31 Days of Horror: The Sadness (2021)

After the twisted, delirious showing of Titane last night, my sister was on her A game trying to deliver tonight. She selected the Taiwanese zombie film The Sadness, a Shudder original that’s available to stream on that channel. Kristi was chortling because of a review posted by a horror aficionado who said this was the type of movie that people walk out of the theaters on and that even he, a gorehound, found deeply upsetting. Definitely not a  movie I would pick out for myself, but rules are rules. So I finished my dinner before we started watching and kept my yellow notebook beside me to jot down notes in if things got too extreme. www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwZMZOS_dh0

Kat (Regina Lei) and Jim (Berant Zhu), a likable couple, wake up to what will be their last normal morning, though they don’t know it. Kat and Jim have a little tiff because of the trip they’ve planned for the next week. Kat works a 9 to 5 and has to negotiate hard to take off any of her allotted ten vacation days a year; meanwhile, Jim is freelance and has to take work when he can get it. And a big job has arrived for just that week of planned vacation, and he can’t afford to turn it down. They go about their morning doing the usual mundane things—getting dressed, rustling up breakfast. In foreign movies, I’m always so jealous of what the characters are eating for breakfast: bowls of noodles, an eggroll and pork-fried rice, or in this case, a bao dumpling with hot sauce. I should try one of these variations when I get back from California next week, just for something different.

There’s a tense, ominous atmosphere already with news about the Alvin virus spreading, and much of the public not believing in the doctors who say it’s something akin to rabies. And though this movie is violent and disturbing, there are some shots that are just heartbreakingly beautiful, which was really jarring to my emotions. One comes while Jim takes Kat to the train station on his motorbike. In slow motion, they pass a gruesome scene with police cars, an ambulance, and the aftermath of blood and violence, and Kat touches Jim’s back, just a reassurance that they are okay during this moment of chaos. However, that just marks the beginning of the chaos.

The Alvin virus infects humans and rapidly turns them into zombies unlike any I’ve ever seen. These zombies move quickly like the ones in 28 Days Later, but they do it with a rictus of a smile on their faces and talk dirty, saying the most vile things. Once I got over that shock, I realized that these zombies were also capable of sexual violence and almost seemed to seek it out.

It’s a Grand Guignol of a movie with slaughteramas that are almost beautiful with thick sprays of blood, but then the flesh creeps when the zombies lower their suspenders or pants and you realize what’s happening off-camera.

A Bloody Julius Caesar Stirs Up a Hornet’s Nest

I took my Girls Write Now mentee Laura to go see Julius Caesar last Friday at Shakespeare in the Park in Central Park. We had been planning it for a while and postponed to later in the week so we had nicer weather. I’m glad I charged and packed my computer because we really wanted to tape our exit interview we had planned now that she’s graduating and going on to college in the fall. I had come up with ten questions for Laura, and she ad-libbed questions for me. I was surprised that it lasted longer than an hour, but we had some meaty questions, like “What do you think is going to happen politically in the next five years?” and “What’s going to happen to art in the current political climate?” We were both optimistic about the future and had no idea how portentous our questions and ideas were.

We took turns going to the restroom while the other saved our spot in line, and then right before they started handing out tickets, I went to the snack bar area and got us two hot dogs. The line started moving, and after the first glut of tickets was gone, Laura and I were at the head of the line with just one woman in front of us. A man came by and handed the woman his extra ticket after his friend was a no show, so then Laura and I were at the head of the line. The second round of tickets came by, and the Shakespeare in the Park employee sorted them into singles and pairs and gave us our tickets. We were so surprised to find ourselves in the front row almost center stage—the best tickets in the house. Laura was exuberant, hopping up and down. “I’ve never been in the front row anywhere!”


