Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! As my readers know, I love to infuse romance with my dark fiction. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Without Condition, my second novel; which follows a serial killer as she navigates through her first relationship.
I’m no stranger to sharing passages, but this year, I wanted to do something a little different. Below is me reading a passage from the book, where Cara meets Jackson for the first time. The cover art and sketch that appear in the video were both done by Doug Puller.
My Women in Horror Month interview series continues today with an interview with award-winning author Sara Tantlinger! Read on to learn more about this amazing writer and poet.
Sonora: How long have you been writing poetry? Has your poetry always been infused with horror? When did your verses start to gain a sinister or macabre twist?
Sara: I started writing some very angst-filled poetry back in middle school. It was definitely a way for me to cope with the grief I was feeling at that time to try and deal with the sudden loss of my dad. I am not one to talk about my feelings and inner turmoil a lot, so turning to notebooks and writing became my therapy. I think over the years, poetry has become the most organic way for me to deal with extreme emotions like that. It’s a pure and unfiltered way to write whether the poetry is real or fictional, rage-filled or blooming with love.
Like many others, I started reading Poe in school, which of course inspired me to look more into dark poetry. I began writing horror during college when I was an undergraduate. I took an independent study in horror poetry specifically, and my first few poems were published in my university’s literary magazine. From there, the poems have only grown in their darkness!
Sonora: Tell us about your Stoker-award winning collection, The Devil’s Dreamland. What inspired you to write H.H. Holmes’ story as a series of poems?
Sara: Happily! If anyone reading is not familiar, The Devil’s Dreamland is a collection of poetry that uses a narrative arc format to tell the story of serial killer H.H. Holmes. The poems are often from his point of view but are also told through the viewpoints of his wives, his victims, the city of Chicago, the 1893 World’s Fair, and more. While the book is heavily based off the research I did, it is of course embedded with my fictionalized version of how I imagined things to transpire.
I never imagined that collection would go on to do everything it has, so I am completely honored and thankful to every single person who has read and supported the book. It continues to mean the world. When I started researching Holmes, I came across a lot of books (historical and fictional) about Holmes or inspired by him, and I knew I wanted to try and do something different. I did not find any poetry about him except an odd one here or there, and I also did not see many women writing about him, so it seemed like a great chance to craft a story in the form of poetry. My hope was that it would attract people who normally do not read a ton of poetry, and from the feedback I have received, that seems to have worked for a few folks! Being able to slightly open the gateway to show others how amazing horror poetry can be has honestly been the greatest reward of writing The Devil’s Dreamland.
Sonora: Do you have a favorite poem in The Devil’s Dreamland? I know it’s like asking to pick your favorite child, but if you had to choose …
Sara: Ha! Oh wow, that is tough. Okay, if I had to choose…there is one toward the end titled “Three Wives Dressed in Black.” The reason it stands out to me is because while I was researching and writing this collection, I tried to remain very cognizant of the fact that real humans suffered at the hands of this man. Women lost their lives. While Holmes did not, however, kill any of his three “wives” (quotations because he was only legally married to one of the women) — this poem was a small chance to kind of give the women a strong voice toward the end of the book. There are other pieces where I wrote from the women’s viewpoints because I wanted them to feel tangible to readers, and “Three Wives Dressed in Black” shows the women uniting to curse Holmes and all he has done. Here’s an excerpt from the poem:
“how he tried to keep wives
hidden from one another
like butterflies inside of jars,
but they’ve broken out
shattered the glass
painted themselves in death’s
blood, black veils across
each face, praying
for the mistresses and others
massacred by this madman.
Mourn not for us,
they whisper again
casting the face of each victim
deeper into his mind as the worms
roll loose, melding with his brain
matter, eating through clusters
of nerves, extracting the closest,
botched thing to guilt
they can find”
Sonora: You also write prose fiction. Do you prefer one or the other between poetry and prose? What inspires you to turn an idea into one or the other?
Sara: I really love both, but it takes me a lot longer to plan, draft, organize, and revise a prose project than it does with poetry, but I am aiming to get better at that! Sometimes a poem will inspire a short story, or when I need help getting deeper into a character’s head, I’ll write poetry through their point of view.
Sonora: Your novella, To Be Devoured, follows a woman whose disgusting obsession comes out of her in a multitude of shocking ways. It’s written from her perspective. What was it like putting yourself into such a mindset for the duration of writing it?
Sara: To Be Devoured was my main project that followed The Devil’s Dreamland, so maybe that mindset transpired between projects. By “mindset” I mean locking myself down into a psychopath’s possible thoughts, goals, and desires as closely as I could. For To Be Devoured, specifically, it was one of those glorious moments where a story and a character completely invade your waking hours and demand to be written.
