Thursday, July 26, 2018

There's Something Blood-Soaked in the Madhouse: An Author Interview with Christa Carmen

Good Morning, Friends and Fiends!

Today in the Madhouse, I have a very special treat for you. A couple months ago, Christa Carmen emailed Crystal Lake Publishing to sign up for their mentoring program, and we ended up working together for a month. In that time, I got to know a fantastic writer with a beautiful mind and read lots of creepishly wonderful stories, two of which are in the collection you'll read about below. 

Soon after that, we met at StokerCon in Providence, RI where we got to chat over coffee and get to know each other a little better, and now, here today, I'm not only happy to introduce to you a gorgeous talent, but a dear friend as well. Christa's writing is haunting and soaked in blood and bleach, a real tribute to horror and all things that go bump in the night. Below, is an interview I did with her about her upcoming collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, which is due out this August from Unnerving. 

Take a peek at the summary below, and then jump into the conversation with us. I hope you'll enjoy it, and even pre-order the book if you feel so inclined. After all, Halloween is less than 100 days away, and I hear Michael's has its Halloween decorations out already, so that means it's time (even though it's always time) for the screaming to begin.

With pig skin and chainsaws,
Stephanie M. Wytovich

Book Summary:

A young woman's fears regarding the gruesome photos appearing on her cell phone prove justified in a ghastly and unexpected way. A chainsaw-wielding Evil Dead fan defends herself against a trio of undead intruders. A bride-to-be comes to wish that the door between the physical and spiritual worlds had stayed shut on All Hallows' Eve. A lone passenger on a midnight train finds that the engineer has rerouted them toward a past she'd prefer to forget. A mother abandons a life she no longer recognizes as her own to walk up a mysterious staircase in the woods.

In her debut collection, Christa Carmen combines horror, charm, humor, and social critique to shape thirteen haunting, harrowing narratives of women struggling with both otherworldly and real-world problems. From grief, substance abuse, and mental health disorders, to a post-apocalyptic exodus, a seemingly sinister babysitter with unusual motivations, and a group of pesky ex-boyfriends who won’t stay dead, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked is a compelling exploration of horrors both supernatural and psychological, and an undeniable affirmation of Carmen’s flair for short fiction.


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Tell us about your book. What gave you the idea to create this collection, and in your opinion, what does it represent at its most literal and figurative heights?

The stories in Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked were published in places like Fireside Fiction, DarkFuse Magazine (which unfortunately exists no more), Third Flatiron’s Strange Beasties anthology, Unnerving Magazine, Tales to Terrify, and Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 2 (which also featured your gorgeously macabre story, “On This Side of Bloodletting”), to name a few. The publisher asked upfront that a certain percentage of the stories in collection submissions be reprints, so once I’d filled that quota, I added two stories that had been published by markets no longer in circulation, changed one story that had appeared on a podcast to the novella version I’d been hoping for a chance to unveil, and chose three brand new stories to tie everything together.

Ultimately, I am very pleased with the balance that was achieved. I think readers can appreciate a collection that includes reprints, especially from magazines and anthologies they may have read previously, and hopefully enjoyed, as well as a handful of new tales that allows them to experience an author’s latest work.

As for what the collection represents at its most literal and figurative heights, I think the most literal way to read Something Borrowed is as a series of straightforward horror stories. For the no-nonsense horror lover, we have ghosts, apocalypse-inciting rains, witches, depraved serial killers, more ghosts, evil shadow creatures, zombies, haunted houses, long-preserved corpses, newly-opened mausoleums, sinister trains, and out-of-place staircases.

But those tried-and-true tropes are thinly veiled stand-ins for themes that run deeper. Without giving too much away, the babysitter in “Souls, Dark and Deep” might possess powers in the same vein as those of a witch, but she uses her powers not for evil, but to level the playing field against evil and injustice. The depraved serial killers in “Red Room” function less to scare à la Michael Myers, and more to warn of the perils men face when they disbelieve women. The ghost of Aunt Louise in the eponymous flash fiction piece is a hardcore, Gloria Steinem-quoting, take-no-nonsense-and-even-less-prisoners bad-bitch feminist. And the shadow wolf in “Flowers from Amaryllis” represents many, many things: the fear of eventually losing a companion animal, the fear of losing a parent, the fear of being alone, the fear of going mad, the fear of not being able to be true to who you are.
 
