentionally very one of the key elements of the trope. Terry Bisson told my class that as an exercise every new author should try to write a story with a “classic” monster in it and make it their own by changing up one of the tenants in it. My attempt at doing this is the story “Resolution Seventeen” in my collection The Wish Mechanics. Especially at the time I wrote the story vampire stories were particularly tired. I tried to play with the elements of the effect of sunlight and the need for blood. When thinking these through  and exploring and pushing how they could be dramatized, I came up with something different. So while the story might still be “horror” because it is a vampire story it steered towards science fiction because of the context and the choices the characters were faced with.

Somethings that keeps stories fresh to me (both as a writer and reader) are reversals of expectations and subversions of tropes. I’m not talking about stories where there is a big  “reversal” or “water cooler moment” or reveal that has almost become a television show trope. I have been learning about the horror genre and its history to have a better idea of just what was and what is thought of as a horror story in order to know the tropes and expectations. I knew very little of this when I started writing but I feel educated myself in this way is allowing myself to write with greater awareness and control, be it in a “standard form” or an intentional subversion or exploration of the form. The film “It Follows” is one of my favorite examples of a story that plays with genre, expectation, subversion, and form. The movie on its surface looks like and appears to be structured like a teen-aged slasher or jump-scare but it pushes and subverts common expectations and norms of such a generic (or standard form of such a) movie at every turn. The Neon Demon is another of my favorite movies that plays with expectations and in doing so makes something that could have been common and generic into something fresh and original. The characters in the Neon Demon are depicted in shades of grey differing widely from where a generic story might keep the characters on a familiar arc.

JP:    This story also offers some unanswered questions about the identities of Franklin and Randall that led me to wonder whether they are somehow the same person. When you write a story where there are mysteries left open or unexplained, do you typically know the “answer” to the mystery in great detail (even if you don’t share it), or are there some things still mysterious even to you? How important is this sense of mystery in a horror story?

DB:     I really love this question. I’ve done my best to try to answer it directly without a huge tangent on Robert Aickman.

Franklin (a man June was involved with and the murder victim we are told about on the opening of the story,) and Randall (one of the men June is dating) are not intended to be literally the same actual person but they are intended to be presented as the same “kind” of person; both men that are harmful to June that she seeks to disengage from. They are both men that do not respect women, men that do not respect June, yet men that June is still drawn to. Change can be defined as being faced with the same choices (or same men) over and over and making different decisions. They were included in the story to define the June’s choices and what is at stake for her.

As to how important is a sense of mystery to a horror story the short answer is I think it is a matter of taste. I’ve noticed in what I am referring to as “traditional” or “standard form” horror stories mystery is not an essential element. A horror story will still be a horror story even if there is no sense of mystery. A vampire story will still be a vampire story if everything is known. For example in Salem’s Lot by Stephen King the reader knows that the traditional “rules” of vampire stories are in play. There is no mystery in that regard. And it is still a very, very satisfying story. At least in that way Salem’s Lot is a traditional horror story.

In contrast, Stephen King’s IT, moves away from a traditional horror story in some ways. The creature in IT, is not a named thing. It is not a monster that we know of and know the rules of how it operates such as one must kill it with sunlight or a wooden stake such as a vampire. We readers are eventually given some rules regarding the creature but I think the story operates as a good illustration of a story with the element of mystery you mention in your question. I think stories with that element of mystery still are under the umbrella of horror but are also interstitial and perhaps are closer to the weird fiction genre. I think a sense of mystery and lack of an explanation for the supernatural is a hallmark of weird fiction or at least is something more often seen in that category. While I enjoy stories with a sense of mystery and unexplained elements I don’t think it is a defining or an essential element to a horror story. Peter Straub stories often have that mystery and unexplained to them. Stephen King stories often have the rules and explanations to the supernatural. Both are horror. I don’t have a definitive answer but it is something I think about often.

Your story “A Thing in the Trees” uses that sense of mystery and the unexplained in a way that absolutely delights me.