The play was tremendous. Whenever I read Julius Caesar while editing our Grade 10 textbooks at Holt, Rinehart and Winston, I enjoyed it, but when I saw it performed at BAM (the first time I’d ever seen it live), I didn’t really like it. Might have been the nosebleed seats we had—the absolute last row in the theater. This Julius Caesar, though, was fabulous. When we sat down, I saw people miling about onstage, looking at scaffolding, like what we have in New York when buildings are undergoing construction. Some had programs in their hands, and they were putting Post-it notes on the scaffolding, similar to what happened in Union Square station after Trump was elected and everybody was so upset. There was a wall that became an entire passageway, where everybody started writing Post-it notes about how upset they were about the election and it became a thing.


I thought the people were actual audience members, so I told Laura, “Go on up there, hon, and write something. Put your wish down.” Laura said, “No, I don’t think I should,” and usually she’s so bold. Thank God she didn’t. They were frigging actors, and later, they played the part of the disgruntled public.

It was a clever staging. It’s set in modern times, and Caesar is portrayed as a Trumpian character; Calpurnia as Melania, with an Eastern European accent; and Marc Antony was portrayed as a woman with a “Go USA!” attitude, leggings, and an Aw, shucks! Midwestern accent. I’m guessing she’s supposed to correlate to Mike Pence. It worked really well and was riveting for the first three acts, but the play kind of lost momentum in the last two acts. I still loved it. How they handled the crowd scenes was brilliant and unexpected, and Laura and I craned our heads, trying to catch the rabble-rousers who sprang up in the audience. It felt so interactive, like the demonstrations going on now during this presidency. Some people walked out—about four that I could see—and I remember thinking it was because of the controversial staging decisions or maybe because of the chairs. They are pretty uncomfortable. Then I saw the headlines the next day.


We still don’t have an answer in this play about what is going to happen to us, much like in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, but it gives us plenty to think about. We just have to be aware and flexible, roll with the punches, and never give up hope. I think of that old saying, “May you live in interesting times.” I do. I most definitely do. And I’m grateful for Shakespeare in the Park.

Oops! Joyce Carol Oates Does It Again with DIS MEM BER

I finished DIS MEM BER by Joyce Carol Oates, and for me, it’s kind of meh compared to some of her other works. I prefer the short-story collection HEAT, where the females are allowed to be mean and fierce. The female protagonists in this collection seem limp and boxed in, which maybe is the point—that the stories show how girls and women are forced into these positions by society. But I want heroes, dammit.


There are two stories about widows, which speak to Oates’s own experience, I think, after unexpectedly losing her first husband. And I’m glad to have a few short stories on the subject because I haven’t encountered many. In “Great Blue Heron,” a brother-in-law pressures a widow to sell the lakefront home she’s always lived in and “invest” in some technology that he deems worthy. The other widow story was the reason why I wanted to read this collection (“The Crawl Space”), since it won a Stoker Award this year. It’s a creepy, claustrophobic story about a widow missing the house she once lived in with her husband and feeling like she’s neglected his memory—eventually when she visits, she’s trapped with his possessions . It reminded me of “Hansel and Gretel” when the witch is pushed into the oven.

“Heartbreak” really hit me with younger sister, Steff, who’s terribly jealous of her older sister, Caitlin, and the attention she gets from her slightly older stepcousin Hunt. It ended completely different from how I pictured it. There’s gunplay going on in the story, and Chekhov has said if a gun’s introduced, it has to be used. I still wasn’t ready for the massive guilt, which I think is the right reaction to an “accidental” shooting. We need more stories showing the consequences.

“The Drowned Girl” seems to be a take on the real-life Elisa Lam story, where a young woman drowned in a hotel’s rooftop water tank (the Cecil Hotel) and contaminated the water supply. For more than a week, guests complained about the foul water, and then a security guard went to the top and found the bloated, dead body of the girl. Cops say she had a psychotic break (Lam was bipolar) and killed herself by accident, but there are suspicious things in the case: She was naked, the top to the tank was put back in place (too heavy to do one’s self), and the rape kit was never processed. Anyway, Joyce Carol Oates sets the story in a college town, where the woman is named Miri Kim, and she’s already died, but another student becomes obsessed with the case and water and pipes. It kind of reminded me of the protagonist who goes a little crazy in Joan Didion’s PLAY IT AS IT LAYS.

