Books In Conversation
LINCOLN MICHEL, SAM J. MILLER, MONIQUE LABAN, ESHANI SURYA, and KEVIN NGUYEN with Carissa Chesanek
Tiny Stories, Big Fears
Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Stories of Horror
The horror genre is regaining major popularity. Despite living in these uncertain times, readers are now, more than ever, eager to get lost in something spooky. Goodreads reported there was a massive uptick in horror over the summer with books in the genre labeled as “the most anticipated” for readers.
Now we are in the fall season and Halloween is approaching, my favorite time of year. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, I still find solace in exploring the horrors that aren’t my own. Truthfully, I’ve always been a fan of horror. As a kid, I’d sit in the library examining the books of Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” as though they provided much-needed answers to the world’s biggest issues. Maybe they did. While the ghosts and goblins from my childhood might have scared me (looking at you, killer puppets), horror always provided one certainty: an ending that stopped the madness.
The new anthology, Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Stories of Horror, edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto, takes me back to the days of reading creepy stories in the library. Released in time for Halloween, the collection offers over 40 bite-sized eerie stories of no more than 1,500 words. These narratives are masterfully done by some of the best and newest horror writers of today, showcasing monsters and vampires sure, but also real life horrors of racism and climate change. The collection is divided into four categories—or body parts: head, limbs, heart, and viscera, with each small tale touching on relatable themes of loss and loneliness, survival, and words unsaid in marriages, taking our everyday fears and worries to a heightened new level.
I had the opportunity to speak with Lincoln (author of Upbright Beasts and co-editor of Tiny Crimes and Gigantic Worlds ) alongside four contributing writers to the anthology. Sam J. Miller, a science fiction and horror writer (his latest thriller, The Blade Between, comes out this December) discusses the dangers of technology and dating apps in “Candy Boii.” Monique Laban, a writer and essayist, explores the damaging impact of secrets kept between a husband and wife in “The Marriage Variations.” Eshani Surya, writer and Assistant Flash Editor at Split Lip Magazine, uncovers what an experimental procedure on your body can do to those closest to you in “Veins, Like a System.” Lastly, Kevin Nguyen, writer, Features Editor at Verge, and author of New Waves (2020), challenges loneliness and the crippling notion of being forgotten in “The Unhaunting.”
Carissa Chesanek (Rail): Literary horror has been a round for a while, but it certainly seems to be having a "golden age" moment. Not only are we seeing this genre honing in on the human condition (both internally and externally) but there's a strong stylistic element: the pieces are so well-written. What do you think accounts for its rise in recent years? And do you see this being a trend for years to come?
Lincoln Michel: I definitely agree that literary horror is having a moment and I think it's part of a larger—and much needed—trend of the breakdown of the false barriers between "literary" and "genre" fiction. There's a million words that could be written on this subject, but let's just say that genre is a matter of content not quality. The idea that some content (ghosts and robots) isn't literary and other content (failing marriages and sad people in Brooklyn) is, never made any sense. It's not like Shakespeare or Toni Morrison had a problem writing about ghosts and magic! But I think the trend to remove these barriers has been going strong for the past decade and now we're at the point where a science fiction author like N.K. Jemisin won the MacArthur Genius Grant this year and recent Pulitzer and National Book Award finalists include Kelly Link, Carmen Maria Machado, and other writers of horror and science fiction.
In terms of horror specifically, it might be cliché to say but the world is pretty terrifying these days. The daily news feels dystopian and apocalyptic from the climate to politics. When reality feels unreal, unreal elements in fiction can help us understand our world.
Rail: Do you think this is why the horror genre is so appealing to readers? That it helps understand our world?
Michel: All genres have their pleasures, but I do think that horror is unique at bringing us to a whole realm of experience that most art avoids. We might call it simply "the scary" but it's more complex than that. In the Gothic tradition, there was the idea that horror could lead us to "the sublime”—the awe inspiring and terrifying truth of disorder, confusion, and darkness we spend most of our lives trying to avoid.
