Good morning, Deathlings!
A few weeks ago, Mercedes and I sat down and talked about the new Ted Bundy movie that premiered this year: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (you can read it here!), so today, in the spirit of continuing the discussion, I'm sitting down with Sara Tantlinger to chat about her Bram Stoker award-winning poetry collection, The Devil's Dreamland.
Sara is the poetry editor for the Oddville Press, a graduate of Seton Hill’s MFA program, a member of the SFPA, and an active member of the HWA. Her poetry, flash fiction, and short stories can be found in several magazines and anthologies, including the HWA Poetry Showcase Vol. II and V, the Horror Zine, Unnerving, Abyss & Apex, the 2018 Rhysling Anthology, 100 Word Horrors, and the Sunlight Press. Her debut novella, To Be Devoured, will be out with Unnerving on July 29th and currently Sara is editing Not All Monsters, an anthology that will be comprised entirely of women who write speculative fiction. The anthology is set for a 2020 release with StrangeHouse Books.
So sit back, grab your chloroform, and relax.
It's time to enter the Murder Castle.
With skeletons and axe wounds,
Stephanie M. Wytovich
SMW: Hi Sara! First off, brava on the success of this collection and a big congratulations for taking home the Stoker this year. I really enjoyed the depth you brought to the H.H. Holmes story, but for those who aren't familiar with him or your work, can you tell us a little about your collection? What initially gave you the idea to work in this world, and in your opinion, what does the book represent at its most literal and figurative heights?
ST: H.H. Holmes was a figure I’d been curious about for a while. I watched a documentary about him a few years ago, went to a Holmes themed haunted house night in Pittsburgh, and then continued to read more about his past. The idea to compose a narrative arc of his misdeeds through poetry slowly formed through my research, so from there it was all about organizing my research and telling a horror story.
Working with historical horror was really interesting and engaging for me as a writer, but in terms of a more figurative representation, Holmes himself stands as a reminder about how even the most charming person can hide a vicious nature beneath the surface. His omnipresent darkness is with us still today because as the last poem in the book shows us, evil is something we can never escape. We might try to bury our demons, but they have a way of returning to our lives in one way or another. And also, perhaps, we all have a bit of that darkness lurking somewhere inside ourselves.
SMW: Historical fiction is always one of my favorite genres to read, and last year I dove into Alma Katsu's The Hunger, which was absolutely...delicious. What was your favorite part of the collection to create and explore, and then to play devil’s advocate (ha), what was the hardest for you?
ST: My favorite part, as morbid as it sounds, was reading the memoir and confession Holmes wrote while in prison. Since these events took place in the late 1800s, I wasn’t sure how much information I’d be able to obtain. However, Holmes’ writings are accessible through books and in the Library of Congress, so that was like a twisted scavenger hunt that I ended up really enjoying. Reading something written by the hand of someone like H.H. Holmes is a strange, intriguing rarity, even though his memoir and confession are deeply misleading and full of his own lies.
The hardest part was mostly the self-doubt when asking myself, “can I really get inside this guy’s head?” Since you mention this aspect in another question, I will save my answer so I don’t repeat myself too much!
SMW: Oh, I can't even imagine. It's already terrifying reading true crime, but to have to put yourself in that mindset sounds maddening for sure. So now I'm doubly curious: during your research, what was the most startling, surprising, and/or horrific piece of information you found, and how did you choose to work with that material and make it work to your advantage as a horror writer?
ST: Since so much of what Holmes may have done is speculation, I think the most horrific parts happened in my imagination as I tried to piece together the information the research did contain. Probably the most startling thing, to me at least, was how it’s believed Holmes started to articulate (strip the flesh) from some of the bodies he had “obtained,” and then sold the skeletons to universities for their science classes. Often there was a middleman who came in to finish the articulation since Holmes would not have had all the proper equipment; so essentially, the articulator would take Holmes’ money, not question where the body had come from, and then finish the process and help Holmes sell the skeleton to schools. It’s a little startling to think of students learning anatomy from the skeleton of a murdered victim.
