Midnight Gathering Halloween Zine

I’m excited to announce that my short story “Ms. Weaver’s Halloween Candy” is going to appear in a Halloween-themed zine called Midnight Gathering.

“Ms. Weaver’s Halloween Candy” is a Stephen King style take on the trope of the creepy older woman, by which I mean that it’s more about character-driven family drama than it is about violence and shock value. The protagonist is a fourteen-year-old girl who’s trying to deal with a rough patch in her life by investigating a rumor that a woman in her neighborhood makes her Halloween candy out of cats, and she inadvertently discovers that what’s actually going on is much more sinister. As someone who tends to root for the villains, I did my best to portray everyone involved in the most sympathetic light possible while still imbuing the story with a sense of creeping dread, and I’m very proud of the ending.

I started becoming interested in the Minotaur myth in 2017 while exploring Hyrule Castle in Breath of the Wild, and this is the first original story I’ve written that references it. I’m the sort of writer who has to tell the same story in a dozen different ways before I feel like I understand it, so it’s something I’ll definitely return to in the future.

This is not my first piece of original fiction to be published, but it’s the first that’s going to appear in print (fingers crossed). Perhaps 35 is a bit old to be celebrating this, but whatever. I was publishing nonfiction during my twenties, and the paths people take through life aren’t set in stone. It does feel a bit strange to be the “old” person in the room on zine Discord servers, but it’s also quite nice to see my writing appear alongside the work of up-and-coming artists who contributed a plethora of unique and interesting illustrations to the publication.

You can check out Midnight Gathering on Twitter (here). They’re going to be posting previews of the art and writing appearing in the zine every day for the rest of October, so it’s a good Halloween vibe. If you’re interested in picking up a copy of the zine, which will be shipping in December, you can pre-order it (here).

Mount Hiei

My story “Mount Hiei,” a dark fantasy about two young monks navigating the eerie twilight years of the Heian period, was just published in Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, a special issue of the journal White Enso. The issue is currently ongoing and free to read online (here), and “Mount Hiei” is on (this page).

In this story, a ten-year-old boy becomes an apprentice monk on Mount Hiei, which houses a temple that has been tasked with protecting the nation. The boy grows accustomed to monastic life but never becomes comfortable with the statues of the monstrous Guardian King venerated by the other monks. When he discovers a secret door leading into the mountain, he comes to understand why the deity is depicted in such a frightening manner – as well as what “protecting the nation” actually entails.

Mount Hiei is a real place, as is Enryaku Temple, which serves as the setting of this historical horror story. To the best of my knowledge, the practical details of monastic life are accurate for the time period. I was inspired by the fiction of the Japanese author Ken Asamatsu, who applies a Lovecraftian sensibility to Japanese mythology and folklore, and I wrote this story from a place of admiration and respect for the medieval war epic The Tales of the Heike, on which it’s very loosely based.

By the way, the editors of White Enso are still looking for personal essays and original fiction for the 100 Ghost Stories Kaidankai project. Although they’re selective, they accept shorter and more casual pieces, and the submission process is very chill and relaxed. The editors are a pleasure to work with, and they’ll also create a podcast recording of your writing! If you’re interested, you can send your submission (here).

Apartment Hunting

I moved to Philadelphia earlier this year. The circumstances weren’t ideal, and I only had a few days to find an apartment. I went on a few tours of large buildings and fancy condos, all of which were way out of my budget. Besides, I wouldn’t want to live in a place like that anyway.

I decided to pursue a different strategy. Instead of looking for listings online, I drove through several neighborhoods and took photos of places with For Rent signs outside. I sat in my car, made a list of phone numbers, and agreed to meet with anyone who picked up when I called.

This was how I found myself standing on the sagging porch of an old townhouse in West Philly with ornamental spires above the windows and a historic registry plaque beside the front entryway. A woman with a colorless suit and a severe haircut met me at the door and handed me a blank application form. Just in case, she said.