It was certainly interesting to ask myself what Andi, the protagonist, would do in the situations she is in … I really tried to brainstorm what would be logical for someone thinking like she did (obsessed with carrion and understanding the secrets the vultures must be hiding), and while some scenes may have seemed extreme to readers, it was what made sense for Andi’s character and I didn’t want to censor any of that back, no matter how horrifying it was to write.
Sonora: Poetry can sometimes be daunting to people who otherwise love to read. What would you say to someone who wants to read and appreciate more poetry, but isn’t sure where to start? What would you say to that same person if they wanted to write more poetry?
Sara: I believe there is poetry out there for everyone, even the skeptics. Poetry is amazing because you can find poems on almost any topic. For anyone who struggles reading poetry, I might advise to start with some spoken word poetry or watch slam poetry readings — this is a great way to find new voices in poetry, and if you like listening to these types of readings, then you might enjoy reading more from those writers.
For anyone who wants to write poetry but is not sure where to start, I think my advice would be the same to any new writer out there: read. Read as much as you can. Read the classics and read contemporary. Read the poems aloud to yourself and get to know how your words interact on the page. You do not have to study formal poetry to be a strong poet, but I do think having a working knowledge of the basics is a great stepping stone to finding out what works for you as a creator.
Sonora: What have been your experiences in horror as a woman author? In poetry as a woman poet?
Sara: I feel lucky that 98% of the time I have had positive experiences within the horror community. I am very aware that is not the case for every woman or minority in the genre. I try really hard to surround myself with encouraging, honest, and supportive people so that makes a huge difference, but sometimes you never know what someone’s motive could be. I am humbled and lucky by the positivity I have experienced, so I do my best to continually pay that forward however I can.
Sonora: How can the literary fields you’ve worked in and read stories in be better about their treatment of women?
Sara: When posting guidelines and open calls, take an extra minute to write something like “minorities encouraged to submit” — it’s a small line that does not exclude anyone from submitting, but also shows writers that diversity is welcome here. We need diverse voices in all forms of literature and genre work.
I’d also encourage anyone writing in a different voice than their own, to use beta readers and sensitivity readers with those experiences. For example, I have no problem with a male author writing from the perspective of a woman character, but ask women to read your work and get honest feedback.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite poets? What are some of your favorite poems? What are some of your favorite poetry collections?
Sara: In regard to classic favorites, I draw a lot of inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, and Sylvia Plath. Some of my favorites in contemporary poetry are Linda Addison, Sierra DeMulder, Richard Siken, Claire C. Holland, Donna Lynch, David Cowen, Christina Sng, and so many more! There are really a lot of amazing poets out there right now.
One of my favorite collections I read recently was The Demeter Diaries by Marge Simon and Bryan Dietrich. What a stunning piece of work.
Two of my all-time favorite poems are Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” — I have lines from both poems tattooed on me!
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
Sara: Some of my favorite contemporary writers are Catherynne Valente, Clive Barker, Gillian Flynn, Caroline Kepnes, Gwendolyn Kiste, Sarah Read, Nicholas Day, Christa Carmen, Thomas Harris, Mike Arnzen, Hailey Piper, Brooke Warra, and Paul Tremblay, and about a million more folks I’m sorry I didn’t shout out here (I could go on forever).
Some of my all-time favorite books are Valente’s Deathless, [Bram] Stoker’s Dracula, and [Stephen] King’s Misery.
Sonora: What are you working on right now?
Sara: Currently I am working on Cradleland of Parasites, my next poetry collection that will be out later this year from Strangehouse Books. It draws a lot of inspiration from the Black Death, but I’ve been researching other plagues, viruses, and diseases as well. My internet search history kind of looks like I’m trying to create a virus to wipe out humanity at the moment. But I really love historical horror, and this project has been a huge learning experience about how the Black Death irrevocably affected society, culture, art, literature, and more after it brought down such great tragedy.
I have a few other projects in the oven, including a novella I am co-writing with Matt Corley, which will become a part of his Whispers in the Dark series of investigative RPG horror. It’s such a different kind of project for me to be involved in, and I am thrilled about its potential.
And of course I have to promote that my first edited anthology, Not All Monsters, will be out in the fall from Strangehouse Books and features stories by 21 incredible women in horror!