JP:    Following in the vein of my previous question, it seems like most of the horror in this story comes from the suggestion of something horrific, rather than what is actually shown or described, with just a few visceral details that are all the more powerful because of their scarcity. How did you decide what to make explicit and what to leave up to the reader’s imagination, and how do you think this affects the type of horror that the story embodies?

DB:     Because I am relatively squeamish I’ve always shied away from the overt and graphic depictions. I also feel there is a great weight and power in leaving things suggested and to the imagination.

For a very long time I stayed away from reading stories by the great Jack Ketchum because I knew I would be uncomfortable with graphic depictions. Just as there is power in the suggestion I know there is great power in the opposite. Strangely enough, in this story I was trying to be as overt and graphic in my depictions as I dared. I think my own comfort level in what I’m comfortable writing worked out for the tone of the story.

I do think depictions do steer the kind of horror a story is categorized as. How much this matters to any given reader is a very different story.  For me and my own style and preference less is more. I know there is a wide spectrum and I’ve learned that many readers enjoy both quiet horror and the splatter genre equally. My first collection The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales was intended as literary horror so when assembling it I had this notion in mind with story selection.

I’d like to think that I decide the level of depiction in any given story is what serves the story best but I have a feeling for me it comes down to my comfort level in spending time creating the story. I have been pushing myself on this front. I’m curious to learn if the stories where I did push are perceived as being closer to horror, than literary horror or weird fiction.

JP:     I noticed that there is a degree of unreliability in the primary characters of this story. For instance, June keeps thinking she took the coat off when in fact she’s still wearing it, and at the end, Ivy “took it she imagined these things,” which leaves it somewhat open as to whether or not she merely dreamed the note from her mother. It seems to me that the only reliable thing in the story is the coat, which remains even when the people surrounding it die or disappear. The question of reliability of characters or narrators is a classic element of horror fiction, creating a sense of uncertainty over what is real. How and when do you decide whether a character is reliable, and how important was the question of reliability/unreliability to you when you were crafting this story?

DB:     The notion of reliability was of paramount importance in crafting this story.

Is it June choosing to do these things consciously (or unconsciously)? Or is it the monkey coat with some supernatural power making her do these things? Once I landed on the idea that I wanted the tension between these two notions to be the primary thrust of the story all my decisions were made to serve that.

For me, the decision to decide if a character is reliable is linked to what my aims are for the story. I think about the decision and the approach very carefully before attempting to execute any level of unreliability. It is so easy to go astray or descend into un-intended confusion. My aim in “The Monkey Coat” was to deliver a story where the source of tension is between a supernatural or psychological explanation for the strange events and behaviors.

I chose to start and end with information and details showing that the coat does remain in peoples lives after their stories end and after they disappear from the reader. In that way the story becomes more about the object. It is the object that was the constant with Grandma Estelle, with June, and perhaps will be with Ivy.

When refining and deciding on my approach for the story one of the choices I had was to make this a story about a haunted coat. Part of me desperately want to put depictions of the violent, monkey ghosts of the monkeys who died to make the coat in the story. Ultimately I felt like that would have pushed the story too definitively in the realm of the supernatural. Even if they were presented as possible hallucinations. That element was potentially too loaded in either direction and thus I did not go with it. As close as I came was the line about June thinking she sees something in the trees. I felt a better aim of the story was to play with the tension between psychological and supernatural and to keep that unexplained with elements that could go either way all the way through the end.

It was hard for me to present a story where the characters aren’t as dynamic as I am used to presenting. June does want to change and perhaps she changes for the worse or perhaps her agency has been taken from her. Ivy is depicted as more of a dynamic character as she ultimately does change her circumstances. I think there is also a horror in whether characters are dynamic or not. Whether their endeavors to change are thwarted or realized. Ending on the scene where it is revealed that Ivy still does have possession of the coat I think may have pushed the story at least on a surface level back to something that appears to have a traditional shape- the structure of a haunted object story, as it begins and ends with the object being passed along in a way. There is a horror in the notion that June has possibly / likely failed in her desire to change. And a threat that Ivy’s change might be undermined by the coat in some way.

