Twisted Twins Jen and Sylvia Soska Join the Boys Horror Club

Twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska attribute different reasons for the reason why they got into horror. Sylvia Soska says, “Mom eventually caved in and let us watch Poltergeist when we were ten. We were like, ‘We can handle it, Mom.’ Then bedtime came and we were scared…fucking…shitless. And my mother did something that would forever change the way we look at horror movies. She sat Jen and me down and explained what we had actually seen. She explained the director, the actors, the prosthetics, the sets, everything. And she told us how these were very talented artists who collaborated with the intention of scaring the audience. We were like, ‘Wait a minute. It can be your job to scare people for a living?’”


But Jen Soska says they got into horror because of traumatic childhood experiences at the hands of others. “We were bullied growing up. We were nerdy and dark and liked horror movies and drama club and comic books. I’m grateful we were bullied because it made us want to stick up for other people being bullied. It’s funny to hear from girls who make horror movies that our message is one of support, but that’s at the heart of American Mary. I think if you look normal, you’re hiding something. But if you wear your Cannibal Holocaust T-shirt, you know what you’re expecting from someone. You know they’re a horror fan.”

The twins directed and wrote their first horror movie in 2009, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, and then went on to their larger production American Mary. “It was one of the strangest experiences of our lives, especially because with Dead Hooker in a Trunk, we were just running around with our friends and cameras and just hoping to god that it would work out and on this one we had a full crew and a cast of some really amazing people,” says Sylvia Soska. “It was still really ambitious, though we did have a modest budget.”


As far as twin directors, Jen and Sylvia Soska believe they’re the only ones out there. “I know of only us. I know of identical twin actresses and models. We started out wanting to be actors. Nobody ever told me I could be the chairman of my own production company and a director and producer. I always tell girls if you want to be storytellers, don’t chase roles you don’t want to do, just to work,” says Jen Soska.



Cindy Sherman’s Horror Imagery Helps Her Confront Fears

Cindy Sherman grew up in Long Island, New York, the youngest of five children. She always felt that she had to do something to be noticed since her siblings were so much older and established compared to her. Sherman thinks that’s what led to her dressing up. “There are pictures of me dressed up as an old lady,” she says. “I was more interested in being different from other little girls who would dress up as princesses or fairies or a pretty witch. I would be the ugly old witch or the monster.”



This continued in her adult life, too. Sherman lived in New York working as a secretary at Artists Space and would sometimes arrive to work dressed as a nurse or Jackie Kennedy. “I’d be home, fooling around with makeup and a costume, maybe picked up at a thrift store, and suddenly I’d look at my watch and go: Oh, wow, I have to get to work. Well, okay, I’ll just go like this,” says Sherman.


Her first successful photographs, called Untitled Film Stills, involved Sherman using herself as a model dressed up and posing as screen stars in noirish scenes. This work caused artist Andy Warhol to say, “She’s good enough to be a real actress.”


In the late 1980s, Sherman started doing more disturbing photographs of vomit, synthetic pimples, and sex dolls. “Initially, I started that work as a reaction to feeling a little nervous that I was getting successful,” says Sherman. “Do people really like my work, or is it that they’re told to like it as the flavor of the month? So I decided to make these pieces. ‘Well, here you go, collectors. If you want to buy this picture of vomit, I dare you to buy it.’ In a way, it was successful. Those are some of my favorite pieces.”



These darker photos prompted producer Christine Vachon to ask Sherman if she would ever consider directing a horror film. At first Sherman wasn’t interested because her boyfriend had such a horrible time with the sci-fi flop Johnny Mnemonic, but eventually she was swayed. “The money people wanted to do a series of horror films for an art-house crowd, so they were willing to be experimental,” says Sherman.

This led to Sherman developing the story and then directing Office Killer about a copy editor Dorine (played by Carol Kane) who gets murderous when layoffs happen at the magazine  she works for. Now a cult classic, the movie got terrible reviews when it first came out. “The good thing about horror films…is that nobody expects them to be any good,” says Sherman.



Other work in the late 1990s after she divorced her husband of sixteen years involved a series of mutilated dolls, which Sherman is particularly proud of. “I was so happy when I was making those pieces. Taking knives to Barbie dolls!”



Sherman finds herself so attracted to horror because it’s a way for her to confront her deepest, darkest fears. “My biggest fear is a horrible, horrible death, and I think this fascination with the grotesque and with horror is a way to prepare yourself physically if, god forbid, you have to experience something like that,” she says.


But along with horror she always sees humor, as in her horror comedy Office Killer, and she tries to portray this in her work. “I see humor in almost everything, in even the grotesque things, because I don’t want people to believe in them as if they were a documentary that really does show true horror. I want them to be artificial, so you can laugh or giggle at them, as I do when I watch horror movies,” says Sherman.



The photographer’s studio is littered with odd things. Photographs of amputees, circus performers, wigs, costumes, and a vintage notecard she found in an old junk shop in the late 1990s. She estimates it’s about a century old and has it pinned up in the studio—it reads: “Fair Deceiver: I did not know until last night that you had a glass eye. Woman you have deceived me and our engagement is off! If I had married you, perhaps I would have found out that you had a cork leg, wore a wig and chewed your gum with false teeth — Anyway, I don’t think you could boil water without burning it. I want a girl that can do several things besides rubbing lip rouge on my cheek. Chase around girlie and get another guy.”