About Sara Tantlinger:
Sara Tantlinger is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes. She is a poetry editor for the Oddville Press, a graduate of Seton Hill’s MFA program, a member of the SFPA, and an active member of the HWA. Her other books include Love for Slaughter and To Be Devoured. Her poetry, flash fiction, and short stories can be found in several magazines and anthologies, including The Twisted Book of Shadows, Sunlight Press, Unnerving, and Abyss & Apex. She embraces all things strange and can be found lurking in graveyards or on Twitter @SaraJane524 and at saratantlinger.com
February is Women in Horror Month. Every Tuesday this month, I’ll be featuring an interview with an excellent woman in horror!
Today, I’m featuring Robyn Citizen. Robyn works with the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and has her PhD in Genre and Race Film Studies; with a special interest in horror and sci-fi. Read on to learn more about this amazing woman and the work she’s done in film and film study.
Sonora: You have your PhD in Genre and Race Film Studies (which sounds amazing). When did you first become interested in film as art? As commentary? As academic study?
Robyn: I became interested in film very young because I come from a family of movie watchers. My dad — history buff — in particular liked to watch older films and go on about the history around their release and how they were received. So I knew who Hitchcock was at an early age and since I was born liking horror and scary things, he was the filmmaker who stuck with me as I watched movies with my parents.
I’ve always had both an analytical and fan approach to films and wrote movie reviews for my high school newspaper, but was a Government major in university because I didn’t know that you could make a living in film outside of film production (turns out you can’t for the most part lol). I worked for a social justice nonprofit after graduating and hemmed and hawed between going to law school or grad school for film. When I got into NYU for Cinema Studies that made my decision for me! I earned my PhD with honours in 2015.
Sonora: As a fellow film studies student, I’m curious about your thoughts on the current state of film academia. What’s lacking in an average film studies program? What do these programs do well?
Robyn: At NYU I always thought it was weird how separate they kept film studies from film production. I wanted to take editing classes and it was discouraged. I had to get internships at production companies and talent agencies to apply what I was learning to the day-to-day workings of the industry. Also, depending on the film studies program they don’t concentrate enough on professionalization and what you can do outside of academia because there are not enough professor positions to justify the number of people with humanities postgrad degrees, unfortunately; so we have to find other places to go! What academia does well is allow you to really specialize and do a deeper dive into your niche of choice. Who else would let me write at length about representations of blackness in japanese cinema?
Sonora: What is a dream course you would teach? Conversely, what have been some of your favorite courses that you have taught?
Robyn: Asian Horror Cinema was my baby, I proposed it to the Department of Asian Studies at UBC [University of British Columbia] and they approved it. I built the curriculum and screening list on my own. It was my favorite class to teach as a horror fan and as someone who is mainly interested in transnational, cross-cultural encounters in film, but Korean Cinema was a close second. I taught that latter course for the better part of five years so I am beyond thrilled to see what’s happening for Bong Joon-ho since I would teach Memories of Murder in every semester of Korean cinema and gush about how it was a perfect film and how he was The Korean Director of his generation.
Sonora: You say you have a penchant for erotic thrillers from the ‘90s. What do you love about them? What are some of your favorites?
Robyn: And the 80s! Erotic thrillers genuinely have interesting roles for women — not positive roles necessarily but complex, interesting, powerful. They tend to directly confront how sexuality for women is punished or transactional in this society in a way that most rom-coms only address obliquely or accidentally. This definitely has roots in my affection for Lifetime movies and the woman-in-peril TV movie genre which I grew up watching on cable. Also, these films are totally over the top which makes the woman’s punishment seem less egregious somehow because its already bracketed by the unreality of the film. The histrionics draw attention to the films’ own problematic characterizations and plot twists.
I remember seeing Jagged Edge AND Fatal Attraction in the theatre with my parents — I was 5 and 7, so not my parents best parenting choices for sure; but they had a big effect on me. And of course Jeff Bridges is the seducer in Jagged Edge while Glenn Close is the slow-on-the-uptake dupe so that gender flip was very productive for me when I rewatched the film as a tween. I also love The Last Seduction and Basic Instinct as the peak quality works of the subgenre, and Body of Evidence and Sliver as truly dumber, yet hilarious examples of the subgenre.
Sonora: How long have you been interested in horror films?
Robyn: My whole life! But horror literature came first for me. I’m hyperlexic and was reading at 2, then onto dark fairy tales, then Fear Street and Christopher Pike books, then Stephen King books by 9. One year later I watched Nightmare on Elm Street 3 at a sleepover and it utterly blew. my. mind. I was an anxious kid and still an anxious person and somehow horror’s worst case scenarios are therapeutic for me to watch. It’s a safe space to play out what I would do if the Worst Case came to pass.