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates at the 2013 LA Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California campus on Saturday April 21, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Katy Winn/Invision/AP)

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.






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.”








Stacy Schiff Breaks Down Horror of the Salem Witchcraft Trials

Stacy Schiff started her publishing career as an editor for Simon & Schuster, where she took on about an equal number of fiction and nonfiction titles. But then she really wanted to see a biography done on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a pilot and writer who penned the classic story The Little Prince. Originally she planned to find a writer for it, but she became so consumed by the subject that she decided to write the book herself. And that is how a biographer was born. “That always happens with biography—you become obsessed with someone else’s life,” says Schiff.


Schiff was born in Adams, Massachusetts, on the other side of the state from Salem, but she says she became interested in the Salem witch trials when she was a teen. She says, “Everybody goes through a Salem phase.” However, Schiff’s obsession grew into a five hundred–page book, The Witches: Salem, 1692.


Schiff is interested in giving women a voice, and much of her writing has focused on those who couldn’t tell their stories, such as Cleopatra and Véra Nabokov, determined to show what was the truth. Unfortunately, it was difficult for her to find a voice from any of the teenage accusers during the Salem witch trials. At that time, women were taught to read the Bible, but not to write. “Could one of these girls just have left a diary!” says Schiff. “To do this without them speaking for themselves just seems like writing a book with your hands tied behind your back.”

Schiff points out what was going on, though, around the time of the witch trials to give it context. Most of the teen girls during this period were traumatized by violence that they could not control. “The amount of pressure on these women were extraordinary,” says Schiff. “Everyone knew a story about a dismembering or an abduction. That was especially true of the convulsing Salem girls, of whom at least half were refugees from or had been orphaned by attacks in ‘the last Indian war.’”

Almost everybody in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692 was a Puritan, and they were frightened on all sides by Native Americans, who came and went silently; the French; and the Quakers. Cotton Mather, who was a famous pot stirrer during the witchcraft trials, liked to compare them to all matters of beasts, says Schiff: “He routinely muddied the zoological waters: Indians comported themselves like roaring lions or savage bears, Quakers like ‘grievous wolves.’ The French, ‘dragons of the wilderness,’ completed the diabolical menagerie.”

The eerie event started when two young Salem girls were afflicted and witchcraft was blamed for their strange symptoms. Schiff says, “Their limbs are paralyzed, they contort, they’re going into trances, and they’re screaming—night and day, screeches. And one of their first acts after the witchcraft has been diagnosed is to interrupt a minister in meeting. And you can imagine how that went over in a place where women were meant to be submissive and meek and silent.” By the time the year drew to a close, nineteen people were hung for witchcraft and another pressed to death by stones.


More than a hundred people were accused of witchcraft, and the father-and-son ministers Increase and Cotton Mather both wrote books on the subject of witchcraft and how to tell a witch. The two disagreed in their dueling books Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, by Increase Mather, who believed it was better to err on the side of a witch going free rather than killing an innocent person, and The Wonders of the Invisible World, Cotton Mather’s book, which was more in the vein of the Old Testament “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Cotton Mather suffered a lot of fallout from his book, with people saying terrible things to him and behind his back. And the topic of the Salem witch trials faded from the public consciousness.

“It’s a little while before anyone is even willing to address the episode. The weight of the tragedy is clearly enormous. There will be a commission established by 1711 to weigh the claims of those families who had lost members. And at that point, you get this tremendous groundswell of people demanding justice, demanding that their prison fees, that their properties be returned to them. But then for the most part, you still get this chilling silence,” says Schiff.

While undertaking the project of writing The Witches: Salem, 1692, Schiff says, “I realized the only way to do justice to it, to make it seem real, was to begin by buying into the idea of witchcraft. Because if you just think of this as a weird, superstitious belief, which it wasn’t, then the whole thing doesn’t make sense.”

