1. This collection is made up of short, creepy horror tales, not necessarily splatterpunk but not broodingly gothic, either. What made you decide to write in this particular vein of horror? It feels both adventurous in the classic pulp adventure sense, and very thick with detail and observation that lead inevitably to creepiness and suspense.
It was never really a decision. These were the stories coming to me, and I wrote them in whatever way spoke to me. It wasn’t until more recently that I started really experimenting with different types of horror, including some quieter horror. However, I do love the classic, blue collar sort of horror, and that’s probably always what I’ll write the most naturally. My first influence in horror was Stephen King, and I feel he’s telling blue collar tales, too. I like straight forward, hopefully identifiable characters, doing normal things that prove to be a mistake in the end. Life is unpredictable, and I hope I reflect that to an extent.
2. This collection contains the locally infamous Blue Sludge Blues story that I heard you read part of at an event. Please briefly describe the setup for the story…and the reactions you received at the event. (I know, I’ve heard the story behind the story before, but it’s a good one and I want you to share it anyway because heee hee hee!)
That was the most fun I’ve had reading a story! When I set out to write Blue Sludge Blues, it was meant to be an experiment in visceral horror. I asked people what words grossed them out or gave them an automatic negative feeling. And then I wrote about one of the most disgusting, uncomfortable places a person can go: a rest stop port-a-potty.
The story features a man moving across the country. He stops at a rest stop, where something waits for him, deep in the blue sludge of the chemical toilet. Something with tentacles. A quick bathroom break becomes a fight for his life.
When I read it at an open mic night, I wanted to see how people would respond. It wasn’t quite finished yet, but the gross details were there already. It was nerve-wracking, because I thought I might offend someone. Instead, there were groans, exclamations, and laughs at all the right places, and it was impossible to read it with a straight face as people sounded off around the room. They were grossed out and horrified, as I’d intended, and it remains my most requested short story.
3. How do you decide what kind of ending you end the stories with–from happy to tragic? It sounds like it’s a process, with some endings on some stories garnering some pretty harsh rejections. What was the worst reaction you’ve ever received, and did you decide it was all about the person rejecting the story, about the ending being wrong for the story, or something of both?
I hate to say it for this answer, too, but I don’t plan most endings. I’m a complete pantser, sometimes not knowing where I’m going until I’m in the thick of it. I’ve been told I tend to write circular stories, with the ending doing a bit of a callback to something in the beginning, so I’d say the endings are instinctual. I had no idea I was doing that until someone pointed it out. Admittedly, I lean toward more tragic endings or the false happy ending. Likely because those are the types of endings I grew up reading and watching in horror films.
I haven’t had anyone ask for a new ending, but I’ve had issues with details within the story. The one I had the most issues with was for a story called Cravings, about a pregnant couple dealing with some disturbing cravings. Originally, the couple had a dog. At one point, the husband came home to find his pregnant wife gnawing on the dog’s neck. It lived. My first rejection came from an editor who said I should have gone all the way and killed the dog, and he was disappointed I hadn’t done so. I went ahead and changed it to see what would happen. Sure enough, personal rejections came in because I’d harmed a dog (and to be clear, I was not submitting to markets that blatantly forbade harm to animals in their guidelines). They weren’t nasty (in fact, they were complimentary of my writing style), and they said they liked the idea of the story, but they wouldn’t publish it because the dog died. Or, as one woman said, she couldn’t handle “the slow, awful death of the dog.” (It was intentionally not slow and awful—I don’t do animal torture—but it obviously bothered her). I stubbornly went on submitting the two versions of the story to various publications, and it netted me the most personal rejections I’ve ever gotten on one story. They liked the idea and the writing, but that dog (poor Jauncy) was trouble, no matter which direction I went.
Ultimately, I removed the dog entirely and rewrote the story to actually be slightly more extreme on the one hand and more discreet on the other. No harm to an animal was directly depicted. I was deeply frustrated, and couldn’t decide between the two courses of action, so I figured out a third instead.
I definitely felt it came down to personal preferences for the different editors, not so much this detail being wrong for the story. My critique group was sad to learn I’d changed the story to remove the dog. I’d gotten exactly the reactions from them that I’d intended when they read the original piece, but sometimes it’s best to let it go. With such mixed reactions from editors, the readers were going to have equally mixed reactions.
4. You, M.B. Partlow, and I have been reading through several lists of horror novels over the last few years (it feels weird to say that, but it’s been going on for a while, hasn’t it?). Who do you feel that you’ve discovered through those lists that you most relate to, as a writer? Not necessarily the book you enjoyed the most, although feel free to mention that. What techniques have you stolen or borrowed? What have you simply said a big fat “nope” to?