I think that you said it in an excellent way in your question, that unreliable characters can create an uncertainty over what is real. That uncertainty in this story is essential to the story depicted and possible outcomes for the characters.


Daniel Braum’s fiction has been classified as fantasy, science fiction, and horror but he prefers the good old fashioned term of just “fiction”, which when he was growing up simply meant a story were anything could happen. His stories frequently defy category and reside in the fuzzy areas between genres, utilizing and combining genre elements to produce tales that are wholly unique. He is the author of The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales, his first collection of short stories, published as an eBook by Cemetery Dance Publications and as a trade paperback by Grey Matter Press. A illustrated, limited edition book of his stories titled Yeti, Tiger, Dragon is due out in October 2016 from Dim Shores Press. He lives in Long Island, New York and often wishes he was at Brisbane’s Punjabi Palace eating chicken tikka masala after a Thursday night reading at Avid Reader.


Nightscript 4 can be purchased direct from the publisher and at Amazon.

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Haunted Nights, “Wick’s End”

The Halloween season is upon us, a time when you may, hopefully, take comfort from the horrors of the world in that old nostalgic feeling, that autumn feeling when the chills running down your spine came from the wind that blew leaves whispering over the sidewalk and the darkness held only ghostly mysteries rather than real mortal threats.

It may seem odd to take comfort in Halloween (and horror fiction), but I think anyone who appreciates the genre understands the feeling. Even the most dread-inducing fiction is an escape from the real horrors that are all too present in the world right now.

There is a kind of magic in Halloween, and in stories about Halloween, which brings us to our…

Next stop: Haunted Nights.

Haunted Nights cover

My story, “Wick’s End,” is included in this Horror Writers Association anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton, and published by Blumhouse Books / Anchor Books (part of Penguin Random House).

Which means…

Holy crap, you guys, I’ve been published by a major press!

I know… whaaaat?!

Anyway, disregarding my personal stake in this anthology, the stories therein really did knock my socks off. Seriously, after having read a few Halloween-themed short fiction anthologies, including classics like October Dreams, I think this ranks up there with the best. And I’m talking about the other stories in here, not mine: stories that do an amazing job of invoking that Halloween magic while sending a delicious shiver up your spine.

Here’s the Table of Contents to whet your appetite:

“With Graveyard Weeds and Wolfbane Seeds” by Seanan McGuire
“Dirtmouth” by Stephen Graham Jones”
“A Small Taste of the Old Countr” by Jonathan Maberry
“Wick’s End” by Joanna Parypinski
“The Seventeen Year Itch” by Garth Nix
“A Flicker of Light on Devil’s Night” by Kate Jonez
“Witch-Hazel” by Jeffrey Ford
“Nos Galen Gaeaf” by Kelley Armstrong
“We’re Never Inviting Amber Again” by S. P. Miskowski
“Sisters” by Brian Evenson
“All Through the Night” by Elise Forier Edie
“A Kingdom of Sugar Skulls and Marigolds” by Eric J. Guignard
“The Turn” by Paul Kane
“Jack” by Pat Cadigan
“Lost in the Dark” by John Langan
“The First Lunar Halloween” by John R. Little

If you happen to be in the Los Angeles area, editor Lisa Morton and a few of the writers (including me) will be doing a signing event at Dark Delicacies in Burbank this Sunday, October 8th, at 4:00 pm.

And stay tuned, because I’ve got one more story coming out this month, which will be in The Beauty of Death 2: Death By Water by Independent Legions Publishing.

Nightmare Magazine, “We Are Turning on a Spindle”

October? Is it really October?

Before you explode in a burst of pumpkin spice at the turning of the haunting season, can I take you on a tour of my October publications? I’ve got three stories coming out this month in some venues that I’m super excited to be a part of.

First stop: Nightmare Magazine.

The October issue (#61) is now available, and it includes my story, “We Are Turning on a Spindle.”

I LOVE this magazine, and I still can’t believe I’ve got a story published in it.