The interior was much larger than I expected. I’d never been inside a townhouse before, and I wasn’t prepared for how far back the hallway would stretch. The doors were strangely small, and the ceiling seemed far too high. This must be the building’s historic character, I told myself. Local color. The realtor wasn’t interested in conversation, so I stopped to take a picture of the crown molding, which was ornamented with carvings of infinitely spiraling vines.

When I looked up from my phone, I realized that I was alone. The hallway in front of me was dark, so I turned around and began walking back the way I came.

There were more turns and staircases than I remembered. As I walked, the floor grew spongy underneath my feet. My shoes made unpleasant squelching noises with every step. I started to notice that there were small mushrooms crouching in the corners of the walls and creeping up the support beams between doors.

I swallowed my embarrassment and called out to the realtor, but no one answered. I tried dialing the number printed on the For Rent sign, but no one picked up. I was lost, I realized. I’d somehow lost my way outside. At least I still had the application form.

It’s not so bad, all things considered. I was alarmed at first, but I’ve gotten used to it, and it’s not as if there’s anything I can do. I guess I live here now.

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This was my submission to the 2020 Philly Zine Fest Anthology. You can download a free PDF copy of the anthology (here). The Philly Zine Fest is held in West Philadelphia every November, and you can stay updated on Twitter (here).

Haunted Houses

Earlier this week I published my newest zine of horror-themed microfiction. Haunted Houses contains fifteen very short stories about haunted spaces and the terrible people who inhabit them. The cover art is by @QuinkyDinky, and the zine contains interior art by @irizuarts. I’ve got a listing up on Etsy (here), and I’m also promoting the zine on Twitter (here) and Instagram (here).

This zine is quite short, with each story and illustration occupying only one page. This is partially a trick of formatting, but it’s also a result of careful editing. You wouldn’t want to spend too much time in these places, after all.

I have to admit that, even though I’m categorizing this zine and the two other collections of microfiction that preceded it as “horror,” I’m on the fence about what genre my stories actually belong to.

In my mind, the genre of horror isn’t about a specific set of tropes or narrative structures. Rather, horror is characterized by the psychological and visceral sensation of unease it inspires.

I personally prefer to think of most horror, including the stories I write, as “dark fantasy,” or perhaps simply “magical realism.” I’m not easily creeped out by fiction, mainly because the real world is so lowkey awful so much of the time. As I write this, the National Guard is setting up base at a West Philadelphia Target in advance of the presidential election next week, ostensibly as a “defense” against people engaging in civic protest. There are actual tanks in the parking lot of the place I go to stock up on toilet paper, and that’s really scary. But monsters? Not so much.

I’ve always tended to identify with monsters, and not simply because so many villain characters are overtly coded as queer. Monsters are about disrupting the status quo, and I can get behind that. Postwar American horror cinema, including the slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s, is all about interlopers quietly invading small-town America and infecting people. The story behind many of these movies basically boils down to this: Can you even imagine scary things like communism and feminism and civil rights secretly gaining a foothold in our town? (Stephen King goes into fantastic detail about this in his 1981 book Danse Macabre, if you’re curious, and I think the book still reads well and holds up in many ways.)

To me, monsters aren’t scary because I am the monster, which is an uncomfortable set of life experiences to try to talk about in fiction or otherwise. There’s nothing you can specifically put your finger on regarding why people treat you the way they do, but you know there’s something a little off.

Fuck Sigmund Freud and his weird misogyny and homophobia, but I think I’m on the same page with him regarding “the uncanny” as one of the primary components of horror. Freud got a lot of things wrong in his career, but something he gets absolutely right is that it’s difficult to discuss the uncanny in concrete terms.

The uncanny doesn’t just apply to appearance, of course – social interactions and environments can be uncanny as well. If what I’m writing is horror at all, it probably falls into the subcategory of social horror, which focuses on people behaving in a way that’s almost human, but not quite. Many horror stories are cathartic, in that the status quo is threatened but ultimately restored at the end. Even if things have changed, we can feel relief in the knowledge that at least they’re getting back to normal. With social horror, however, our anxiety is never resolved, because we now understand that the status quo itself is horrifying.

