‘Raised on Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Allan Poe and public television in Decatur, Georgia,’ the author S.P. Miskowski describes herself with characteristic wit and good humour whilst acknowledging the influence of three of the best known purveyors of Southern Gothic. As an undergraduate earning her Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Washington she wrote a number of prize-winning short stories and edited a small press magazine. Her short stories have been published in Supernatural Tales, Horror Bound Magazine, Identity Theory, Other Voices, The Absent Willow Review, New Times, Fine Madness and in the anthology Detritus (ed. Kate Jonez and S.S. Michaels, 2012). Several of her stories were collected in Red Poppies: Tales of Envy and Revenge (print, 2009; expanded ebook edition, 2011). Her first novel, Knock Knock (2011), introduced readers to the small Washington town of Skillute and a mystery that continues to unravel in a follow-up trilogy of novellas entitled The Skillute Cycle. The first of these, Delphine Dodd (2012), followed Knock Knock in being nominated for a prestigious Shirley Jackson Award. This year saw the publication of Astoria, while the third and final novella In the Light is scheduled for release in 2014. All of the books in the series are published by Kate Jonez’s Omnium Gatherum Media and are available in both print and ebook editions. Each volume also features impressive, atmospheric cover art by Russell Dickerson of Darkstorm Creative. In addition to writing fiction Miskowski also maintains a blog, Daughters of Catastrophe, and an excellent review site, Shock Room, featuring insightful analyses and commentary on the latest horror releases, from the small press to the big screen. Miskowski currently resides in California with her husband, the writer and game designer Cory J. Herndon.
In the first of a two-part interview the author discusses writing, labelling and marketing her work; the role of ‘horror’ in North American culture; ‘women in horror’; and the current renaissance in small-press publishing.
JC: Hi S.P. How would you describe and label your work? Are labels something you worry much about?
SPM: While working on a book or a short story, I would describe what I’m writing as fiction. My approach is to place all of my life experience, any skills I’ve acquired, and any research I’ve done, at the service of the story. After the first draft has taken shape, when I have a sense of the story’s unique form and its themes, I consider whether it lends itself to a particular genre. Then as I revise I may add elements specific to that genre. But I try to avoid second-guessing my story until it begins to have a life of its own. My method is akin to having a baby and then waiting until the baby’s personality emerges, to give him a name.
That said, I have written stories with an existing, identifiable audience in mind. But it was work for hire, and I don’t consider it to be my most interesting writing.
Labels never worry me. They may serve a purpose in finding the right market for a story once it’s complete. Or they may help agents and publishers. My concern is to make the tale as compelling as possible. If I succeed at this, the work will eventually find an audience.
I’ve seen writers who vehemently defend the validity of one genre or label. This always surprises me because I think one ought to be secure in one’s choices, and not defensive. I never question the legitimacy of any genre. Although I started getting published when I was in an academic setting, and my early stories were printed in small press literary magazines, I’ve never felt a prejudice against a genre. To me, the work I admire is just fiction, well written fiction. Genre labels are marketing tools, not writing tools.
But maybe this is because I read widely when I was a child. Horror and sci-fi books were popular, so I read them along with everything else. My objective was to find the well-told tale, not a certain type of literature.
The Skillute Cycle has been identified as horror because it has a dark edge and both psychological and supernatural elements. I’m happy with the label because I’ve been reading a lot of horror over the past few years. Informally, I’ve been studying horror and the purpose it serves in our lives and our culture. So I’m pleased to have been welcomed by the community of writers who embrace the genre. But I really came to it after I realized that my novel, Knock Knock, was emerging as a horror story while I worked on it.
JC: I’ve been enjoying your horror blog Shock Room immensely and have a question connected to it that I’ll get to in a moment, but what purpose do you think horror fiction serves both generally, and in American society and culture in particular?
SPM: H.P. Lovecraft’s often-quoted line is, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” One purpose horror novels and films serve is to give an identity to our dread, making it specific, concrete, and, in a limited sense, knowable or recognizable.
Anticipation is nebulous, free-floating. Giving our fear a name and a face makes it possible to indulge momentarily in the fantasy that we can face whatever is lurking in the dark.
In his introduction to The Philosophy of Horror, Thomas Fahy writes that the horror genre promises, “the anticipation of terror, the mixture of fear and exhilaration as events unfold, the opportunity to confront the unpredictable and dangerous, the promise of relative safety…and the feeling of relief and regained control when it’s over.” This statement implies that the relief is a necessary part of the cycle. Readers and viewers crave resolution. Many also desire a happy ending. They want to put the monster back in the closet and lock the door when the story is over. The degree to which a writer allows them to do so depends on how comfortable she wants them to be. It also depends on the particular nature of the tale she’s telling.
