I’ve greatly enjoyed speaking with so many talented authors in Quoth the Raven. This week, I spoke with Melanie Cossey. Her debut novel, A Peculiar Curiosity, is now available; and she has several other interesting projects in the works. Read on for how she finds inspiration from the Victorian era, what she thinks about Canadian versus American readers, and more.
Bio: As a child, Melanie Cossey delighted in reading stories that left her feeling disturbed, like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.” Her love of the Victorian period combined with her penchant for impactful, unsettling stories nurtured her desire to create troubling tales of gothic horror.
Melanie’s short, “The Nymphalidae,” won Honorable Mention in the Storm Crow Tavern’s 2015 Tales from Beermat Microfiction Contest. Her short fiction pieces have been shortlisted in numerous contests. Melanie’s gothic horror, A Peculiar Curiosity, was released on October 26, 2018 by Fitzroy Books. She is a member of the Horror Writer’s Association.
Sonora: How long have you been writing?
Melanie: I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. My first memory of writing was when I was about five years old and inspired by a Richard Scary children’s book. I thought, Wow, writing looks easy. That night I copied word-for-word all the text from the book into a little exercise book from school. When my dad came to read me a bedtime story, I proudly showed him the book I “wrote.” He looked it over and said with dismay, “No, no, this isn’t right. You have to make up you own stories.” That was an “ah ha” moment for me. I thought about that for a split second and said, “Okay, I can do that!” And my career as a writer was born. I began by writing poems and stories that my dad could read to my younger brother at night, and as I grew, progressed to writing stories for or with friends and even essays to read out at church.
I think what helped inspire me was that my dad was a huge lover of poetry, and as a teen had memorized a fair amount of long poems, which he used to recite to us kids. Added to that were the weekly trips to the library, the nightly story readings, and even trips to see plays and operas. I just grew up totally enmeshed in the literary world. The choice to be a writer was really 100% organic.
Sonora: Tell us more about your novel, A Peculiar Curiosity. What inspired the story? What was your favorite part about writing it?
Melanie: Believe it or not, the story was born from a stick bug incident. In 2011, my fourteen-year-old son and his then girlfriend decided they were going to make money by buying 100 stick bugs from a woman on craigslist and then selling them to turn a profit.
Once my son had the bugs home and set up in a habitat, we began researching them and found out is illegal to sell them. We also found out they are an invasive species and can’t be released into the environment, oh, and they breed like crazy. So here we had these rather scary looking insects that we couldn’t legally, morally, or ethically get rid of, and who, might take over the world as they bred out of control. That left us with a very sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs—a what have we done!? feeling. Of course the writer in me went, “hmmm that might be a great concept for a story. What about a guy who has acquired a “horrible creature” that he can’t ethically or morally dispose of? What would he do?” And thus, the premise for A Peculiar Curiosity was born.
My favourite part about writing it was researching and inserting all the creepy Victorian curiosities into the narrative. The Victorians would collect the most grotesque, unpalatable things. Why? Simply because they were curious and interested in the life around them and in all the reasons why things could go wrong. The Victorians were an interesting bunch. They lived in some of the most deplorable conditions in history, and yet they were always seeking to understand science and the human body and disease, and they had some pretty macabre ways of going about that, as you’ll discover when you read the book.
Sonora: Is A Peculiar Curiosity your first published book? What was your experience like finding, and then working with, a publisher?
Melanie: Yes, A Peculiar Curiosity is my debut novel. I’d taken stabs at writing novels in the past, but APC was the first one I’d gone the distance with (and I have Nanowrimo 2011 to thank for that).
I wrote APC in a few months but then spent the next four years doing the research and trying to make the research and the novel fit together. It took a lot of jiggling but finally I had a good yarn that fit into a factual backdrop. When my manuscript was as polished as I could get it, I began to query agents and pitch my book at writer’s conferences. It met with a lot of interest but it also collected a lot of rejections. Finally, I decided to bypass agents and try knocking directly on the doors of publishers. Not long after that, APC was readily scooped up by Jaynie Royal at Regal House Publishing.
I must say, Jaynie has been an absolute dream to work with. She truly believed in APC from the moment she read it, and has worked tirelessly with me on getting it to market. I don’t want to gush too much, but her insight and attention to APC has been beyond compare. She’s a fabulous content editor and marketer and seems to have non-stop energy. I don’t know how she does it all. After working on APC alone for five years, it was truly amazing to work with a publishing house and get that support. As a publisher, her marketing reach is above and beyond anything I could do myself. I’ve been extremely lucky to have been picked up by this house. Their support for authors, I think, is unmatched in the industry.
Sonora: Your short story for Quoth the Raven, “The Blackwood Article,” was inspired by meeting a very tight deadline for the anthology. Can you tell us more about what went into writing this piece?
Melanie: Laughs. Quoth the Raven had a very tight deadline and although I saw the call for submissions rather early on, I’m afraid I didn’t find the time to write anything. Two days before the submission due date I saw the call again and thought “You know, as a gothic writer, I really shouldn’t let that one go by.”
