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!

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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.

The Matter of Words

“Words, words, words,” said Hamlet when Polonius asked him what he was reading. To which Polonius asked, “What is the matter, my lord?”

Hamlet never tells us the subject matter of his reading material, but I’m guessing he wasn’t about to say, “The matter is whatever you want it to be” or “These words mean whatever you want them to mean.” In fact, one of the best comic devices used by Shakespeare (and his clever character, Hamlet) was the pun, which can only be funny if a word has a specific meaning—or, rather, double-meaning.

But we do not live anymore in Shakespeare’s time, and I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in modern culture: the idea that words and language can mean whatever you want them to mean.

This seems to me an effect of poor critical thinking, the current “every opinion is sacred” epidemic, and the narcissism pervading social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. No one needs to look to experts anymore because we all have the internet, so doesn’t that mean we’re all informed enough to come up with the right answer to any problem ourselves?

Let’s look at this issue at a linguistic level. My example here will be the word “blessed,” or, to put it into a context every Facebooker will understand, #blessed. Picture of a couple moving into a new house? #blessed. Got a promotion at work? #blessed. Made a really good soup for dinner after your husband went to the grocery store? #soblessed.

I recently read an article explaining what is wrong with using #blessed in this context: the idea that because you are privileged enough to live a comfortable life, the hand of God must have chosen to grace you, specifically, to receive these blessings. The insidious underbelly of this idea brings up the question: what about the poor and the hungry? Are they not worthy? (In the Bible, these are actually the people who are being called blessed—not those with material comfort). “Blessed” brings with it a wholly different connotation than, say, “grateful” or “lucky.” But when someone tries to write an article explaining how this blatant humblebrag also ties into the sinister idea that those who are well-off deserve to be so by divine order, there is immediate backlash in the comments from people who refuse to entertain criticism of something that they do or say.

These comments include the question, “Why shouldn’t people be allowed to express their gratitude?” (They should, by the way; that’s not the issue. The issue is the manner in which they express their gratitude—and, perhaps, your reading comprehension). Then there are the comments that claim the meaning of “blessed” has changed simply to mean grateful (because they see other people use it in this way, and we all know no one has ever misused language in the history of the internet). Worst of all is a comment claiming that “blessed can mean whatever you want it to mean!”

And here is my problem.

A word does not mean whatever you want it to mean. If we go by this logic, I can claim that “blessed” means “cursed” or that a “chair” is actually a “table.” Now we’re getting into a problem of semiotics, and I’m sure Saussure would roll his eyes our bumbling misapprehension of sign, signifier, and signified. Regardless, you could never convince this person that “blessed” doesn’t mean whatever she wants it to mean because that’s her opinion and, remember, every opinion is sacred!

Everyone is entitled to her opinion, but opinions are not facts and no opinion should be treated as fact, unless there is solid evidence to back up the validity of said opinion. Opinions are wonderful things to have, but they are by no means sacred, and they should by no means be unchangeable. Many people cling fervently to their opinions under the assumption that their opinions should not ever change. Yet isn’t it the mark of intelligence to be willing to change one’s ideas based on new evidence and experience?

Just because you’ve used a certain word in a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t look in a dictionary and change your mind about the definition based on the evidence given by good old Webster. It doesn’t mean you can’t rethink the way that you use certain words and what unintended effects or meanings you might be delivering by using them in that way.

Language is organic and fluid, but words do have specific meanings; they don’t meant whatever you want them to mean. If that were the case, then my life’s passion (writing) would be utterly meaningless. I would never be able to convey a single coherent idea to anyone, for my readers could simply decide that my words mean something else. Sure, people have created the meanings of words because we created language; it is a wholly human construct, a way of rendering reality in a logical way, by an agreed-upon code. But you cannot deny that words carry meanings, resonances, and ideas. Who wants to live in a world where no one is able to communicate with anyone else? We would all be alone and disconnected, screaming pointlessly into a deaf and uncomprehending void.

Coffee & Wine: Elixirs of Creativity

Must a writer always have a drink in her hand? No, but it sure helps.

Coffee and wine are a writer’s best friends, depending on the time of day. We can easily imagine a writer hunched over her desk with a blistering cup of coffee or a glass of red wine. Both seem to be quintessential artifacts of a writer’s life.

In college, wine was my drink of choice, mostly because I never drank coffee. Yes, I was that rare breed of student who never pulled an all-nighter, was always well-rested, and had her essays done on time. I had no need for coffee. I liked to write in the evenings, when my school work was done, and this was best done accompanied by a glass of wine.

Liquor has that wonderful uninhibiting effect that frees your creativity. Let loose, write whatever comes to mind! It’s easy to feel stymied by your own inner critic, and liquor certainly does quiet that voice and let you run wild.