Also, Stephen King in particular resonated with me as a black girl growing up in the U.S. because his stories are all about familiar, even friendly things — cars, dogs, drains, cameras, libraries — becoming menacing. It may sound funny because he’s not known for his balanced crafting of characters of colour in The Green Mile and The Shining for example. However, the experience of being a racialized person in Texas was one of doing regular things throughout your day, but being constantly confronted by micro and macro-aggressions as you move through the world. I’d be around people and friends I thought I was cool with and suddenly someone would tell a racist joke or ask a crazy question or I’d be singled out to be followed in a store — people having such a strong reaction to you simply existing in a certain body is a surreal, often horrific and violent experience.
Sonora: Recent films like Get Out and Us have opened up new conversations about Black horror films, but Black horror has been around for much longer than 2017. What are your thoughts on the way Black people and their experiences are treated in horror films? What do you think is done well? What do you think could be done better?
Robyn: I think black characters are not treated as badly in horror films in terms of the popular discourse about us always dying first. However, it’s more relational about how we die and then how are those deaths treated in the text of the film? Do the other characters just move on without registering it or is the death solely to advance the plot? Is it much more gory and focused on facial suffering and abject fear than other deaths? That’s the real issue for me and something that overlaps with non-final girl white women characters in horror films. Horror tells us a lot about who is valued in our culture and what traits are valued in our culture, what is worthy of protection and what is disposable.
Generally, horror films don’t deal directly with black experiences, rather those experiences are allegorized and mapped onto the monsters — the things that make them monstrous and their outsider quality are the traits that racist culture has historically associated with blackness. Get Out is not the first horror film to use black experiences but it is one of the first mainstream horror films to be so explicit about depicting whiteness — the historical construct and how it is practiced — as something monstrous.
Sonora: You also study Asian cult cinema. What are some of your favorites? How do Asian cult films compare to American cult films? In your experience, how do audience reactions to both compare?
Robyn: Some of my fave Asian cult films are Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, and Mystics in Bali. It’s hard to say how Asian cult films as a group compares to American cult films because there is such a wide range of what constitutes “cult”. But in my experience sexploitation and sexual violence seems to feature in more Asian cult films (and European ones) than American cult which are often given that designation for transgressive gore, body horror, and cheesiness or kitschy elements related to production value and ironic reception.
Sonora: What have been your experiences as a Black cinema studies professor and doctoral student? What have been your experiences as a woman?
Robyn: I was the only black student in my M.A. and PhD program and while I made some friends in those programs and there was one black tenured prof who was great, it was a very lonely experience. Particularly challenging is when you choose a dissertation topic that is partially based on your identity and only one other person in the program is well-versed in that literature.
My proposal process was a mess. I had to frontload it with all this literature review and arguments that black-Japanese cinematic encounters were an actual thing, and something that could be traced and studied because there weren’t any book-length texts on black-Japanese cinematic encounters in the film studies canon. I incorporated a lot of sociological information and political history in my project and there was resistance to that as well. The professor leading the proposal seminar chose to tell me that my proposal likely would not pass two weeks before it was due. I ended up rewriting everything 3 times before the proposal defense, which I passed.
I really wish that me and the other women in my cohort had been more of a unified group but it was very “every scholar for him or herself” and people were more concerned with networking. The offshoot of this emotionally and professionally alienating experience was that I worked very hard to perfect my dissertation and therefore, my defense was very relaxed and short. My committee mostly spent time complimenting my prose and my project — I couldn’t believe it because it had been such a torturous process! — before telling me that I passed with distinction.
My grad school experience had a good outcome on paper but was also quite traumatic, and I struggle with imposter syndrome and serious anxiety around writing that did not exist prior to grad school, to this day. My advice to other women of color and white women is to find your people as soon as you can and form writing support groups or even ‘whine and wine venting sessions’ (these exist apparently!) and yes, zero in on mentors that can help you professionalize and understand how your racial, gender identities will affect your career trajectory. Friends that have done these things have come out of their M.A. and PhD programs in a much better place and even find tenure-track appointments faster.
Sonora: What are some of your favorite movies? Who are some of your favorite directors?
Robyn: I have a rotating list of fave movies but the ones that have been most influential to me are: Sex, Lies and Videotape by [Steven] Soderbergh, Blue by Krzysztof Kieslowski, and She’s Gotta Have It by Spike Lee. Probably add Nightmare on Elm Street 3 to that!
Right now my favorite directors are Masaki Kobayashi, Hong Song-soo, Bong Joon-ho, Agnes Varda, Charles Burnett, Mary Harron, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Byun Young-joo, David Cronenberg, and I’m very excited to see more from Nia DeCosta and Carol Nguyen.
