Wednesday, August 7, 2019


 Hello and Good Morning, Everyone:

Today in the Madhouse, I have the pleasure of hosting one of my very best and dearest friends, Michelle Renee Lane. Michelle's book, Invisible Chains, debuted last month and has already found a strong following and readership across genres, and once you dig into the book, it's not hard to understand why. This novel is a powerhouse.

A bit about the bookJacqueline is a young Creole slave in antebellum New Orleans.  An unusual stranger who has haunted her dreams since childhood comes to stay as a guest in her master’s house. Soon after his arrival, members of the household die mysteriously, and Jacqueline is suspected of murder.  Despite her fear of the stranger, Jacqueline befriends him, and he helps her escape. While running from the slave catchers, they meet conjurers, a loup-garou, and a traveling circus of supernatural freaks.  She relies on ancestral magic to guide her and finds strength to conquer her fears on her journey.

Now I was lucky enough to be an advanced reader for this book, both in its early stages at Seton Hill and prior to its publication date this year, and let me tell you that seeing this book hit the shelves was a truly beautiful thing. You see, Invisible Chains is so much more than a book that will just scare you...even though yes, it will 100% scare you. But this book will also make you think, think about life, think about death, think about the relationships we build, how we treat one another (and why). It's both timely and necessary, and I hope you'll pick up a copy and read it soon.

In the meantime however, below is an interview about the book. Here we talk magic, history, blood, and monsters, so I encourage you all to sit down with a glass of AB + and meditate on what vampires have come to represent in contemporary society, and how horror is both a reflection on past and current states of the world. 

With blood blisters and bite marks,
Stephanie M. Wytovich

SMW: First and foremost, congratulations on your debut novel! It seems like it was just yesterday we were hanging out at SHU in the WPF program, so being able to hold this book in my hands is a wonderful feeling. To start us off, tell us a bit about your novel. What does it represent at its most literal and figurative heights to you?

MRL: Thank you, Stephanie. I can remember one of the first critique sessions I had in the MFA program for this novel. You sat almost directly across the room from me. I was a little intimidated, because it was the first time anyone had read an early draft of the novel and we didn’t really know each other at that point. As soon as I heard your feedback on the scene I had submitted, a scene that got cut from the final draft, I hoped we’d have lots more to talk about. And, shortly after that, we hung out in New Orleans together, talked about the horrors of being single, the pros and cons of falling in love with vampires (werewolves, and demons), and we’ve been friends ever since.

What does this novel represent to me? That’s a great a question. I think it took me a long time to really figure that out, because each time I sat down to write a scene I realized that although I was writing about the nineteenth century, the injustices and violence my protagonist experiences at the hands of slave owners and the vampire, are really a reflection of some of the issues women of color are facing in the twenty-first century. So, while women of color aren’t experiencing physical slavery (yet) by the accepted definition, our minds are often preoccupied with the additional tasks of being on guard to recognize minefields of racism and sexism in the smallest gestures and microaggressions. These extra tasks keep us busy throughout the day and often prevent us from accomplishing all the goals we set for ourselves – educations, higher paying jobs, the freedom to rest and enjoy the fruits of our labor. So, I suppose this book literally represents a goal I fought hard to accomplish. It is a product of my creative mind that allowed me to explore some of the more difficult aspects of my own life and the lives of other women of color – past, present, and future.

SMW: What was your favorite scene to work on in the book, and then to play devil’s advocate, which one gave you the hardest time and/or was the most difficult emotionally to spend time with?

MRL: Some of my favorite scenes to write were the scenes in which the vampire is not only seducing the protagonist, but when he realizes that he’s being seduced in return. I love villains, and vampires are some of my favorite monsters, so constructing dialog and interactions between Carlos and Jacqueline provided me with challenges I looked forward to tackling. The more his true face is revealed, the stronger she becomes. Since I loved writing about their relationship, as unhealthy as it is, the scene I struggled with the most was when Jacqueline must confront the vampire and make a choice between her life and his. Full disclosure, it took me roughly three months to write that scene, and a poem written by my writing mentor, Lucy A. Snyder convincing me to kill the vampire.

SMW: Our friendship started at SHU, but blossomed in New Orleans, and I know that city means a lot to both of us for similar and different reasons. As it’s one of the primary settings in your book, can you tell us a little bit about your connection with the Crescent City?

MRL: You know, although New Orleans isn’t my hometown, I think of it as my adopted home. It has always treated me right and made me feel welcome. The first time I visited the city, I was nineteen. I met a woman at a college keg party, and after talking to her for over two hours about what we were reading, our favorite books, and what was on our TBR piles, we realized that a lot of the books we had been discussing were set in New Orleans, including Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume.  So, we talked about going there together. Like most conversations you have while drunk at a party, I didn’t take it very seriously, but the following week she asked me when I wanted to go. We drove down to Louisiana a few weeks later at the beginning of Christmas break. I can still remember the way the air clung to my skin as we pulled into the city. So, books, films and music tempted me to New Orleans for as long as I can remember, but a flamboyant feminist hippie named Heather convinced me to follow my dreams and visit the city.