I had a gigantic file of information and research I had jotted down, so choosing which pieces to work with was challenging at times. I tried to take the most significant events that made sense in the narrative arc of his life, and also the events where there may have been morbid details for me to take and play around with. The newspaper headlines from this time period did not shy away from horrific details, so that definitely gave me lots of writing fodder!
SMW: I love that idea of taking newspaper headlines and using them as a means of creative exploration. How charming! And speaking of charming, Holmes masqueraded himself as quite the charmer with being married to three women at the same time. In what ways did you pull from your previous collection Love for Slaughter here in regard to themes, inspiration, etc.?
ST: Since Love for Slaughter was entirely about the worst, darkest parts of love and relationships, the pieces there probably did help in a way. As you said, Holmes was a very charming figure, and that charm aided him in pursuing wives, mistresses, and even with his business dealings. I wanted The Devil’s Dreamland to be really different from my first collection, but I definitely think the morbid and macabre versions of love in that book probably helped me get into Holmes’ more perverse attitude toward how women could be used as ways to obtain the particular means he was looking for at the time. Obviously his treatment of women was abhorrent, so I really tried to give some of the women strong voices for a few pieces in the book so they could at least feel more real before they disappeared forever.
SMW: Yes! The voice you gave to the women of this story was wonderfully dark and beautiful and necessary. It was definitely one of the highlights of the collection for me, too. With that in mind, how was the experience of working in Holmes’ head? Was it difficult to tap into that persona and world view? If so, how did you navigate that?
ST: It was a challenge for me and unlike the things I’ve written before, so while I welcomed the chance to try something new, it certainly wasn’t easy. I kind of disappeared for a while, didn’t talk to many people for a few months, and just absorbed myself in the research and writing. I felt like Mort Rainey from Secret Window, ha. I had to create empathy for a man who did not deserve any kind of sympathy; if I had not driven myself into that perspective and emotional mindset, I don’t think the book would have ended up the way it did.
I mostly reminded myself to tell the story I wanted to tell, but to write it in a way that makes sense for the character, even if that character happens to be a real person from history. When you’re working with more evil figures from history, I think it gives you creative room for interpretation. Plus, the accuracy for what we think we know about Holmes is pretty vague, so it gave me more room to figure out my version of Holmes and what he was capable of. Once I reminded myself of those things, it became a smoother journey for writing some of the pieces, but as it goes with most horror writing, we always have that challenge of removing ourselves from characters in order to write about the horrific things we (most likely) would never do in our own lives.
SMW: American Horror Story: Hotel used the idea of Holmes’ Murder Castle in season five. Have you watched it? If so, what was your take on it? Do you think they did it and his story justice? It took me a long (and I mean long) time to make it through this particular season. While I love Evan Peters, he just wasn't Holmes to me.
ST: I did not watch that season! I kept meaning to check it out after I heard about it loosely being based on Holmes, but I didn’t really like the Freak Show season and kind of stopped watching after that. I’ll have to give that season a try soon – AHS has been either hit or miss for me, so I will hope for the best. But I do think that since Holmes’ story is such a mystery, it does give creators a wide license on how they could interpret it for their projects, so I will be interested to see how the writers handled it. Horror legend Robert Bloch wrote American Gothic loosely based on Holmes and created a really interesting novel! I do recommend that one for anyone interested in other Holmes-based things.
SMW: Yeah, I don't think you're missing anything by taking a breather with the series (although Hotel did have killer outfits and a wonderful soundtrack!). Do you consider yourself a true crime junkie? If so, what are some of your favorite shows, podcasts, or books, and what about true crime draws your attention in general?
