In 2013, a previously unknown writer named J. Lincoln Fenn won Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel contest in the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror novel with Poe, a hybrid of horror, mystery, and young adult that involves spiritualism, haunted houses, and the Russian mystic Rasputin. The novel garnered almost universal praise, and marked Fenn as one of the horror genre’s most promising new voices. In 2016, Fenn published her second novel, Dead Souls, with Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books imprint; as with Poe, Dead Souls mixes genres in a story about a young woman, Fiona Dunn, who makes a deal with “Scratch”. Publishers Weekly gave Dead Souls a starred review and called it “one of the scariest and best to come down the pike in ages.” Fenn, who was raised in New England but now calls Seattle home, is currently at work on her next novel for Gallery, The Nightmarchers.
You cite literary fiction writer Carolyn See as an inspiration, and have also mentioned trying to write a mainstream literary novel . . . so how did horror become your go-to genre?
I took a class in L.A. with Carolyn See, and she was just so funny, and kind, and generous that I will forever sing her praises. She offered a lot of useful advice, and I still have a letter from her encouraging me to submit a horror story to literary journals. Her novel Making History is also one of my favorite ghost stories ever.
I think I gravitated toward the literary side of things because it was more or less what all the writing classes prepped you for. But I’d always loved the stories that played with reality too—I read a ton of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and went on a magical realism binge for a good couple of years.
After trying to write a memoir about the worst thing that had ever happened to me up to that point, I realized I was too close to it to make it anything other than a dirge. Then this character started kicking around in my brain who was going through something similar, and I wrote the first paragraph of Poe. But there’s a lot in there about my own experience.
After years of trying to score a more traditional sale for Poe, you placed it in the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest, and it won in the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror category. How big a surprise was that?
That was crazy. The contest went through various stages of cuts, and you knew the day they’d post them, so there was this excitement and dread as that day approached, then amazement when it made it through to the next stage. I was a nervous wreck the whole time. And when I got the call that it had won the category, and they would fly me out to Seattle with my husband for the award ceremony—well that was really like getting the golden ticket to the Willy Wonka chocolate factory.
Poe is centered in part around a haunted house, the Aspinwall Mansion. Was it influenced by any other literary haunted house?
It was based on the cottages in the Berkshires that had been constructed during the gilded age—mansions really, but they were summer homes for the rich. A number of them had been left to quietly rot because they were so expensive to maintain. Wyndclyffe Castle in New York state is a great example.
There’s something haunting about the abandoned buildings on the East Coast, whether it’s a rotting mansion or a shuttered factory. It’s not hard to imagine ghosts.
You’ve discussed horror as a way to deal with grief (in Poe, the young protagonist is dealing with the loss of his parents). What would you say to someone who might wonder how horror would help anyone through mourning?
An early reader of Poe lost her father not too long after she’d finished the book, and she said in an odd way it helped. Horror is a mental exercise in contemplating death, which we don’t do too often in our culture. We like it packaged neatly and placed out of sight. But death and horror is a great wake-up call, a compass for aligning your priorities. I think you make different choices when you keep your own death in mind.
Why did you decide to make Poe’s protagonist, Dimitri Petrov, Russian-American?
Well, I knew I wanted to incorporate the late nineteenth century spiritualist movement, so I started digging into its origins with Madame Blavatsky, then picked up a copy of The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture, which is just utterly fascinating. And it began to make sense plot-wise that he should be connected to that culture.
The Russian mystic Rasputin also figures prominently in Poe (Dimitri is writing a novel he calls “Rasputin: Secret Tsar of Immortal Zombies”). Why does Rasputin continue to fascinate us (and Dimitri)?
He’s a fascinating character. I mean here you have a Russian peasant who becomes a mystic faith healer with a reputation for debauchery, and he rises in influence until he eventually has the ear of the Tsarina. He doesn’t fit. He’s not supposed to be there, but he is. So then the question is how did he get there? It spooked people at the time, and it spooks people still.
Imagine if someone like David Koresh became a trusted advisor to a president and started to dictate policy. People would be speculating about that for decades afterwards. Then Rasputin’s assassination is almost as legendary as his life. He became a kind of bogeyman and scapegoat for the nation.