It provides Sherman with a lot of material to think about. “It is just so sad,” she said. “That this person would say what he’s saying, but also that someone kept it all those years. The poor woman.”


Except for her one foray in directing, Sherman always works alone. “Briefly in the ’80s I tried using friends and family and even hired an assistant to pose, and I felt like I just had to entertain them, be conscious of “Do you need coffee now? Are you tired? Do you want a break?” And they’d be kind of giggly because they were being made up to look funny. I push myself but I don’t push other people, or if I do, I’m apologizing because we’re going too late or whatever. Even having an assistant around, I’d feel self-conscious at times, like I’d better look busy now, rather than just spacing out, looking at images online or in magazines, or whatever I might do.”





Anne Rice Reinvents Vampires After Tragedy

Anne Rice was born in New Orleans as Howard Allen O’Brien (the Howard came from her father), but she spontaneously renamed herself Anne when a nun asked her name at school. Her father worked all over the United States for the postal service, and Rice did not meet him until she was four years old. Her mother was an alcoholic who died of complications from the disease when Rice was fifteen. “’It was from alcoholism,” says Rice. “As a matter of fact, I think she swallowed her tongue.”


Rice always felt odd and like she didn’t belong at school and blamed that on the secret life she had to live as a child. “I never felt at home with other kids,” she says. “I felt like at any time I could make mistakes and be exposed as weird. I guess my mother’s drinking marked me out in my own eyes—the fact that it was a huge secret, and I couldn’t tell anyone, and you never knew how she’d be when you got home.”

Rice used writing as a form of therapy after she lost her daughter Michelle to leukemia when she was only five. “It was a nightmare,” says Rice, and she and her husband turned to alcohol to cope with the loss. “I was nothing and nobody. I had no prestige. I wasn’t a mother. I was a bad wife—I never cleaned house. I was no good at anything.”

During that dark time, Rice revisited an old story she had written about a vampire named Louis from the eighteenth century who was now living in New Orleans. Something about the character and setting clicked into place for her. “Suddenly, when I was in the skin of Louis, when I was in this cartoon character—he really was a cartoon vampire with a cape and black clothes and bare white skin—when I slipped into this seemingly unreal thing and looked through his eyes, I could make my whole world real,” says Rice. “He was able to say, ‘Let me tell you about New Orleans, this was our world,’ and I could write about all the beauty. Even the most fictional stuff in there was somehow out of my real world. It fell into place and was coherent.”

This story turned into her best-selling first novel Interview with the Vampire. Rice says about the experience, “I didn’t know it at the time, but it was all about my daughter, the loss of her and the need to go on living when faith is shattered. The lights do come back on, no matter how dark it seems, and I’m sensitive now, more than ever, to the beauty of the world—and more resigned to living with cosmic uncertainty.”


But in order to do that, first Rice had to kill off her darling. Claudia, a child vampire and stand-in for Michelle, had a different ending in Rice’s first draft. But her editor at Knopf pushed for a stronger ending, and Rice realized while revising “that Claudia had really been meant to die at the end of Interview the way Michelle had died.”

When she cheated on Claudia’s death originally, Rice says she started having a nervous breakdown and her mind knew that wasn’t the correct ending. She says, “I almost died myself and went kind of crazy. I saw germs on everything and washed my hands fifty times and really cracked up. If somebody is meant to die and you don’t do it, you’re really risking your well-being at the end of the book.”


Two years after Interview with the Vampire was published, Rice gave birth to her son, Christopher, and she and her husband stopped drinking entirely. Instead, she focused on her writing career.


Rice has no definite writing process. She prefers now to write in the late morning, but when she penned Interview with the Vampire, she wrote at night—sometimes not starting until 1:00 a.m. “I have never had any one hard and fast method. No storyboard, no. But I do think a lot before ‘plunging,’ and do work out a crude road map of sorts, but I revise constantly, moving back and forth in the growing draft as I work, and sometimes throw out great chunks of material and start over when I feel I should,” says Rice. “But I have written whole books with no real plan—just a concept or a character—at the beginning. There’s just no hard and fast rule at all. Whatever works, whatever causes the prose to flow, the characters to begin talking and walking, whatever makes a world slowly form all around the characters.”



Rice does like to work in pink-and-blue flannel nightgowns—what she considers her work clothes—and has a closet full of them because “they shrink and get rough after you wash them a few times.”


“I think what’s important is that you write what’s really, really intense and what gives you the greatest thrill,” says Rice. “All I know is that the supernatural gives me that intensity whether I’m reading it or writing it. I just find it the most powerful means that I have for writing about real life.”



Using vampires, Rice feels she was able to explore more what it means to be human. “Here you have a monster with a soul that’s immortal, yet in a biological body. It’s a metaphor for us, as it’s very difficult to realize that we are going to die, and day to day we have to think and move as though we are immortal,” says Rice. “A vampire like Lestat in Interview…is perfect for that because he transcends time—yet he can be destroyed, go mad and suffer; it’s intensely about the human dilemma.”