Though Schiff wasn’t able to find teenage girls’ diaries to help with her research, she did find the nine-volume Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts to be a gold mine of information. “It’s an irresistible anthology of infractions and abominations. Our Puritan ancestors filched marmalade from one another’s cellars, and defamed ministers (one was ‘more fit to be in a hog sty than in a pulpit’), and attacked constables with scissors, and stuffed hens down their breeches. Men turned wives out in the snow; women cracked pots over husbands’ heads. They drank until ‘they could not tell ink from liquor.’”


She was disturbed by what she uncovered while researching and writing the book for three years. Men were accused as well as women, and many relatives went against one another, giving false confessions. Daughters accused mothers and fathers while husbands turned in their wives. Schiff recounts one case where a young girl rode to jail with her brother on one side of her and a minister on the other—both had accused her of being a witch—and there was nothing she could do about it. “Anyone who really stands up to the authorities isn’t going to make it. Defiance comes at a price,” she says.



Jennifer Kent Makes Female Horror the Scariest

Jennifer Kent has been acting since her teens, but nobody had really heard of the Australian writer, actress, and director until she burst onto the scene with her truly frightening horror indie The Babadook. New Yorker critic Anthony Lane was so impressed by her debut that he said, “Let a law be passed, requiring all horror films to be made by female directors. The law would restore horror to its rightful place as a chamber of secrets, ripe for emotional inquisition.”

Funny enough, when Kent started out in her career, she didn’t see directing as an option open to her. “I wrote, directed, and acted in my own stories as a child. But when it came time to study in my late teens, I chose acting. I wasn’t really aware at that stage that women could direct films. After a few years of professional acting, I naturally gravitated toward writing and directing,” says Kent.


Kent had written a few screenplays, but she was not able to direct those because the scope was so big and she wasn’t able to secure the budget for it. “I’d been working on a number of film scripts, and they were just too out there. Screen Australia supported me up to a point, but they thought these scripts were too ambitious financially,” says Kent.

“So I realized I needed to look at an idea that was contained and more intimate, and this idea…The idea of facing your shadow side is my myth, something I think is really important in life. You see people who are really messed-up by not facing stuff, and that’s what all addiction is about. People become alcoholics or drug addicts because they can’t face something inside.”

Kent was able to get the last bit of funding for her movie with a Kickstarter campaign. She said, “Kickstarter was incredible in that they gave us that house. Without Kickstarter, we’d have a pretty flimsy-looking set. The construction of the house was meticulously planned. It had real floorboards and was very large. All of that had to be created. The money went to that construction and we would have been lost without it.”


While writing The Babadook, Kent explored what makes a mother turn into a monster, not the nurturing ideal of motherhood usually portrayed, and she realized that few movies dealt with this subject. “Apart from We Need To Talk About Kevin, I can’t easily think of other examples [that address the subject] and it’s the great unspoken thing. We’re all, as women, educated and conditioned to think that motherhood is an easy thing that just happens. But it’s not always the case,” says Kent.

“I wanted to show a real woman who was drowning in that environment. I thought that maybe I would be criticized by women, by mothers, because I’m not a mother. The opposite has happened; I’ve experienced a collective sigh of relief that women are seeing a mother up there that’s human. Sure, it’s an extreme situation, but what I realize is that a lot of women have felt those feelings that Amelia [protagonist of The Babadook] goes through at some point along the way.”

Kent’s approach to directing The Babadook was to storyboard everything like legendary horror director Alfred Hitchcock. “Every scene had a certain visual map. And I did storyboard—I did very bad stick drawings—but I always came in with a sense of how the world had to look,” says Kent. “It starts very centered, everything is framed—very centered and composed—and as the film goes on, people’s heads start to drift to other sides of the frames, and things start to become more discordant visually.”


A mysterious book, The Babadook, is the entryway for the monster in the movie, which harkens back to graphic stories children were told as warnings, such as in Grimm’s fairy tales. “I think some fairy tales are designed to keep kids in line and make them stay safe, and there are the other ones, the ones I’m attracted to, that point out the chaos of life to kids. Because it’s not perfect. It’s not always neatly tied up. I think that’s what horror can do as well. It can actually be a refreshing way to look at the world, when it’s not about perfection,” says Kent.