Sonora: What are some of your favorite books? Who are some of your favorite authors?
Robyn: I was in a real Stephen King and Haruki Murakami rut for years because I prefer short stories and horror/weird fiction, both of which can be really bad in the wrong hands; so it was easier to stick to the people who I know do it well. Short stories are a more precise medium in my opinion. But, I became increasingly annoyed with Murakami’s portrayal of women in his later works so I had to branch out. Finally, this year I’ve discovered other writers! I’ve been enjoying Tananarive Due, Eden Royce, Carmen Maria Machado, Charles Yu, Nnedi Okorofor, Ted Chiang, Octavia Butler, Ramsey Campbell, and others. These aren’t new writers but they’re new to me!
Sonora: If you were in charge of making a movie — your perfect movie — what would it be about? What would its style be?
Robyn: Even though I’m a genre person when I write creatively what comes out are these chamberplay type dramas with surreal elements. It would probably look like a cross between a Hong Sang-soo film, [Ousmane] Sembene’s Black Girl and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant – very precise framing and blocking.
About Robyn Citizen:
Robyn Citizen, PhD is the International Programmer for Short Cuts at the Toronto International Film Festival. Her primary programming interests are in representations of race, ethnicity and national identity and the horror/science-fiction genres. She was a lecturer in the departments of Asian Studies and Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia from 2012-2017, has written critical analyses for edited collections, is board co-chair of Breakthroughs Film Festival, and served on juries for the Philadelphia Film Festival, Reelworld Film Festival, and the Norwegian Short Film Festival.
I have a new story up on Spreading the Writer’s Word for the monthly flash picture prompt challenge! Check out “Slate,” a tale with a tip of the nib to one of my favorite horror films, “Carnival of Souls.”
The Ladies of Horror
Picture-Prompt Writing Challenge!
Slate by Sonora Taylor
All around Matilda, the carnival was slate. She remembered the merry-go-round as a world full of color and light. Now though, she walked through the abandoned fairgrounds and only saw steel and shadow. A forgotten wooden horse stared at her with beady eyes of black. What had happened?
She only remembered walking through a tent with faded red and yellow stripes. The one with the clown that beckoned her from the entrance. Matilda had never been afraid of clowns. She had no reason to fear this colorful figure’s invitation, no reason to anticipate the sharp blade that pierced her shoulders the minute the tent flap closed behind her.
When the pain receded, Matilda wandered back outside and saw the carnival abandoned. She looked for her mother, and then for anyone. No one was there. When she reached the merry-go-round, its…
Next month is Women in Horror Month 2020! GET EXCITED!
Women in Horror Month (WIHM) celebrates women’s contributions to the horror genre. Be it through books, films, television, scholarship, or fandom, women keep the genre alive and kicking — and fresh.
One of the best and most obvious ways to celebrate WIHM is to add plenty of women in horror to your reading queue! Not sure where to start? Below, I’m sharing my recommended reads list for WIHM, as well as my own TBR (to be read) list for February.
Sonora’s Recommended Reads for Women in Horror Month
Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
The Erotic Modern Life of Malinalli The Vampire by V. Castro
Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Monster, She Wrote by Lisa Kröger and Melanie Andersen
White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
The Cult Called Freedom House by Stephanie Evelyn
F4 by Larissa Glasser
Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel by Loren Rhoads
Breathe. Breathe by Erin Sweet al-Mehairi
The Devil’s Dreamland by Sara Tantlinger
I Am Not Your Final Girl by Claire C. Holland
Dear Laura by Gemma Amor
Sacrificial Lambs and Others by Sheri White
And for those who are curious, here’s what I’m planning to read for WIHM 2020:
Severance by Ling Ma
Whispers in the Dark by Laurel Hightower
Hairspray and Switchblades by V. Castro
The Strange Crimes of Little Africa by Chesya Burke
The Possession of Natalie Glasgow by Hailey Piper
Poems of My Night by Cina Pelayo
The Party by Lisa Hall
I will also be commemorating WIHM by featuring interviews on this very blog with women in horror. Stay tuned!
What are you planning to read? Let me know in the comments!
DCCK is a local community kitchen which trains jobless adults in food prep and service. They hire several of their volunteers for full-time work and train many more for careers in the food service industry. They also provide meals for homeless shelters, schools, and nonprofits. Learn more about DC Central Kitchen here.
Please Give takes place at a fictional anti-hunger nonprofit in D.C. It follows Beth Harmon, a 28-year-old woman whose dreams of working for the greater good clash with both her hectic office environment and her own struggles with anxiety. It’s my first novel, and both a funny and sobering take on what it means to follow your passion into the workforce.