Nightmare MagazineYou can purchase the issue now at the website. Here’s what else is in it:

  • Fiction by Cassandra Khaw (“Don’t Turn on the Lights”)
  • Fiction by Brian Evenson (“Click”)
  • Fiction by Robert Shearman (“Suffer Little Children”)
  • Latest installment of the horror column “The H Word”
  • Interview with Josh Malerman
  • Author spotlights

Or you can check back at Nightmare Magazine’s website on October 18th, when my story will be available to read online!

Stay tuned for our next stop: Haunted Nights, available October 3rd.

No Laughing Matter: Creepy Clowns as Modern Folk Devils

Adapted from a presentation I gave at the Ann Radcliffe Academic Conference as part of Stokercon 2017.

Clown sightings, 2016

On a balmy late-August night in Greenville, South Carolina, a resident of the Fleetwood Manor apartment complex noticed something strange: a person dressed as a clown with a blinking nose, standing beside the dumpster at 2:30 a.m. (Zuppello).

In 2016, the U.S. was infected with clowns. While the clown hysteria began at that apartment complex in South Carolina, it soon spread like a plague across the country. Children claimed that clowns had attempted to lure them into the woods. Clowns carrying chains or weapons were seen lurking outside of laundromats, cemeteries, and homes.

As the hysteria grew, so did the seriousness of the situation. Seven people in Alabama were faced with felony charges of making a terrorist threat connected to “clown-related activity,” according to Rainbow City Police Chief Jonathan Horton (Faulk). In October, a mass clown hunt, consisting of hundreds of students, was staged at Pennsylvania State University. A Connecticut school district banned clown costumes as “symbols of terror” (NBC Connecticut). And a Massachusetts college town was even put on lockdown after an armed clown hoax.

In some ways, these clowns, while demonstrably real, are also a product of the internet and social media’s ability to share urban legends exponentially. It’s likely that the internet helped to create even more of a mythology around the few real clown sightings that were documented and might have helped the clown hysteria to seem like a larger conspiracy than it really was. Social media has taken on the role of disseminating legends, our new oral history, continuing the “friend of a friend” narrative that is so common in contemporary folklore.

In that sense, these phantom clowns are both real and mythological, physical and folkloric, urban legends crafted in the internet age of Creepypasta and the NoSleep Reddit.

Phantom Clowns, 1981

2016 was not the first clown hysteria in the U.S. In 1981, reports flooded through Boston that men dressed as clowns were luring kids into vans with candy. This was the beginning of another phantom clown scare that spread across the country. For the most part during the 80s scare, adults never saw the clowns; most of the stories came from children. This question of whether the clowns were real, or merely in the children’s imaginations, is why professor Loren Coleman coined the term “phantom clowns” in his book Mysterious America.

The phantom clowns of the 80s came at the same time as other mass hysterias, or “moral panics”—particularly, Stranger Danger, and the Satanic Panic. Moral panics are periods of intense fear that involve exaggerated threats to societal values, usually from individuals seen as evil-doers. Coleman finds a correlation between the “folkloric” nature of Satanic child abuse allegations of the 80s—not that they were simply made up but that the narratives display familiar motifs and audience response found in folklore canon—and the folkloric elements of the clown panic (Coleman).

Fear and Folklore

Actor Lon Chaney Sr. once said, “A clown is funny in the circus ring, but what would be the normal reaction to opening a door at midnight and finding the same clown there in the moonlight?”

Why are we afraid of clowns? Part of it is the unexpectedness of seeing them out-of-place; most horror movies with clowns, for instance, take the clowns out of the circus ring and put them into other places, thereby giving us the instant creeps with the uncanny sense that this creature, who is somehow both human and inhuman, exists out in the real world with us, not just in the carnival.

Clowns may be considered to fall into the Uncanny Valley. The original definition of the Uncanny Valley is that as a robot’s appearance becomes more humanlike, it arrives at a point where we are repulsed by it. The growing familiarity, when it hits a certain point, actually dips into a valley of creepiness.

According to Frank T. McAndrew, professor of psychology, “getting ‘creeped out’ is a response to the ambiguity of threat and […] it is only when we are confronted with uncertainty about threat that we get the chills.” During the clown scare of 2016, no one was actually hurt by the clowns; they represented fear and potential threat. In a way, clowns always represent ambiguity of threat because we can’t see their faces behind the paint, so we can’t know if they are here to do us harm or make us laugh. That very ambiguity between humor and horror gives us the creeps.

