Dark Blood Comes From the Feet: An Interview with Emma J. Gibbon

Emma J. Gibbon is a horror writer, speculative poet and librarian. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies including Wicked Weird, Wicked Haunted, and The Muse & the Flame and on the Toasted Cake podcast. She also has a story upcoming in Would but Time Await: An Anthology of New England Folk Horror from Haverhill Publishing. This year, she has been nominated twice for the Rhysling Award for her poems “Fune-RL” (Strange Horizons) and “Consumption” (Eye to the Telescope). Her poetry has also been published in LiminalityPedestal Magazine and is upcoming in Kaleidotrope. Emma is originally from Yorkshire and now lives in Maine in a spooky little house in the woods with her husband, Steve, and three exceptional animals: Odin, Mothra, and M. Bison (also known as Grim). She is a member of the New England Horror Writers, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, the Angela Carter Society, and the Tuesday Mayhem Society. Her website is emmajgibbon.com.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Emma J. Gibbon’s anthology of short horror fiction, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this collection of literary horror tales that put relatable characters under the microscope to show us the darker side of the human condition. Gibbon takes us to weirdly familiar settings that quickly turn macabre, like a strip club in Purgatory, a Lovecraftian orphanage, a day at the beach that would make Cronenberg proud, and a haunted house on a hill that I won’t forget any time soon.

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Emma. Congratulations on the release of your short story collection, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet, that comes out today! I really loved reading your stories, not just because they were well written, but also because I couldn’t help wondering where the stories came from. You write about a diverse group of characters from different backgrounds with different experiences and I kept wondering which of those characters were you. That might seem like a strange thing to wonder for some people, but because I write dark fiction as well about women of color, there is a part of me in each story. Some really terrible things happen to the people in your stories, but at the most basic level, they’re human. How much of yourself is in this collection? Where do the lines blur between you and your characters?

EJG: Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! That’s a really tough question to answer because in a way, they are all from me but are separate at the same time. I’ve had an interesting and varied time on this earth so far, so it does sometimes feel like I’ve lived a lot of lives. There is no doubt that I use elements of myself and my life when I create characters, some on a surface level and some on a deep emotional level. When I do the latter, it’s often not a conscious decision but something I realize later, sometimes years later. For example, on a surface level, the narrator of “Cellar Door,” Karen, resembles me in that some of her memories she mentions are my memories and she lives in my house. That house is my house! That basement is real! I’m not convinced it was the best idea, it’s like I haunted my own house.  But personality-wise, she’s not like me. Janine in “Janine” is a character I have enormous sympathy for. She is someone who had the cards stacked against her from the start, who made some bad choices and has really suffered for them, much more than she deserves. I have the sense that I could have easily been someone like Janine, but I was just luckier.

Ultimately, there is a lot of me in this collection, probably more than I like to admit. Dark Blood Comes from the Feet, is a line from “Cellar Door” and it’s a reference to having old trauma that you have trouble letting go of. I have a lot of stuff that I psychologically scratch at, over and over, old wounds. They’re in my stories but I skew it and dress it up in monsters and distinct voices and the supernatural so that I don’t even recognize it myself at times.

GMM: While reading the stories, I compared your work to other writers in the genre, including Poe, Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Cronenberg, and there’s even a reference to Donnie Darko (Tolkien), which brought a smile to my face. Which writers have had the most impact on your own writing style? Whose stories inspired you the most?

EJG: I do love Donnie Darko! And thank you so much! That’s a very flattering and intimidating list! I definitely have a group of authors whose work has inspired me. I know I’ll forget a major influence but a very obvious one is Shirley Jackson, but also Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier, Neil Gaiman, Mervyn Peake, M. Rickert, Kelly Link. I think Brooke Bolander is astonishing. I’m inspired by many people writing horror right now. More than that though, I think the key is I was an early and voracious reader who came from a family that weren’t huge readers. We didn’t go to the library. My parents bought me books, but there was no way they could have kept up with me. I read everything and did a lot of rereading (I’ve slowed down since then, I mean, the internet exists now.) I’d get books from car boot sales (the British equivalent of yard sales). Half the time I didn’t have to pay. I think people were a bit weirded out by this little girl carrying a stack of Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock books, I especially liked the ones with the yellow edges, so they just gave them to me. Because my reading was very autodidactic and random, I have a personal canon that’s my own. I had no sense of high or low culture (which I still think is nonsense anyway,) or genre or nonfiction vs fiction, so I’d read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest then V. C. Andrews, an anthology of classic ghost stories and Salem’s Lot with a book of feminist stories. Much later, I’d carry on this habit even as I specialized in English—Macbeth with The Mammoth Book of Vampires Stories, a nonfiction book about the cultural effects of tuberculosis with The Name of the RoseWide Sargasso Sea with The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. So all of these stories are all in there and they come out in my stories in a completely unconscious way.

