Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: A.R. Morlan

The voice of this piece is quite strong, and I found it carried me through the story like a river. What was your process for developing this voice, or did it simply come naturally to you?

My literary “voice” has more or less come to me naturally, although when I’ve created works which deal with specific historical time periods, I have tried to read works generated during that era, in order to at least loosely match the narrative style common to that time period. But for most of my work, I’ve tried to just speak the way I think; I have the condition which used to be called Asperger’s, and for me, it has meant that my writing “voice” is my strongest—when it comes to trying to speak to someone in person, or on the phone, I “sound” totally different. I can’t even dictate my stories verbally—I have to physically write them down. Many people with my condition (which in itself can affect virtually every person who has it differently) do rely strongly on written vs. oral communication, and I suspect that this has also had an influence on my work. Many years ago, when I’d just graduated high school, I spent a week down in Madison attending a writer’s workshop held by the Wisconsin Junior Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the way we submitted works to be critiqued by the staff was a “blind” process (we each picked a pen name and wrote our pieces using that name, which the people doing the critiquing used to ID everyone’s work; after the pieces were critiqued, they’d be placed in a manila folder marked with the pen name and left in a box for us to pick up the next day), but by the end of the workshop, I was getting written critiques which stressed how strong my “voice” was as a writer . . . and when the people doing the critiques found out that I was the person they’d been praising on paper, it was a shock to them, since they’d dismissed me in person as something of a wimpy, tentative person who wasn’t able to withstand the group critiques of my work (the students would be placed in groups of five and would read/critique each other’s work without staff supervision, and unfortunately, these sessions usually ended up being little more than exercises in bullying, with the kids from the big cities putting down the small-town kids). The only thing the staff did mention to me about my work (which included poems, some prose, and even some attempts at nonfiction—we could write whatever we wanted to that week) was that my nonfiction tended to be a bit stiff and less inviting than my poetry/prose.

Who inspired Edan Westmisley’s character, if anyone?

To answer that, I do need to digress just a bit; when I was a child, I grew up in a very abusive environment (verbal, emotional, sexual, and occasionally physical), and as a result of that, I had a lot of very horrible nightmares, some of which I can still remember clearly close to fifty years later. One of the absolute worst occurred when I was about seven years old or so. In this nightmare, I was sitting up in a balcony box seat in what looked like an opera house of some sort—the place was dark, but enough light spilled onto the seats and surrounding walls from the center spotlight to make it clear that this was some kind of auditorium surrounding a center stage—and my mother and her mother were sitting near me, forcing me to watch the figure in the spotlight . . . a woman who’d been skinned alive, who was wearing what looked like a ballgown out of a fairytale (big full satin skirt that reflected the lights, in a lavender color, an off-the-shoulder wrap-around bodice in a lighter hue, and a very tightly cinched waistline), only her body and head were shiny and bloody, like something out of one of those Hellraiser films from many years later, and she had her arms held down by her sides, fists clenched, and she was singing, loudly, but I can’t recall what she sounded like. And just before I woke up, someone near me said that she was being punished for not doing . . . something. It was so vivid I’ve never been able to forget it.

That image is what the narrator sees when she opens up the envelope of photos of the sirens; I needed to get it out, but even then, I wasn’t able to go into much detail per se in the story. It was just so gruesome . . . and the worst part is, I know what made me dream something like that—ever since I can remember, my mother and her mother would constantly threaten to hurt or even kill me if I ever did anything which displeased them. Things like, “We’ll slit your throat if you ever say that again,” or, “I’ll put my fist through your face!” So the character of Edan Westmisley was inspired by the two people who kept me isolated and terrorized all through my childhood, my mother and her mother. They controlled me, they brainwashed me, they constantly reminded me, “We own you!” Both of them were control freaks in private, and subservient drones in their working lives, and they took out their frustrations on me on a daily basis. But physically I modeled the character after a fellow who was one of the administrators at the college I attended in the late 1970s; he’d had a bout of skin cancer which left his face looking much like what I’d described in the novelette—the man was perfectly nice, but difficult to look at.

This piece is tied heavily to Greek mythology. What about Greek mythology intrigues you the most, and why did you decide to use it in this story?

For me, Greek mythology (plus mythology from other countries as well, since many of them share common archetypes, etc.) has always contained a certain, “What if this might’ve happened . . . in some slightly different form?” possibility. Back when I was in high school and college, Erich Von Danniken’s Chariots of the Gods et al. were very popular reading, and since I was also reading about mythology for my high school and later on college reading courses, I realized that many things he wrote about dovetailed nicely with the existing myths from Greek culture. After reading his speculative nonfiction and the mythology, it came to me that there was a remote possibility that the Greeks (as well as the other cultures whose mythology bore a strong thematic resemblance to the Greek myths) may well have encountered alien anthropological expeditions, perhaps visiting races who—when they realized that they were here on their own, with no chance of being censured or stopped by whoever sent them here for whatever original purpose—either went off script from whatever protocols they originally had barring visitor/native contact, or these visitors simply had a very different sort of moral compass to begin with and just started messing with the indigenous humans out of curiosity, boredom, or . . . whatever made them do the things which eventually became the core of Greek mythology.