Clowns also represent both a dualistic and contrary nature. There is the sad clown and the happy clown, representing duality. But that happy clown might not actually be happy—that’s just the face that’s been painted on. Underneath, the clown might experience entirely contrary emotions, and that too plays into our fears: the fear of what a person is really like behind their smile, the fear of a person who is not what they appear to be.

This uncanny fear of clowns is nothing new. An article in the Smithsonian Magazine by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie details the history of clowns, including their folklore. Trickster figures, who have the same attributes as clowns, appear in most cultures from ancient Egypt to imperial China, as well as many native American cultures. Along with tricksters, they also have a variety of clown characters who function as a part of society.

The heyoka, for instance, are considered sacred clowns of the Lakota tribe. They are contrary and unpredictable. Heyoka might speak or walk backwards, wear their clothes inside out, cry when they’re happy, laugh when they’re sad, and be crude or profane during solemn occasions. More importantly, they seem to be insane and are viewed as being closely connected to supernatural forces (Mizrach).

Similar to the clown and the trickster is the harlequin figure, as described by Benjamin Radford in his book Bad Clowns. The first appearance of the Harlequin in legend is in the 11th century in the story of a monk chased by a group of demons led by a masked giant known as the harlequin in a version of the Wild Hunt, a European folk myth where a group of ghostly huntsmen are engaged in a wild pursuit. This has also been connected to an English figure called the “hellequin” or “host-king” who was an emissary of the devil and roamed the countryside with a group of demons who chased souls into Hell (Radford 6-7).

The clown is therefore an archetypal figure representing chaos, contrariness, and behavior that is otherwise unacceptable in society, thus inspiring feelings of fear and disquiet. French literary critic Edmond de Goncourt wrote in 1876: “[T]he clown’s art is now rather terrifying and full of anxiety and apprehension, their suicidal feats, their monstrous gesticulations and frenzied mimicry reminding one of the courtyard of a lunatic asylum” (McRobbie). Art that features clowns has long captured our uneasiness with them. One example is the 1892 Italian opera, Pagliacci, in which the main character dresses as a clown and murders his cheating wife. Likewise, clowns in modern fiction and movies are typically portrayed horrifically. Stephen King’s IT, published in 1986, was likely influenced by both clown folklore as well as the phantom clown scare of the early 80s. One clear similarity between Pennywise and the 1981 clown scare in that in the novel, only children can see the clown. A recent movie, Eli Roth’s Clown, even utilizes folklore (albeit a made-up folklore) specifically to explain the origins of the clown creature that the main character becomes after putting on its skin suit.

Even real-life clowns have taken on an aspect of the folkloric, like legendary serial killer and amateur birthday party clown John Wayne Gacey, famous for kidnapping children and burying their bodies in his basement in the 70s, enacting the greatest fears of every clown-fearing child and adult.

All of this brings us back to our 2016 clowns. What does folklore have to do with an internet scare? In a sense, people were, whether consciously or unconsciously, acting out our preexisting narratives about creepy clowns. The retelling of legends by acting them out is called ostension, according to folklorist Sarah M. Gordon. And in an act of ostension, the people perpetuating the panic were retelling the historical and folkloric stories of clowns and bringing those stories to life.

Clowns as Folk Devils

The smiling, uncanny “other” appearing in places it should not be returned at a time when the U.S. was in the midst of another moral panic involving the fear of the foreign and potentially dangerous or terrorist “other”. Moral panics tend to focus their fear on individuals who are viewed as deviant or groups that embody a social threat. These stereotyped deviant people are called “folk devils.”

The word ‘devil,’ of course, “evokes demonic, almost super-human capacities for evil”, which connects to the demonic or supernatural clown figures in folklore. And the word ‘folk’ relates to popular perceptions of these people. Together this suggests a threat that is both socially constructed and also associated with inhuman evil (Hindess).

