Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Author Spotlight: Maria Dahvana Headley

“The Krakatoan” melds the old stories of people being sacrificed in (or to) volcanoes with a thread of horror about looking into the universe and finding things you weren’t expecting. What sparked you to write this story?

Should I admit that I wrote this on a convention dare? At World Fantasy 2011, Rick Wilber took a posse of writers—me, Kit Reed, and Ben Loory—on a day trip to the Palomar Observatory outside San Diego. We didn’t see the stars at all—full daylight—but we did spend a lot of time walking around the dome and driving up and down the spiral road. On the way home, Kit began to invent a story about feral Girl Scouts set at Palomar, and dared each of us to write an observatory story and publish it. Prize for first publication was dinner during Readercon. Kit’s Girl Scout yarn, “The Legend of Troop 13,” came out in Asimov’s. Rick wrote an alt-history novelette about the WWII baseball player and spy Moe Berg, entitled “At Palomar,” and it’s also coming out in Asimov’s.  Ben wrote an amazing story that he’s still fiddling with, about a telescope and a liar, and I wrote, “The Krakatoan.” Most of it I wrote at Readercon, because we had a group reading of observatory stories scheduled, and Kit promised us a bloodletting if we showed up sans story.  So Ben and I spent the first couple of days at Readercon sitting next to each other, typing in frenzy.

In my mind, this story looks like the original Evil Dead poster as painted by William Blake. It came out of my ongoing volcano obsession, which led me to the notion of observatories in reverse: essentially looking down into the center of the earth through a volcano. So, there’s a grand tradition of batshit Hollow Earth stuff there, and I thought that might be fun to play with. In 1788, Casanova (that Casanova, yes) published a ferociously crazy 1700-page hollow earth utopia novel called Icosameron, regarding a man and his sister-wife who fall from an Artic ship into a lead box, which sinks them into the center of the earth, and a civilization of inner-earth sun-worshipping people called Megamicres. The couple ultimately gives birth to 40 sets of twins, who thereby procreate (and procreate, this is Casanova writing, after all) and populate the inner-earth universe with 40 million humans. Um, there are also flying horses in Icosameron. So, it was small step from thinking about hollow earth and people falling into the center of it, to thinking about volcano sacrifices. I was also looking at a lot of celestial diagrams from the 1700’s, the ones with ecstatically painted monsters and humans in the stars, the notion of making anthropomorphic sense of chaotic universe.

It all became this story of a seething ball of sacrificed women at the center of the earth, a kid looking for lost mothers, and simultaneously for an identity beyond the binary. And then somehow a bit of Stephen King’s always amazing “The Body” snuck in, that sadness, and the feeling of being a fierce kid hoping that things will be better, even as you see something that changes everything. Aw, hell. I find that I don’t know how this all ended up becoming “The Krakatoan,” but when it did, I was totally pleased. Still, though, the story was homeless, because I’d written it solely so that Kit Reed wouldn’t kill me, and Kit’s a writer, not a publisher.

Then, flukily, Jurassic London/Pandemonium Press was doing a heavenly bodies anthology with the Royal Observatory in Greenwich—each writer got a planet or a heavenly object and wrote a story about it—and Jared and Anne at Pandemonium asked China Miéville if he had a story for Earth. He didn’t, but I’d just handed him a draft of “The Krakatoan,” and it was bizarrely perfect for the prompt, so he suggested it to them. That anthology, The Lowest Heaven, is where this got published first. Basically, this entire thing is a result of the happy coincidences of being in a field with a lot of generous people. And so here, I say to all the people who caused me to write and publish this story: I Thank the Fuck Out of You.

What drives the volcano’s changing desires for sacrifices?

Hmm. I’m interested in volcano lore, obviously—Pele, the Haiwaiian volcano goddess who legendarily dwells inside of Kilauea, for example, has a husband-killing legend. She’s also called Ka wahine ʻai honua (“the earth-eating woman”). To my joy, there is a volcano on the Jovian moon of Io named Pele. I love the non-Earth volcanoes. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Tori Amos’ Boys for Pele album didn’t influence this too. In this case, I think this volcano now wants children, given that the sacrifices have been astronomer’s wives for years, and they’re all underground. They’re lonely and desperate and dead. But there’s a creepier thread as well, because the wives are not happy. They’re murdered. I had this idea about catasterisation, the practice of turning a person into a constellation, as in: you’re a fucked over girl on earth and some god is chasing you, and finally one of the other gods takes pity/punishes you and gives you peace/ongoing pursuit in the sky. Sometimes you end up shittily stuck in the sky being chased by your murderers. So, I applied the same thing to under-earth sacrifices and their ongoing desires. What would you want if you’d been tossed in a volcano, or into the sky? Companionship? Revenge?