I would love to show you what’s behind the curtain obscuring the other stories in the collection, but then I’d have to lock you in a metal crate and sew hooves in place of your hands and feet so you can’t escape and, err, well, read Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked and my threats will make a lot more sense.

There’s a lot of nods to hauntings and urban legends here (ghosts, brides, Halloween lore, etc.), so I’m curious what your favorite urban legend is, and if you’ve based any of these tales off stories you heard growing up?

It’s funny, because one of the short story collections I’ve enjoyed the most in recent years is Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, and Machado has talked about how what is probably the most popular story—“The Husband Stitch”— was heavily influenced by legends like the ones from Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. My favorites are actually the ones referred to in “The Husband Stitch”: “The Green Satin Ribbon,” “The Girl Who Stood on a Grave,” “The White Satin Evening Gown,” and “The Wolf Girl.”

A definite goal of mine in putting together Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked was to stitch together a wide variety of horror stories inspired by lots of different legends and tropes. If you were able to detect that pattern, if you felt that there was indeed connective tissue binding these stories together, like my very own ink-and-paper Frankenstein, then I’ve succeeded. I’d say I could taper my awe of Machado just a bit, but she’s truly the High Priestess of the current Coven of Literary Witches, so there’s really no comparison.

I actually have such an affinity for ghost stories, Halloween lore, and urban legends that I took a course through the Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic on Legends, taught by Sara Cleto and Brittany Worman. Each week of a ten-week period was spent on a different subsection of legends, such as cryptozoology, vampires, sea legends, and internet legends, and each lesson plan was more intriguing than the one preceding it.

I thought that the discussion on internet legends, of which Slender Man is one of the more famous, would be the least interesting, but it was this topic that led me to the inspiration for my story, “Wolves at the Door and Bears in the Forest,” via the ‘Stairs in the Woods’ legend. Please, google ‘Stairs in the Woods Reddit,’ and enjoy your fall down that particularly eerie rabbit hole... I’ll wait.

Creeped out? Thought so. At the time, I’d already been tossing around the idea of writing a story inspired by some of the women on the methadone clinic at which I was a clinician from 2010 to 2013, and when I thought more about the image of a staircase in the forest, and the type of person who might find the idea of walking up that mysterious staircase to an unknown destination appealing, the story unfurled from there.  

“Thirsty Creatures” was probably my favorite story in the bunch because of the gorgeous, macabre imagery you used throughout the story. Even the start of the piece alone is breathtakingly beautiful: “The trees were fire and the sky was panicked birds and the horse was made of bone.”  Are you inspired by poetry at all? Have you ever written poetry before? If so, can you talk a little bit about how this influences you?

I don’t write much poetry but I’ve jotted down poems here and there, and I find that when I sit down to write a story, the first draft usually presents itself as either coming from a more straightforward place, where the goal of getting down the narrative is key, as opposed to being driven by the language, and the imagery that language is evoking.

“Thirsty Creatures” was definitely one of those language-driven pieces, and I can tell you exactly why that was the case. A little over a year ago, there was a post going around on Facebook that featured the work of Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński, who had specialized in ‘dystopian surrealism’ during his lifetime. A writer friend of mine tagged me in the post, and challenged me to pick my favorite image and write a story about it. There were dozens of images that appealed to me, but I chose the one that spoke to me most directly, and “Thirsty Creatures” was the result. 

I do want to experiment more with poetry, and come September, will be taking an online course that my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, offers through the Kelly Writers House, in Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (“ModPo”), with an emphasis on experimental verse, from Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman to the present. I’m excited to build a stronger foundation in poetry, and hope it will inform both additional dabbling (and beyond), and my future fiction endeavors.