In 2016, clowns became a stand-in for these folk devils—a social threat based on deviant behavior (clowning) by individuals who are viewed as more demonic than regular humans. In this way, the clowns are the representatives of our current moral panic, our greater fears about society and those strange people who inhabit it.

Works Cited

Coleman, Loren. Mysterious America. New York, Paraview Press, 2001.

Faulk, Kent. “At Least 9 ‘Clown’ Arrests so Far in Alabama: What Charges Do They Face?” AL.com, 24 Sept. 2016, http://www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2016/09/nine_clown_arrests_so_far_in_a.html.

Gordon, Sarah M. “Creepy Clowns Explained, Folklore-Style.” Sarah M. Gordon, Ph.D., 5 Oct. 2016, sarahmgordon.wordpress.com/2016/10/05/creepy-clowns-explained-folklore-style/.

Hindess, Barry. “Folk Devils Rise again.” Social Alternatives, vol. 34, no. 4, 2015., pp. 50-56 Research Library, http://libwin2k.glendale.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1778683094?accountid=27372.

McAndrew, Frank T. “The Psychology of Creepy Clowns.” CNN, Cable News Network, 5 Oct. 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/03/health/creepy-clown-sighting-psychology/.

McRobbie, Linda Rodriguez. “The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 31 July 2013, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-history-and-psychology-of-clowns-being-scary-20394516/.

Mizrach, Steve. Thunderbird and Trickster. Florida International University, www2.fiu.edu/~mizrachs/thunderbird-and-trickster.html.

“New Haven School District Prohibits Clown Costumes.” NBC Connecticut, NBC Connecticut, 14 May 2017, http://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/New-Haven-School-District-Prohibits-Clown-Costumes-395754941.html. Accessed 14 May 2017.

Radford, Benjamin. Bad Clowns. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2016.

Zuppello, Suzanne. “’Killer Clowns’: Inside the Terrifying Hoax Sweeping America.” Rolling Stone, 29 Sept. 2016, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/killer-clowns-inside-the-terrifying-hoax-sweeping-america-w442649.

Halloween Haunts and Delusions

In Delusion, you are the protagonist. Through broken rooms and dark corridors, you must make your way around the crumbling mansion if you are to survive. Imagine a haunted house with a narrative, not just one that you watch, but one in which you play an integral part.

What is Delusion? Created in 2011, it’s touted as the original interactive horror theater, leading guests through a new story each fall around Halloween.

I had the opportunity to visit for the dress rehearsal this week, and it did not disappoint. It’s really an experience like no other; where haunted houses can be scary, they lack the cohesion of narrative, which, to me, brings meaning to the world. So when you combine a haunted house with an actual story, what you get is one of the most engaging Halloween events around.

This year, the theme was vampires: an ancient, twisted family of the undead reside in this abandoned manor, sometimes helping the guests to get where they’re going and sometimes locking them in coffins or trying to drink their blood. Meanwhile, we were being hunted by the family patriarch and searching for a way to destroy him and his unearthly brides.

One of the most delightfully eerie parts involved moving through a dark basement corridor by only the thin, flickering light that one of our number had to stay behind and produce by cranking a machine that reminded me of a manual pencil sharpener. Another had the actors crawling along the floor in perfect imitation of the best J-Horror, grasping at ankles as we ran past to escape.

While vampires may not be particularly scary to me—and overall this experience is not quite jump-out-of-your-pants frightening—this interactive play more than makes up for that with the power of its acting and stunt work, the intrigue of its narrative, and how the guest is not just an observer but an active participant in the experience. Needless to say, I hope I get the chance to go again next year!

Craving more blood Halloween goodness? All this month, the Horror Writers Association will be posting a daily blog series called Halloween Haunts written by members of the HWA. Keep an eye out for my post on planning a Hallowedding on October 18th; in the meantime, check out Four-Color Frights by James Chambers.

Happy October!

Tales to Terrify and a Blast from the Past

Everyone remembers their first. Exciting but somewhat awkward; not as good as you want it to be; and maybe you shot it off a little too soon.