GMM: You have an incredible talent for showing us the horror and reality of the settings in each of your stories. I’m an avid reader, but I also have spent a lot of time watching and studying films in many genres, which I think has had an impact on how I tell stories. Would you say that the written word, or film images have inspired your work more? What films have influenced the way you craft a scene?

EJG: Thank you so much! That really means a lot to me because I have aphantasia. This means that I don’t imagine or think in visual images. It’s hard to describe but I have a strong internal dialogue and think in concepts (almost as if my mind can feel the edges of a 3D representation that I can’t see.) Some of my settings are based on places where I have lived or visited—as I said, the house in “Cellar Door” is mine, the tunnel in “Bobby Red-Eyes” really existed when I was a kid (and Bobby is an urban legend in my hometown), the Black Shuck Tavern is based on a famous Hollywood nightclub. Others were research, I’ve never been to any of the places in “Whitechapel,” for example.

I am very influenced by film too. I grew up in the peak-VHS 80s with very little screen supervision, so we watched a lot of horror films. My big ambition as a teen was to be a music video director. I was a double major in college in English and Art History but most of my art history classes were the history of film or film theory and honestly; it burnt me out a little. A lot of my favorite films are before then. So films like Heathers, The Lost Boys, Donnie Darko, Amadeus, The Faculty, Beetlejuice, The ‘Burbs, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nightbreed and May have had an enormous impact on me. Despite the aphantasia, it’s the colors of the scenes that I often remember and the way they affect mood.

That said, I’ve been influenced and inspired by all kinds of things—personal anecdotes, scenes from my own life, books and movies, music videos, songs, photographs and other pieces of art, TV shows and video games. It’s the story that I’m always most interested in, not necessarily the format.

GMM: I enjoyed reading all of the stories in your collection, but I have a few favorites, including “Devour,” “Cellar Door,” “Whitechapel,” and “St. Scholastica’s Home for Children of the Sea.” Which stories in the collection are your favorites, and why? Which were the most difficult to write?

EJG: As far as being hard to write, two stand out particularly. “Cellar Door” because it was the kind of story I have always wanted to write and fear of failure meant I couldn’t get out of my own way for the longest time. In the end, I made it a NaNoWriMo project and got a good chunk of it done by not looking back as I wrote. “This is Not the Glutton Club” was hard because I hand wrote it while bedridden with pneumonia! It was also the story that needed the most research, and my Facebook friends really saved the day on that one!

It’s really hard to have favorites, they’re like children (I’m guessing). What is nice is that I’ve got enough distance between them all that I like them all. I don’t regret putting any of them in there. I do really like “Sermon from New London.” It was a lot of fun to write. Should we get to the other side of the apocalypse, I think there are worse ways to survive than being part of a matriarchal cult based on punk music. It was first published on the Toasted Cake podcast performed by the editor, Tina Connolly, and there had to be a language warning because there is so much swearing in it. What really makes me laugh is that when I played it to my husband, he didn’t notice, which I think tells you about the level of discourse in our house!

GMM: While you write from the POV of both male and female characters, your strongest characters seem to be women and girls. And, even though terrible things happen to them, not all of them are victims. Many of your female characters make the most of the bad situations they find themselves in, and become survivors. Would you say that feminism has had an impact on how you create your female characters? Or, are you simply showing us the strength of the human spirit? Rarely, do your stories have what I would consider a happy ending, and I really appreciate that. How would you describe your writing style to someone who has never read your work?

EJG: Feminism definitely plays into it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind straight white guys, I even married one! But they have had their time being at the center of stories. They’ve had centuries of being the heroes and saving the day. I’ve made a conscious decision to give people who don’t traditionally get to be the protagonists take center stage or have the happy ending—women without children, women who are not straight, trans women, working-class women. Part of it is being a woman from a working-class background who has not conformed to social convention and having mainstream fiction just not resonate with me at all because of that. I still have a way to go. My writing is far too white, for example, and that is something I have to work on—my experience of the world is not a default and I think the more that I reflect the world as it is, the more powerful it is when I tilt it somewhat. Something that is at the core of who I am is that I will always root for the underdog, always. There is never a time when I’m on the side of the people with all the power so that’s going to come through.