You’re also a playwright. How do you find dramatic writing differs or not from writing prose fiction?

The problem I always had as a playwright was that I wanted to squish gigantic stories into two-hour plays. I wrote plays in which the characters spoke in long, dueling monologues. The joy of writing short fiction is that that’s totally okay to write a long monologue—which is what “The Krakatoan” is: a person telling a story about the horrible, bewildering thing that happened in their childhood.

Here, in the horror category, a helpful thing about my experience in writing for the theater is that plays, like horror, depend on tension. They can’t bog down in beauty. If you lose tension, your audience naps. I think some of the old horror tropes totally apply to playwriting—you sometimes need a monster leaping out from the dark, because, well, too much talk in a dark theater and your audience dies. So, I’d say my forms cross-pollinate. I’ve written adult plays, alt-history, horror, dark fantasy, memoir, children’s musicals, science fiction, erotica…and all those things inform the others. Even the children’s musicals. If kids are in the audience, and you lose tension and clarity in a script, they will melt down. And: in the theater world, a show performed for an audience of children is called a Monster Matinee, which brings this full circle.

What are you working on these days? Do you have anything out recently or coming out soon that readers should watch for?

Well, you should definitely check out the rest of The Lowest Heaven’s stories –so much great stuff in there, and the book itself is gorgeous, with art from the Royal Observatory’s celestial collection, and cover art by Joey Hi-Fi. I have an edible mummy love triangle 1920’s story coming out in the early fall sometime, but I can’t tell you where til it’s announced. Come follow me on Twitter, @MARIADAHVANA, and you’ll see when things come out. I have a YA novel full of scary pirates, near deaths, and aliens coming hopefully out into the world in the next year-ish. And lately, I co-edited the 826DC charitable anthology Unnatural Creatures with Neil Gaiman. That’s got a lot of hybrid genre in it (Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Samuel R. Delany, among many more), including a nebulous forest monster story called Moveable Beast from me. I’ve also got a story in the Glitter & Mayhem anthology, alongside a bunch of amazing writers. That story’s called “Such & Such Said to So & So,” and it’s a little femme fatale & cop noir piece about a speakeasy with sentient cocktails.

What scares you? Are there particular horror writers who are guaranteed to make you sleep with the lights on after reading their work?

Robert Aickman is my favorite. I hadn’t read him until recently, because lots of his work is out of print, and then both Neil Gaiman and Peter Straub (obviously Peter falls into the lights-on-at-night category too) said I should. They were quite, quite right. All of Aickman’s stories stun me. Since we’re talking about stories regarding adults looking back at childhood visions, I really love Aickman’s “The Inner Room,” about a dollhouse with secrets. As I’m writing this list I’m noticing that I have a total inclination for stories about secret creepy rooms, which is, of course, exactly what “The Krakatoan” is about, though in that case, the inner earth is the room. Similarly: Madeline Yale Wynne’s 1895 short “The Little Room” gets to me and twitches at my spine, and definitely influenced this. It’s about a room in a house which no longer exists (or is no longer acknowledged) when the protagonist reaches adulthood.  Lately, I’ve been climbing into Elizabeth Hand’s astonishing oeuvre of hybrid horror and fantasy. Everything Liz writes is brilliant, as far as I can tell—but for purposes of “if you liked this, you might like that,” “Near Zennor” is the one I’ve been really thinking about lately. It’s Aickman-style, and very, very, very good. And finally, Kelly Link’s story “Two Houses” has been haunting and crippling me since I heard her read it at ICFA in 2012. It’s fucking scary and perfect. I think about it and I want to roll on the floor in sobby frenzy.

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Lisa Nohealani Morton

Lisa Nohealani Morton

Born and raised in Honolulu, Lisa Nohealani Morton lives in Washington, DC. By day she is a mild-mannered database wrangler, computer programmer, and all-around data geek, and by night she writes science fiction, fantasy, and combinations of the two. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, and the anthology Hellebore and Rue. She can be found on Twitter as @lnmorton.