The story “The Girl Who Loved Bruce Campbell” was a riot, and as a girl who loves Bruce Campbell, I enjoyed the homage to horror’s favorite chainsaw wielding protagonist. However, I have to ask (and I promise not to judge!): do you prefer the original Evil Dead or the remake?

Ahhh, ha, the dreaded question. While I of course love Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness, the Evil Dead remake is one of my favorite horror films of all time. I love that film because it introduces fans to a completely badass and unequivocally awesome protagonist in Jane Levy’s Mia. When we arrive at the notorious cabin in the woods, we discover that Mia was brought to this remote location by her brother and friends in order to overcome her addiction to heroin. That a Bruce Campbell-worthy Evil Dead heroine travels to the cabin in the woods to detox, and that everything she endures after her arrival is borne while simultaneously going through cold turkey withdrawal, propels this film into territory that far surpasses simple supernatural horror films heavy on the gore.

The film is like a perfectly constructed and utterly decadent chocolate layer cake. The death scenes are memorable, the horror is palpable, and yet, there is an entire sub-plot in which a very real and well-constructed character is struggling to overcome a very real and highly formidable affliction. At a panel at Readercon 29 on Mental Illness in Horror, the amazing Nadia Bulkin brought up the Evil Dead remake, and discussed the commendable choice on the part of writer/director Fede Álvarez to have Mia’s struggles with substance abuse and mental health disorders provide the foundation for her strength in fighting off the evil in the woods, the evil that possesses first her, and then her friends.

I’ve always found the final scene to strike such an intensely visceral emotional chord; as the blood-rain pours down, Mia’s evil doppelgänger prophesizes, “You’re gonna die here, you pathetic junkie.” To which Mia responds, like an addict who has hit rock bottom with a resounding thud and is on the verge of change, “I’ve had enough of this shit.”

Another favorite for me was “Lady of the Flies.” Without giving anything away, the mask rocked my horror-driven world, and I appreciated the reference to Saw and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What influenced you to write this one specifically, and did the above films play a part in that process at all?

I love horror, I love Halloween, and so it goes without saying that I love October. This past October, my dear friend, Jessica Wick, and I decided to initiate ‘October planning,’ in which we would map out the month of October to include as many fall-themed and haunted excursions as we could pack into the thirty-one days. Oh, and we carried out ‘October planning’ in the cemetery, on a gorgeous fall day, sharing the space with a noisy flock of crows who kept taking off into the sky and subsequently alighting onto a nearby collection of tombstones. Needless to say, ‘October planning’ will be a yearly event.

One of the haunted activities we scheduled was a trip to Scary Acres in Hope, Rhode Island. Now, there wasn’t anything particularly notable about this attraction, except perhaps for the fact that it incorporates both a haunted wagon ride and a walk through a spooky corn maze, but after emerging from the maze, I saw this mesmerizing figure looming out of the grass that skirted the cornfield. It was meant to scare and entertain those maze-goers still waiting for their friends to emerge from the stalks, and as I did just that, I witnessed a few of the uncostumed employees regarding this masked specter on stilts, giggling and gossiping amongst themselves. It occurred to me to wonder about the dynamics of working at a haunted house, the logistics of being thrust together with other employees for thirty-one days with the intent of terrifying as many people as possible just to get a paycheck.

I’ve done the seasonal work thing before—I waitressed at a hotel on the beach for countless summers throughout high school and college—so I know there’s a special bond that can develop among individuals thrown together for a predetermined duration of time, and also, that not everyone is always going to get along. Priscila Teasdale sprung from the resulting ‘what if?’ question: ‘what if a haunted house worker’s life had been a series of unfortunate events, and she is dealt one last, devastating blow? And what if that individual leaned a bit too heavily on her haunted house persona in order to cope with that blow? Why, she’d become the Lady of the Flies, of course.