This ancient astronaut theory actually explained (at least to me) the common themes in myths generated by peoples who were, at that time, living in widely spaced geographic areas with little or no chance of contact with each other. And given the personality traits displayed by these so-called gods, it isn’t difficult to speculate that at least one of these alien observers was an Alpha male, while others may’ve been practical jokers, or rigid adherents to order, etc. It might also explain why these gods were so eager to interact with the lowly humans around them; they may well have wanted to mingle with the natives, or some of them may have been power-trippers who needed to frighten and impress their study subjects. I used mythology in this work as a metaphor for the type of power some people have in regard to their wealth and the attributes of theirs which helped them achieve that degree of wealth and power in the first place. That level of power would, I thought, culminate in a desire to not only control, but totally dominate another living creature . . . and in this situation, I thought the ultimate show of power would be to bring down and thoroughly subdue a being (or beings) more inherently powerful than the man of power. I guess it comes down to a force of will; some people have this need to not only conquer, but utterly destroy that which they seek to overpower and control. Much like I was controlled, then squashed, by my mother and her mother . . .

In celebration of the Women Destroy Horror! special issue, which female writers have you felt most influenced and inspired by, horror or otherwise?

Mary Shelley was an early influence on me; while most of the horror science fiction writers I read early on in my life were male, she was the one whose vision frightened me the most—even though she wrote only one novel in the genre, it was so perfect that she didn’t need any follow-up. Plus I was attracted to the fact that she’d had a dream about an undead creature and created a work of fiction based on that—it gave me the idea that I might be able to turn some of my worst nightmares into something more positive. Later on, I also enjoyed the work of Ursula K. LeGuin and James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), but those works didn’t influence my own fiction as heavily.

What work do you have out now or forthcoming, and what are you working on now?

I have four upcoming short story collections in the pipeline at Wildside Press; right now they have working titles, which may or may not last throughout the actual publication process, but I can say that they are a mix of all-horror, all-science fiction, plus some mixed-bag works (one has several poems of mine, plus a nonfiction piece), with general themes like celebrities, childhood traumas, etc. The late Robert Reginald at Borgo Press had assembled them from some larger collections of more rigidly-themed works (as in, all-SF, all-horror) collections I’d assembled and submitted a few years ago, so he came up with the new themes and titles for the collections. He was in the final stages of work on one called The Second-Most Beautiful Woman in the World when he passed last November, and at that point, everything associated with Borgo Press (an imprint of Wildside Press) was in flux for many weeks while John Betancourt took over the long list of contracted works which Mr. Reginald had been working on, in addition to the projects Mr. Betancourt had been working on for Wildside. Earlier this year I got word that all the contracted collections which Mr. Reginald had assembled would be published eventually; since I am totally computer illiterate, and Mr. Reginald and his wife, Mary, had been transcribing my work into computer format (first scanning it, then typing it directly into their computers when many of my photocopies of published stories did not scan very successfully), my work has been a bit more difficult and time-consuming to get into a format which can be downloaded by the folks at Wildside. So I don’t know when they will be coming out, but I have been told they will be published soon. Since virtually all magazines and other publications are mainly online-submission only, I’ve had to stop creating any new fiction; I haven’t written any new works since 2009.

The past few years have been very traumatic personally; I’ve had problems with my mother ever since her mother passed in 1999, and a few years ago she moved out, and right after that my father and his family “found” me after losing touch with me for fifty years (it turns out I’d been kidnapped after my mother lost custody of me; rather than turn me over to my father, she and her mother took me out of state, halfway across the country, and he wasn’t able to find me), which created a great deal of stress and unhappiness for me; finding out that I should’ve had another type of life rather than the constant abuse and neglect which I did end up enduring was quite an emotional shock to me. And when my father and his relatives told me that my accounts of what had happened to me were upsetting them—and subsequently ordered me to never mention any of it to them!—I ended up spending several years mired in a PTSD haze, until I finally decided to sever all contact with him and them earlier this year. I had to do it to regain my own sanity; as it is, I’m still not in a condition to begin writing again, but Mr. Betancourt and Mr. Reginald’s widow have been urging me to try and produce some more fiction, so depending on whether or not I can shake the lingering upset over what’s happened to me in the past, I might eventually try generating some new fiction.

But since it would be impossible for me to submit it anywhere, I would have to rely on someone at Wildside being able to convert it into a computer-ready format, and given all the backlog facing the staff at Wildside right now, dumping even more hardcopy material on them right now would be inconsiderate to all the other Borgo/Wildside writers who have material in the pipeline. But I am thrilled that “. . . Warmer” will find a new audience in Nightmare Magazine, and I do hope that the readers will enjoy the time spent reading it over.

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Caroline Ratajski

Caroline Ratajski

Caroline Ratajski is a writer and software engineer currently living in Silicon Valley, California, USA. Previously published as Morgan Dempsey, her fiction is available in Broken Time Blues and Danse Macabre, as well as at Redstone Science Fiction. She is represented by Barry Goldblatt of Barry Goldblatt Literary, LLC.