The setting in “Dress Circle” is a surrealistic theatre house, defined by a labyrinth of corridors, passages, and drapery. What led you to this setting, and how do you feel the surreal functions in it?
The first image that came to me when putting this story together was the lipstick scene, and the idea of make-up as body modification or even physical abuse. There seemed to be a natural extension from this to the idea of stage make-up, so housing the imagery of the story in the setting of a theatre helped support that process. Theatre is an art form that recreates physical reality in a way that is tangible and living but still never quite real. I wanted to use that feeling and I thought that it would be best developed in a surreal environment.
The story arc is both fluid and non-traditional in that the protagonist, Laura, never really learns what is happening or why, a choice that enhances the suspense. Did this structure occur organically as you wrote or was it planned?
I think this was a natural extension of connecting with elements of theatre, deception, and manipulation. The progression from an initial mindset of defiance and independence to a position of powerlessness is the backbone of the story and, for me, Laura can’t know what is happening. Insight is power, and this arc is about loss of power.
Laura is forced not only to play a role against her will, but to conform to a physical standard without explanation, and then put herself on display at her own peril. There is no escape. Do you feel “Dress Circle” reflects the struggles of women today, and was this something you thought about as you wrote?
The role of women in society is heavily intertwined with physical appearance. This is often closely tied to weakness, with the concepts of “pretty but frail” or the “beautiful assistant” making up a common currency of associations with femininity. This piece is about that association between beauty and powerlessness. It is a descriptive observation of that concept, and I was certainly very aware of the symbolism writing the story. What I don’t know is how each reader will experience that, and if it will be read as a challenge of those notions or a fatalistic documentation of an immutable fact.
What works of horror have influenced or inspired you, and particularly your use of dark surrealism?
Most of my influences are outside traditional horror. I deeply admire Franz Kafka for his portraits of the system versus the helpless individual, Viktor Pelevin for his well-crafted—and often deeply, darkly hilarious—surrealism in works like the novella The Yellow Arrow, Margo Lanagan for the profound psychological horror of works like Tender Morsels, and Kelly Link for her dark poignancy in short stories like “Stone Animals” in her 2006 collection Magic For Beginners.
Aside from appearing in Hecate, “Dress Circle” was also anthologized in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 1. What was it like to have your work included in an anthology like this, and to be declared one of the best?
I don’t think I will ever stop being surprised at recognition and support like this. When a piece is published, ownership passes in a real sense to the readers and I am conscious of how their response is out of my control. To have someone like Ellen Datlow acknowledge my writing truly validates what I am trying to do. But, even so, in the end it is still up to each and every reader to decide if a piece means anything to them.
What projects are you currently working on and can you tell us a bit about them?
I have just sold a story called “After and Back Before” to, again, the wonderful Ellen Datlow. This is for the upcoming anthology The Doll Collection, to be published by Tor Books. This piece is the result of a lot of background research and is a post-apocalyptic body horror story set in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. It was a challenge to write, and I hope the result is a memorable experience.
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