Their first published story, that is. What did you think I was talking about?

Mine was a dreamy, Twilight Zone -esque story of Halloween, crime, and alternate realities called “The Fifth,” published (fittingly) in an anthology called Alternate Dimensions in 2011.

Since it was the story that popped my publishing cherry, it was the one I sent off to Tales to Terrify, many years back now. Tales to Terrify is an audio magazine of horror fiction that’s been around since 2012 (they also have sister podcasts Starship Sofa for science fiction and Farfetched Fables for fantasy). I admit I had quite forgotten about my submission until now.

Tales to Terrify 225 has just been released, and it includes my story. So my first story published in print has now also become my first story narrated for audio!

Give it a listen, if you’re so inclined… or even better, check out the rest of their podcasts; they’ve got hours upon hours worth of stories in their archives.

The Burning Maiden

It’s been all quiet on the blogging front for a long while now; I can almost see the tumbleweeds rolling across my website. Soon after I began this blog, I started publishing short stories (and a novel) in the small press, and then, for a while, nothing. This is because I’ve set my sights on fairly prestigious (read: hard-to-get-into) publications, which means that for the past several years, I’ve published nothing but a few poems. Daunted by the impenetrable behemoth of the publishing industry, I fell silent.

In the time since I stopped posting regularly, I’ve been writing and revising short stories, and I’ve also finished my latest novel, which is floating around somewhere in the hands of literary agents (with all the nerve-wracking waiting that comes with that process). Unlike that first novel of which I never speak (ugh, going back to your terrible old writing, right?), I am convinced of this one. I also finished my MFA, bewitched the English department of a local community college to hire me despite an utter lack of experience, moved, convinced another college to hire me, and went through the typical “woe is me, does my writing matter, is it any good, etc etc” writer nonsense that everyone experiences.

And then something magnificent happened! There’s an old story of mine, which I wrote when I was 20 years old, called “Graveman.” This story, I always thought, was something unique. It won the fiction category of my university’s annual creative writing contest when I was a sophomore. It was accepted into an anthology a few years later—my first professional-rate sale. And then I never heard of it again, and I was on the brink of thinking it would never get published, when lo and behold, I found out today that the anthology has just been released. What’s more—and this is the part that really blows my mind–the anthology also includes work by Paul Tremblay, Laird Barron (a favorite—read him, read him!), and one of the biggest names in horror: Ramsey Campbell. I am in awe; I am humbled; I can’t get over it. My story appears right after Ramsey Campbell’s story. That’s the closest I’ve ever been to a horror legend!

What a strange, surprising, and exhilarating experience. I’m so excited to read all of the stories in the anthology, which uniquely captures that wonderful place where the literary meets the horrific: exactly the place I like to ensconce myself and hang around, for a bit, in the shadows.

The Burning Maiden Vol. 2 can be found in print and digital formats, on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Burning Maiden

Halloween Costumes: Humanity, Identity, and the Monstrous

Another Halloween has come and gone, but in this corner of the internet, Halloween never ends. I was particularly proud of my costume this year, and in thinking about how I’d share it, I realized something: the majority of my Halloween costumes have been quite… monstrous.

I take a classic view of Halloween: costumes are meant to be scary. I was never one to dress as a princess or box of crayons, opting even as a child for creatures that walk the night. I distinctly remember my ninth Halloween when I wore a homemade werewolf costume, with fur tearing through my flannel shirt and a wolf mask, to a Halloween party for children at the local community center. None of my friends knew me until I lifted the mask. I was someone else—no, something else, entirely. And I loved it.

Recent costumes have taken advantage of face paint rather than masks, but they’re still monstrous: Harley Quinn, a zombie, a sugar skull, and this year, the Babadook. So, you see, my costume choices are not only creepy but also monstrous.

There’s a pleasure in subsuming your identity into something foreign, which people like me take advantage of on Halloween. Perhaps this is partially the writer in me; after all, I spend my favorite moments immersed in fictional characters’ lives anyway. So it goes with Halloween: you can become anyone, or anything, and live almost vicariously through this new being. Halloween offers us the chance to melt away our identities into something else, to transform… to become something other, an annual becoming of which the Red Dragon could only dream.