We could theoretically substitute any liquor here, in that case. So why wine? Well, I suppose wine makes us feel classy. Writerly. Dignified. Everything looks more elegant with a glass of wine, doesn’t it? Plus, it doesn’t get you drunk quite as quickly as, say, a glass of whiskey, so you can loosen your mind without immediately putting it to bed.

On the other hand, wine makes me sleepy.

At some point, after college, my writing clock reversed. I could no longer write in the evenings; now, my best writing is done in the morning or early afternoon with a cup of coffee. Perhaps I’ve become solar-powered, that the morning sun recharges my writer’s batteries. But my writing ritual just can’t get off the ground without coffee.

What’s great about coffee is its ability to induce a laser-like focus, energy, and intense joy: the perfect creative concoction. I can literally be wallowing in my own mediocrity one moment, drink some coffee, and suddenly believe that I am a literary genius. This inflated confidence, similar to the uninhibiting effects of wine, can soften the self-doubt; the energy can get your fingers running across the keyboard; and the focus allows me to lose myself in a story for hours at a time, barely resurfacing for air (or food).

In fact, being hungry helps, too. I’m never as inclined to write when I’m full. This is terribly inconvenient for someone who is trying to put on weight and also finish a novel.

Strangely, the uncomfortable effects of coffee (or hunger) seem to feed my workflow. Ever since I quit my job at Starbucks, if I have more than one cup of coffee, I am immediately a jittery mess. Well, bring it on. This is the perfect way to write: when my body is vibrating so much I can’t keep still, and it all comes out through my fingers.

Wine makes me too comfortable. That’s death to my writing. It’s the discomfort that keeps me going, the drive to push on, push on, that you just don’t have when you’re feeling wonderfully complacent (or full). The discomfort of being overly caffeinated has spawned some of my greatest writing binges to date.

Maybe some writers need to feel cozy and at ease to do their best work. Me, I thrive on the discomfort. I suppose if my anxiety is good for anything, it’s that. What else drives us forward but that feeling of discontent? I think writers exist in a state of constant dissatisfaction, and maybe this is where great work comes from. The need to always be better, improve, create a more pleasurable life. Of course, once we’ve found our pleasure, inevitably, we will need to find some other source of dissatisfaction to draw upon for the next great work.

Whatever your poison, it’s best to know what works for you. Perhaps you are one of those writers who cannot work with any type of liquid elixir. All I know is, I’d better go have another coffee, because I have some writing to do.

Haunting TV Reads PANDORA

If you checked out all the participating blogs for Coffin Hop this past Halloween, you may have stumbled upon the art blog Horror Made or its partner YouTube channel, Haunting TV. Both are run by the brilliant and talented Jeanette Andriulli, who drew, as part of her monster series, the Pumpkinhead that I won for Coffin Hop:

PumpkinheadNow the multi-talented Jeanette has chosen to spotlight PANDORA in the book excerpt series of Haunting TV, “The Spider’s Nest.” In the following video, you’ll find a chilling dramatic reading of one of my favorite scenes from the novel complete with stunning original artwork. Click, like, share… and enjoy!

Happy Halloween!

As we celebrate this, our favorite and most haunting day of the year, let’s also give some applause to this year’s Halloween Mad Libs contest winner, who will receive this lovely prize package:

Coffin Hop Prize 2014And the winner is…

MARY RAJOTTE

Congratulations, Mary! It was a close run, but the voters loved your Mad Libs story. And a special thank-you to everyone who entered the contest and voted for their  favorite response. You all came up with some entertaining little stories that I hope you enjoyed creating and reading.

And thanks, once again, for making this year’s Coffin Hop another kickass Halloween extravaganza! Don’t forget to make your final hop around the blogs to see if you won anyone’s giveaways and to wish all of your favorite Coffin Hoppers a very HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

coffin-hop-2014

Pumpkin Roundup

Tomorrow is Halloween! Whatever you do to celebrate, I’m guess it involves at least 2 things: carving a pumpkin and Coffin Hopping! There’s still time to enter some of these great bloggers’ contests, so get hopping and go win yourself some free stuff.

As for my contest, don’t forget to VOTE VOTE VOTE by midnight tonight for your favorite Halloween Mad Libs! It is voting season, after all, so go exercise your civic right to choose. Pick your favorite story; for those who entered, tell your friends and family to get over there and vote! Winner will be announced tomorrow.

And now, time for this year’s Jack-o-Lantern!

???????????????????????????????Here’s a lovely display of my skull pumpkin, more skulls and pumpkins, and some decorative corn.

???????????????????????????????But it looked much better lit up with a candle.

IMG_0720…and this was my pumpkin yesterday. Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well.

???????????????????????????????As a bonus, I give you… the Talking Heads! Well, just a couple of talking heads, actually, from the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride.

???????????????????????????????Happy Halloween Eve!