“[B]e surprised by the process,” an interview with Jessica McHugh

Jessica McHugh is a novelist, a 2x Bram Stoker Award®-nominated poet, and an internationally-produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-five books published in thirteen years, including her bizarro romp, The Green Kangaroos, her YA series, The Darla Decker Diaries, and her Elgin Award-nominated blackout poetry collection, A Complex Accident of Life. For more info about publications and blackout poetry commissions, please visit McHughniverse.com.

Here, she answers a few questions about her art, and how she got involved with blackout poetry.

Q: How is the experience of reading/absorbing blackout poetry different than that of traditionally written poetry?

A: I think the main difference is the amount of time you spend reading the piece, especially if the “blackout” portion is more complex and/or takes on the personality of the poem, which is what I try to do with my work. If the source material is apparent, I might spend even more time reading and re-reading, because the blackout poem sometimes honors and uplifts the original piece, whether it was intentional or not. And while I prefer to include a typed version of the poem with my pieces, not everyone does that, and if the blackout art doesn’t create a legible path for the eye, the poem might be more difficult to read/interpret and require a little more work to enjoy.

Otherwise, I think it’s a pretty similar experience. I’ve written poetry and monologues using blackout poetry techniques without actually creating a blackout piece, and I don’t think most readers would know I used a nontraditional method if I didn’t mention it. It’s an incredibly fun and versatile art form.

Q: With your unique work, you have carved out a niche in the horror writing community. How has the support of that community bolstered both your books/work and your sense of self as an artist?

A: It’s been an interesting journey, for sure. Since my first novel publication in 2008, I’ve had ups and down with my career and seen several iterations of the horror community. I’ve seen folks band together, I’ve seen them devour each other, I’ve seen people lose relevance due to an unwillingness to change with the times, and I’ve seen people going through darkness flourish with the support of their peers and come out better and brighter on the other side.

I count myself incredibly lucky to have found lifelong friends in this community and support throughout the phases of my career. Despite experimenting with playwrighting, my young adult series, and other mediums, I remained focused on horror novels and short stories and thought I’d stay on that trajectory. I never would’ve guessed that after 14 years and 25 published books, I’d be a 2x Bram Stoker Award nominee for my poetry, but I also never expected to fall in love with blackout art so quickly after I started playing around with it in early 2019. Nor did I expect such an outpouring of support from the community. While I will continue to write in whatever genre and format strike my fancy, the way blackout poetry rekindled my artistic passion after a long period of doubt, and how my horror friendos lifted me out of my gloom and doom to embrace my new artistic endeavors, makes me think blackout poetry will be a massive part of my life forever

Q: Can you tell us more about your Little Women blackout poetry? How it compares to or differs from your work in Strange Nests and A Complex Accident of Life?

A: Absolutely! My 3rd as-yet-untitled blackout poetry collection, inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, is definitely my most ambitious project so far. It will have 155 poems to coincide with the novel’s 155th anniversary in 2023, which is triple the number of poems in both A Complex Accident of Life and Strange Nests. That wasn’t my original intention, but I’ve come to realize that “original intentions” don’t matter much when it comes to these collections. A Complex Accident of Life only became a collection because Jacob Haddon of Apokrupha saw me posting Frankenstein blackout poetry and reached out about compiling the pieces. Strange Nests wasn’t planned either; it was more of a coping mechanism after my brother passed away in January 2021 and transformed into something so much more. So I’ve rolled with the punches and allowed myself to be surprised by the process. Deciding to make a lot more poems from Little Women has opened up the narrative in a huge way and allowed me to explore weirder paths, giving the collection more of a cosmic horror feel while remaining a fierce tale of sisterhood, selfhood, and feminine rage. While an official release date has not been set yet, it will probably be available from Apokrupha around April 2023. 

Q: Finally, is there a text you have your eye on for a future project? Are you willing to share what that is?

A: For collections, I’ll likely keep using classics written by women for as long as possible, and while I’d have to verify these are in the public domain, I’d love to play with Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and pretty much any Agatha Christie. Outside of that theme, I’m also eager to make some creepy holiday pieces from A Christmas Carol. But really, I’m open to giving anything and everything a shot. I’ve found beautiful poetry in the most unlikely places, and I never get tired of discovering the hidden treasures within. 

