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?

Do the Writers of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Think We’re Stupid?

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Last night I watched an episode from season one of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow that defied all logic. I’m not talking about the fact that the main story arc focuses on a band of lesser-known “heroes” on a mission to defeat an immortal villain with the help of a spaceship that functions as a time machine. No. I’m talking about the fact that the writers of episode 8, “Night of the Hawk,” expected us to suspend our disbelief enough to accept that the characters were completely uninformed about the history of gender, racial, and sexual orientation politics, and therefore, woefully unprepared for the sexism, racism and homophobia lurking in 1958 small town America.

Really DC?

Here’s Netflix’s synopsis of the episode:

In 1950s Oregon, Professor Stein and Sara go undercover at a hospital where Savage is working, suspecting that he’s behind a recent string of murders.

As you might guess, the synopsis does little to prepare anyone for what ACTUALLY happens in the episode. So, here’s my synopsis. And, um, as usual, spoilers, Sweetie.

Michelle’s more realistic synopsis of the episode:

True, Professor Stein and Sara do go undercover at a hospital to track down Vandal Savage. What the synopsis fails to mention is that Sara is shocked and openly annoyed by the fact that a doctor in 1950s Oregon makes sexual advances toward her while dressed as a nurse. Has she never seen an episode of Mad Men?

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Later, Sara flirts with another nurse who magically turns out to be a closeted lesbian. Sara tries to convince her to come out of the closet and again is shocked that the other woman has reservations about being out.

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Do you expect us to believe that a young, attractive white woman, regardless of the fact that she’s a former member of Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Assassins, has never had unwanted sexual advances from men? She’s never been discriminated against for being a lesbian? She has no knowledge of the Stonewall Riots that are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year? She’s never encountered a discussion of Queer Politics, gender identity, or the history of the LGBTQ+ movement?

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While Sara is attempting to seduce Nurse Betty, Professor Stein, who was in college in the 1970s, somehow fails to realize that bringing Firestorm along to investigate the disappearances/murders of locals in the small mainly white town in Oregon might cause some problems.

But, what really confused me was the fact that Firestorm takes it upon himself to sit at the counter of a white-owned restaurant and begin a conversation with a white girl he’s never met before. Equally confusing, is her almost immediate acceptance of the situation as if strange young Negroes talk to her every day.

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Do you really expect us to believe that a young black man living in 2016 America has never encountered racism? Never? And, that as a person of color living in the United States, he’s never heard of the history of oppression and racism that stems from slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and the deaths of people seeking freedom during the Civil Rights Movement? He’s never heard or seen people’s disapproval of black men talking to white women in social situations? Horseshit. It is dangerous to be a person of color in America and not be tuned in to your history. I find it highly improbable that his mother, a widowed single parent, never had The Talk with him.

While we’re on the subject of segregation (which was omitted from the episode), let’s take a look at the burgeoning romance between Atom and Hawkgirl. In 2016 interracial relationships are common. But, in 1958 they were illegal. So, when this gorgeous couple shows up to purchase a house together as husband and wife, you can imagine the realtor’s confusion. At least, you should understand it if you have a clue about America’s history of segregation and Jim Crow Laws.

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Not only was interracial marriage banned in all 50 states (Anti-Miscegenation Laws), but people of color were not encouraged (that’s an understatement by the way) to move into white neighborhoods. Oddly enough, this didn’t occur to either character. Now, to be fair, this may be Atom’s first interracial relationship. Still, he’s supposed to be an incredibly smart dude. He’s never read a book or seen a film about 1950s America with black characters? I mean, it’s possible, but unlikely.

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And, while we’re one the subject, DC also wants us to believe that a woman of color who I assume has dated, or at the very least found herself attracted to other white males, has never experienced racism because of her choice in lovers. DC also wants us to believe she isn’t aware of the fact that interracial marriage was illegal until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down all state laws banning interracial marriage as violations of the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment in the landmark case Loving v. Virginia.

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Seriously?

While this episode drove me nearly insane, I’m going to keep watching this ridiculous series. Why would I continue to watch a series that negates the realities of people living (and dead) in the United States who deal with racism, sexism, and homophobia? That’s a great question. And here’s my ridiculous answer.

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I absolutely adore John Constantine, and was heartbroken when NBC canceled the series starring Matt Ryan. So, when I discovered that one of my favorite DC Comic heroes (portrayed by an actor who is perfect for the role) returned to TV as a recurring character in this series, I signed on to watch.

Is it irresponsible of me to continue watching this absurd series given the unbridled whitewashing and heteronormalizing of the characters? Most likely. Am I going to stop watching the show because it is personally offensive and insults my intelligence? Probably not.

Honestly, if I stopped watching shows for those reasons, I’d have to stop watching A LOT of TV shows. I am almost ashamed to say that I will continue to watch this train wreck simply because John Constantine is back. Will I continue to examine the narratives and be completely aware of how flawed they are in recognizing the struggles of people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ communities? Well, of course I will.

As a woman of color who has had a life-long love affair with speculative fiction, this isn’t the first time I’ve been offended by the absence or misrepresentation of specific identities, including my own. And to be perfectly honest, I doubt that experience will end anytime soon. Occupying certain identities while loving a particular genre can be complicated at times. Writers like the ones creating the narrative of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow aren’t the only voices telling tales about superheroes and other speculative fiction characters. Even if you continue to enjoy the stories that don’t include your lived experience, you can also seek out stories that do.