Good Morning, Everyone:
Today in the Madhouse, I'm featuring horror poet, Janice Leach, who I've had the absolute pleasure of working with through Raw Dog Screaming Press. Janice and I met about four or so years ago during a writing retreat at a cabin in Hocking Hills, Ohio, and we talked about poetry and marvelous witchy things, and then her husband, James, handed me some homemade mead, and Janice let me sample some of her amazing baking. Needless to say, I love these two for their warmth, laughter, and kindness, but the pies and mead were a nice addition to our friendship, too.
What I love about Janice's work specifically is that it is delightfully beautiful and macabre at the same time, not to mention grounded in real-life horrors that detail family, friendships, and other significant relationships. She doesn't sugarcoat her work, or her voice, and beyond that, she finds the allure of the grotesque in everyday life, which is something that as a fellow poet and reader, I very much enjoy.
For today's meditation before I turn things over to Janice, I want you to think about which YA authors you find yourself drawn to, and then I want you to think about what books changed your life growing up. For me, I didn't read a lot of horror per say as a kid, but I was absolutely enthralled with Mary Pope Osborne's Magic Tree House series because it let me travel throughout history and learn the mythologies and stories of famous people and other cultures. As I got older, I fell in love with Ellen Hopkins and it was her books that made me want to grow up to be a narrative poet. Now, yes, yes, I know that these women aren't horror writers, but they helped me grow into the writer that I am today, so for that, I am eternally grateful.
How Lois Duncan Taught Me About Horror
by Janice Leach
As it was for other nerdy girls growing up in the pre-internet 1970’s, the library was my search engine, the source of knowledge, and my fortress of solitude. The quiet space and organized shelves drew my attention as much as the seemingly unlimited resources. Here I could ask questions without appearing too curious, too weird or, frankly, evil, and find answers in texts themselves. I systematically read everything in the not-large non-fiction occult section, unconcerned about my checkout record because of my need to get information, and I likewise indulged in stories that took place in realities where witchcraft, astral projection, mind control, and secret murderous conspiracies were daily happenings.
Thank you, Lois Duncan, for writing those books.
With a firm foothold in the emergent field of Youth Adult Literature, Lois Duncan’s books shaped my understanding and expectations of horror. Her books explored speculative topics like witchcraft, possession and channeling, astral projection, and mind control as well as horror tropes of kidnapping, murder, and death. Her narratives also dealt with life issues like love gone bad, violations of trust, and danger to or destruction of families. Mapped onto fictional worlds, these “relationship horrors” echoed the conditions of my suburban adolescent life: the specter of crushes and dating; rumors, gossip, and betrayal by friends; estrangements, separations and divorces in families that seemed to come out nowhere and happened at an alarming rate.
Duncan’s stories felt like real life. I identified with the heroines, and the characters who populated her worlds echoed my friends or neighbors. Although most of my teachers were kind, decent people, a few were awful and difficult. I could imagine hating a teacher so much that I would help classmates kidnap him to scare him, and we might finish him off accidentally like the kids in in Killing Mr Griffin. I valued my family, and still when teenage me learned some of those truths and secrets kept from younger children, a few relatives turned out to be jerks. Maybe that crazy cousin was actually a witch trying to steal our family like in Summer of Fear. The adult authorities set limits and dictated instructions, making me feel used and manipulated-- much like the girls in Down a Dark Hall. The journeys of Duncan’s characters paralleled my own questioning of authorities, trust, and truth.
It’s no wonder then, given the foundations laid by Lois Duncan-type fiction, that the horror books and movies that I find most effective aren’t those featuring random invasion killers or monsters, but the narratives where loved ones or close friends turn out to be the unexpected monsters. In typical horror fashion, the recovering alcoholic heroine in A Horrible Way to Die fights for her life when it’s threatened; her other significant struggle is dealing with her inebriated past and her consequent blindness to her boyfriend being a serial killer. Themes of trust, friendship, love, and betrayal in films like the Scream series, High Tension, and I Know What You Did Last Summer (based on Duncan’s book) make my heart pound with worries as well as with fear.
Like many adult readers, I am a shameless fan of YA horror and YA speculative fiction too. I love the monsters and menaces, and I still read for the themes that first attracted me in junior high. The supernatural stories overlaid with the dominant emotional struggles of youth-- guilt, jealousy, suspicion-- provide double the satisfaction. Stories dealing with relationship horrors as well as the more traditional horrors remain my favorites. Books like The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Reapers are the Angels, Allison Hewitt is Trapped, The Graveyard Book, Amulet series, and the Spiderwick Chronicles give me concern for the emotional health of the characters as well as their ability to stay alive and thrive under the challenges they are dealt. In YA horror, I find stories with both monsters and families, with the weird and the familiar, where characters come of age and fight for their lives at the same time.
Janice Leach co-authored a poetry collection with James Frederick Leach titled Til Death: Marriage Poems (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2017), which explores the love story and the "relationship horror" of a long partnership. She also bakes pies with local ingredients; volunteers at a long term garden project in youth detention; loves and defends those around her; and writes about it all in poems, grants, and blogs. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, she received a Hopwood Award for poetry. She tends a rollicking kitchen garden filled with heirloom vegetables and fruit trees.