It’s difficult for me to talk about the details of my identity and life in a mimetic way. When I’ve tried, it’s been my experience that people either won’t believe me, will think I’m being manipulative in an attempt to elicit undeserved sympathy, or will be put off by the political elements underlying my descriptions of the ways in which I’ve had to move through the world.

The point of the stories in Haunted Houses is not to try to explain why certain aspects of my life have been unsettling, but rather to create a sense of the uncanny in order to communicate the sense of feeling unsettled for reasons you can’t quite explain. Sometimes my stories about haunted houses are about the hidden trauma of being queer in a society that goes out of its way to create monsters; but, in the end, I just really like telling stories about strange people occupying uncomfortable places. I enjoy exploring these themes both as a reader and as a writer, and I’ve found that summoning the courage to open the door and peer into the darkness on the other side is, if not total escapism, still good spooky fun.

And right now, at this specific moment in time, I think we can all relate to the uncanny experience of feeling trapped in a haunted space, because this is our daily life – we live here now.

It Never Happened

It Never Happened is my second zine of horror-themed flash fiction. It collects fifteen very short stories, as well as a spooky comic (that you can find here) by the artist Frankiesbugs.

This is the zine description:

This zine collects fifteen short stories about finding oneself in strange circumstances and adjusting to a new normal. Nothing that takes place in these stories actually happened, of course. Most of what transpires is a little creepy, but it’s important to remember that none of this is real. If you read these stories, you might not be real either, but don’t let that stop you.

I love autobio comics, and a lot of these stories came from my failed attempts to write comic scripts. What I realized during this process is that it’s very difficult for me to talk about myself. Although I obviously have no trouble sharing my opinions, I never know what to say when I try to describe my own life. All of the stories in this zine are based on real experiences; but, as the title suggests, none of this ever actually happened.

Or rather, that’s not entirely true. One of these stories is 100% factually accurate, but I’m not going to say which one.

If you’re interested, there are still a few copies of this zine (on Etsy).

Haunted Haiku

Haunted Haiku collects of 147 horror-themed haiku. Some are eerie, some are elegiac, some are homages to cult horror films, and some are just weird.

This zine is fifty pages long and standard half-letter size. This was my first time printing a zine with perfect binding (in which the pages are glued instead of stapled together), and I underestimated how large the interior margins need to be. I’m almost sold out of this zine (although there are still a few copies left on Etsy), but I’m going to change the font size if I ever end up doing a reprint.

The cover art is by the Australian writer, illustrator, and comic artist Sarah Winifred Searle (@swinsea on Twitter). It was an incredible honor to be able to work with her! It was actually Sarah who came up with the title of this zine. I was going to call it “Horror Haiku” (like my other two haiku zines), but Sarah suggested that “Haunted Haiku” might sound nicer. She was right, of course, which is one of the many reasons why it’s always wonderful to collaborate with artists on projects like this.

In any case, this is the first zine I took to be sold at Atomic Books in Baltimore, which is one of my favorite independent bookstores in the world. One of the reasons I love Atomic Books is that their shelves of zines are the first thing you see when you walk in the door, which makes you feel as if you’re stepping into a unique and special space. Anyone can buy books on Amazon, which is why I appreciate when independent bookstores use their physical location as a way to bring an actual community of writers and readers together. Getting an email from Atomic Books saying that they would be interested in receiving a few copies of this zine is definitely one of the coolest things to happen to me this year.

Digital Commonplace Book

It’s disappointing how you can have epic, cinematic dreams with fascinating characters and complicated stories, but then you wake up and all you remember is “I was being chased.”

Last night I had a really cool dream. I woke up in the middle of the night because I had to use the bathroom, and I thought, “There are parts of that dream that didn’t make sense.” I then went back to bed and had the entire dream again, this time with all of the plot holes fixed.

I just woke up and turned on my laptop to get everything down, but all I have is: “There was a small town in the woods of upstate New York that no one could enter or leave without making a blood sacrifice.”

Goddamn it.