There are several mentions of Stephen King in Poe (in one example, Dimitri awakens in a hospital and notes that his skin tone “would make Stephen King fall over and have a heart attack in fright”). Has King been an influence on you?
Absolutely. I think the breadth of his imagination is something for any writer to aspire to, and his characters are people you might know, or meet at the coffee shop, or drive past in the supermarket parking lot. So you have this fantasy element embedded with a world you know, which heightens the horror.
Plus he really, really, really knows how to get you to turn the page. Sometimes you don’t even want to turn the page, you have to gather your courage to turn the page, but you always do. And that’s something I think about when I’m drafting an outline, or writing the end of the chapter. Is this something that will compel a reader to keep going? Are the characters real enough, does it feel like our world right now?
Are you still planning on a sequel to Poe?
Well, Dimitri petitioned for a break from the severe torment I put him through, but I’m thinking maybe a series of shorts or novellas if I can squeeze in the time. He’s got a good therapist now and has learned new coping mechanisms, and he did enjoy the limelight, so it might be time to consider. Seriously I love him as a character and would like to see what other troubles he can get himself into, but right now I’m focused on finishing The Nightmarchers.
You’ve mentioned that Poe might have confounded some agents because it combined multiple genres—horror, young (or new) adult, literary fiction, etc. Similarly, Dead Souls manages to combine genres (horror and—dare I say it?—chick lit) that really shouldn’t go together. Is horror fiction sometimes held back by an adherence to genre boundaries?
It’s true that combing genres or pulling pieces from one into another makes for a challenging experience on the sales side for fiction. I remember talking about this with my editor at 47North—the question eventually boils down to “What shelf does it go on?” I don’t think the genre adherence is necessarily coming from the community itself, it’s more of a market norm.
The success in film and T.V. of a much wider spectrum of horror demonstrates that there is a market for a bigger, and weirder, tent, and probably a lot of publishers would love to climb on board, but a genre-bender has to break big for them to feel comfortable taking that risk.
Both Poe and Dead Souls are told in first person and present tense. Is that coincidence, or is it your preferred way of telling a story?
I like present tense, especially for building suspense, although I know it irks the hell out of some people. We have such a right now, immediate, instant gratification culture at the moment though that it feels very connective.
The Nightmarchers is going to be third person, but a very close third person. For me, what’s happening inside the character’s head is as important as the things happening outside moving the plot forward. I’d love to write a third person omniscient novel, but that feels very ambitious and would take a more serious commitment to a plot outline.
You once wrote, “It’s only by looking hard into the darkness that we see, and appreciate, the light.” How do Poe and Dead Souls work to make us appreciate the light?
Wow, that was really deep of me. I think Poe’s darkness is centered on Dimitri’s grief and depression. He reacts by taking this snarky view of everyone and everything around him, unless they’re dead, in which case he works really hard to reveal their humanity. He has to let go of the dead, including his parents, to move on and live his life.
Dead Souls is much, much darker. Although there is a glimmer of light at the end, it’s very dim. But the experiences that birthed it and the experience of writing it made me think very, very carefully about choices, and how we’ve entered this age where we feel there are no consequences to our actions, or the consequences are very far away. It’s more of a cautionary fairy tale with a really bad ending. But after I finished it I felt much lighter, like going into a cave and then coming out into the fresh air. And I think more about the small, ordinary happinesses, and how easy it is to take them for granted.
One of my favorite aspects of Dead Souls is its urban setting (Oakland). Isolated settings often dominate horror literature. Can a city be an isolated setting?
Holy heck yeah. I’ve never felt more lonely and isolated than I did living in Los Angeles surrounded by people. And unfortunately, horror and violence is becoming more of a public spectacle, something that happens in the midst of many people.
Fiona Dunn, the lead character in Dead Souls, is one of the best female protagonists I’ve read in a horror novel in ages—she’s a skilled advertising executive, disgusted with women who wear pink, and very knowledgeable about how to manipulate others. Why don’t we see more hip, young, female leads in horror novels?
I didn’t really set out to write her that way, it’s just who she was. It could be that this kind of character doesn’t necessarily seem like a good fit for horror, or even that this kind of character is a good fit anywhere. We’re just starting to see strong, flawed women with agency in more mainstream books and T.V. shows. Jessica Jones comes to mind. But I will say that there are a lot of strong female protagonists being written in horror by men and women.