I like a story that follows through to its natural conclusion. If a reassuring final scene is earned by the story, it can work. But I think some writers confuse resolution with a happy ending. I don’t share their interpretation.
For example, I think the natural conclusion to The Woman in Black is the original one, which is death without redemption. The logic of the story calls for it. Arthur Kipps finds happiness, and it’s snatched away from him, as it has been for all who crossed paths with the vengeful spirit of the woman in black. The final scene in the Hammer adaptation didn’t work for me. Letting viewers off with an image of a reunited family after death is like giving everyone a cookie on the way out of the theatre. It’s childish. It’s American. I was disappointed to see this, especially since the stage version (with the original ending from the book) has run successfully for so long.
You see this little scrap of optimism in a lot of American horror films and books. The audience is let off the hook in the cheapest manner. I don’t think this is what resolution is all about, especially in the horror genre. If a novel portrays horrific action, it’s a challenge to resolve that. It should be a challenge. It should be difficult.
Americans fear ambiguity. A timid writer or filmmaker seeking only personal success will feed our childish need to believe that everything is going to be okay.
Over the past decade audience/reader tolerance for cruelty and torture has increased exponentially. To anyone who dislikes the genre it might seem that we’re simply becoming more enamored of violence. The more we see, the more we desire to see. I don’t share this opinion. I think we are, collectively, attempting to come to terms with recent history.
Any adult who is aware of events at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay ought to question our collective morality. And I think many Americans, including many military men and women, are deeply troubled by what we know about actions taken in our name. Yet individual and group efforts to affect change in our nation’s policies seem to have little influence. It isn’t a coincidence that we see an eruption of real violence, and a profusion of senseless cruelty in films and fiction. We want to know what we are, that we can condone extraordinary brutality. We are examining ourselves in whatever manner is within our grasp. And–as ever–Hollywood and the publishing industry are eager to make a dollar from our obsessive curiosity.
JC: Those are really interesting points. ‘Torture porn’ cinema springs to mind here, as does the torture/killing currently being carried out by the ‘good guys’ of American pop culture, whose actions are troublingly portrayed as a ‘necessary evil.’ James Wan, who directed the notorious Saw, also included a disturbing torture scene in The Conjuring, and it was strange to see such a topical subject in a film that was otherwise something of a throwback. Your Shock Room review of The Conjuring perfectly articulates the problems I, and I suspect many others will have had with this film: that the characters are just too good to be true, and that it’s strange for a horror film to be so lacking in narrative ambiguity. Its Brady Bunch ending seemed especially bizarre after Wan’s Insidious and the recent Evil Dead re-make.
Above: The Power of Christ compels the Warrens to bind, gag and torture their ‘victim’ with a tedious bible reading in The Conjuring (dir. James Wan, 2013).
Mainstream horror cinema seems saturated at the moment with variations upon this home-invasion theme, with films which typically show a white, middle to upper-class family under attack from some external agency. While Knock Knock also involves a series of ‘home invasions’ the horror is much more intimate, with the focus being on the series’ central characters, Beverly, Marietta and Ethel, as their respective personal ‘spaces’ are breached by male and baby invaders. While in The Conjuring maternal instincts are expected to override demonic possession – the film’s resident psychic even has her very own ‘mommy-sense’ that’s set a-tingling when storm clouds gather – your books avoid such saccharine sentimentality. We get to see the protagonists as kids grossed out by the prospect of childbirth; their different responses to impending motherhood; as well as a variety of healthy and unhealthy mother/daughter relationships, alongside memorable monsters like Miss Knocks and Connie-Sara, borne out of those same themes.
Women are central to your work. They’re often deeply flawed, sometimes delusional, but they’re never simply ‘good’ or ‘evil’ and there’s no shortage of moral ambiguity on display. Of course, horror has a bit of a reputation when it comes to the representation of women, both on screen and behind the scenes. To what extent do you think that reputation’s deserved? Do you see your own work as a response to how other works in the field, and society at large, treat women in general and topics such as motherhood in particular? Barbara Creed wrote that ‘the presence of the monstrous-feminine’ in popular horror fiction ‘speaks to us more about male fears than about female desires and feminine subjectivity.’ Do you see your own work as a corrective to that? Some critics describe horror as being an essentially ‘feminist’ genre – that sounds a little optimistic, but do you think that it can be?
SPM: Horror’s representation of women is a huge, complex topic. Allow me to offer a small, simple observation.
Last year Park Chan-wook directed what I thought was a witty and beautiful film called Stoker. This coming of age story presented a young woman who learned to stand on her own and destroy those who tried to harm her. Upon its release, I was taken aback by the reaction of male horror fans. Many of them couldn’t say enough about how much they disliked Stoker, even if they loved the director’s better-known opus, Oldboy. The response reminded me how much I enjoyed a couple of other horror films about young women learning to lash out; the surreal comedy Teeth, and the poorly marketed Jennifer’s Body.