Lestat, the bad boy vampire character who defies the rules of the vampire community, may be Rice’s most beloved character, and she does have a soft spot for her creation. “I loved being Lestat more than anything in the world,” she says.







Alexandra Sokoloff Goes from Hauntings to Serial Killers

Originally Alexandra Sokoloff considered herself a drama kid and threw herself into acting. She started doing theater in sixth grade and majored in it at college, the University of California, Berkeley. But when Sokoloff wrote a one-act play, she loved the feeling of control that writing gave her, and from there, she went into writing screenplays after teaching herself the business by working as a reader for a studio.


“It didn’t take me that long to get established. My first screenplay won a UCLA Diane Thomas Award and was optioned. My second screenplay, cowritten with David Arata, sold to Twentieth Century Fox in a bidding war, and I’ve been lucky enough never to have a day job since,” says Sokoloff.


Sokoloff was able to make a living with her screenwriting for ten years, but she found it frustrating when others were telling her how the story should go. “Hollywood is a seductive place to work. But it’s a sad fact that screenwriters have less and less creative power in an increasingly corporate industry,” says Sokoloff. “When it’s all about box office, and corporate executives are making story decisions, what you get is what we’ve been seeing on the big screen for years now—a mind-numbing parade of sequels and remakes. And that was really what drove me to start writing novels.”


Sokoloff’s first horror novel The Harrowing was originally a screenplay, but when deals feel apart, the author ended up buying the rights back and rewriting the story as a novel. “I wanted to take a bunch of misfit, troubled college kids and put them into a situation similar to Shirley Jackson’s great The Haunting of Hill House, and play with the idea that the emotional dynamic between them attracts an equally troubled spirit—or that the whole thing is just psychological or a prank that gets out of hand and builds its own momentum,” says Sokoloff.



Writing a novel was so satisfying that Sokoloff went that direction with her work. “Although it’s sometimes sheer agony, writing a novel is about seven billion times more satisfying than writing a script, for the simple reason that when you finish a novel, it’s a complete work,” she says. “When you finish a script, it’s just the beginning of a process that may never amount to anything except a paycheck. For me, there’s no comparison.”


The writer has always been attracted to the darker elements of life and had some of her own harrowing real-life experiences as well. She says, “I was always attracted to ghost stories—my dad used to tell them around the campfire and he loved horror and suspense—books, movies, plays, anything. I developed a taste for being scared senseless. But also from the time I was a very young child I was very sensitive to the fact that there’s a lot of weirdness out there, and a lot of danger from unstable people.”



“My family did quite a bit of traveling, so along with all the good stuff—great art, ancient cultures, different mores and political beliefs—I was exposed to disturbing images and situations: poverty, desperation, oppression, madness. Also, I was almost abducted as a child, so I was aware that there are people out there who have something terribly wrong with them, who actively want to hurt and destroy,” says Sokoloff.


Lately, Sokoloff has been writing a series about an FBI agent who’s after the rarest creature of all—a female serial killer. Sokoloff says, “I’ve been studying serial killers for years. Years ago, when I was a screenwriter writing crime thrillers, I tracked down the FBI’s textbook on sexual homicide before it was ever available to the public. I attend Citizens Police Academies and other law enforcement and forensics workshops whenever I get the chance. If I know there’s a behavioral profiler at a writing convention, I stalk that person so I can pick his or her brain about serial killers.”


In her studies, Sokoloff was puzzled to learn that there has never really been a female serial killer and decided she wanted to tackle the subject. “Here’s what’s really interesting. Arguably, there’s never been any such thing as a female serial killer in real life. The women that the media holds up as serial killers actually operate from a completely different psychology from the men who commit what the FBI calls ‘sexual homicide,’” says Sokoloff.



“Even Aileen Wuornos, infamous in the media as ‘America’s First Female Serial Killer,’ wasn’t a serial killer in the sense that male killers like Bundy, Gacy, and Kemper were. The profilers I’ve interviewed call Wuornos a spree killer with a vigilante motivation. So what’s that about? Why do men do it and women don’t? Women rarely kill, compared to men—but when it happens, what does make a woman kill?”


It’s questions like these that make Sokoloff a writer. She says, “For better or worse, my core theme as a writer is, ‘What can good people do about the evil in the world?’”


Sokoloff is sick of seeing women portrayed as prey and rape victims in literature and film. At a recent writers conference, she says, “Prominently displayed in the book tent was a new crime fiction release that featured a crucified woman on the cover. I’m writing these books because I’ve had enough of violence against women in fiction and film.


In her own novels, Sokoloff says, “I do not depict rape or torture on the page. I can assure you, no one gets crucified. I think real-life crime is horrific enough without rubbing a reader’s face in it or adding absurd embellishments (my personal literary pet peeve is the serial killer with an artistic streak or poetic bent).”