I was surprised to get a lot of leeway from Gallery—they didn’t pressure me to change much and loved Fiona from the start. But there is a part of me that’s trying to push the envelope as long as I can before I get kicked out.
Your characterization of the Devil (who you call Scratch) is equally superb. How hard was it to make the Devil into a villain who was both instantly recognizable and completely unique?
I knew I could make him charming, but I also wanted readers to feel this wall of pure, untouchable, inhumane evil shimmering just under the surface. Maintaining that balance, so he didn’t come off as too likeable or too evil was tricky. The fact that you can’t see his face is something I borrowed from the Bible, although there it’s God’s face you can’t see (or you can, but it would kill you).
As a kid growing up in a small New England town, you went to Catholic school for thirteen years. Is that where the character of Scratch started to gestate?
Certainly there’s a lot from Catholicism that influences my work. You’re raised to believe that hell and heaven, demons and angels are very real and all around you. In first grade, we used to sometimes sit on half our seat so our guardian angel could sit on the other half. I once thought I saw the shadow of a demon in my basement.
The pivot point in Dead Souls is a weird combination of both the Catholic sensibility of the devil as the seducer, and also the Buddhist, more mystic view that we often are a key player, if not an instigator, of our own suffering. Fiona misunderstands something, which her own anxiety feeds into, which causes her to take a series of actions that lead her to a certain stool at a certain bar with a certain emotional vulnerability that’s she’s created. And that’s the door Scratch enters through.
You’ve mentioned that readers are sometimes surprised to find that you’re a woman. Do you enjoy playing against expectations like that?
I have to admit I was very proud to have been accused of being a misogynist, by a man no less, because of some of the things Dimitri thought in Poe. I don’t try to play against expectations necessarily—I just want to be able to do what I want to do, and write the characters that are talking to me at the time. It is interesting though that we don’t think it’s unusual when a male writer has a fantastic female lead character, but vice versa still seems to surprise people.
Will we be seeing any J. Lincoln Fenn short fiction in the future?
I’d love to get short fiction out there, either in an anthology or magazine. I’ve been consumed with getting these books done, but once I put The Nightmarchers to bed I’ll be focusing on writing some shorter pieces.
Dead Souls is the first book in a two-book deal with Gallery Books (an imprint of Simon and Schuster). Can you tell us anything yet about Book #2?
Well I’m pretty sure the title will stay The Nightmarchers, and it’s a bit of a departure in that it the horror is more of the creepy, eerie, Lovecraftian kind. It centers on a remote, tropical island that’s taboo to visit, a botanist who died there under mysterious circumstances in the 1930’s, a cultish Church, a mythological army of the undead, and a present-day journalist trying to make sense of it all for a story that could salvage her life. That’s the gist. Details still in process.
You recently said in a social media post, “When one character says to another, ‘I have to show you something,’ and you, the author, have no idea what it’s going to be.” Your books have intricate plot points and carefully-crafted endings, so I assumed you outlined carefully in advance, but are you more of a “pantser” (writing without an outline)?
I have an outline, but it’s a guide not a mandate. I try really hard not to force a character into saying or doing something that serves the plot, but doesn’t feel like a natural choice in the moment. And that can be tricky, because when you start off you have an idea of who your characters are, but they evolve as you dig in. So there’s some improv along the way, and then going back in the edits if more connection tissue or editing is needed.
And if something feels interesting to explore, I’ll try it out without getting too attached. I’m quite ruthless in my editing. I cut a hundred pages from Poe. Some of those scenes I really loved, but in the end, they weren’t needed, so to the cutting-room floor they went.
How important is the company of other writers to you?
Incredibly important. I’ve found to my delight and surprise that the biggest cheerleaders of my work have been other writers. And it just helps you through the insanity to know you’re not the only one going through X,Y, and Z. You also get insight into the publishing industry itself, which can often feel like a big, giant, unknowable puzzle. I first connected with writers through a small writing group in Oakland, but online is great too, or joining an association. It’s such a weird, spooky art done mostly alone, so having those connections is a great support.
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