Sam J. Miller: Horror is about what scares us. And everyone is afraid of something. Horror gives us a "safe" space to explore the things we fear most, and the opportunity to learn ways to stand up and do something about them. While we can't snap our fingers and be rid of racism, homelessness, aging, illness, injustice, exploitation, and all the other daily horrors of the human condition, we can all take steps to fight for a better world. We want to believe that monsters can be vanquished. Horror lets us have that illusion.
Rail: Several of the stories in this collection center around "cyber horror," dealing with the screens on our phones and other technology that connects us virtually but also isolates us from reality. What makes this notion of the cyber world invading our lives such a potent topic to write on?
Michel: Horror always adapts along with society. We always have new things to fear or new ways the old fears manifest. When we spend tons of our time online, it's inevitable that horror will find a way to make that scary. I think that one of the great things about monsters is that they're very flexible metaphors and so they can manifest in different ways in every era. If ghosts in old houses and murderers hiding in bushes aren't as scary anymore, we have to put the ghosts in your inbox and the murderers in your dating apps.
Miller: There’s something fundamentally uncanny about tech's ability to bring horror into our lives, even if it's just in the form of the morning headlines. And of course we're all frequently frustrated by our loved ones losing themselves in their phones, paying more attention to them than to us. But we're probably just as guilty of this ourselves.
In spite of all the ways that smartphones have made everything from catching a cab to eating dinner to getting laid to finding a job easier, there's no denying that it's a devil's bargain. That's true literally, in that many of the companies behind the apps we love are gathering unprecedented amounts of information about us which can be used in all sorts of malevolent ways. And it's true figuratively, in that we're being changed by tech—not exclusively in good ways—and we have no idea what might come of it. Tech is rife with horror and the calls are coming from inside the house … or your pants pocket.
Monique Laban: As someone who loves the internet, smartphones, and social media, what draws me to cyber horror has never been about technophobia or Luddism. I think what’s central to cyber horror is the realization that the more we center our lives around technology, the more we view each other and ourselves as extensions of that technology. We’re all just tools with specific stats to be used by each other or by larger systemic forces, not as individuals who have their own personalities, interests, and ideas. The problem is not that technology itself has control over us, but rather that humans lose sight of each other’s humanity.
Rail: The pandemic has brought on this new sense of horror, which includes loneliness and isolation, the safety of home (domestic pressure, abuse, etc.) and of course, the fear of the deadly virus itself. What role does horror fiction play today with such a scary reality no longer fiction but fact?
Laban: Historically, we’ve used horror fiction to process collective traumas through allegorical representations that we can confront on the page or on the screen. Adam Lowenstein and other horror scholars have noted horror movie trends have emerged in response to national trauma after global conflicts like World War II, the Vietnam War, or 9/11. I think the idea that horror allows us the space to acknowledge and process our trauma is still very relevant today. We crave horror during the pandemic because we want catharsis. Whereas in reality we don’t get to see our fears defeated, horror fiction allows us to reify our fears, face them directly, and satisfy our psychological need for resolution.
Kevin Nguyen: One of the pleasures (terrors?) of horror in fiction is that it makes something scary explicit. It gives you permission to feel that fear, and also sets boundaries for it. I think the scariest part of COVID-19 is that we still don’t have a grasp on it. We have a handle on how transmission works but what about its long term effects? And how long until the end of quarantine, or a vaccine, or herd immunity? What if those things never come? If you’re experiencing horror in literature or film, you know that it has a beginning, middle, and, most importantly, end. I’d say right now, that is a comfort.
Rail: There are a lot of scary things out there, including technology and the pandemic, but what scares you the most? Do your own fears come out in your writing?
Laban: I want to answer with a fear that’s deep and interesting, but honestly, I’ve been thinking about this nightmare I had for several weeks. I’m inside my “apartment,” but instead of my real apartment it’s a long, white, cinderblock room. I have an enormous pile of Swiffers and rubber wall mounts next to me. While I’m the only one there, I’ve been instructed by an unknown someone or something to take these wall mounts and line these Swiffers along the walls at equal intervals in an alternating head-up, head-down pattern. If I don’t complete this task perfectly, my failure will cause something catastrophic to occur so I’m compelled to do it despite my knowledge that what I’m doing is utterly absurd and definitely useless. It’s like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983) but with none of the poetic implications.