Amanda Hocking Self-Publishes Vampire Series and Gets a Book Deal

Amanda Hocking became the self-publishing wunderkind after her vampire and troll series took off, prompting a Big Five publisher to snap up her work, something happening more and more often with indie authors. She was born in Austin, Minnesota, which has the distinction of being the birthplace of SPAM, the chopped meat in a can. For as long as she can remember, Hocking has been telling stories. “My mom has a tape from when I was, like, two years old, talking with my grandma, telling her a story that’s really elaborate about werewolves and wolves,” she says.


Hocking had a stack of novels she had been working on, and in her twenties she started sending them out to agents (more than fifty), but all she got back were form rejection letters. She studied different genres and decided to try her hand at paranormal romance, writing a novel in fifteen days. Then instead of sending the manuscript out to agents, she self-published. At first, sales were slow—a book or two a day—but then things really picked up. She was getting requests to do interviews with bloggers and had positive reviews of her work. Soon “I sold, like, six thousand books that month or something,” says Hocking. “It was a pretty dramatic jump.”


Hocking decided to go the self-publishing route because she wasn’t getting anywhere submitting to agents. “I once heard the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. I’d heard that some authors were self-publishing and finding a decent readership, so I thought, Why not? I knew I needed to try something different, so I did,” says Hocking.


Hocking’s writing process is intense, and she’s published seventeen books since she started making her work public in 2010. She says, “When I get an idea, I think about it for a few weeks, and then I outline. Once I have an outline ready, I sit down at the computer and write. Sometimes, I’ll write for eight to twelve hours a night. When I’m writing, I usually shut myself off from the world for a few weeks and just write. Then I’m done and I come back to real life.”

Her advice to writers who’d like to follow in her footsteps is to keep working on new ideas, like Andy Warhol recommended years ago—always go on to your next work. “Don’t get married to your first book or idea. Write your first book, put it in a drawer, and then write your second. It seems to me that a lot of writers get hung up on their first idea, their first book, but here’s the truth: Almost universally speaking, the first book you write will be terrible,” says Hocking.

“I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule, but I would say that rarely is the first published work by an author the first thing they wrote. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t love your first book or take pride in it or work hard on it—because you really should. It just means you shouldn’t get hooked on that one thing. Write another book and another. Then go back and look at your first book and see how you feel about it. But whether you love it or hate it, just keep writing and reading.”


Hocking would like to do more horror writing. She says, “I’ve played around with horror, which I think is a sister genre to fantasy. I love writing about monsters and villains and otherworldly creatures.”

After doing so many book series, Hocking is working on a stand-alone novel that will be coming out in 2016, as well as a few projects she calls “duologies.” Hocking describes her upcoming work Freeks as “a YA paranormal romance novel set in the 1980s that follows a traveling sideshow. I pitched it as Pretty in Pink meets The Lost Boys (minus the vampires) meets Carnivale.”

Hocking’s duology will be about teenage Valkyries. She says, “I knew that I wanted to do something with it and the idea just kept nagging me. It’s just such a cool idea, of women deciding who lived during battle.”



V. C. Andrews Made ‘Fairy-Tale Horror’ with ‘Flowers in the Attic’

V. C. Andrews’s books have become cult classics, but when they first came out, her publisher wasn’t sure how to classify them so they were labeled horror and actually outsold Stephen King’s work at the time. Andrews was born Cleo Virginia Andrews in Portsmouth, Virginia, and lived there most of her life—much of it while ill and confined to bed and a wheelchair.


Andrews fell down a flight of stairs when she was in high school, and after she had surgery, she began to suffer from arthritis that fused her spine. She was only able to complete high school with the help of private tutors and then worked as an artist, drawing portraits of apple-cheeked girls and still lifes of flowers that are quite at odds with the dark portraits later used to illustrate her series. She lived alone with her mother Lillian until she died of cancer at sixty-three.


Her editor, Ann Patty, bought the ninety-eight-page manuscript of Flowers in the Attic in 1978, though it needed a lot of editorial guidance. Before she offered to buy the book for a $7,500 advance, one publishing insider said the manuscript had been rejected more than twenty-four times by various editors. Patty told a marketing director who complained about Andrews’s stilted dialogue, “It’s her style—it may be awful, but it is a style, and it will be read as original.”



Patty had already gone through two revisions with Andrews (the first one causing the manuscript to increase to six hundred pages), and in her second editorial letter, she said, “I’ve frequently noted where you start sentences with adverbs or reverse the natural order of a sentence. It’s good to do this sometimes, but you do it too much, and it often makes for rather awkward reading.”


Andrews was influenced by fairy tales when she was young. “I loved the fairy tales. But there is an element of horror in fairy tales, so that when I would go through the woods, I was always looking for something—a witch, an ogre, something scary—and it was never there, and that was a little bit disappointing. I didn’t want a real horror, liked a rapist or a murderer, but I wanted a fairy-tale horror,” she said.


Youth is an obsession in Andrews’s books and it appears to have been a topic that was always on her mind. After an unflattering article ran in People magazine, where she said her age was inflated and photographs portrayed her as an ancient recluse, Andrews rarely gave interviews. “The first interview I ever had was with People magazine,” said Andrews. “And they told me, quite frankly, that they come to get dirt. They ask all of your friends and everybody they can find, ‘Tell us the dirt about V. C. Andrews.’ And when they don’t find any, they make up things. For instance, I wouldn’t tell her my age. So she went around and found somebody who told them I was older then I was. I said, ‘You must have found an enemy.’ And the reporter said, ‘What are you trying to hide?’”