I will say this… Priscila took on a life of her own over the course of writing this story. The original concept saw her very much as a Leatherface-esque character: yes, she’d likely had a rough go of it, but her actions were meant to terrify and even alienate readers. When Priscila came onto the scene, I wanted it to be the equivalent of a chainsaw revving too close for comfort. Yet she became something so much more than that, a real flesh-and-blood person whom I felt had no other options but to reclaim her sense of self by lashing out at those who strove to strip this from her.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t take an absolutely devilish delight in reading the last scene of “Lady of the Flies” aloud (you can see me doing just that at a group reading at Readercon 29, entitled The New American Bizarrerie, here: https://youtu.be/36ZuqIB-hdo). Priscila may have had her reasons for doing what she did, but in the end, I think that chainsaw’s revving up, regardless...

How did you come to writing and who are some of your influences?

You know, I’ve answered one variation or another of this question for several other authors and reviewers, and I tell the same old story of always knowing I was a writer, of reading Stephen King’s On Writing, and being inspired to write more seriously, but I think the story is different than that. I think the story is that I survive by writing, and I think I have always survived by writing. I have a basket of notebooks on the top shelf of a bookcase in my home office, and I took it down the other day to flip through some of the journals I kept while in treatment for opiate addiction. I’m convinced I would not have made it through that experience had I not kept those journals. They are almost too heavy—metaphorically speaking—to sift through, the anguish I was experiencing screaming out from every line. Right after I overdosed the first time, I wrote about what had happened, my handwriting the mad, slanted scrawl of some hunted, tortured soul I barely recognize now.

The writing I do today may not be as autobiographical as those journals of years past, but my reasons for writing are the same: to make sense of the world, of my day-to-day environment, and my place within it. I’m so grateful that it works for me, especially when I see someone like Demi Lovato, someone whom I thought was also succeeding in exorcising her demons through her art, slip and fall. I so hope she’s able to reclaim that balance again, as I hope all artists, and every other brand of person in recovery, are able to succeed.

The list of authors who first influenced my writing includes Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Dean Koontz, Frank M. Robinson, Agatha Christie, Mary Shelley, Margaret Mitchell, Sarah Waters, Sidney Sheldon, R.L. Stine, Jennifer McMahon, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Harper Lee, J.K. Rowling, Cormac McCarthy, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen Dobyns, Michael McDowell, Dan Simmons, and Jack Ketchum.

The list of authors who continue to influence me on a day-to-day basis is long, imperfect, and ever-growing, and includes Carmen Maria Machado, Gwendolyn Kiste, Stephanie M. Wytovich, Jessica McHugh, Nadia Bulkin, Ania Ahlborn, Jac Jemc, Alma Katsu, Christina Sng, Elizabeth Hand, Joyce Carol Oates, Claire C. Holland, Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi, Renee Miller, Theresa Braun, Seanan McGuire, Kelly Link, Damien Angelica Walters, Lauren Groff, Roxane Gay, Annie Hartnett, Caroline Kepnes, Ruth Ware, Sarah Pinborough, Gillian Flynn, B.A. Paris, Joe Hill, John Palisano, John Langan, Nicholas Kauffman, Grady Hendrix, Paul Tremblay, Dean Kuhta, and Calvin Demmer.

Can you give us an insight into your writing process? Any habits when you sit down to write?

I try to write Monday through Friday from 5 am to 7 am, and then at whatever other odd hours I can scrape together beyond that. On the weekends, if I have nothing else going on, it’s not unusual for me to write from nine to five, with breaks for lunch and to walk the dog or go for a run.

As for writing habits, I only write with one of two different brands and types of pens—a black or blue Bic Cristal 1.6 mm or a medium point Paper Mate Flair of pretty much any color—and though they each provide a completely different writing experience, I’m equally indiscriminate and happy with either. I do third draft edits on the computer, but all first drafts and second draft rewrites have to be done by hand, or the words don’t flow adequately. I can pretty much write anywhere, anytime, although the ideal time and place would be early morning in my home office, or curled up somewhere comfortable in my house.