While directing the movie, Kent ran into snobbery from others when she said it was a horror film. “People would be very excited to hear that I was directing. Then when I described it as a horror film, I may as well have said I was directing a porno. They were like, Oh, that’s not a real film. It’s disgusting. And also, why would a woman want to direct that kind of stuff?” says Kent.

“People very easily forget films like The Shining and Let the Right One In, and going back further, Les Diaboliques and Eyes Without a Face. All these films that have a poetry to them, and something deeper going on.”



Since her success with The Babadook, Kent is fielding a lot of offers for directing. She says, “I’m reading a lot of scripts at the moment, and they’re all from the male perspective. Most are written by men. That’s where I think it’s difficult. It’s difficult to get the stories through that give a female perspective. That’s why I’m committed to writing more stories from my perspective. We just need more balance.”

The next project she has coming up is a film based on a U.S. true-crime story that happened in 1892 when two women fell in love—nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell and seventeen-year-old Freda Ward. Mitchell decided to dress and pass as a man in order to marry Ward, but their love letters were discovered and the two were forbidden from seeing each other.

Ward accepted this in a cavalier manner that crushed Mitchell, and so she slashed Ward’s throat with her father’s razor. During a trial in Memphis, Tennessee, Mitchell was declared insane and sent to an asylum. She died there a few years later under mysterious circumstances. The film is based on the book Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis and has been likened to Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures.


Jennifer Kent’s Top Ten List of Horror Films

  1. Black Sabbath (1963)
  2. Georges Méliès Shorts / La Maison Ensorcelée (1908)
  3. The Tenant (1976)
  4. Lost Highway (1997)
  5. The Amityville Horror (1979)
  6. Halloween (1978)
  7. Vampyr (1932)
  8. Black Swan (2010)
  9. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
  10. The Innocents (1961)







Pack Rat Octavia Butler Leaves Behind a Gem

Octavia Butler started on her path to writing when she was twelve years old. She was stretched out in front of the TV, watching a sci-fi movie called Devil Girl from Mars, a black-and-white film from 1954. “The beautiful Martian woman arrives on earth to announce that all the Martian men have died off, and there are a bunch of man-hungry women up there. And the earthmen don’t want to go. As I was watching this film, I had a series of revelations,” said Butler. “The first was that Geez, I can write a better story than that. And then I thought, Gee, anybody can write a better story than that. And my third thought was the clincher: Somebody got paid for writing that awful story. So I was off and writing, and a year later I was busy submitting terrible pieces of fiction to innocent magazines.”


Butler’s fiction has been characterized as horror, science fiction, and fantasy, but she didn’t like to think of herself as working in one particular genre. “I don’t like labels, they’re marketing tools, and I certainly don’t worry about them when I’m writing. They are also inhibiting factors; you wind up not getting read by certain people, or not getting sold to certain people because they think they know what you write,” said Butler.

Butler’s last published book Fledging about a vampire had been planned as a trilogy before Butler died unexpectedly of a stroke in 2006. In Fledging, Butler used a female vampire, finding them lacking in the literary world. “Most vampires I have discovered are men for some reason. I guess it’s because of Dracula; people are kind of feeding off that,” said Butler.

Her character Shori “has amnesia, she’s been badly injured, she’s been orphaned. And she has no idea what she is or who she is. It turns out she’s the first black vampire because of her people’s desire for a twenty-four-hour day and her female ancestor’s discovery that one of the secrets of the twenty-four-hour day is melanin.

“It helps to have some protection from the sun, so her people managed to genetically engineer her. These vampires are a different species. They are not vampires because somebody bit them—she is genetically engineered to be quite different from her own people,” said Butler.


When Butler was trying to make it as a professional author, she took boring, manual-labor jobs, so she could focus all of her energy on writing. She worked these menial jobs for more than ten years before she made enough money to support herself as a writer. “It was very nice to be just as grumpy as I felt, because I was getting up early in the morning and writing and then going to work, and the last few hours of the day I was pretty much on automatic,” said Butler.