Andrews was so angry about the interview and pictures printed that she wrote her relative: “How dare you say those photographs in People’s magazine are good? They were awful! I don’t look like that old woman peeking out of the window! I hated the photo of me in the chair! I refuse to allow pictures of me sitting in that thing—but they sneaked in one, and I couldn’t tell when the photographer was shooting the entire time she was here—about six hours. We were taken out to lunch in a nice French restaurant, then back home, and all the time I was interviewed. Taped too. Dolly Landon wrote thirty pages and it was edited down to that short amount you read—thank goodness. From now on I am demanding editorial and pictorial control or NO interview! I showed the magazine to my photographer friend and he said the one in the window had been airbrushed to make my face shadowy and spooky—all to sensationalize the type of books I write. No wonder movie stars hate journalists! I’m with them all the way! They snoop, pry, question, when my life is none of their damn business!”


Andrews said a lot of people assumed her work was autobiographical—that she was a victim of incest and had been locked away by relatives who wanted her unseen, as happens in her famous Dollanganger series. “They see me as an abused child who has really suffered. They feel sorry for me, terribly sorry that I have gone though this awful abuse and was then locked away. A lot of them say, ‘Don’t be ashamed that you are in love with your brother.’ All of these kinds of things,” said Andrews.



Instead, Andrews said her family was very nurturing and supporting. “A lot of people think I was tortured, but my parents didn’t do anything. They didn’t beat me. They didn’t whip me. They didn’t lock me away. I didn’t even go hungry. And I had a lot of pretty clothes,” she said.


Her editor says that the Dollanganger and Casteel series, which make up the authentic V. C. Andrews canon, along with stand-alone My Sweet Audrina (numerous other series are written by ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman hired by the Andrews estate), are both based on true stories. Andrews heard them when she was in the hospital for surgery. It was “some doctor there,” says Patty. “So I’d guess that some aspects of it were true—at least the aspect of kids being hidden away. Whether the twins were real, the sex, the time frame, probably not. I think it was just the concept of kids hidden in the attic so the mother could inherit a fortune. The idea for the Heaven series is also based on a true story and how that all came about—I will write about that in the memoir I’m writing about my relationship with Virginia and her books.”






V.C. Andrews: A Critical Companion by E. D. Huntley

For Gemma Files, Horror Is Therapy

Gemma Files was born in England, but she’s lived in Canada for most of her life. Horror has always been a love. She still has a piece of her horror writing from when she was ten years old called “Gore in the Woods,” which ends, “It hurt more as the [eerie, glowing green] worms began eating through the muscle wall and burrowed into his stomach. Then he could feel them slipping into his intestines and up his esophagus towards his mouth. Others burrowed into his veins and began drinking his blood as they slithered towards his brains. ‘This is it,’ he thought. ‘This is the end,’ as one of the worms finally reached his heart. And it was.”


Files feels like the horror genre gets a bad rap in literature. She explains, “I have always had an urge towards the horrific. Often I say that horror is a ghetto inside a ghetto inside a ghetto, in terms of genre. There are science fiction people who like fantasy, and fantasy people who like science fiction, but there are not a lot of fantasy or science fiction people who like horror. On the other hand, there are horror people who like both science fiction and fantasy, and I’m one of them. (I don’t love all of it.) But horror is the place where people won’t go, the place where suddenly things aren’t good anymore.”

Files believes horror gets maligned because people tend to think of the genre as slasher films rather than rich and varied. ‘‘I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that people always think of horror as a very limited spectrum,” says Files. “When I was around seventeen years old and telling people I wanted to write horror movies, they would say, ‘Oh, like Friday the 13th? Ha-ha.’ And I’d go, ‘No. Like Hellraiser.’ They had no idea what the difference was.”


For Files, horror has always been her go-to genre, helping her puzzle out her fears and understand them. “Horror is comfort food for me. I know that sounds odd, but it’s true. It’s like therapy, not least because it takes place under inherently safe conditions. Reading, viewing and writing horror makes me look at my fears as a spectrum, not some huge, solid, indigestible mass—to understand what scares me and why,” says Files. “And that’s really useful, because it allows me to both acknowledge those fears and sort the ones which can be dealt with practically from those which can’t. When I shut the cover of a book or press stop on a DVD, I am in control; there are rules to follow, formulas and patterns to map, a sense of order, not chaos. The real world can knock you down at random and steal everything you have in a heartbeat, but horror is like any ritual, whether sacred or profane: At base, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get. And I appreciate that.”

Files first started publishing short horror stories in the 1990s while working at the weekly newspaper Eye Weekly. She says, “I started writing on the job. I wrote a couple of really terrible screenplays, and eventually I wrote the first short story I ever sold, ‘Mouthful of Pins.’ I wrote that entirely on the job. That was the beginning of me selling stuff on the side while reviewing some for the paper. When the person who’d done film reviewing there was moved to another section, the reviews editor said, ‘Gemma, I hear you like horror films, weird films, independent stuff.’ So that was pretty much my slot. As I was doing that, I started writing—and placing—more and more short stories and to a range of venues.”