To commission your own blackout poem, contact Jessica here.

“A Bargain at Twice the Price” (AUDIO)

Read on The Story Discovery Podcast by Onyx Publications

If you had known Beth would leave two months after the closing date, you never would have bought the shoebox starter home on Oak View Drive in a sleepy commuter town with one shitty pizza joint and two convenience stores and nothing to do on weeknights but hang out at the rat-hole townie bar drinking too much bottom-shelf whiskey.

If you had known Beth would find you so utterly lacking as a man and a human and a partner, that she would look at you with such disappointment that shame would rush down to the soles of your feet and back up to the roots of your red hair, you never would have proposed on that trip to the Keys with the ring you bought with your third-to-last paycheck from the cable company that would soon lay you off due to “unforeseeable market shifts.” You were a customer service agent. Now you’re a chump, and according to Beth, an alcoholic.

If you had known all that and more, you wouldn’t be sitting shirtless and hungover on your tiny front porch in pajama pants, drinking your fourth cup of black coffee, watching Tim across the street water his half-dead lawn for the third day in a row. You wouldn’t be hoping for someone to walk down the sidewalk with a dog or two, maybe a fugly baby, just to have something interesting to look at.

But you didn’t know, so here you are, tits out, and Tim just waved so you raise your coffee cup in an oddly formal salute and get ready for the nothingness of the day to settle into your bones like a damp chill.

Click the podcast link for more, or go to Etched Onyx Magazine to read the text!

“Makeover” (AUDIO)

Read on the Blood & Jazz Podcast by Last Girls Club

“What are we doing with this one?” asked Janine, Bernard’s uncertified surgical assistant.

The Sculpting Clinic was world known, at least in certain, whispering circles. Clients were mostly women, but men came in too—not that the clinic’s services came cheap for any body. Patients submitted willing flesh and blank checks to Bernard, The Body Sculptor, agreeing to a carte blanche plastic surgery makeover. Perfectly legal, at least in this country. Bernard was an artist, after all. If people wanted basic nips and tucks, they could stay in the U.S. and pull over at any suburban L.A. stripmall.

Janine circled that afternoon’s client, the woman’s naked, unconscious form laid out on the operating table like a spring picnic. Janine was more than an assistant, really—she was an apprentice. At least that’s how she thought of herself, here to learn from the master. Ever faithful, she’d followed him from state to state and then country to country, outrunning laws and lawsuits and license revocations until they’d found this blessed safe harbor where they could work in peace and impunity.

But with freedom to practice came a certain boredom for Bernard. Janine heard it lately in his sighs and caught him, often, staring out his office window at the back alley’s brick wall.

She saw it again now. “Doctor?” she said. She only called him Bernard in her head.

He spoke without looking at her, his eyes assessing the corpse-like figure on the steel table. “I’m sick of breast augmentations and removals. Ass injections. Facial rearrangements.”

“You’re evolving,” said Janine, liking the way the word wrapped around her tongue.

Silence.

Then, “I’m evolving,” he repeated. And again. “I’m evolving.”

And just like that it was back—the fevered, glorious look of an artist inspired by a blank canvas and his own simmering genius. The look that gave Janine’s life direction and purpose so long ago. She felt a throb low in her sea-green scrubs. But she told herself it was mostly professional admiration she felt for him, the awe of a rapt student. Mostly. She swallowed and gave her capped head a little shake. Focus, she told herself, on the art. The process. She pressed play on the stereo in the corner; barely perceptible acid jazz seeped into the room.

Then Bernard grabbed the purple surgical marker Janine held out to him like a baton. He drew in a frenzy, long slashes across the woman’s chest, dotted lines on her thighs, squares on her sagging stomach. Something like a spiral on her neck. Then he stood back and looked to Janine, waiting.

She hesitated. The heart rate monitor beeped once, twice, three times.

“Wow,” she said finally, because that’s what she always said, and why rock the boat now? The woman would stand out in a crowd. That’s what all Bernard’s clients wanted, anyway—not to fade into the background. “So… Avant-garde,” she continued. “Almost… Cubism? Expressionism?” She bit her lip. Her turn to wait.

Silence.