All three of these movies featured young female survivors, loners who reject male guidance. None were runaway hits. I couldn’t help comparing the original film adaptation of Carrie, a hugely successful movie in which the dangerous girl lashes out and dies, and another girl is permanently damaged. I’m not sure that we, as a society, like girls who kick ass and walk away unscathed.
Left to right: Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) and Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964).
My writing is influenced most by two odd women who took a dim view of society at large, Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. They wrote complex, layered stories that seemed straightforward and were accessible yet open to interpretation. Their clear-eyed, unsentimental depiction of horrible human behavior was a constant. They let the story speak for itself. In this way, I think they got away with a lot of social commentary without being pedantic.
I try not to respond to society at large. I try to tell engaging stories about interesting women and men. The stories I write are true to what I know about people.
Maybe a personal note is helpful. I have three sisters and six aunts, all very tough-minded and independent. Also, for years my mother took care of the children of women in our neighborhood who worked full-time. My sisters and I helped out. We met dozens of families and knew women in all sorts of circumstances who were trying to raise children while earning a living. My mother was a confidante. These women would pick up their kids and stay to talk about their day, their lives, how things were going.
The stories of these women made an impression on me while I was growing up. I noticed the faces they wore on various occasions, what they said to one another, and how they behaved in front of authority figures, especially men.
Not all women have maternal instinct, or at least it doesn’t always override other impulses like ambition or sexual desire. Lack of interest in raising children is condoned in men, and condemned in women. We hound women, even highly respected career women, to have children. No one seems to think it might be inappropriate, and in the case of women who dislike children, perhaps dangerous, to put this social pressure on them. Of course, we say, the woman who dislikes children will love her own. But what if she doesn’t? What if motherhood is a nightmare? What if she can’t stand her family?
For me, writing unnerving scenes of motherhood is a natural outcome of knowing so many women who have loved, accepted, struggled with, or resented the role.
Knock Knock could be analyzed in light of Julia Kristeva’s description of the abject and the idea of releasing the hold of maternal entity. One of the problems plaguing the characters is that they can’t establish a discrete identity. As soon as Ethel thinks she has finally separated herself from the damaging connection to her mother, she plunges into the experience of pregnancy and the feeling of being occupied by another. And in a sense, because this is a supernatural as well as psychological story, she’s right. She’s invaded by a stronger entity.
In this cycle of books, I’m concerned with repetitions of physical and emotional experience between generations of women. A character severely damaged by her connection to her mother decides to claim independence by having a child of her own, but this turns out to be a trap. Some first-time parents think they’re creating a new world. They want to escape their parents and do things differently. Nature doesn’t necessarily work like that. Personality traits recur and skip generations. Ethel escapes from her mother, begins to find her way, and then gives birth to someone like her mother, only much worse. Instead of continuing to build her new identity as a parent she slips back into the defensive role of a child.
These books are a culmination of experiences shaped by a natural desire to explore characters without framing and defining them through religion or family values. I’m not interested in looking at women in that way. We receive too many guidelines and opinions about what women are and how we ought to live. I didn’t set out to respond to that so much as I felt a strong impulse to toss it aside and present women as they are.
One author or even one genre can’t serve as a corrective to traditional views. Boundaries and stereotypes are being broken every day but very little of the boundary-breaking work is popular. Even when it is popular, we tend to discuss it in the same, old ways. Consider Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. It’s a troubling story about someone who gives birth because she’s already done everything else. This is a great subject for an unhappily affluent culture to explore. Yet most discussions about the book center on whether the protagonist is a good mother or a bad one. Few readers or critics ask whether the current baby boom is a good thing. Would the world be better if fewer people had children? It might be, but try raising that question at the next book club meeting. You might not get out alive.
I don’t think there is a feminist genre. Women have to make great efforts to be heard in any genre, even romance, because we grapple with stultifying expectations about what women like and don’t like, and what we’re capable of doing. Breakthroughs often occur when women assist women. I think I’ve gotten away with a lot because my editor is a fearless woman. My books are in print because of my publisher, who is a woman. Knock Knock came very close to being accepted by a major publisher. Ultimately they turned it down because they couldn’t decide on an effective label, for marketing the book. Fortunately Kate Jonez came along and Omnium Gatherum published the novel and optioned the series of novellas. Small press is a haven for the truly divergent point of view.