To commemorate her first sale, Files had inspirational words put on her body. “When I sold my first short story, I celebrated by getting a tattoo—two quotes, in a spiral on my right shoulder: ‘Be neat and orderly in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and creative in your work,’ which is from Flaubert, and ‘Listen to stories; it’s always interesting, and sometimes it improves you,’ which is from Peter Brook’s stage production of the Mahabharata,” says Files.

Files logs every word and movie she has produced or consumed in her blog and tallied 161,441 words for the year 2015. She describes her writing process as, “Get an idea, scribble it down in a notebook, transcribe the notes into a file, start hooking them together. I also compose stuff in my head when I’m walking around, doing chores or working out. I try to average five hundred to a thousand words a day when I’m working on something, and resist the urge to edit or rewrite until I’ve got a first draft. The point is to get as much down as you can, then go through, trim off the fat and find the real text underneath. I’ve been known to cut up to a third of my first draft, but a lot of that tends to be repetition and overwriting. The order that things come to me in is almost always character dynamics, dialogue, scene action, plot fixes, then—last of all—retroactive world building to explain exactly why it was necessary for things to go from x to x.”


When writing, Files also finds music to be an important part of her writing process. She says, “Music is a huge thing for me, especially in terms of creating and sustaining a mood. I get some of my best ideas when I’m walking around listening to music, or working out with my iPod on shuffle, and I usually end up posting playlists after I’m done…”

In her reading, the latest pet peeve for Files is the unreliable narrator. She likes to take a trip when she’s reading and feels cheated when that world has been compromised. “I’ve really taken against the idea of the unreliable narrator, at least when the explanation to ‘what’s happening here?’ turns out to be ‘oh, none of that even happened, because the person telling the story is totally nuts,’” says Files. “It just feels like a massive waste of my time, no matter how well executed that particular might be.”



Ana Lily Amirpour Bends Horror Genre

Ana Lily Amirpour was born in England and moved to the United States when she was a kid. In Florida, Amirpour was teased for her accent, so she tried doing a couple of things to make herself more American. She started a fan club for General Zod from Superman II, which never really got off the ground, and dabbled in filmmaking with her dad’s camcorder.


Her first feature was a slumber party horror movie that she filmed when she was twelve. “The movie did have a kill scene that was pretty scary,” she says. “I showed it to my friends and their parents, and everyone jumped. I was like, ‘Ahhh!’”

Her family, though, had different plans for Amirpour. Her parents are Iranian, and Amirpour says, “Iranian parents are very, they’re like, ‘You’ll either be a doctor or a lawyer,’” she says. “I was very arty in high school and my mom was like, ‘Yeah, so you can be a plastic surgeon.’”

Instead of studying textbooks, Amirpour credits Michael Jackson’s ode to monster making to helping her with her film career. “I watched the making of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video thousands of times,” she says. “It taught me how to be an American.”

Other influences are too many to count. “I love James Dean, Die Antwoord, Michael Jackson, Madonna, the Bee Gees, Sergio Leone, David Lynch, Sophia Loren. I’m obsessed with this album Escape Yourself by Footprintz,” says Amirpour. And Bruce Lee. “Read Striking Thoughts, his philosophies on life and art—they’re the most gangster-ish you’ll ever read. He’s all about obstacles being in the past.” Also: “Anne Rice was my first thing. I loved—addicted loved—all of that.”

Amirpour went to film school at the University of California at Los Angeles and was pursued by Hollywood agents after that. But instead of doing the Hollywood thing, Amirpour took a sabbatical in Germany, where she got her head together. “I ended not making those [Hollywood] films, and I am so glad. They were not my pure soul matter. In Germany, I got to sit and think about the shit that I love,” says Amirpour. “I thought, I’m going to write something where everything people say and do turns me on.”

The idea for her successful first feature A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night came to Amirpour when she was directing a film short and an extra walked through the set wearing a chador. To Amirpour, it looked like a bat and she asked to try it on. That’s when she thought “Iranian vampire,” which became the core of her movie. She started using Indiegogo to crowdfund her Iranian vampire film and raised $57,000 before SpectreVision stepped in as a producer. “A vampire is so many things: serial killer, a romantic, a historian, a drug addict—they’re sort of all these things in one,” says Amirpour, who released a comic after the success of her first film.



“It’s a mash-up, but it becomes really liberating, because as a kid growing up I wanted to be American, like my white American friends, but I am Iranian and my culture is very fixed and strong and it’s been an overwhelming presence in my life,” says Amirpour about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which is told in Farsi. “How do you explain that is part of who you are?”


Another reason Amirpour likes vampires is because she fears death. “I hate it, I don’t want to do it,” says Amirpour. “I also don’t like old. I don’t care how many fuckin’ Ansel Adams photos you take of old people and try to tell me it’s beautiful. It smells bad and shit’s failing. You’re rotting inside yourself, inside your own body. That’s what it is, in my opinion.”