I also sometimes have dreams about video games in which I will actually be playing a fully realized game (usually a Zelda clone) with gorgeous system-specific graphics and creative play mechanics, but then when I wake up I won’t remember anything except “you had to solve a puzzle involving differently colored mushrooms in the Lost Woods” or “the first dungeon was just someone’s house, which they had contrived to look like a dungeon for a special holiday.”

When I was a kid – like maybe eight or nine years old – I decided that I wanted to do research on horror fiction, but the only nonfiction book I could find was Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. I didn’t understand probably 80% of what King was going on about (specifically pulp fiction from the 1950s and 1960s), but I did enjoy his extended discussion of H.P. Lovecraft, whom I admired at the time. According to King (and later according to S.T. Joshi, a well-respected biographer and editor of Lovecraft), Lovecraft based a number of his more famous stories and conceits off of his correspondence with Clark Ashton Smith, an American fantasy author who, like Lovecraft, was born in the early 1890s.

I was interested in reading Smith’s work; but, as a kid with almost no access to library resources, the only thing I could get my hands on was The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith, which is, according to Wikipedia, “a transcription of a notebook that was kept by the author” and published in 1979 (about a decade after his death) by Arkham House, the same small American press that used to put out paperback collections of Lovecraft’s fiction. The Black Book is essentially a commonplace book filled with scraps of ideas, which were mostly no more than a paragraph long. I have no idea how something so niche and rare found its way into my possession, but I loved it. I wanted to keep a commonplace book of my own, but I had somehow managed to convince myself that I was too stupid to ever be a writer, so I didn’t.

I’m probably still too stupid to be a writer, but I wonder if it might not be a good time to start keeping track of my story ideas, whether they come from random dreams or alcohol-fueled dinner conversations or the dopamine high I get from jogging or something I saw or heard somewhere and thought I could do better. It might be a good idea to keep track of the video game ideas too.

In any case, a friend recommended Trello, which she uses as a digital notepad. I’m looking forward to trying it out myself!

Online Horror Fiction

In the presentation I gave about Japanese urban legends for Anime USA, I mentioned a few cursed websites that are relatively well-known in Japan. These websites are mostly digital memorials for deceased relatives (and pets) that overshoot “elegiac” and land squarely in the realm of “disturbing.” I’m sure that a scholar of Asian religions could write an interesting paper about these websites; but, for the purposes of my presentation, the most important thing was to maintain a sense of respect for the family members who created them. While I was putting together my PowerPoint slideshow, I started wondering if there are any cursed websites in American internet lore that might serve as a basis of comparison. Indeed there are, but the actual “cursed websites” I ended up visiting were somewhat underwhelming. What I did find, however, was some fantastic online horror fiction.

For the uninitiated, urban legends that spread online are called “creepypasta” after the “copypasta” text that used to be cut and pasted from a website onto a forum and then into an email and then into another email (and so on) back in the days of AOL and GeoCities. Like urban legends, creepypasta is generally presented as true. Most stories are ostensibly something that happened to the people who originally wrote them, who are presumably “a friend of a friend” of the people who then copy and paste and thereby spread the story. There’s an entire Creepypasta Wiki devoted to these types of stories, but they can also be found elsewhere, including the NoSleep subreddit and Jezebel’s annual scary story contest (here’s one of my favorites, from 2014).

There are all sorts of “Best of Creepypasta” lists out there, but what I’ve collected here are stories I found during my research that were very clearly written as fiction and presented online in interesting ways, as well as a few journalistic attempts to debunk creepypasta that ended up becoming stories in and of themselves.

Annie Is Typing
http://www.storiesforyourscreen.com/annie96-is-typing/

This is a short and very creepy story written in the form of a text message conversation between a young man and his friend, who’s not entirely sure that she’s alone in her house. It’s a lot of fun to watch the story play out seemingly in real time, and the twist at the end is fantastic.