I’ve had to pull myself up from the ashes a few times in my life, start again from nothing and reinvent myself. I’ve seen people, especially women, do that again and again and I like to reflect that in some of my stories. It makes you stronger, like tempering steel, but it has a cost, you can get brittle and break. Even the phoenix has to go through the fire.

Describing my writing style is difficult. It’s one of those things where I would be interested to know how other people describe it. A lot of it is instinctual. Once I get the voice of a story, it usually pulls me along. That said, I like to challenge myself to see if I can write in a wide a range as possible—can I write a nested story in the voice of a Victorian gentleman? What if I had an unreliable narrator talking to someone who wasn’t there? Can I write a speech in mostly misheard punk lyrics? What would Shirley Jackson do? I think that is what it comes down to mostly: What would Shirley Jackson do?

Fiction Fragments: Frazer Lee

Last week, Atlanta lawyer and speculative fiction writer, Alicia Wright, joined us and talked about why she loves writing science fiction and fantasy for a YA audience. This week, creative writing professor, novelist and horror filmmaker, Frazer Lee, was kind enough to share a fragment and talk to Girl Meets Monster about what really scares him.

Frazer-Lee-stokerawdsFrazer Lee’s first novel, The Lamplighters, was a Bram Stoker Award® Finalist for “superior achievement in a first novel”.

One of Frazer’s early short stories received a Geoffrey Ashe Prize from the Library of Avalon, Glastonbury. His short fiction has since appeared in numerous anthologies including the acclaimed Read By Dawn series.

Also a screenwriter and filmmaker, Frazer’s movie credits include the award-winning short horror films On Edge, Red Lines, Simone, The Stay, and the critically acclaimed horror/thriller feature (and movie novelization) Panic Button.

Frazer is Head of Creative Writing at Brunel University London and resides with his family in leafy Buckinghamshire, England, just across the cemetery from the real-life Hammer House of Horror.

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Three Questions

GMM: At first glance, Emily Vane seems like a typical rich girl with behavioral problems until we reach the last line of your fragment and we realize there is definitely something odd about Emily. What inspired this fragment? Is this a horror story? What do Emily’s pills do?

FL: Emily popped into my head one day and quickly became the lead character in a horror story about a mysterious institution for wayward girls. I hate this first draft opening because it’s so expository and clunky. It zooms in and out too much, one sentence we’re learning about how bored her parents are, and a few sentences later we’re inside her veins. Your question identifies the main problem here, I think: The question of what her pills do is the most interesting aspect at play. It took me a couple of years to answer that question fully, and by the time I did, this story had become what it really wanted to be all along—a horror screenplay. I had to get to the heart of the character and what her deal was, before I could allow the story to flow from her. Now I think it does, and I hope to see that movie someday. If it goes into production, I’ll also finish writing the book for sure!

GMM: What initially drew you to horror? Who did you read or watch that made you decide to become a horror writer and filmmaker?

FL: Late nights alone at my father’s place on weekends left me unattended with a TV set. Very dangerous. I quickly gravitated towards horror because that was all that was on offer. Lucky me! I devoured every Hammer Horror and Universal Monsters double bill going, and actors like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, Ingrid Pitt, Vincent Price… they became like surrogate family to me. Playmates I loved staying up with. Even though horror movies sometimes frightened me, they were also like a cosy blanket to curl up with on Friday and Saturday nights. From there, I found writers like Dennis Wheatley, EA Poe, HP Lovecraft, Nigel Kneale, and a bit later on they in turn led me to Angela Carter, Anne Rice, Clive Barker and Poppy Z. Brite. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the Queen of them all. Directors like Carpenter and Cronenberg were huge influences, as were Bava and Argento. I just had to try and express myself in this genre, there was no point fighting it—nor did I ever want to.

GMM: What scares you? Do you suffer from any phobias?

FL: People scare me. Take for example the man who says he’s not going to cut the trees down, then chops them down when you’re not looking. Him. That one. They are bloody everywhere, men like him. My stories often develop from a phobia of people. But I love people too, so sometimes there’s a happy ending.

Fiction Fragment, by Frazer Lee

Emily Vane sat on the back seat listening to the juggernaut rhythm of her favourite machine-like music. It pumped through her ear buds at a volume that would give her parents cause to worry about her hearing. Not that her parents were in the car, of course – they had seen fit to have her ditched at the latest in a long line of correctional institutions by Bob, their driver.