Amirpour is sure, though, that a cure lies just around the corner. “I’m extremely greedy about life. In fifteen years, there will be a nano-shot where you can live forever. I’m sure of it. I don’t think it’ll be FDA-approved and I don’t think it’ll be given to everybody. But I would fucking take it in a second,” she says.

In the meantime, she’s working on her second horror feature, which she plans to debut later in 2016 at the Cannes Film Festival: The Bad Batch. Amirpour says, “The Bad Batch is a post-apocalyptic desert cannibal love story.” Originally she wanted Jennifer Lawrence to star in her movie as bait for cannibals. “She’s so fucking dope,” Amirpour says, “she’s so gangster.” But instead Suki Waterhouse ended up being cast as her leading lady.


Ana Lily Amirpour

Elizabeth Hand Adds to Maine’s Horror Output

Elizabeth Hand grew up in an Irish Catholic family in New York and now lives in Maine after falling in love with the state, which is featured in her Cass Neary series. “Maine is a tough place to live. There’s a great deal of poverty, a lot of depression, a lot of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol,” says Hand. ‘There’s often resentment on the part of natives toward people from away. In the islands and smaller communities like the one I live, you often have witch hunts, where relative outsiders literally become outcasts. It’s beautiful here, but it can very suddenly get very ugly and scary. There’s a kind of human weather that can shift as suddenly and dangerously at the actual weather.”

liz hand

Hand’s fears have driven some of her writing and she finds it cathartic to release these through her fiction. “As a parent, my greatest fear is that something will harm my children. But the truth is I’m afraid of everything. I wasn’t always—I was abducted and raped when I was twenty-one, and that left me with this vast reservoir of rage and fear,” says Hand. “I get panic attacks. I have sometimes violent parasomnias, which is when you act things out while asleep; the most dramatic of these was a few years ago when I thought there was an intruder in my bedroom. I jumped out of bed, ran to the other side of the room, and ripped a heavy wooden curtain rod from the wall to use as a weapon. I came to and found myself standing naked in front of the window, screaming and brandishing an eight foot wooden pole—an event that was a weird catalyst for Generation Loss.”


As a child, Hand remembers herself differently. She says, “I wanted to be tough. When we lived in Yonkers in a neighborhood full of kids, I was always getting into fights with boys and coming home with a black eye. I was provoking fights with boys. I liked fighting, even though I always got decked. I should have gone into roller derby.”

Film, sci-fi, and mysteries were also heavy influences during her childhood. “I was obsessed with monster movies, too—if I had kept all my issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland, I never would have had to write Catwoman,” says Hand about one of her movie novelizations that now embarrasses her. “I read 1984 at a precocious age, like eight, and when I did the math I realized that Julia, Winston Smith’s lover, was born the same year I was, 1957. I read that book over and over again, with the 1960s as a backdrop, anti-war and anti-bomb protests and this general pervasive sense of doom.”

Hand came of age during the seventies and punk was the music she listened to as a teenager, which is a theme in many of her works. “I still love it. I love lots of other music, too, and always have, but punk’s the soundtrack of my youth,” says Hand. “I think you never escape the music you’re listening to and seeing when you’re seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old. So I feel really fortunate that I was at the right place at the right time.”


Originally, Hand wanted to be a music journalist, like Lester Bangs, but she ended up working at a museum in Washington, D.C., before she began pursuing writing as a full-time career. “What spurred me to finally quit my job and focus on writing full-time was David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, one of the great neo-noir films. I was already a Lynch fan, but when I saw that I thought, Man, if this guy can make a living out of this weird shit, so can I,” says Hand.

“But I never seriously considered writing anything in that vein until I saw Silence of the Lambs. I watched that movie and thought, You know, I could do this. The story was driven by the characters, and it had those over-the-top Grand Guignol set pieces—it wasn’t that different in some ways from what I did with some of my own work.”


It’s tough making a living from writing, but Hand has retired from doing any more movie novelizations, which kept her going financially for about a decade, along with her own work. “I’m trying not to do work-for-hire anymore, i.e., novelizations and the like. I don’t know how many prime writing years I have left, and I decided I wanted to focus as much as I can on my own stuff,” says Hand. “I’m doing more teaching now, as faculty at the Stonecoast MFA program, which is a bit more rewarding than novelizing Catwoman. And I’m still doing book reviews, which I love—gives me a chance to keep the critical part of my brain cranking.”


Lots of underdogs are featured in her work, and Hand says, “I have kind of a soft spot for lovable losers and misfits and outsiders, people who in real life can be very difficult to take. I’ve known quite a few of them, and I really do think you can learn from people who see the world from a different angle… As for writing about people who the world perceives as royal fuck-ups, I try to give them the happy endings, or at least happier endings, that evade them in real life. Maybe that’s wish fulfillment, or arrogance. Maybe I just relate better to flawed people because I’m one of them.”



Interview: Elizabeth Hand

Joyce Carol Oates Talks the Art of Horror

Joyce Carol Oates has been writing since before she could read. She remembers making books by drawing in tablets and coloring and scribbling, and her characters were animals—chickens and cats—immortalized in her first novel The Cat House, which she still has somewhere.