“I remember working in a mailing house; I don’t even know if those places still exist.  They had both machines and people putting together pieces of mail for advertising. It was like an assembly line at a factory, only a little more complicated. You might be doing something with each piece of mail, not just putting them togeth­er. You did this over and over and over all day until your shoulders wanted to desert to another body. The only thing I could do to keep myself somewhere near conscious was to sing, very softly, to myself. I don’t have the most wonderful singing voice, and the supervisor kept walking by giving me funny looks. Finally she came up and asked, ‘What are you doing? Talking to your­self?’”

Finally, in the 1970s, Butler was able to stop working at these jobs and focus on her writing full-time. “After Patternmaster came out in 1976, I started working more sporadical­ly, at tempo­rary jobs. I didn’t get an awful lot of money for that novel; I’ve gotten more money for the best of my short stories—but also, things cost a lot less then. The last job I held was in a hospi­tal laundry. In August. Bad. And this was after I had written and sold three novels. When I got the money from the third, I was able to quit and go off to Mary­land to research Kindred.


Butler was a pack rat and still had books from her childhood when she died. “My big problem is my mother gave me this gene—there must be a gene for it, or several perhaps. It’s the pack rat gene, you know, where you just don’t throw things out. I haven’t thrown books out since I was a kid,” she said.

“Even my comic books—I have first editions of this and that, the first issue of the Fantastic Four. I used to collect them, not in the way that people collect things now. I didn’t put them in plastic bags and never touch them. I read them and they looked pretty bad, some of them. But they’re still worth something just because they are what they are.”

Because Butler never threw anything out, the Huntington Library inherited boxes and boxes of rough drafts, notebooks, and drafts that most writers would probably be embarrassed by. Instead, one of Butler’s notebook covers from 1988 has been inspiring joy in writers because she had a very clear plan of what she wanted to do with her life and wrote it down to remember.







Callaloo, “An Interview with Octavia E. Butler”



Tags: Octavia Butler, Kindred, Fledgling, Patternmaster, Devil Girl from Mars, pack rat

Sarah Lotz Turns Her Phobias into Horror

Sarah Lotz is one of the key members in the South African horror and sci-fi community, which has come to dominate the genre, much like Scandinavian crime writers have taken over murder mysteries. She’s a screenwriter and novelist working in Cape Town in a house with her family and rescue animals and has two solo horror novels, as well as a slew of collaborative work with cowriters—including her daughter, Savannah—which they release under various pen names.


As a child, Lotz was raised on horror and disaster movies, which left a dark imprint on her imagination. She says, “Growing up in the ’70s, I was very influenced by disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and Jaws. I think those kinds of movies and books help breed phobias, especially when you’re a kid and you’ve got so much imagination.”


In her youth, books were also not off-limits subject matter. “My dad had a huge and eclectic collection—everything from Philip K. Dick to Jackie Collins to Chandler to Tolstoy. I read the lot. He never censored my reading, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for encouraging me to read The Wasp Factory and The Shining when I was far too young.”


This influenced her first solo horror novel The Three about simultaneous airplane crashes in different parts of the world, where the only survivor in each accident is a child, who changes utterly from their former selves. Lotz says, “I’ve always wanted to write a novel about plane crashes and the media’s fascination with these tragedies. I’m flight phobic, which is probably why I’m obsessed with air travel.”


She followed The Three up with Day Four, about a cruise ship disaster where the action is happening simultaneously with the story from The Three, and that novel was written as she coped with post-traumatic stress disorder from a horrific event in her real life. “I’ve had a very strange life. While I was writing Day Four, I was in one of those violent home invasions in South Africa,” says Lotz. “We woke up and there were four guys standing around the bed with guns and knives in balaclavas. Coming out of that, I had a bit of PTSD. Writing this book, which is all about fear, was an absolutely intense experience.


“I haven’t really mentioned this before, but I think it’s important because that’s what was happening as I was writing Day Four, and to some extent, it’s connected. Even though it was an absolute nightmare, as a writer, as I was going through it, I was thinking, How am I going to use this? In every life-or-death experience I’ve ever had, I’ve always thought about how I’m going to use it in my writing. It’s kind of a coping mechanism.”