Despite nightmares I’ve had in which I’ve been chased or buried under bugs, this is my most terrifying dream. I must be afraid of doing absurd, hopeless work that eventually becomes mundane to me, and that I’ll be too scared of the unforeseen consequences to stop myself from continuing that work. I think this fear does appear in my writing, except that I tend to have an answer prepared regarding who or what is compelling a character to act in a certain way or for a story to take a certain direction. In my writing, I try to make sense of my fears, as if I could reason my way out of them, but on some level I know it’s futile; fear always has an element of the unknowable.
Rail: I’m interested in how you try to make sense of your fears, almost "reason" your way out of them in your writing. How does writing help you reason your fears and what happens if the story doesn't end the way you thought it would? Does that heighten your fears?
Laban: Writing helps me make sense of myself and process several chaotic experiences and emotions into something more manageable. Fear tends to be the most confusing of these emotions that I draw from. I think what’s interesting about fear is how far away our society has gotten from a primal, survivalist fear into something more complicated. There’s one step of reasoning between why we run from dangerous animals or not—if we don’t, we die. There are several more steps needed to understand, say, the Swiffer nightmare. So using these steps of reasoning to determine the direction of the story helps me uncover more of what it is I find so unsettling or uncomfortable about a fear in a way that facing it directly would just leave me paralyzed.
Funnily enough, I’ve never had stories end the way I think they will. I’m trying to be someone who plans more, but even in my strictest outlines something slips out of my hands. It definitely does heighten the fear, though I wouldn’t call that heightened fear unhelpful. It’s like finding a new boundary that I hadn’t known I couldn’t cross until I ran up against it.
Rail: Where did your inspiration come from when writing these particular scary stories for Tiny Nightmares?
Laban: For “The Marriage Variations,” I was thinking of the couples I knew that stuck together out of a sense of routine and a fear of loneliness instead of fulfillment. I wanted to explore the idea that, in a healthy relationship, you choose to be with that person when you wake up every day, while in unhealthy ones, you push that question off indefinitely until you’ve hit a breaking point. I decided on an interactive story form because it reflected the illusion of choice, or the avoidance of choice, that I saw in these kinds of relationships.
At the same time, I was interested in archetypal husbands presented in myths and fairytales, so my story is heavily inspired by both the Bluebeard folktale and the myth of Cupid and Psyche. I wanted to explore these two extremes on the husband scale, and how secrets can fester when someone in a relationship changes but their partner is kept away from or is unable to accept that change. This inspiration isn’t that different from my writing in general. I like myths and fairytales because of their incredible versatility as templates for stories. It’s fun to take a timeless story and play with different aspects of it.
Eshani Surya: The process for "Veins, Like a System" was actually a very unique one because it came out of an interdisciplinary project at the University of Arizona. When I was there for my MFA, a group of us writers worked with the Climate Alliance Mapping Project (CAMP) to provide narratives for their oil and gas pipeline spill data. It was really fascinating to see all the places where there have been oil and gas pipeline spills because the media often focuses on the big ones, like the BP spill, but it's more common than I personally expected. The data CAMP showed us also had observational details listed alongside location, fatalities, and more, so those details helped shape the pieces. I started to think about how we have this data to know how harmful fossil fuels are, but our society still engages with them because we think they also help us. It's really horrific actually, especially when I started to consider how fossil fuels are almost in our blood—which is how Lane's doctor injecting oil into his blood came to me. As I kept writing, I focused on how these terrible choices can really impact our relationships in a terrifying way as well. I really appreciated the collaboration with CAMP and that project has helped me consider all the unique ways our writing can create narrative truth for audiences, especially within the horror genre.
Rail: Speaking of the horror genre, why does it seem to lend itself so well to representing the fears some minorities and marginalized communities might face in "real" life? How does one capture socio-political issues in a work of horror fiction?
Laban: Horror tends to be second nature to marginalized groups because our histories are intertwined with the idea of monstrosity. We’ve been monsters rather than humans in the eyes of white patriarchy for centuries. For minorities, then, the horror genre becomes a way to subvert that traditional hierarchy, stripping the fear from our bodies and tracing it back to its source in those people and systems that would paint us as monsters in the first place.