I find horror film soundtracks to be good background music while writing, if I’m in the right mood for it. And I really do have to be in the right mood, since I have a strange relationship with background noise. If I’m in a crowded coffee shop, I have no problem tuning everything else out but the voices in my head that are instructing my writing. However, if I have something streaming directly into my ears via headphones or even computer speakers, I sometimes find myself getting too distracted. I find that when I’m home writing in my office or on my sun porch, the sound of my fish tank filter humming or the birds outside chirping is background noise enough.

What takeaway do you hope your readers leave your book with?

The biggest takeaway I hope readers leave Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked with would be that nothing in your past, however dark—not substance abuse or mental health issues, not your secrets or your mistakes, not your failures or your fears —make you monstrous.

Locking someone in a metal crate and sewing hooves in place of their hands and feet so they can’t escape miiiiiiiiiight make you monstrous , but a dark and disordered past...? Definitely not...

What books are sitting in your TBR pile?

My Goodreads ‘To-Read’ list is currently hovering at the 2,635 mark, but in the actual pile of books stacked on my nightstand at present are Black Feathers: Dark Avian Tales, edited by Ellen Datlow. My spirit animal is a crow—always inquisitive, sometimes mischievous, and occasionally hostile—and I love horror stories like Gwendolyn Kiste’s “Something Borrowed, Something Blue,” from her Bram Stoker nominated collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe (if any of your readers haven’t experienced this story, originally published in Three-Lobed Burning Eye, about a woman who gives birth to live birds that come tearing through her stomach with no regard for the barriers of flesh, the conventions of society, or the limitations of pain, I highly recommend it), so I’m really looking forward to this one.

Also edited by Ellen Datlow, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, and finally, an anthology not edited by Ellen Datlow, Where Nightmares Come From: The Art of Storytelling in the Horror Genre, edited by Joe Mynhardt & Eugene Johnson. Oh, and also, a hauntingly gorgeous coffee table book that was a birthday gift from a friend who always gets me the BEST birthday gifts: 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die. OHH, and in another, separate pile, perched perilously atop my alarm clock teapot, Maplecroft and Chapelwood (The Borden Dispatches, #1 & 2), which I need to read before the end of October, since my in-laws gifted me a night at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast in Fall River (also for my birthday... I guess I’m spoiled with friends and family getting me a lot of the BEST birthday gifts!) to be redeemed before my husband’s and my second wedding anniversary on Halloween!

I picked up a copy of Parasite Life, by Victoria Dalpe at NECON 38, and I’m hoping to get through what she described as her ‘YA rife on Carmilla’ before I attend the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Film Festival August 17th-19th to see her do a reading, hopefully from Parasite Life, or else from Tragedy Queens:Stories Inspired by Lana Del Rey & Sylvia Plath, which in addition to Victoria’s contribution, “The Wife,” includes your fabulous story, “Because of Their Different Deaths.”

I might as well list my whole NECON swag pile, since I met all of the authors there, and am excited to get into their books, all of which were published by Chizine (I’ll admit, I got a little carried away at the Chizine table!): Only the Devil is Here, by Stephen Michell, The Hair Wreath and Other Stories, by Halli Villegas, Hair Side, Flesh Side, by NECON Guest of Honor Helen Marshall, and It’s Not the End and Other Lies, by Matt Moore

What is next in store for your readers?

I attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in January, where I workshopped a horror/crime thriller called Coming Down Fast, about a female Charles Manson type and her ‘followers,’ the crime they commit, and the first female police chief in Westerly, Rhode Island’s three-hundred fifty year history who pursues them, and I’ve been saying I’m close to finishing the novel for far too long. As soon as the official release date of Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked comes to pass, Coming Down Fast is my one and only priority.