Lotz likes to write in her pajamas while under the influence of massive amounts of caffeine and nicotine. She says, “Most of my writing is done in a rickety attic space above my bedroom in my tiny tumbledown Cape Town cottage. It’s full of junk, half-finished paintings, and page proofs. The wall is scrawled with notes and reminders, including a detailed sketch of a cruise ship deck plan. There’s usually a cat and at least two dogs up there with me (one or more on my lap). I can write anywhere, though. I’m usually on a deadline, which is brilliant for eradicating any highfalutin notions about only being able to write under ideal conditions.”


In the novel-writing process, Lotz’s favorite part is right at the beginning, doing all of the outlining and research for a new project, but that doesn’t make the writing stale for her. “I love the planning and plotting stage of a new book. Starting a new work is simultaneously scary and exhilarating as I really get a kick out of discussing character motivations, plot ideas, settings, etc.,” she says. “After that, I enjoy the actual writing. My stories and novels never turn out as I initially think they will, so the process is always surprising and never dull.”


Lotz’s main influence as a writer was Stephen King, which she has been reading since she was a kid. “I really have been reading him my entire life, and I think for years it was quite interesting how he was really undervalued, partly because he said that thing about him being the Big Mac and fries of the literary world, and of course, he was completely wrong about that,” says Lotz. “In terms of storytelling and characterization, he’s number one as far as I’m concerned. I mean occasionally there’s the odd clunky sentence, but fair enough, so what?”


She still reads Stephen King and a lot of mainstream horror. Lotz says Peter Straub, Dan Simmons, China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, David Moody, and Sarah Pinborough have been on her reading list lately. “The last time I was really scared was after I’d finished Adam Nevill’s story ‘Florrie’ in Jonathan Oliver’s awesome House of Fear anthology—it gave me nightmares. And while not truly horrific, I find photographer and artist Charlie White’s work genuinely disturbing (check out Understanding Joshua or Monsters).


Sarah plans on following up her disaster novels The Three and Day Four with something that will tie them all together, making them a loose trilogy. “There will be an origin story, not a sequel, that will wrap everything up, just not for my next book, because I think I need a break from it,” says Lotz. “But I’ve got it planned. Even if the publishers aren’t willing to publish it, I’ll write it, so that the people who are interested in the mystery behind the story will get complete and utter answers. And I can tell you the third one won’t have a number in the title!”








Kaori Yuki Finds Her Voice in Horror Manga

Kaori Yuki is a pen name used by the horror manga writer and artist who says Kaori is part of her real name. Yuki began thinking about creating manga in elementary school because she liked to draw. She started publishing in the Japanese manga magazine Hana to Yume in 1987 and rarely appears in public, saying she likes to live like a hermit, though she has traveled to places like London and Germany to do historical research for her series.


Yuki seems to be working constantly; her Twitter feed is updated almost daily with drawings from her works in progress. She’s worked on many shorts and series, including Devil Inside, Angel Sanctuary, Earl Cain, Godchild, Boys Next Door, Blood Hound, Ludwig Revolution, Fairy Cube, Grand Guignol Orchestra, Demon from Afar, and Alice in Murderland.


Yuki can’t envision her life without drawing and writing manga. She doesn’t have to go search for motivation; it just exists inside her. She says, “It’s not even a question of motivation—it’s obvious: I am a mangaka, so I draw manga. It’s a bit of a chicken and the egg…I do not see what I could do other than mangaka. It’s not even imaginable for me…I don’t have anything if you take away manga.”


Most of Yuki’s influences come from the Western canon. She’s drawn to Grimm’s fairy tales, stories from the Bible, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass rather than Japanese stories. Yuki explains that for her, “it’s simply because that is what is foreign and is not understood intrinsically.” The Western influences for Japanese are “more exotic and mysterious,” she says. “That’s the allure of Western culture for me but also for many Japanese. What they say in fairy tales or the history of France and elsewhere, it seems really mysterious to us.”