Although I was crazy busy with final proofreading of APC so it could meet the release date of Oct. 26, I decided I would work like a mad woman to submit for Quoth. On day one of two before the deadline, I read through Poe’s works to try to find a story to base my entry on. By the evening I had decided on “How To Write a Blackwood Article” and it’s companion piece, “The Predicament.”
For those unfamiliar with the two pieces, the first is about a Mr. Blackwood, who invented a formula for writing an article (or short story) that has several criteria, but the most prominent being that the writer must themselves experience a horrific, deathly incident so they may accurately describe the sensations. In “The Predicament,” the character Signora Psyche Zenobia, is decapitated by a clock and describes her own death.
In a flash my story came to me. I would write, really, about myself trying to write a Blackwood article as the submission clock winded down. I literally wrote this story about me trying to write a horror article while following the tenets set out by Mr. Blackwood, in the final hours, nay, minutes of deadline. Much of it pokes fun at how in our “bubble wrapped” world, it is a lot harder to do away with ourselves than it was in Poe’s day, if you wanted to follow some of the same methods as Zenobia did in Poe’s story. As it was, I hit the submit button on this article twelve minutes after midnight, but the lovely Lyn Worthen didn’t disqualify me for being a few minutes past deadline … whew!
Sonora: You live in British Columbia. Do you find that Canadian readers and American readers have different responses to horror? Different tastes?
Melanie: Good question. I had to give this one some thought. Nine times out of ten, when I mention to a stranger that my book is a gothic horror, their eyes light up and they say “Oooo, I LOVE gothic horror!” It’s quite odd. I honestly never expected this response. And this is true whether I’m talking to an American or a Canadian. Gothic horror is more about creepy old mansions and things lurking about in the darkness, sort of your old Vincent Price movies, rather than your “slice-em-up” stories. And this is certainly true with APC.
That said, I have never really noticed a difference between the American and Canadian reader (or viewer) of gothic or general horror. I think because, culturally speaking, there is little difference between American and Canadian entertainment. Pretty much something that is popular in the US will be aired or read in Canada and something that is popular in Canada will make it to American audiences shortly thereafter.
I have noticed a difference in Canadian vs. American humour, but not in horror. I think you’d see more of a difference in say, the North American vs. the Japanese tastes in horror. But Canadian vs. American is too close to notice any separation, in my opinion.
Sonora: What non-literary things inspire your work?
Melanie: Oh, I love old buildings. This is the number one reason why I love gothic horror. You take a house that is one hundred, even two or three hundred years old and boy, you can just imagine all the things that have gone on inside. The joy, the heartbreak, the growth, the illness, the death, the birth, the family triumph and the tragedy. Maybe it’s silly, but I tend to imagine a house absorbing all that energy and holding it, and then later it speaks of it, in whispers. I just recently bought an 80-year-old house and I love it. I know the history of the house and imagine many stories about the people who lived here. Many times my imagination spins off into the dark and macabre, which is the subject of my next story …
I’m also inspired by history, by the forgotten customs of the Victorians, and things they did out of sentimentality that we today would think distasteful and creepy, like making wreaths from the hair of loved ones, and taking photos of our beloved deceased. But deeper than these, history has had some dark chapters. These fascinate me, because I believe that generally, people are good and want to do good, but our dark natures can lead us into some regrettable situations. I like to imagine that people do the wrong things for the right reasons, and these are what I base my characters on. I like to create moralistic characters who take wrong paths because of trying to make good choices, choices that will either save them, or those they love. To me, these are the most interesting sorts of characters, and predicaments.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
Melanie: I love literary writers: the American greats like John Updike, John Irving, and some foreign writers like Vladimir Nabokov, and Isabelle Allende. Of course, I love Poe and my favourite horror writer is Robert Macammon.
I read a fair amount of the Victorian writers, and love Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There are so many good books out there, I can’t possibly choose a favourite but there are some books I’ve read more than once. I’ve read Updike’s “Rabbit” series at least three times. To me, the characters are so alive and multilayered and the writing is just beautiful. I’ve also read some Nabokov books upwards of three times for the same reason. These writers know how to tell a story with the precise words so that the whole thing just bursts alive in your mind.
Oh, and how can I forget she whom I consider the goddess of the gothic voice, Shirley Jackson. Her works … magnificent! We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a favourite of mine and a strong inspiration.
Sonora: Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to tell us about?
Melanie: I have a selection of novels that need editing and honestly, I’m not sure which one I will choose to work on next. One is about a woman in the 1800s whose sexuality lands her in an asylum. It’s actually the story of betrayed friendships. Then there’s a magical realism story I wrote for a 3-day-novel contest, about a young woman who enters into a relationship with an abusive narcissist. I’m also writing another gothic horror that takes place in Chicago during The Great Depression. It’s about a man who joins the mob to provide for his family and, the force that tries to stop him. I’m also attempting to do Nanowrimo. This year my story is about a demon dog. It’s based on this house I moved into. Innocent things, but I’ve mentioned how my mind turns things dark. Mwahaha.
Follow Melanie on Facebook.