There’s a spectacular essay from the horror writer Zin E. Rocklyn in Uncanny Magazine titled “My Genre Makes a Monster of Me” that I return to often because it demonstrates this concept. A Black woman is rendered invisible, not because she has supernatural power, but because we as a society, have rendered Black women invisible. We’ve effectively robbed her of her pain, her sadness, her dreams—simply through silencing her. And so we’ve turned her into an invisible monster rather than a human.
In this same vein, we’ve turned the disabled into harbingers of doom, those of marginalized genders into sacrifices, those of non-heterosexual orientations into sacrilegious heathens, and foreigners and refugees as alien invaders. As a second-generation Southeast Asian American woman, even the “less harmful” stereotypes of “the sidekick” or “the dragon lady” rob me of humanity, because a white patriarchal world would never see me as fully human deserving of “normalcy.”
What allows marginalized groups to capture sociopolitical issues so well in horror is the demand that others reckon with our humanity, and to challenge what it means to be human from the perspectives of those who have been labeled as monsters.
Rail: For me, these are the scariest stories: the ones that are most relatable and deal with everyday occurrences and societal issues, such as sexism and racism, survival and possession, all similar themes found within this collection. This type of horror seems to be more psychological, something that’s also found in recent horror films, including Get Out, Us, and Hereditary. How do you take an everyday issue and heighten its terror?
Surya: I think my story comes out of an issue that shouldn't be an everyday issue, but seems to be as our country continues to ignore human impact on the Earth. These gas and oil spills are happening pretty frequently across the US, but most of our populace writes that off, despite how scary they are. In order to heighten the terror in this story, I considered the implications that might be more relatable to people: illness/body impact, disintegration of family relationships, and loss of agency. When I think of Gothic horror, the monster usually represents a human fear, so I made the monster of oil represent human concepts as well. I think that often creates a story that is scary in its prose, through imagery especially, but also in its resonances with readers' personal experiences.
Rail: Your story was sparked by real life issues. Do you find a lot of your work (especially horror) is usually ignited by something you’ve witnessed in society and everyday life?
Surya: I have had the privilege to be exposed to many different places, from living in a variety of states to traveling to a variety of countries. I've also had the privilege to be engaged with research projects and other forms of knowledge co-creation and discovery. Then, as a woman of color with disabilities, intersected with other identities, I've also lived out a lot of challenging experiences. These aspects have had a lot of bearing on my writing as I can't help but try to make sense of them in words. Some of that sense-making includes reliving the memories or even analyzing and interpreting them. I love how in horror or fantasy or speculative fiction we can take all these experiences and rework them. We can use those genres to magnify particular pieces and clue readers into the larger truth at play. In "Veins, Like a System," I used a character's personal story and personal trauma to give a narrative to data, but there are certainly other opportunities to give real life a new slant in fiction.
Rail: These stories are very short, weighing in at 1,500 words or less. What was the writing process like creating such small stories that offer such huge nightmares and impact on readers?
Nguyen: The conceit of Tiny Nightmares is so smart! The horror genre thrives on constraint. I’d never written a scary story before so having the guard rails of having to scare someone in about a thousand words made it a lot easier for me, as someone who is often writing meandering literary whatever. That said, I still wrote, like, three times more than the word limit on my first draft.
Rail: This is the first scary story you’ve ever written? What was it like to write your very first story in this genre?
Nguyen: In some ways, it was easy to start a horror story because I could drum up an existentially scary idea. For me, that was the idea that the people we mourn would forget about us. It was a bit trickier coming up with the supernatural vehicle to get to that idea. But I knew I liked horror stories where the villains are actually the main characters, and not the ghost, monster, killer, or whatever. Really, those kinds of dramatic character arcs are where genre tends to do better work than literary fiction. But to be totally honest, I think my story is probably funnier than it is scary. It just came out that way because I'm a big ’ol coward.
The book launch for Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Stories of Horror will take place online October 29 at 8 p.m. EST with Antibody Reading Series and WORD Bookstores featuring Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto, as well as contributors Meg Elison, Rachel Heng, Troy L. Wiggins, and Stephen Graham Jones.