As a woman, Yuki found it hard at first to make it in the manga world until she found what she truly liked working on and then a readership followed. “It’s true that when I started, I did not manage to sell my manga well. One of my colleagues—an older mangaka—made ​​the following reflection: ‘Frankly, with this type of stories and designs, you’ll never sell.’” This shocked Yuki at the time, so she tried her hand at more traditional stories. “I tried to get into romantic comedy, and I proposed several stories in magazines, but it did not work,” she says.


She had her breakthrough when a magazine asked her to do a series. “The first chapter had not really been appreciated, the second a little more, and from the third, we finally got better reader response,” she says. “It turns out that this miniseries was rather dark in the genre, scary, and my editor at the time said, ‘It’s that kind that you should do.’”


Much of Yuki’s work is historical, and she likes to get the details right, but there are added complications when she is trying to accurately represent a time period visually. “I try to find books myself, and I also ask my publisher to collect data on the time, on who had a particular culture,” she says. “What is complicated is when there is not a lot of accurate data on the time visually. Even if there are drawings, all this was arranged to the taste of the time and does not necessarily reflect reality, so I had to put my own ideas in finally.”


When Yuki sits down to draw and write, she has certain materials she likes to use, and she’s not a big fan of color. She likes Pilot’s art ink because it “dries fast.” For color, she prefers Canson paper with color ink, and uses pen and mechanical pencils for the main lines. Yuki says, “For the drawings, I try to draw it from different angles, but it doesn’t work all the time. I also pay attention to design and layout, but it looks really bad when it’s done. To tell you the truth, there aren’t much colors that I like. I really suck at this.”


Yuki’s titles feature a lot of strong women characters, who are often seductive and evil. Yuki says she’s drawn to many different types of women. “I love female characters who are strong, and perhaps even more than the male characters. Their strength lies in the fact that nothing is holding them. For me, there are really many kinds of female characters that seem attractive. There may be a sexy woman, charming and with a big chest; the little girl who needs to be protected but has a big mouth; the girl full of energy that looks like a tomboy…”


Yuki tackles a lot of dark themes in her work, such as incest, which she believes is easier to get away with in a manga, where the characters are obviously not real. She thinks, “It’s okay if it’s a film or a manga. They should wear a condom—I’m joking.” But because the subject isn’t approached a lot, Yuki says, “It doesn’t happen, so I wanted to write it.”


Sometimes her work has become so twisted and controversial that magazines have censored it or asked her to change the story. Yuki says, “The themes of murder or incest, they are not problems for magazines, as they are among the favorite themes of the readers of shoujo manga.” It’s when she’s visually portraying murder and sex where she’s run into trouble by pushing it too far. “If I start to draw a particularly horrible murder scene, sometimes they ask me to change a little,” she says. “This can especially be a problem: how to show things. The sexy scenes, I’ve always wondered what is the limit in shoujo manga. I do not draw too much to avoid the problems, but it really is a question I ask myself: How far can we go in the description of a sex scene?”


To get ideas, Yuki likes to immerse herself in music and the world around her. She says, “I put on my Walkman and go for a walk. Depending on the song, sometimes I am crying as I walk so I don’t notice the people or a cat in front of me. I get surprised when I almost crash into them. I’ll probably get run over by a car one day.”


The music she listens to comes from her high school days and includes Culture Club, Animotion, Talking Heads, Tears for Fears, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Billy Joel, Kate Bush, John Howard, Peter Gabriel, the Cure, David Bowie, and the Pet Shop Boys. “The musicians that made me during high school,” she says.


She’s also influenced by many Western movies, as well. When asked to list them, she mentions a lot of teen classics, as well as horror films. “The Legend of Billy Jean, Picnic at the Hanging Rock, Sid and Nancy, The Dead Zone, Paperhouse, Pretty in Pink, The Hidden, Heathers, Phenomenon, Salome, Gothic, Torch Song Trilogy, Fright Night, Lost Boys, Aliens…There’s more, but I’ll stop here.”