First, I hope you all are doing well and staying safe during this pandemic. It’s a scary time, one made even scarier without knowing what the next steps will be, since they seem to change every day. All we can do is practice social distancing, watch for our symptoms, and help our neighbors near and far as safely as we can.
I know a lot of people have spent their extra time indoors reading. Unnerving is still releasing their Rewind or Die series, and I recently spoke with one of the series’ authors, Jessica Guess. Read on for our conversation about haunted carnivals, blogging, and more.
Sonora: How long have you been writing?
Jessica: Since middle school. I’ve been telling stories for forever though. They started as lies I’d tell my younger cousin to scare her into doing something for me. I’d tell her there was a witch who ate little girls who ate more than three cookies so she’d give me the rest of hers or something like that. I know, I know. Horrible. Those are the earliest stories I remembered telling. I only started writing things down in middle school after this one girl read a poem she wrote in class. I remember thinking if she could do it, I could too. I’ve been writing ever since.
Sonora: Tell us about Cirque Berserk, your novella in Unnerving’s “Rewind or Die” series. What inspired the story? What was it like writing it? Submitting it? Having it published?
Jessica: I was watching The Strangers Prey at Night and that movie was so colorful towards the end and had a great soundtrack. That night I was in bed and I got this image of a character on roller skates doing something horrible to the tune of Rhythm of the Night. I was so jarring and vivid. I had to write it. Not long after, I saw the Rewind or Die call for queries, and it seemed perfect for my story idea. At the time I hadn’t written anything yet, but I had an outline. I decided to query it and the publisher said he’d like to read it. That was around June or July. I wrote all summer and got the manuscript to him by September and he accepted it. I’m really lucky because the story came out very naturally. It wasn’t exactly easy to write, but it was easier than a lot of other long form things I’ve written. I was super proud of the story, but I was also a little shocked that he accepted it because I don’t think a lot of people get my writing. So far, the reactions have been good though.
Sonora: The carnival, a place of joy and delight, is a popular setting in horror. What do you think draws us, as readers and writers, to the carnival as a place of terror?
Jessica: Carnivals are supposed to be fun, but there’s a natural element of terror that goes along with them. Those rides are fun, but if you look closely at how rusted they are, or how maybe there’s a screw a little loose, or that the operator looks a little drunk, it gets scary. That’s the thing about carnivals. You’re supposed to only pay attention to the surface of things and not think too hard because that’s when it gets terrifying. In a carnival, things aren’t what they seem. We all know that, but we ignore the scary part for the sake of fun. Horror is the place where you don’t have to ignore it. You can look it right in the eye.
Sonora: Cirque Berserk is, among other things, a throwback to ‘80s slashers. What are some of your favorite slasher flicks?
Jessica: A Nightmare on Elm Street will always have a special place in my heart. It was the first slasher I remember watching as a kid. It’s what made me obsessed with horror movies. Urban Legend is probably my favorite from the 90’s, followed closely by Scream. I know everyone hates the 4th and 5th Halloween movies or pretend they don’t exist, but I really like those two. There’s a part in the 4th one where Jaime (Michael Myer’s niece) askes Michael to show her his face and weirdly he does. It’s a sweet moment where you think he might not be so evil but then he freaks out and goes back to being a monster. I liked that. Lastly, I mentioned The Strangers Prey at Night earlier. That has to be one of my recent faves.
Sonora: What are some of the unique strengths of slasher stories? What are some of their weaknesses?
Jessica: One thing I love about slashers is that no one debates whether they’re horror movies or not. Almost every other subgenre is re-imagined by non-horror lovers to be something else if the movie/book is considered commercially good. You see that with movies like Silence of the Lambs or Hereditary. No one does that with slashers because they are so purely horror. I love that about them. I also love that they all follow a formula. Sure, you can tinker with it, but it’s usually going to be some teens or young adults who are paying the price for something. Either for something they did or they’ve inherited some type of primordial debt from their parents or people who came before them. There’s also a visceral bad guy that either is or seems to be supernatural. That all kind of leads to their weaknesses though. When you don’t do something to tweak that formula or make it new, it becomes stale. A lot of slasher tropes are so overused that they become cringe worthy.