It has been a few years, hasn’t it? That’s hard to process.
The story that struck me the most (so far) was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It gave me a new understanding of horror. I was already familiar with monsters, both human and animal, but this book has varying levels of human monster, and the big ones, the ones that put this dystopian landscape into play, are never seen. We only see the results of their actions. Other than that, they’re faceless. It’s astoundingly well done.
Other than that, I learned a LOT about what makes up horror. In the beginning, there were books I’d read and I had no idea why they’d been classified as horror. But I’d think about it, tear my ideas apart, and eventually expanded my definition of horror. All horror authors should have an epiphany like that one. As it is, I still have people argue with me about The Handmaid’s Tale being horror. People also have trouble understanding that a story can be horror-plus. As in, it can be horror and science fiction. We don’t have to pick one genre. The film Aliens can be both horror and science fiction. In fact, it can be horror, science fiction, military sci-fi, and action/adventure. It can be all those things without diminishing it or changing its meaning to any one person.
Overall, the entire project helped me become bolder and more experimental with my writing. I’m more willing to play because of what I’ve experienced in the books on the list. For the most part, I’ve also stopped saying, “That wasn’t horror,” instead immersing myself in it and picking it apart until I can see why someone else might have defined it as horror.
One of the skills it’s made me work to hone is holding back. Sometimes I rush forward, so excited to get to the big freaky thing. It’s more effective not to do that, and it takes finesse.
My big nope? The nonsensical, bizarro, political weirdness of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Too abstract for me.
5. Where do you think you’ll go from here with your writing? I know a lot of short story writers end up writing novels, often because it pays more (at least, in theory). If you were able to make a living at short stories, would you stick with those, or still work your way into novels?
I was actually working on novels first, and I do have a few in the works, but I enjoy my time with short stories so much more that I rarely work on the novels. There’s a roller coaster high-low addiction to short story writing, submitting, and publishing. Instead of one or two novel releases a year, I have a bunch of releases, and the excitement involved in them. Sometimes I’ve got multiple releases at once! Plus, there’s a kinship with the people sharing the tables of contents with me at times, as well as the editors. It’s a fantastic community, and one that’s growing.
Novels move at glacial speeds. Short stories are rapid and exciting. I’ve been published with big names that I’d never share space with in writing any other way.
In short? I’d love to also have novels published, though not for the money so much as the fact that some of my story ideas simply turn out to need a novel’s length to tell, and they want out as much as the short stories do. Well, almost as much. I don’t see myself ever giving up short stories. I’m making the same amount monthly from my collection of short stories that friends with one novel out are making. It’s not a lot…for either of us (bearing in mind I’m speaking only of self-published friends with a single novel out), but we’re running parallel in terms of royalties. And in addition to that one book, I sell short stories throughout the year, which is a meager additional income they’re not bringing in.
I’m also playing around with short memoir/creative non-fiction and working on a craft book on short stories, so we’ll see where that takes me.
and last but not least, the bonus question:
6. Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on? (Hint: the additional promo question.)
Writing short stories has led me to opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had. At the same time, I’ve had a lot of the same benefits and opportunities as novelists, such as being picked up to speak at conferences, be a panelist at conventions, do standalone workshops, participate in book signings, etc. Short stories have a natural ebb and flow, like many other aspects of writing, but right now they’re flowing. It’s a great time to try your hand at short stories to see how you do. Short fiction is selling especially well in the speculative fiction realm, so give it a go!
And those opportunities I mentioned? I’ve got a piece coming out September 4 in an anthology with some of the most amazing, up-and-coming women in horror. I’m incredibly excited about it, and there are already rumblings of an award nomination for the book, as well as a review in Publisher’s Weekly. If nothing else, it’s made a stir. Most of the stories are reprints (including mine), but there are also new stories written for the anthology. That book is Fright Into Flight, put out by Word Horde, edited by Amber Fallon.
And I’m in an anthology of novellas and novellettes, due to be released September 15. The Society of Misfit Stories, Volume II can be found here.
A fan of all things fantastical and frightening, Shannon Lawrence writes primarily horror and fantasy. Her stories can be found in several anthologies and magazines, including Space and Time Magazine and Dark Moon Digest, and her short story collection Blue Sludge Blues & Other Abominations is now available. When she’s not writing, she’s hiking through the wilds of Colorado and photographing her magnificent surroundings, where, coincidentally, there’s always a place to hide a body or birth a monster. Find her at www.thewarriormuse.com.