An Interview With Cherie Priest, Author of Chapelwood

61rpKf6FLIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Cherie Priest is an author who has tacked several sub-genres and been a huge influence anthem all. Her Clockwork Century took steampunk out of Victorian England, set it in the American West, and populated it with working class characters, which was not the norm in steampunk at the time. You can find my review of her young adult book, I Am Princess X, here. In Maplecroft, a book I adored, she pits Lizzie Borden and her axe against Lovecraftian monsters. Chapelwood brings Lizzie to Birmingham thirty years later, where strange things are afoot. You can find my review of Chapelwood on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Thank you, Cherie for finding time to do an email interview with Geek Girl in Love!

Your books have a strong Lovecraftian influence. Why is Lovecraft still so relevant and influential today?

Because although his social politics were sometimes wildly problematic, he consistently steered away from the worst of the horror tropes by making his protagonists competent, informed, and credible. Let me put it this way…there are two primary ways to make a story scary: You can make your protagonists weaker than the threat, or you can make the threat greater than the protagonists. Especially in the wake of the slasher flicks of the 80s/90s, modern audiences became accustomed to the former – and all too often that meant pretty young idiots getting mowed down courtesy of their own stupidity. But after a while, that wasn’t scary anymore. It was just messy. I think that’s a significant part of why the big horror bubble of yesteryear went bust.

Lovecraft, on the other hand, gave us characters who behaved in smart, reasonable ways that the audience couldn’t really fault. It’s easy to feel smug when the clueless loser dies in a squicky fashion – but it’s genuinely suspenseful and unsettling when the vehicle character behaves more like WE would, without making dumb decisions or rash choices. (Or so we’d like to think.)

Anyway, that’s my big takeaway from Lovecraft – to make the danger bigger instead of the characters weaker, and I think it’s a big component of his enduring appeal.

Did you know when you wrote Maplecroft that the sequel would take place 30 years later? What led you to such a huge time jump?

Honestly, when I wrote Maplecroft I wasn’t expecting to write another one, period. I really wanted it to be a standalone, but my publisher had other ideas. In the end, though – I’m quite pleased with how Chapelwood came out, even though it wasn’t part of my original plan. As for the time jump, I wrote it that way because I wanted the books to remain independent stories, for one thing; and for another, the Birmingham ax murders were really horrifying and interesting…and they happened to occur in the 1920s.

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I felt that Maplecroft and Chapelwood were very different in tone and scope. Can you talk at all about how the books are similar and different, and why?

They’re both explicitly Lovecraftian, but they approach the mythos from two different angles. To oversimplify, much of Lovecraft’s horror can be divided into two camps: the oceanic, earthly horror (terror from below)  – and the cosmic, outer space horror (terror from above/out there). Maplecroft draws inspiration from the former, and Chapelwood from the later.

Will there be any further books in this series? Warning: slight spoiler alert ahead!

There are none planned at this time, but I’ll never say never. If the books really take off, I’d be happy to pursue them further; thus the Chapelwood ending – where it is, I hope, clear that the Quiet Society will go on, and Ruth will be part of their future investigations. But ultimately, that’s up to the publisher and to the market. So…if you like the Lizzie books, recommend them to your friends! 🙂

Women Write Lovecraft: An Interview with Editors Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles

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Silvia Moren-Garcia and Paula Stiles are editors of the new anthology She Walks in Shadows, an anthology of Lovecraft-inspired stories by women authors. Silvia and Paula were kind enough to answer a ton of email questions I posed to them about Lovecraft’s enduring legacy, dealing with race in his work, and the fact that duh of course women can write stories based on the Lovecraft mythos. The anthology is available from Innsmouth Free Press.

 What inspired this anthology?

Paula: Silvia and I got tired of hearing, “Chicks don’t/can’t write in the Lovecraft Mythos,” and of talking repeatedly about authors like C.L. Moore, who wrote Mythos stories with female protagonists (Jirel of Joiry) during Lovecraft’s lifetime. So, we decided to do an entire anthology of Lovecraft stories, written by and about women. We figured if that didn’t make our point, well….

Silvia: Author Molly Tanzer, who appears in the anthology, can vouch for this: at one point someone on Facebook said women were biologically incapable of writing Lovecraftian fiction.

How did you select the stories for this anthology? What kind of things were you looking for in terms of style,tone, and content?

Silvia: The main interest was to find stories about women, since women don’t really appear in Lovecraft’s fiction. They only get a more prominent role in his “collaborations” with Zealia Brown-Reed Bishop. So there is this odd vacuum.

Art for "She Walks in Shadows" by Sara Bardi

Art for “She Walks in Shadows” by Sara Bardi

Paula: Aside from the main premise–stories by and about women–we wanted to get as wide a variety of stories from as wide a variety of women as we could get. Different countries, different cultures, different time periods, different Lovecraft stories and characters used, LGBT characters, different types of plots, different styles, even different types of POV. If you don’t like one story, try another. We wanted to show that women not only can write Lovecraftian stories, but that they can write a variety of them.

Why does Lovecraftian horror continue to have such a huge influence on fiction and culture?