I’m also fascinated by the history of the gens de couleur libres, and the history of race relations in New Orleans. It was (and often still is) very complicated during and after slavery, but very different than other parts of the United States. Obviously, racism was still an issue, but the class structure in New Orleans allowed for mixed-race people to occupy professions and privileged statuses that simply were not available to other people of color in the United States. Depending on how wealthy a landowner was, the children conceived under the institution of plaçage, a recognized extralegal system in French and Spanish slave colonies that permitted European men to enter into civil unions with women of African, Native American and mixed-race descent, would sometimes be sent to France to be educated. These unions allowed the women, or placées, and their children to own property and in some cases provided freedom if they were enslaved.

And, New Orleans has some of the darkest history in the United States – pirates, voodoo, ghosts, and vampires – making it a beautifully haunted city waiting to share its secrets with you.

SMW: Jacqueline is such a fantastically strong, intelligent, and emotionally versatile character, and when we’ve talked about vampires over the past couple of years, our discussion usually moves toward the topic of how women in supernatural stories are drawn to the monster, even though they know that eventually, their love is a death wish (or bite, in this case). How did you navigate the path of violence against women in this book, and what commentary do you think you left readers with in regard to falling in love/lust with monsters?

MRL: I love a good vampire romance. The bloodier and more erotic, the better. Let’s not kid ourselves, vampires are sexy. And, in modern vampire romances, they have become the ideal partners even though they are still extremely territorial and controlling when it comes to the bodies and minds of their sexual partners. The threat of violence and the promise of death are ever present, especially during sex.

Initially, I fully intended to write a novel in that vein (pun intended), and I wanted Jacqueline to become a vampire. This novel began its life as a short story and when I first wrote it, I believed that for her to gain freedom and claim the power she deserved, she needed Carlos to rescue her and make her like him. At the time I wrote the short story, more than fifteen years ago, I was completely conscious of the connection between slavery and vampirism, which is why I think I began writing it. I was younger. A different person. Some of the challenges that were ahead of me weren’t even on my radar. I honestly believe that Jacqueline developed as a stronger character because of the challenges I overcame in my own life. My personal circumstances and complicated romantic relationships made me realize that first and foremost, no one was coming to rescue me, but secondly, I realized I didn’t need to be rescued.

Monsters can be very attractive, especially if you don’t view yourself as being “enough” for mainstream culture. If you look different, think differently, and have the audacity to share your opinions as a woman of color on subjects reserved for discussions between white males only (horror films, classic literature, comic books, Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, or anything else cool, interesting and nerdy basically), people may recognize your contributions, or they will politely (or not so politely) tell you to shut up.
Monsters occupy very interesting spaces within the margins of texts. At least, they did for a very long time. Monsters represented the racialized other, rampant female sexuality, something to fear, a cautionary tale about succumbing to your darker desires. And now, they take boring teenaged girls to prom and marry them.

This relatively new trend (or trope) in fiction made me stop and think about the message(s) being sent to women (young and old) about what is acceptable behavior in a romantic partner. When female characters had sex or were fed upon by vampires in the past, the automatic assumption was that this was an unwanted sexual experience, a violent act, rape. Then, when female characters who lived on the fringes started having sex with vampires, it was viewed as a kink that opened the floodgates to variety of alternative lifestyles. But now, when the girl next door (even if she is the chose one), decides to fall in love with a vampire or other dangerous monster, we have a vey different kind of narrative. A narrative that tells women that being stalked, hunted, possessed and consumed is the way to feel loved and desired, is a very dangerous message in my opinion.

The fact that vampires are depicted as potential husbands and boyfriends made me realize that I needed Carlos to be a true monster. He needed to be a cautionary tale, not a prize to be won. Happily-ever-after with a vampire usually means death for the object of desire. Last I checked, murder isn’t sexy no matter how handsome your prom date happens to be.

SMW: Carlos Diego Velasquez. The man we love to hate. Now I don’t know if it’s his character in general, the fact that he’s a glutton for violence, or the fact that I met him in my early 30s during the era of the Me Too Movement, but this bloodsucker really, really left a bad taste in my mouth (in a good way, of course). He’s charming, attractive, wealthy, and a smooth talker…but he’s also controlling, manipulative, and he attempts to bind Jacqueline metaphorically and trap her in a different type of slavery. This, of course, speaks to a lot of different notions: relationships, exchange of powers between races and genders, and of course, what privilege allows us to do. Can you speak to your vision with this character? In terms of a big picture, what did you want his arc to do?