But it was the right thing.

Bernard grinned and pulled up his face mask. Janine let out the breath she’d held trapped in her chest and got ready to suction.

“We don’t create feminist horror; it imposes itself upon us,” an interview with Lindsay Merbaum

Lindsay Merbaum is a queer feminist author, workshop leader, high priestess of home mixology, editor, and more. Her debut novel, The Gold Persimmon, is available now.

Q: Feminist Horror is not new, but it does seem to be experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Can you tell us a little about the genre and its unique opportunities, and why people are celebrating it right now?

A: Feminist horror is borne from the experience of femmes and/or the female-bodied. Often our first encounter with real-life horror involves subtle interactions with imposed gender norms, or not-so-subtle acts of violence such as bullying, assault, and rape. In this sense, we don’t create feminist horror, it imposes itself upon us. In a time of renewed fascism, where the right to abortion access is disappearing before our eyes, where rates of domestic violence have soared during the pandemic, as the Earth continues to heat up, causing death and destruction, there is a renewed interest in finding ourselves in the stories that employ speculative and horror elements to address real-life occurrences. Fiction often expresses the unspeakable and, in this case, feminist horror explores the monstrous nature of misogyny in all its forms. 

Q: Your novel The Gold Persimmon has just debuted, to rave reviews, and is unlike any other work out there. Helen Phillips said “The Gold Persimmon is a place where grief, sex, and mystery mingle,” and the novel has been called “dark,” “experimental,” “queer,” “feminist,” “horror,” “eerie,” “atmospheric,” and more. How did you conceptualize this? Did you consider its classification as the story developed, or did you leave all of that to sort itself out later? 

A: I spent many years writing and re-writing The Gold Persimmon, but the only classification I applied to it was fiction. Of course I knew it was a queer book, but I didn’t realize others would see it as experimental, or even feminist horror, until it started to reach a wider audience outside of my editors and former agent. I think I wrote it the only way I could, in the only way that made sense to me. It turns out what I wrote is shocking to some, and deeply unsettling not only in content, but form as well. Readers find the shift from Part I to Part II to be jarring. They find themselves lost at times. To me, this contributes to its effect as a work of horror. I also believe that every reader’s experience of the text is valuable and interesting, regardless of whether or not they pick up on the connection between the two narratives the book contains. 

Q: In addition to being an author, you are also a mixologist and a workshop leader. How do these different parts of your life fit together?

A: I like to say I have two passions in life: books and booze. Mixology provides an outlet for bringing the two together, as I continue building a library of booktails: cocktails and mocktails inspired by books of all kinds. This work actually involves so many more passions, however, like photography, sculpture, and playing with food. I’ve got white chocolate skulls and marzipan teeth lying around, not to mention all the pounds of sugar I’ve dyed and scattered about. What I read is now largely dictated by what drinks I want to make, or by the authors who commission me to booktail-ize their work. As a result, I’ve gotten the chance to expand the scope of my reading and delve into genres I’d never explored deeply, like romance and sci-fi. It is an expensive project, though, both in terms of time and materials.

[To find out more about Lindsay’s booktails, including personalized potions, Ostara cards, recipe packages, and book + recipe bundles, go to her website.]

Q: What are you working on right now? Why are you excited about it (or them)? 

A: I’m slowly building a proposal for a book of booktails. My next novel is also currently out with beta readers. It’s about a magical midwestern queer bar, a locus for the riotous convergence of witches and goddesses. Though I pull from several mythologies, Sumerian myth looms largest, with the goddess Inanna taking center stage. Fun fact: the earliest recorded poetry was composed by Enheduanna, a Sumerian high priestess of Inanna. Born around 2300 B.C.E., Enheduanna was the high priestess of the most important temple in Ur, a city in the south of Sumer that embodied the culture of the time. She lived eleven hundred years before Homer–around five hundred before Abraham–and wrote her poetry about three hundred years after the cuneiform vocabulary had just developed to a point where poetic phrase was even possible

My next-next novel was inspired by Sami ancestor worship and the belief in an afterlife that is right under our feet, our steps mirrored toe-for-toe by those who came before. It’s the story of a lesbian marriage and it’s kind of like a combination of Outlander and Being John Malkovich.

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