ST: I’m not sure if I’d consider myself a true crime junkie because if I binge it too much I get really freaked out (especially since I live on a hill in the woods), but it’s definitely something that continues to intrigue me. I used to watch a lot of Unsolved Mysteries and I think it scarred me – the theme music still haunts me! Right now, I am reading The Most Evil Women in History by Shelley Klein. For podcasts, I like Histories, Mysteries, & Conspiracies and My Favorite Murder, but I definitely need to subscribe to more!
True crime interests me in general because it’s a morbid way to view evil up close, or at least as close as I want to get in real life. As horror writers, we understand that darkness has always been around, that horror stories have been happening for as long as people have been telling stories, so true crime is another aspect to how we try to understand humanity.
SMW: I can 100% relate to that because even though I watch, read, and listen to a lot of true crime, I have to do it in spurts, and I know when I need to stop because it starts to seriously mess with my dreams. With that said, if you didn’t write about H. H. Holmes, and had to pick another serial killer to write about, who would you pick and why?
ST: Great question! I think I would definitely want to choose a female serial killer. I’ve read a little about Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova, a Russian Countess who murdered hundreds of serfs. She’s thought to have gone a bit mad after her lover was unfaithful, and this may have led to her horrific treatment of so many girls and young women. It’s an absolutely brutal story, but I think I’d probably be interested in the research involved since I’m drawn toward Russian history (especially Russian lore and myths, even though this story is very true), and it might be interesting to explore the terrible trope of women committing violence against other women since it’s something that contradicts my own beliefs and attitudes in life. I’m always a fan of making myself write what I don’t initially know or have experience with.
SMW: Oh, she sounds like just the worst kind of lovely. Count me intrigued!What is next in store for your readers?
ST: My debut novella, To Be Devoured, will be out July 29th from Unnerving! Otherwise, I am mostly working with StrangeHouse Books on edits and the publication process for Not All Monsters, an anthology entirely full of speculative tales written by women. It’s been incredible working with these ladies on their stories, and I cannot wait until the book’s release in 2020 for everyone to read their work!
SMW: And finally, after all this talk of death and destruction, what horror movie and drink would you pair with this book?
ST: Love this question! I’d pair The Devil’s Dreamland with Natural Born Killers and a Black Devil Martini which I have to link here! :-) Thank you so much for all of these fun and engaging questions!
H.H. Holmes committed ghastly crimes in the late 19th century, many of which occurred within his legendary "Murder Castle" in Chicago, Illinois. He is often considered America's first serial killer. In her second book of poetry from Strangehouse Books, Sara Tantlinger (Love For Slaughter) takes inspiration from accounts and tales which spawned from the misdeeds of one Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes. Fact and speculation intertwine herein, just as they did during the man's own lifetime. There's plenty of room in the cellar for everyone in
"...chilling poetry..." --Linda D. Addison, award-winning author of "How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend" and HWA Lifetime Achievement Award winner
"...morbidly creative and profound crime documentary...one of the best works of horror poetry I've read in years." --Michael Arnzen, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Grave Markings and Play Dead
"...fascinating and absolutely riveting...powerful and vivid prose...will stay with you long after you've closed the book."--Christina Sng, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of A Collection of Nightmares
BIO: Sara Tantlinger resides outside of Pittsburgh on a hill in the woods. She is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes. She is a poetry editor for the Oddville Press, a graduate of Seton Hill’s MFA program, a member of the SFPA, and an active member of the HWA. She embraces all things strange and can be found lurking in graveyards or on Twitter @SaraJane524 and at saratantlinger.com
Sara’s poetry, flash fiction, and short stories can be found in several magazines and anthologies, including the HWA Poetry Showcase Vol. II and V, the Horror Zine, Unnerving, Abyss & Apex, the 2018 Rhysling Anthology, 100 Word Horrors, and the Sunlight Press. Her debut novella, To Be Devoured, will be out with Unnerving on July 29th. Currently, Sara is editing Not All Monsters, an anthology that will be comprised entirely of women who write speculative fiction. The anthology is set for a 2020 release with StrangeHouse Books.
Sara’s website: https://saratantlinger.com
Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B06X6GBXZB