MRL: I’m glad that you disliked Carlos. Vampires, regardless of what they have come to represent in popular paranormal romances, are monsters. They are reanimated corpses with impressive bank accounts and expensive wardrobes, and they feed on human blood to maintain their unnatural existences. They stalk/hunt their prey and use them to satisfy their hungers, sexual or otherwise. I didn’t want him to be Jacqueline’s savior. He isn’t supposed to be the hero of anyone’s story but his own.

He most definitely loves violence, but he’s also good at hiding the fact that he wants to ravage everyone with a pulse within a five-mile radius. To be an excellent predator, you have to convince your prey that it is safe to be near you. Convince them that there’s nowhere else they’d rather be than by your side. And then, once you’ve lulled them into a state of trust, they’re ready for you to take advantage of them. One of my favorite lines in book is an observation Jacqueline makes about vampires.

“Vampires are terrifying creatures, driven by an insatiable cannibalistic hunger and murderous urges. I was glad to have one at my side when I left the safety of the Lynches’ house.”

 Safety is an illusion for slaves that depends solely on the whims of their owners. Despite her feelings of attraction, she’s completely aware that Carlos is a monster. Almost every man in her life is a monster. She doesn’t exactly trust him, but at this point in the story, he hasn’t touched her. He’s made his desire for her clear and flirted with her, but he hasn’t threatened her physically which isn’t true of Lynch and Jimmy. A vampire makes better company than a slave owner in Jacqueline’s world.

I wanted Carlos and the other monsters in the novel to be less horrific than the slave owners. As Tananarive Due states so succinctly in Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), “Black history is black horror.” I wanted to be perfectly clear that slavery and the people who benefitted from it are the villains. I wanted to avoid the accepted trope of vampires being romantic heroes. I wanted my vampire to be monstrous and I think I accomplished that.

Jacqueline needed to rescue herself. For that to happen, she can accept help from the monsters, but none of them are allowed to save her. Carlos Diego Velasquez isn’t a romantic hero that promises a happily-ever-after. He’s the first man you fall in love with who ends up betraying you by sleeping with your best friend. Except his idea of an apology is to try to rape and murder you, because you don’t love him enough to overlook his shortcomings.

SMW: In regard to genre, this book can be found in a bunch of homes: horror, dark fantasy, supernatural romance, a slave narrative, historical horror etc. What is the benefit of writing a book that speaks on so many levels? And what kind of research did you have to do to write it?

MRL: I suppose cross-genre fiction appeals to a wider audience of readers. Some people were hesitant to read the book because they assumed it was straight horror. In their minds, they have a very limited view of the horror genre and can’t get past the idea of being scared or freaking out about gore or violence or whatever puts them off about horror. So, when I explained that the horror in the novel really comes from historical accounts of slavery and the narcissism of the vampire, that seemed to put them at ease. People who NEVER read anything horror related keep contacting me to tell me how much they’re enjoying the book.

I did a lot of research for this novel in order to make sure my representation of slavery was authentic in all its horror. Some of the scenes of violence come directly from first-hand accounts of slaves. There are a lot of images of lynching out there if you want to give yourself nightmares, and plenty of print media from the time depicting the historical representation of blacks that made them seem inhuman. Some of the torture devices used to punish slaves were similar to ones used on witches, and I couldn’t help seeing a connection between the abuse and genocide experienced by these two very different groups of people.

Yes, there’s a lot of horror in this novel, but it is the horror of a history we should be ashamed of and never stop telling. Many of the terrible things that happen to Jacqueline and the over slaves in the novel happened to real people living in the antebellum South.

One of my reviewers mentioned that the scenes of supernatural horror felt like a respite after reading about the horrors of slavery. That statement alone made me realize I had accomplished my goal.

SMW: There are themes of dream work, folk magic, and masks woven throughout the text, and your descriptions of herbs, flowers, food, and drink are palpable, not to mention beautiful moments of imagery. What is your own relationship with magic, and how did it influence your writing?

MRL: Your questions are really making me think, and I appreciate that. But this question is really making me think about magic in terms of my own origin story. I mean, I don’t there’s a wrong answer, but I want to speak about magic in a way that doesn’t disrespect other people’s beliefs. And, that was something I thought about A LOT while writing the book.

Like a lot of kids, I was encouraged to believe in magic – Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy – and for as long as I can remember, folk tales and fairy tales were part of the background noise in my household. My grandmother, Dora, read a lot and her favorite stories were ghost stories, but she read a lot of horror and collected Stephen King’s novels. She enjoyed telling stories as much as she liked reading them and she delighted in being able to scare the shit out of you.