Silvia: Part of it is the open quality of it. People can contribute to this universe in ways you can’t, to say, Lord of the Rings, even if there are LOTR pastiches.

Paula: Well, in some ways, it’s like vampires or zombies–it’s a fad. I was involved with a Permuted Press and other zombie-lovin’ folks a few years ago when zombies were white-hot, published a few zombie stories, some reasonably well-regarded. That kind of thing takes on a life of its own.

But then you look at these fads and they’re perennial. Some tropes and themes come up over and over again. Lovecraft pops up, I think, because he’s almost unique, both in the Pulp Era and today. Sure, he had antecedents, but there’s a bleakness to his work that was brand-new in his time and is rarely paralleled today. Lovecraft didn’t invent the cursed tome or the doomed narrator or even the Thing-I-Can’t-Describe-Or-You-Dear-Reader-Would-Go-Mad, but he did almost singlehandedly invent scientific cosmic horror.

The other thing is…well, I’ll answer that in the next question.

Lovecraft was famously racist and sexist – how might a modern fan approach the more problematic elements of his work without excusing or glorifying them?

Paula: Well, as I said above, this is a corollary to the previous question. First of all, Lovecraft was certainly racist and arguably sexist (though more in the avoidant form of not talking much about women than in actively negative portrayals), in both his public and private writings. But the sexism doesn’t change the fact he was henpecked his whole life. It was also pretty vanilla compared to some of the virulent stuff going on with women in his lifetime (or his views on race, for that matter). Even female writers of the time struggled with a good deal of self-hatred and limited horizons compared to women today.

As for the racism, that’s a lot harder to handwave. While I can find my gender’s being represented by the likes of poor doomed Lavinia Whateley and Asenath Waite irritating, some things Lovecraft wrote about race (and we’re talking about the premise of entire letters or even published stories) were hurtful then and are hurtful now. That said, you’re also talking about contemporaries of Lovecraft like the KKK and the Nazis who not only talked in racist terms, but did some really terrible things to promote their racist views. So, the bar for Worst Racist Ever of the early 20th century is set pretty high (or low, as you fancy the metaphor) and Lovecraft doesn’t even come close to meeting it.

I also find it curious that Lovecraft gets singled out for the sexism and racism labels, when more successful contemporaries like Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs had equally nasty things in their stories that are unpleasant to read today. Conan and Tarzan remain very popular, and people basically gloss over the more problematical stuff.

I think that while he came to conclusions many of his readers find objectionable today, Lovecraft explored the idea of exploring race in horror, rather than just having racist stereotypes for the stalwart Heroes to beat, more deeply than his contemporaries or even writers today. As such, he came up with tools that are still useful today in writing stories from a more diverse perspective. Lovecraft really knew what it was like to be an outsider.

Another thing that makes it easier to use Lovecraft’s work than some of his contemporaries, I think, is that Lovecraft’s protagonists are such losers–neurasthenic little men who aren’t too popular with the neighbors. The winners in most of Lovecraft’s stories are the monsters, the bad guys, the cult leaders, those creepy people who scared him so much. We don’t have to deal with the Myth of White Superiority in Lovecraft’s works, the way we do with Howard’s Conan or Burroughs’ Tarzan. That makes it rather easy to turn it around and write stories where the monsters, bad guys, and cult leaders *are* the Heroes. Or at least the protagonists. In a weird way, in Lovecraft’s original stories, they almost already are. Look at the Hero of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Look at how much more interesting he becomes when he learns to stop worrying and embrace the racial taint that calls him to the sea.

Silvia: Lovecraft made some sexist statements in his letters early in his life, but he seems to have grown out of it. He certainly recorded his admiration for several women writers, corresponded with women, and thought highly of his mother and aunts, who raised him.

He didn’t outgrow his racism. My research is in eugenics and around this time period scientific racism, eugenics, it was all the rage. You can see IQ tests of the time period where we are “objectively” told that “science” has determined black people and other people who are also racialized, like certain European populations, say Eastern Europeans, are not as intelligent as certain white people. Lovecraft did not come up with these ideas out of thin air.

The important thing when it comes to Lovecraft is two-fold: one, this racism seemed to manifest in a way that was crippling to him. Most racist people can go on with their daily lives without going into fits, like Lovecraft did. His wife describes him basically having panic attacks when he encounters visible minorities on the street in New York. His racism is probably the main element which wrecked his marriage. So it’s something very, very heavy laying on Lovecraft psychologically. And it ties to notions of race, but also of class and manliness. Lovecraft was terrified because in many ways he was unfit, he was that dreaded Darwinian horror.

The other important thing is his biological and racial concerns manifest in his fiction in a way that is not manifested in the fiction of other racist writers. Henry James had some nasty thoughts about immigrants and some of his unpleasant thoughts on Jews certainly make it into his fiction, but it’s all in a very muted way compared to Lovecraft. With Lovecraft it’s very obvious, very palpable and it’s a terror which seems to have a different kind of quality because even though you see a lot of images of evil Asian men, for example, on covers of magazines, it’s a terror that is always ultimately vanquished by the good white hero. But the funny thing about Lovecraft is the good white hero normally perishes.