JC: Absolutely. Your experience with that first publisher reminds me of something Scott Nicholson wrote in his introduction to the e-book anthology American Horror (2011), regarding changes in ‘the public perception of the [horror] label.’ ‘The publishers’ sales teams believe horror doesn’t sell, so they convey this lack of enthusiasm to the bookstores. The bookstore owners don’t order it, and because readers don’t see it on the shelves, they believe horror must no longer be readable.’ Nicholson goes on to claim that there’s an ‘indie revolution’ taking place in the field, and I’ve seen others talk of a ‘renaissance’ in connection with the work being published by the small presses. Do you agree with their assessment? There does appear to be a strong, supportive network of small presses, specialist magazines and awards, like the Shirley Jackson Awards, all coming together to promote this end. Digital e-readers also seem to be opening up new opportunities for writers.
Are you able to, and do you follow the sale of your work closely? And how do you feel about the reception of your work? Are you pleased with the general response, and has there been anything about it that surprised you?
SPM: There is a renaissance in small press publishing, yes. The amount of material is impressive and the quality is remarkably good. It’s a period akin to the 1980s when low-cost Xerox machines hit the market and there was a boom in chapbooks, journals, and zines. Everybody started desktop publishing because it was suddenly an affordable proposition. Then, as now, some of the material was cranked out fast and without much editorial judgment, yet the majority of magazines and books were (and are) excellent.
Never underestimate the importance of providing affordable editions. In the 1980s books crept up in price until the average person really couldn’t buy new hardbacks. You would have to do some research to confirm this but I think the rash of paperback imprints from big publishing houses around that time was a response to the small press boom. Today the majors whose books have gradually climbed in cost again, are trying to catch up with the new technology. They’re beginning to live in the 21st century but the amount of time it’s taken to recognize that simply wishing and griping won’t help indicates how far behind the zeitgeist they were trailing to begin with.
You can’t blame them for settling into a paradigm that made them prosperous and kept writers beholden to them. It’s a natural occurrence. Now things are changing fast and you can see them catching onto small press ideas, with Goodreads chats and blog tours. Most of them overcharge for electronic editions, however, because it’s one way to command a clear profit.
And they still don’t entirely get it. Recently I had an opportunity to receive a review copy of a horror collection from one of the best-known publishers in the world. I confirmed my interest and they sent me a digital copy via email. But before I could open it I was required to sign a contract stating that I wouldn’t share or sell the book, and I was supposed to download some fairly complicated software to my computer. Well, I asked if they would send a hard copy instead. They were very nice about it, really, but I couldn’t help comparing this to the small press process in which writers, editors, and publishers swap mobi, PDF, and ePub files on a regular basis. The unspoken agreement is that anyone unscrupulous and stupid enough to pirate a book is going to get a black eye online from everyone in small press, and his reputation will be ruined. If you want a career, that’s enough of a deterrent. And if you’re actually a book pirate, a signed contract and protective software isn’t going to stop you. That’s the implied logic behind review copy sharing, in the digital age.
When Knock Knock was first published I tracked sales pretty closely to see which PR efforts worked and which ones had no effect. These days I have a good idea what I like to do for promotion, my publisher has good PR strategies, and I can usually count on a tiny rise in sales as a result. So I just apply myself to that and keep fingers crossed. I found it nerve-racking to follow the sales so closely. I’m happy to do the work and have faith that it will help.
The reception for The Skillute Cycle has been a wonderful surprise to me. I know some writers think they will publish a book and then the sky will fall and they’ll start having lunch with Stephen King. I don’t think that way. I’ve been a writer long enough to be thrilled at every good mention and every reader who takes my story to heart. I’m delighted when a reader comes up to me at a book signing and says she loves Knock Knock and feels like the characters are people she’s known all of her life. That really does it for me.
I didn’t have any idea what the audience would be for these books. The shocking thing is that they’ve been embraced and talked about and passed along to friends by a wide range of people. I hear from teenagers, middle-aged men and women, and people in their 20s and 30s. Somehow the books have struck a chord with more people than I imagined. Most surprising has been the number of men between 20 and 25 who have given the series positive attention, tracking the allusions and homages, the jigsaw quality of the big picture formed by the books when you read them together, and just really getting excited about the whole project. Since the key characters in the book are three middle-aged women, I never expected this. I’ve read a couple of reviews in which young men who also like more extreme horror have recommended the books, and said they realized their friends might overlook this series because it’s about women and it’s set in a small town and represents a slow-burn, quiet brand of horror, but to stick with it because it’s worth it. I’m quite pleased about that.
Join us next week – same gothic time, same gothic channel – for the concluding half of this interview. Learn how living in the Deep South and the Pacific Northwest has influenced Miskowski’s work; gain additional insight into the development of her recent novellas, Delphine Dodd and Astoria; and catch the latest news concerning In the Light and other future projects. Fans of Asian horror cinema are also advised not to miss out on the author’s discussion of its influence upon her work.
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