I don’t know a lot about my family history, but my understanding is that part of my family comes from the Black Forest region in Germany where apparently a lot of fairy tales originated. I loved fairy tales as a kid and remember the Disney versions being very different from the ones I was told. There weren’t a lot of happy endings in the versions I knew from childhood. My curiosity about the differences in the way stories were told led me to do some research and I wrote some of my academic work about fairy tales in college. And, I read as many fairytales as I could get my hands on. I’m particularly fond of Russian folktales and the more X-rated versions of Little Red Riding Hood.

For the most part, the people in my family believe in the supernatural and many of us have had encounters with ghosts. The ghost of the man who used to live in my grandparents’ house is part of our story as a family. Their house was haunted, and people outside of our family have witnessed the hauntings in that house. My mom told me a story about an aunt of hers who healed a burn on her hand just by touching it and saying a few words. My mom swears the burn just disappeared. The women in my family are smart, creative, skilled and strong. I’m certain some of us would have been burned at the stake as witches back in the day, because we all have some very strong opinions and don’t mind sharing them.

When I was a kid and first saw representations of voodoo and other magic systems that came from African traditions, I saw them as a form of empowerment rather than something to fear. Magic has just always been part of my life in one way or another, and it was presented to me as something normal.

Did anyone in my family practice magic when I was growing up? Probably not. At least, not in my mother’s family. I never met my biological father, but apparently his mother practiced voodoo and was the person people asked for magical advice in her community. My mom said that my biological father was really into tarot cards, talismans, and “all kinds of weird shit.” So, when I started reading tarot cards, playing with a Ouija board, and put black curtains over my windows in high school, she wondered if those interests came from him.

I don’t know. Do you gain an interest and understanding of magic through nature or nurture? I’m still fascinated by magic and how people continue to incorporate it into their everyday lives. Ritual is important. Tradition is important. I think stories about magic connect us to the past and help us gain a better understanding of our origins. All stories have a little magic in them if you know where to look.

SMW: As a fellow movie buff who gets most of her movie recommendations from you (side note: we need another Buffy marathon, soon!) what are some vampire films that you think are underrated that people need to know about?

MRL: I’ll watch Buffy anytime you like. I would also suggest checking out a vampire film a lot of people don’t know about, Ganja & Hess (1973). This vampire film has an almost all black cast, with a black screenwriter and director, Bill Gunn. Duane Jones, the actor who played Ben in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, plays Dr. Hess Green who becomes a vampire after being stabbed by an ancient dagger. I’ve only ever seen the film once, because for a very long time it was impossible to find and then you could only see a terribly butchered studio print that connected it with the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. In fact, I think the only existing print of the original film was in a museum until Kino Lorber released it on DVD in the late 1990s. It’s probably one of the most creative interpretations of the vampire myth and it is a beautiful art film that vampire film buffs should see. Like most vampire fiction, vampirism is a delivery system for groundbreaking commentary on sex, religion, and African American identity. Check it out.

Also, if you haven’t seen The Wisdom of Crocodiles (1998), I highly recommend it. Jude Law is a vampire, but you don’t realize that’s what he is until we get further into the narrative. It has a wonderful serial killer vibe, and maybe you didn’t hear me, but JUDE LAW IS A VAMPIRE.

I have a lot of favorites when it comes to vampire films, but one of my favorite recent vampire films is Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. It’s smart and funny and has an amazing cast. And, it depicts vampires in a way that made perfect sense – they would be boring. Tom Hiddleston’s character is obsessed with vinyl and music, and Tilda Swinton shows up with a suitcase full of books. They’re like middle-aged Goths or Punks who never shut up about the things that interest them the most. I loved it. And, who doesn’t want to watch Tom Hiddleston suck on a blood popsicle?

 SMW: Who are you currently reading and what are you presently working on?

MRL: Honestly, I haven’t been reading much. I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks, but I’ve been relistening to some of my favorites and plowing through paranormal romance series, like Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series, Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series, Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy.... Are you seeing a pattern here? I’ve been consuming vampire fiction at an alarming rate, but I’m considering this consumption research. I’ve been writing about vampires a lot more lately, and I’m working on my own paranormal romance series. In order to write within a particular genre, you should spend a lot of time getting to know and understand it. So, at the moment, it’s all vampires all the time. I’m sure some people think that’s all I read and write about, but that just isn’t true. I read and write about werewolves, demons, and witches, too.

Author Bio:

Michelle R. Lane writes dark speculative fiction about women of color who battle their inner demons while falling in love with monsters. Her work includes elements of fantasy, horror, romance, and occasionally erotica. In January 2015, Michelle graduated with an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. Her short fiction appears in the anthologies Dark Holidays, and Terror Politico: A Screaming World in Chaos. Her debut novel, Invisible Chains, is available from Haverhill House Publishing and Amazon. She lives in South Central Pennsylvania with her son.

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