Bob wasn’t a bad sort; he didn’t look at her in the same lecherous way that his predecessor had, for one thing. Add to that his frivolous nature with cigarettes and Emily had him pinned as an ally. She had badgered him to let her smoke in the car for almost the entire first leg of their long drive from the ornate gates of her parental home but, fearing that her parents would smell the smoke in the car, Bob had pulled over and allowed her to take a smoke break at the service station. She had been tempted to cut and run while Bob took a piss break, but had given up on the idea. Partly out of duty to her driver, who would lose his job if his quarry upped and disappeared, and partly because she had lost count the number of times she’d ran now – it was, in short, beginning to bore her as much as it bored her dear old Mother and Father. So, she sat in the back of the car, ear-shredding music pounding out a tattoo as she watched the countryside pass by in a blur of greens and browns. She felt herself drifting into the whirl of colours, the music pumping in time with the surge of blood through her veins – tributaries that kept her tethered to her body. She felt her veins go numb and she slipped free of them, drifting out of her body and away, over the fields and hills. The sensation trod the fine line between pleasure trip and abject nausea. Emily snapped back into her body and reached into her backpack for her pills.

I don’t know if you noticed, but I like a little romance with my horror. So, next week, romance writer Kenya Wright joins Girl Meets Monster and things will get steamy around here. Stay tuned, and send me your fragments at chellane@gmail.com.

Transformation: My First Tattoo

This weekend I got my first tattoo. This was no impulse body-modification trip to the tattoo shop after too many drinks. I made plans ahead of time with my friend, Dan, to go get tattoos together. Not only did we schedule our sessions a few weeks in advance, but we were both getting tattoos we had contemplated for nearly two decades.

Like myself, Dan is experiencing a time of growth and transition. I won’t go into the details of Dan’s journey, because it isn’t my place to do so. But I will say that his current path has allowed me to gain a treasured friend who is a constant source of strength and inspiration. He insists on showing me a good time when we’re together, and in many ways has gently nudged me to become an even better version of myself. This includes transforming my body through exercise, healthier eating, and now ink.

Dan lives in Pittsburgh, and had gotten his first tattoo from the same artist at Armature Tattoo Co.. First of all, it’s a beautiful shop with lots of interesting artwork on the walls (there’s a mixed media portrait of H. H. Holmes) and on the skin of the four tattoo artists – two men and two women. The shop is well lit, clean, and full of positive energy. I felt comfortable and welcome right away.

Originally, Dan was supposed to get tattooed on Friday night and I was supposed to get tattooed on Saturday night. But when we arrived, the tattoo artist, Jessi, talked to Dan about the fact that his tattoo would need a bit more time for layout and she wanted to suggest some changes to the original design. That meant I was going first. In hindsight, I’m glad things worked out that way, because I didn’t have time to build up any extra fears about getting tattooed. For years, people have been trying to explain what it feels like, but the only way you’re ever going to know is to get one yourself.

Did it hurt? Well, sure. But nothing like I anticipated. I’ve heard people compare getting tattooed to giving birth. Of course, these people have been men who have zero fucking clue what it feels like to have a period, much less the pain associated with labor. I don’t know what that feels like either, because I had a C-section when my son was born. However, I do know what an epidural feels like and the tattoo needle is nowhere near as large a gauge as an epidural needle that gets inserted into the base of your spine.

needle-gauge

To be honest, it was less painful than some of the dental work I’ve had done, and I chose a fleshy part of my body for my first tattoo. There’s quite a bit of blackwork, which was more painful than the line work, but in the hands of a skilled tattoo artist who also has a knack for interesting conversation, the experience was actually pleasant. What really surprised me was the fact that there were certain areas of my skin that felt pleasure in the midst of the pain. My emotional response wavered between joy and catharsis. And, even though the pain wasn’t overly taxing and my session only lasted about 45 minutes, I felt slightly fatigued. I wondered if it was a chemical reaction to continuous pain, regardless of how low-level it was. I mean, was adrenaline being released into my bloodstream in small doses? According to an article on tophealthnews.net, “This Is What Happens To Your Body When You Get A Tattoo!,” I was:

When needles penetrate your body, this is a form of trauma and your body responds in kind. Your Sympathetic Nervous System kicks your fight-or-flight response into gear in response to the pain. The result is a rush of adrenaline.

And, that weird emotional feeling I experienced was probably caused by the release of endorphins.

Endorphins, your body’s natural pain relievers, are also released. These chemicals come directly from the brain, flooding your body. When those endorphins are released, it’s a heady feeling that is sort of intense yet relaxing at the same time.