Last August, I met author and artist Dean Kuhta in Providence at NecronomiCon, and I just finished a short story called “The Rest Will Be in Pieces” for Issue #3 of Outpost 28, a Lovecraft-inspired dark fiction magazine to which Dean has invited me to be a regulator contributor. 50% of all proceeds of Outpost 28 go to helping the homeless in Richmond, VA, which is a very nice thing to be a part of. I have additional work forthcoming from the sci-fi ezine, Space Squid, as well as from Lycan Valley Press Publications' all-female horror anthology, Dark Voices.

I have one other short story that’s close to being in shape for submission, “Echoes of a Former You” (oooh, and another story of which I’ve got the rough draft written, but no! NO! My novel is my one and only priority, and ooh, look, the writing equivalent of a squirrel, and OOH, look, an actual squirrel!), and I’m also going to be participating in a second collaboration with author David Emery, whom I met while judging a short story contest through The Write Practice and Short Fiction Break literary magazine.

What advice do you have for writers working in horror?

My best advice would have to be not to lose focus on the actual, daily activity of pumping out new work. Lately, I’ve been satisfied as long as I’ve put effort into some type of my writing, whether that’s editing a work-in-progress short story, jotting down a new novel idea, or tightening up a guest post for a reviewer’s website, but since I want to get Coming Down Fast to a place where I can send it out to a few publishers that have expressed interest, I’m getting back to hitting a certain page minimum or word count each day (four pages of handwritten work or 2,000 words of rewrites/edits).

All in all, I try to stay focused, and not to worry about writing better than anyone but the writer I was when working on my last story, or my last novel chapter. This usually isn’t all that difficult, since I love writing, and because putting my all into being a storyteller speaks to my very soul. And with regards to speaking to my soul, thank you, Stephanie, so very much, for putting together these lovely, engaging, insightful interview questions. You have been a role model of mine for quite some time, so to have the opportunity to be interviewed by you is an honor.

Author Bio:

Christa Carmen’s work has been featured in myriad anthologies, ezines, and podcasts, including Unnerving Magazine, Fireside Fiction, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 2,  Outpost 28 Issues 2 & 3, Tales to Terrify, Lycan Valley Press Publications' Dark Voices, Third Flatiron’s Strange Beasties, and Alban Lake's Only the Lonely. Her debut collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, is available August 2018 from Unnerving.

Christa lives in Westerly, Rhode Island with her husband and their bluetick beagle, Maya. She has a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in English and psychology, and a master's degree from Boston College in counseling psychology. She is currently pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing & Literature from Harvard Extension School. On Halloween 2016, Christa was married at the historic and haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado (yes, the inspiration for Stephen King's The Shining!). When she's not writing, she is volunteering with one of several organizations that aim to maximize public awareness and seek solutions to the ever-growing opioid crisis in southern Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut.

Author Website: www.christacarmen.com

Praise for Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked:

"This beautifully macabre collection of urban legends and ghastly encounters is a cold whisper, a dripping axe, a shattered camera lens. Walk carefully into Carmen's night. But if you hear flies, run." -- Stephanie M. Wytovich, Bram Stoker award-winning author of Brothel
 
"Christa Carmen is undoubtedly one of horror's most exciting and distinctive new voices, and her debut collection absolutely proves why. From hardcore to heart-wrenching, these tales run the gamut, with each one of them taking hold of you and not letting go. Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked is one incredibly wild ride. Hold on tight." -- Gwendolyn Kiste, author of AndHer Smile Will Untether the Universe and Pretty Marys All in a Row  

Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked is like a wild and thrilling roller coaster. At the end, you won’t want to get off the ride but keep on going, over and over." -- Christina Sng, Bram Stoker award-winning author of ACollection of Nightmares

Christa Carmen isn't interested in silence, and her collection Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked isn't looking to lead you calmly down the aisle. Your path is littered with temptations that test the strength of your mind, heart, and stomach, and over thirteen tales of death and dependency, Christa Carmen has you questioning whether love is real or just another addiction. -- Jessica McHugh, author of The Green Kangaroos and TheMaiden Voyage and Other Departures 




Books for Sale: 

Outpost 28 Issues 2 & 3: http://www.deankuhta.com/outpost28.php