I’ve always been fascinated by the monstrous. The term monstrous, you know, actually comes not from horror but from a notion of hybridity: something that is two things at once. Hence the perfect monsters, to us, retain some semblance of the human while also being decidedly inhuman, which is what makes them so horrific. Sure, we all love our Cthulhus and our chupacabras, but the monsters we come back to over and over again are those which retain the human form while being simultaneously, and unnervingly, inhuman (vampires, werewolves, witches, Frankenstein…).

That, I realized, is how I’ve been subconsciously choosing my costumes. Harley Quinn is human, sure, but she’s also a clown—something removed from humanity. A zombie was once a human but is no more. A sugar skull? Sure, same thing. The Babadook, being a boogeyman character, looks like a human but surely is something far, far different.

What is our fascination with the monstrous? The inhuman masquerading in human form? I think it plays on our deepest fears. Something that does not look human will flag something in our brains right away, but what about something that looks human, that could almost be human… but isn’t? That type of creature tricks you into believing it’s human until it’s too late to realize your mistake. What of the shadow figure in your bedroom watching you sleep, or the grinning man in the top hat whose mouth is just… far… too… large?

And what happens when we get to pretend to be something completely other? Something so far removed from ourselves that we can dissolve our own humanity and exist in an implausible realm where anything is possible? What happens when I can roam the streets of North Hollywood as the Babadook? Some laughs and disturbed looks, apparently, and even the odd photo or two, but that’s not the whole of it. I am me, but I am not me; I am become something entirely other, a being that can exist only on Halloween night. My face is painted and no one sees me; they see only the monster I have become. A monster roams these streets masquerading as Joanna Parypinski, but it is not she. It is a deception. You realize only too late your mistake in assuming that it was, indeed, a mere human. It grins at you, grinning clownishly, with only death in its eyes.

And I wish, oh I wish, that Halloween were more than one night a year.

I mean, who doesn’t want the chance to wander around looking like this and freaking out everyone they meet?

Babadook

Happy post-Halloween, everyone, and remember: if it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook!

Indian Summer

This is the time of year—you know the one. When the leaves turn and the air makes its subtle shift into fall. But not here. These are the brutal weeks, the drought’s revenge. Fool me once, okay, surely fall is just around the corner. Fool me twice, shame on me for forgetting there is no fall in the land of always summer.

These are the weeks, late August and September, when you think summer is over, but—surprise!—it isn’t. These are the weeks of hellish heat. Of sweat-slicked hours and lukewarm showers.

My thermostat can’t keep up; the red line is off the edge somewhere past ninety. My AC unit can’t keep up; the heat absorbs cool air in its sedating trance. The bare floor bakes. The heavy soporific sponge of heat yet prohibits sleep.

Elsewhere, the world slides into autumn, slides towards beautiful death.

I can’t breathe. My brain is soup. And where is the cool reprieve of sleep? Not here. My skin sweats and sloughs off. My muscles melt. My soul oozes out between pores. My volcanic heart runs lava through my veins. My eyes burn out of my skull but still I cannot close them.

My neighbors turn to skeletons. They float among drowned termites in chlorine. Our pipes evaporate. Two ants feast on the corpse of a third, hungry, mindless, gnawing life away. Trees curl up and die, dry, clawing for the scorched blue sky. The neighbors steam and sink and lie on the pool bottom’s concrete.

Then the dust on the cars, in the windows, on the streets. Coffee ground grime in the cracks of the earth. We water the dead while the living drink their own sweat.

Then the fires on mountaintops. We burn, but we don’t die. We slouch on, live, charred. We feel we must be dead, we feel we missed the freeway exit somewhere back there, and we live but we are not alive. The air is ash and we burn and we listen for the fine soliloquy of death.

It never ends—but we forget that it does. As all things. And when it does, we drink the cool and bask again in the lustful gazes of our neighbors.

Our lizard skin grows back. We breathe the fine clear air and sweep away the dust. And we forget how we ever felt anything but this, anything but this alive.