The Other takes centre stage in Lovecraft’s fiction in a way that it doesn’t with other writers. And it’s a bit like Julia Kristen says in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. The abjection is about rejection, but in rejecting something you necessarily conjure it. The abject is a threat which threatens to breakdown order but it can never be completely eliminated.  We are both drawn to and repelled by the abject and it does not abandon us.

Modern writers can tackle abjection, can tackle Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors, and a myriad of other elements, and they need not do it with the same racist colours Lovecraft used. I mean, to be perfectly honest, *most* of science fiction, fantasy and horror has very racist and sexist roots. I understand this, I know it, I react to it, I produce new stuff. I’m not going to write another “The Queen Bee.” I’m referring to the story by Randall Garrett, published in 1958.

Some white supremacists seemed upset when they viewed a panel on racism and Lovecraft I was in, which was posted on YouTube. Some people are upset we did an all woman anthology. But ultimately Lovecraft does not belong to me or you or anyone. Writers can respond to him in their own way and that’s the beauty of it. We have more than half a dozen POC writers in this anthology writing their version of cosmic horror, of Lovecraft’s Mythos, of Weird fiction. I think that’s awesome.

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Book Review: Maplecroft, by Cherie Priest

cover of MaplecroftI love being a blogger as opposed to an academic because I can write things like “Holy crap this book is scary”.  When I was an English Lit student, I was supposed to write things like, “Maplecroft uses the matrix of sisterhood to deconstruct the Lovecraftian mythos.  The Monsters are both Freudian and Jungian symbols, revealing the inner psychology of the siblings and the historical framework in which they navigate illness, gender fluidity, sexuality, and sublimated aggression”.

Here’s what you should actually know about Maplecroft:  it’s a fantastic book and holy crap it’s scary.  Do you guys remember in “Friends” when Joey liked reading The Shining but he had to keep it in the freezer when not reading it because it was so scary?

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I did not actually keep Maplecroft in the freezer but I also didn’t keep it in my room when I was trying to sleep.  It was banished to the living room, from which it made shuffling, gibbering noises all night.  I considered the freezer, but the house was really dark and I didn’t want to walk that far because I was like this:

Joey in Friends

Maplecroft opens two years after the famous Borden murders (as in “Lizzie Bornden took an axe and…”.  In real life, Lizzie was never convicted.  In the book, Lizzie did kill her father and stepmother, but only because they had turned into murderous, unearthly monsters.  Lovecraft fans will be pleased to know that there’s a lot of gibbering in this book.  Lizzie and her sister Emma, who is dying of consumption, live in a house called Maplecroft.  Lizzie built a laboratory and a “cooker” in the cellar and she spends her nights killing monsters with her axe (they hate iron) and her days tending to her sister and trying to figure out what happened to her family and why these gibbering slimy monsters with long glassy teeth (they look like anglerfish teeth, which Eeeeeeuuuuuugggghhh) keep surrounding her house.  The sisters live in near total isolation ever since Lizzie sent her lover, a woman named Nance, away for her own protection.

angler fish

No.

The plot quickly thickens as more people get involved.  Nance comes back, and she REEEEEAAAAAALLLLY wants a look at the cellar.  The local doctor investigates terrible, unearthly crimes and wants to help Lizzie.  An inspector from Boston shows up – but who does he work for?  No one knows.  And a scientist that Emma sent a sea creature to has started writing Emma letters like this:

I will come to you and we will meet and you must explain to me as much as you can as much as anyone can what has become of the ocean not the ocean but which lies in the ocean, from whence cometh the sample I have named Physalia zollicoffris I have named it after myself because it came before myself and now it is myself, we are the same now you see or you will see I will see to it I will see to you.

So, yeah, that’ll end well.

I’m sure you could read this book with great satisfaction even if you know nothing about the Lizzie Borden murders but I found that knowing some of the background made the story richer.  A lot of historical details are woven into this book and made to serve the story – most notably, the fact that the Borden family complained of feeling sick, maybe poisoned, for some time before the murders.  Like any good speculative fiction, the outlandish parts of the story work because they are anchored in mundane things.  For instance, Lizzie talks about having problems with her stays creaking, Nance has freedom to explore sexuality because she’s an actress, Emma struggles with consumption, and the women have a realistic if torturous dynamic.

Because of the way the supernatural elements work, you can’t always tell whether people are feeling resentment and hostility towards each other because they are succumbing to possession, or because they are trapped in an untenable situation.  Emma and Lizzie in particular resent and depend on each other.  Monsters aren’t that scary because they are pretend, but sibling conflicts, being trapped by illness as either a sufferer or a caretaker, being kept from pursuing careers and lovers because of gender, and social isolation – those things are scary because they happen all the time.  They were very real parts of Lizzie’s life.  There’s so much tension in the book that it’s almost a relief when she actually gets to hit something.

This is the first book in a series.  It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger but it’s clear that a sequel is on the way and I’m DYING HERE.  It looks like the sequel will come out in September 2015.  In the meantime, I hope Lizzie gets to take a nap, because that woman is exhausted.