Sonora: When writing your own slasher, what did you want to add to the genre that you thought had been missing?
Jessica: I’ve always wanted a slasher with a black girl as the main character. That was the main thing for me with Cirque Berserk. I thought, what would I have loved to read when I was 16? What character would have satisfied teenage Jessica? Rochelle was born from that. I also wanted the story to be fun. Slashers are so fun to me. Right now, there seems to be this push to make horror serious and elevated. Sure, we can have that, but let’s not lose the fun stuff. Please. There’s room for all of it.
Sonora: Tell us about your blog, Black Girl’s Guide to Horror. When did you start it? What’s been your experience with it since the launch?
Jessica: Honestly, Black Girl’s Guide to Horror started as a way for me to talk in depth about my love for horror movies. I wanted to offer a perspective I wasn’t seeing a lot of or discuss movies I wasn’t seeing people talk much about. I started it right after I finished my MFA program. I was looking for jobs and that was going horribly, so I decided to do something fun and rage about All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. The most successful post was the one I wrote about the importance Rachel True’s character, Rochelle (yes, my character is named after her) in The Craft. There was all this stuff last year about her not being invited to the panels and conventions that the other three actresses were. It’s ridiculous. And racist. BUST magazine reprinted that post with my permission.
Sonora: As you say on your blog, horror is dominated by white protagonists. How can the horror genre improve its treatment and representation of people of color? Of Black people? Of Black women in particular?
Jessica: I feel like people in power need to ask themselves this question more and then act on it. That would be a first step. If you have a publication, or are a literary agent, or an acquiring editor, or have any other position that creates opportunities, look for writers of color. Look for black women writers. We’re out here. It’s really good that some submission calls specify that they are looking for women and writers of color. Unnerving did that with Rewind or Die and that was the only reason I felt confident enough to submit Cirque Berserk. We’ve been left out and pushed to the side for so long that sometimes it’s hard to believe that anyone wants to give us a chance, so specifying that you want to hear from us is good. Also, hire black women as acquiring editors and literary agents. And believe women of color when they tell you something is harmful or damaging.
Sonora: What are some examples of horror stories — be they books, film, TV, anything — that handle diversity well?
Jessica: This is a hard one to answer because I’m not sure how exactly diversity should be handled. It seems that some people think of diversity as these boxes you have to tick off and the more you check, the more diverse you are. Kinda like, do we have a Black person? Check. An Asian person? Check. A gay person? Check. Wow, three checks. Look how diverse we are. But how are you treating those characters? Are they actually doing anything? To me, diversity is giving different types of people the space to tell their stories. Like the movie What Keeps You Alive. That movie had only white women in it, but it was the first horror movie I had ever seen that revolved around a lesbian relationship. Chambers was a show on Netflix that had the first Native American woman in the lead role. It was a great show that revolved around family, Indigenous lore, and cultural appropriation. My Sister the Serial Killer is a great book I read over the summer about a Nigerian woman trying to cover up her sisters string of murders. What I’m trying to say is that those examples didn’t have those characters in there to fulfill some kind of diversity quota, instead it was about creating stories about people we hadn’t had the opportunity to hear a lot from before.
Sonora: What are some cliches about horror’s treatment of people of color that you never want to see again?
Jessica: The only black character dying first. Please just stop doing that. It’s tired. Also, Native American burial grounds. Stop. I cringe every time.
Sonora: What are you working on now?
Jessica: A story about an iguana apocalypse. I know that makes no sense. It’s set in Florida if that helps. We have an iguana infestation that’s pretty bad. I’m also cooking up a gothic werewolf romance. I know that also makes no sense.
Jessica Guess is a writer and English teacher who hails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She earned her Creative Writing MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2018 and is the founder of the website Black Girl’s Guide to Horror where she examines horror movies in terms of quality and intersectionality. Her creative work has been featured in Luna Station Quarterly and Mused BellaOnline Literary Review. Her debut novella, Cirque Berserk, is for purchase on Amazon.