The Dionaea House
http://www.dionaea-house.com/

This is epistolary fiction written in the form of a set of emails that the recipient has posted online for the family of the sender, who has gone missing after he quit his job to investigate a random murder instigated by someone he was friends with as a teenager. He confesses that he always knew something was wrong with this friend, especially after the boy spent a few days in a strange house that his realtor parents could never keep occupied. Between the presentation of the digital found objects and the encroaching insanity of the narrator, this story is like House of Leaves, but with all of the mystery and none of the pretension.

Candle Cove
http://ichorfalls.chainsawsuit.com/

This story takes the form of a short series of posts on a Reddit-style forum about “Candle Cove,” a homebrewed children’s show broadcast on a small public access channel. The people posting share their memories of the show, which, in retrospect, was quite sinister. The twist ending is horrifying and delightful.

Mr. Bear’s Cellar
https://www.bustle.com/articles/72619-is-the-creepypasta-1999-real-heres-the-truth-about-caledon-local-21-and-mr-bears-cellar

This article, written by Lucia Peters, explains the cultural context of 1999, a famous story on the Creepypasta Wiki. This story’s premise is similar to that of “Candle Cove.” The narrator vaguely remembers that a small local public access station, Caledon Local 21, once broadcast a low-budget show called “Mr. Bear’s Cellar,” which is just as upsetting as you’d think it would be. Peters provides an excellent summary of the rambling creepypasta and argues that, although this particular story isn’t true, it’s not unreasonable to think that a similar story very well could be.

Abandoned by Disney
https://www.bustle.com/articles/88129-is-the-creepypasta-abandoned-by-disney-real-heres-the-truth-about-mowglis-palace

This is another article written by Lucia Peters (who – can I just say – is a very cool person). In this article Peters investigates the origin of another famous story on the Creepypasta Wiki, “Abandoned by Disney,” which is about a Disney resort on the coast of North Carolina that was suddenly shut down with no official explanation before it opened to the public. These haunted ruins are not real, but that doesn’t mean that Disney hasn’t actually built and then abandoned waterside resorts. What’s interesting about this article is where and how Peters manages to track down information about these derelict theme parks online. It’s also interesting that the original story has apparently been deleted, perhaps because the author was afraid of the real monster in the room, the Disney Corporation.

Sad Satan
https://kotaku.com/a-horror-game-hidden-in-the-darkest-corners-of-the-inte-1714980337

In this in-depth article, Kotaku reporter Patricia Hernandez tries to figure out whether or not a game called “Sad Satan,” which was featured on a popular Let’s Play channel on YouTube, is actually real. She and I both think that it’s mostly likely not, but her investigation takes her to some interesting places online. What I appreciate about this article is its no-nonsense explanation of what the Deep Web actually is based on details drawn from interviews with people who spend time there. I was also amused by its references to real horror games hidden in places you’d never expect, like Microsoft Excel 95.

The Princess
http://ifyouseeherturnoffthegame.blogspot.com/

This is classic creepypasta from 2011 written in the form of thirteen blog posts. On one level, it’s about the strangeness of video game glitches. On another level, it’s about how odd game-related forums used to be, with faceless and anonymous people spreading rumors, making things up, and roleplaying in ways that didn’t always make a great deal of sense. The fact that this story is posted on Blogspot, which now feels akin to a collection of lost and forgotten ruins on the internet, only heightens the eeriness, but the story is really more nostalgic than scary.

SPC-231
http://www.scp-wiki.net/scp-231

This is probably my favorite story in the shared universe of the SPC Foundation, a wiki hosting the X-Files style “records” of a paragovernmental organization given the task to “secure, contain, and protect” various dangerous and unexplainable phenomena. I learned about this subset of creepypasta through a video of someone playing SPC-87-B, a game based on the entry for SPC-87. What’s so horrifying about this story, as well as many other stories on the SPC wiki, is not the various creatures being documented, but rather the inhumanity of the bureaucratic organization that documents them. SPC-231 is especially disturbing in this regard, specifically in terms of its refusal to specify what something called “Procedure 110-Montauk” actually entails. A short story based on SPC-231, Fear Alone, offers a brilliant interpretation that makes the nastiness of the experience of reading the original case file worthwhile.