While fascinating, I wanted to talk less about the science of body chemistry in relation to getting tattooed, and more about why I decided to do it at this point in my life. And, why I chose the image that now decorates my skin.

Like I said, I am not Dan’s publicist, so if you want to know the story behind his tattoo(s), you’ll have to ask him. But, I can show you his before and after pictures from Saturday evening.

You’re probably thinking, “That’s a big fucking tattoo.” And, you’d be right. This first stage of Dan’s tattoo, an artistic spin on Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, took just over 3 hours, and two snacks from the coffee shop up the street, to complete. He has at least one more session to add details to this back piece, but possibly more sessions depending on how detailed he wants the final version to be.

During his 3-hour session, we made jokes about Francis Dolarhyde, the fictional serial killer from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, since the character has an enormous back piece taken from William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon Paintings. We debated about watching Red Dragon, but settled for the first few episodes of season 1 of “Hannibal”.

So, now that you’re super impressed, and potentially creeped out about Dan’s tattoo, let’s talk about mine.

first-tattoo

I first saw the image in a book of essays that deconstruct the various versions of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, aptly titled The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, edited by Jack Zipes. The book is dedicated to the late Angela Carter, one of my writing heroes who happened to write one of my favorite stories about werewolves, “The Company of Wolves.” If you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest that you do. She is famous for her versions of fairy tales, rewritten with an adult audience in mind. If you’re looking for something new to read, and think you might enjoy some erotic literary fairy tales, I’d suggest stopping by your local library and picking up a copy of her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories.

I found Zipes’ book in the library at Hull University. I was studying abroad through an exchange program during my junior year of college, and lived in Hull, England for a year. While I was there, I started becoming more interested in myths, legends, fairy tales and folktales. About the same time I found Zipes book, I also was introduced to The Morphology of the Folktale, by V. Propp. The next thing I knew I was writing all these papers about rape narratives, and cannibalism, and other sexual taboos in fairy tales. That was nearly 25 years ago.

In that time, the meaning of the image has changed for me. When I first saw the drawing in Zipes’ book, I simply saw a woman being held by a werewolf. Sexy, right? I mean, vampires have their sex appeal, but there’s something deliciously primal about werewolves. Not only is the woman being embraced, rather than ravished in the image, but she appears to be happy about it. In fact, it looked as if she had found peace in his arms.

The original artwork was done by Catherine Orenstein (1990), who later wrote Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale. If you’ve ever read any of my other blog posts, you know that I have a special place in my heart for monsters. In fact, monsters can be extremely sexy. Werewolves embody the aspect of the psyche where our signals sometimes get crossed — fighting, fucking and eating all seem to serve the same purpose in the mind of the werewolf — pleasure-seeking at any cost. And the cost may be your life. But in Orenstein’s image, there’s something different happening. The woman isn’t just being held by the werewolf, she’s accepting it in all of its monstrous glory. If she is in fact accepting the werewolf, that also looks a lot like a shadow or darkness itself, brings to mind the idea of making peace with the darker parts of ourselves. Making peace with our demons.

This isn’t my first attempt at transformation in my life. I’ve been trying to reshape myself since I was 12 years old. Weight gain, loss, and regain has been a constant pattern in my life. A few years ago after I gave birth to my son, I lost 70 pounds on Weight Watchers. During one of my meetings I described myself as having a beast that lives inside me that wants to eat all the time. And, sometimes it gets out and loses control. Not unlike a werewolf. It was at this point that I searched for Orenstein’s drawing, because it had a new meaning. I considered getting it tattooed on my body then, but for some reason never went through with it. That was almost ten years ago.

me-tattoo

Back in April I rejoined WW, and since then I have lost 30 pounds. I’m proud of myself for doing that. And, I have made a commitment to myself to continue my journey. I am learning to accept myself — fat, wrinkles, white hair, and all. And, I am relearning what my body is capable of doing. I started running using the C25K app on my phone. I forgive myself when the scale goes in the opposite direction and shows a gain rather than a loss. I am not perfect. I never will be. And, I’m beginning to understand why that’s so fucking amazing. I love my demons. I embrace them. Make peace with them. And by doing so, I am learning to love myself. Now, when I look at the drawing, I see a woman accepting herself. And now is a perfect time for my skin, the skin I am becoming more comfortable in each day, to tell that story. This tattoo is a reminder of my strength. The progress I’ve made. And the journey yet to come. Of course, there will be days when I still do battle with my darkness, but now I’m going to own it and show it some love.