Her very first books were Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking-Glass, which also terrified her. Oates believes a lot of horror comes from those first impressions formed during childhood when one is trying to figure out the rules of the world. “Children are particularly susceptible to images of the grotesque, for children are learning to monitor what is ‘real’ and what is ‘not real’; what is benign, and what not…The earliest and most horrific image of my childhood, as deeply embedded in my consciousness as any ‘real’ event (and I lived on a small farm, where the slaughtering of chickens must have been frequent) sprang at me out of a seemingly benign children’s book, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking-Glass,” says Oates, when “Alice escapes the nightmare prospect of being eaten…”

Looking back on her own childhood, Oates says, “Like most children, I was probably afraid of a variety of things. The unknown? The possibility of those queer fortuitous metamorphoses that seem to overtake certain of Carroll’s characters? Physical pain? Getting lost?…My proclivity for the irreverent and the nonsensical was either inspired by Carroll or confirmed by him. I was always, and continue to be, an essentially mischievous child. This is one of my best-kept secrets.”


Oates believes that readers crave dark, scary fiction just the same as happy stories. “This predilection for art that promises we will be frightened by it, shaken by it, at times repulsed by it seems to be as deeply imprinted in the human psyche as the counter-impulse toward daylight, rationality, scientific skepticism, truth and the ‘real,’” says Oates.

Reading horror fiction is a way for one to re-experience childhood, according to Oates, believing completely in what is around them. “One criterion for horror fiction is that we are compelled to read it swiftly, with a rising sense of dread, and so total a suspension of ordinary skepticism, we inhabit the material without question and virtually as its protagonist; we can see no way out except to go forward. Like fairy tales, the art of the grotesque and horror renders us children again, evoking something primal in the soul,” she says.

Oates has received a fair amount of criticism for her horror work. When her serial killer novella Zombie came out in 1995, New York Times critic Steven Marcus chastised her for her “longstanding interest in the extreme, the gruesome, the bizarre, and violent in American life” and believed her protagonist, serial killer Quentin, was supposed to be a representation of American society. That time, Oates wrote back in a letter to the editor that he had misread her novel, but in general, she says, “A writer who has published as many books as I have has developed, of necessity, a hide like a rhino’s, while inside there dwells a frail, hopeful butterfly of a spirit.”


As a female writer, she feels that she is able to hide to a certain extent because of her sex. “Being a woman allows me a certain invisibility,” says Oates. “Like Ellison’s Invisible Man. Because a woman, being so mechanically judged by her appearance, has the advantage of hiding within it—of being absolutely whatever she allows herself to be, in contrast with what others imagine her to be. I feel no connection at all with my physical appearance and have often wondered whether this was a freedom any man—writer or not—might enjoy.”

Oates’s daily schedule mainly consists of writing, revising, and reading. “I haven’t any formal schedule, but I love to write in the morning, before breakfast. Sometimes the writing goes so smoothly that I don’t take a break for many hours—and consequently have breakfast at two or three in the afternoon on good days,” says Oates.

“When I complete a novel I set it aside, and begin work on short stories, and eventually another long work. When I complete that novel, I return to the earlier novel and rewrite much of it. In the meantime the second novel lies in a desk drawer. Sometimes I work on two novels simultaneously, though one usually forces the other into the background. The rhythm of writing, revising, writing, revising, et cetera, seems to suit me.”

Oates interrupts her writing life for chores and hones her observation skills that way, looking for the story. “I enjoy the much-maligned occupation of housewifery,” she says. “I like to cook, to tend plants, to garden, to do simple domestic things, to stroll around shopping malls and observe the qualities of people, overhearing snatches of conversations, noting people’s appearances, their clothes, and so forth. Walking and driving a car are part of my life as a writer, really. I can’t imagine myself apart from these activities.”


Oates’s next collection of psychological horror will be coming out later in 2016—The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror. Here’s an excerpt from “The Doll-Master”:


When I was five years old, Baby Emily disappeared from my room.

I was so surprised! I looked under the bed and in the closet and in each of my bureau drawers and then I looked in all these places again as well as beneath the covers at the foot of the bed but Baby Emily was gone.


I ran to my mother, crying. I asked my mother where Baby Emily was. My mother told me that my father “didn’t think it was a good idea” for me to be playing with a doll at my age. Dolls are for girls, she said. Not boys. “Daddy just thought it might be better to take the doll away before you got ‘too attached’…” Guiltily my mother spoke, and there was softness in her voice, but nothing I said could change her mind, no matter how I cried, or how angry I became, slapping and kicking at her and saying how I hated her, my mother did not change her mind because my father would not allow it. “He said he’d ‘indulged’ you long enough. And he blames me.”


In place of Baby Emily who was so sweet and placid and smelled of foam-rubber, my father had instructed my mother to buy me an “action toy”—one of the new-model expensive ones—a U.S. Navy SEAL robot-soldier that came fully armed, and could move forward across the room, empowered by a battery.


I would never forgive either of them, I thought. But particularly, I would never forgive him.





Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque by Joyce Carol Oates

The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. III edited by Philip Gourevitch