Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Interview: Hailey Piper

Hailey Piper is the author of The Worm and His Kings, The Possession of Natalie Glasgow, Benny Rose, the Cannibal King, and more. She is a member of the HWA, and her short fiction appears in Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, The Arcanist, Dark Matter Magazine, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, and elsewhere. Once hailing from the haunted woods of New York, she now lives with her wife in Maryland, where they spend weekends summoning goat monsters and singing to the moon. Find Hailey on Twitter via @HaileyPiperSays or at haileypiper.com.

First off, congratulations on a very busy 2020! Last year saw the release of two books—Benny Rose, The Cannibal King (Unnerving Press) and The Worm and His Kings (Off Limits Press)—as well as quite a few short stories. For our readers who aren’t yet familiar with your work, however, could you introduce yourself?

I’m never sure how to answer once my books have been stated, but in a nutshell: I’m Hailey Piper, and I write horror and dark fiction. I’ve had stories in Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Daily Science Fiction, The Arcanist, Flash Fiction Online, Tales to Terrify, and numerous anthologies. I used to creep around the haunted woods of New York, but now I creep around the apartment I share with my wife in Maryland.

You’ve amassed quite a bibliography over the last few years—your website lists over fifty pieces of short fiction published or slated to appear between 2018 and 2021. What is your writing background? What kind of advice do you have for others who aspire to similar productivity?

I’ve been writing since I was seven or eight, somewhat prompted by reading Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, but writing didn’t become a passion until I was sixteen and read Stephen King’s It. If I’ve partway figured out what I’m doing in the slightest, that’s only come in the last couple of years. There are many myths about productivity. I believe the most important thing writers can do is know themselves. “Write every day” sounds nice if that best nurtures your creativity, but not everyone’s the same. I know people who write only on weekday evenings, or who take month-long breaks between two-month periods of rapid writing onslaughts. A writer who forces themselves to work under someone else’s process isn’t going to be productive; they’re going to be resentful. Finding out your personal process is the best way to be productive.

It looks like 2021 is also shaping up to be a big one in terms of new releases, as you have both a novel and a story collection scheduled for this year. What can you tell us about your upcoming novel, Queen of Teeth (Rooster Republic/Strangehouse Books)? What’s it about, and how did it come to be?

Funny enough, the story seed for Queen of Teeth hit when I began writing The Worm and His Kings and ended up having almost nothing to do with where the story ultimately went. The main character, Yolanda “Yaya” Betancourt, pretty much took over my plans. Queen of Teeth is a body horror novel that begins with Yaya discovering a growth inside her after a one-night stand. Circumstances escalate beyond her control while trying to figure out the source, and she ends up on the run from authorities. Her troubles only grow as the thing inside her changes. The world of the book is a little off from ours, with historical events differing from the late ’80s onwards. Readers will be in for an odd experience.

You’re also scheduled to release your first collection in 2021—Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy (The Seventh Terrace). That’s an incredibly evocative title, so could you tell us about how you came to choose that and how it ties into your work?

Originally, I meant to name the collection after its opening short story, “Feast for Small Pieces,” which appeared last year in Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Volume 5 from Red Room Press. While talking to my wife about bodily stuff, because women’s situations with our bodies often involve some horror in my experience, I phrased it as “dealing with unfortunate elements of my anatomy,” and she told me to write that down. Credit goes to her from snatching that in the moment. It suits the stories, many of them involving issues with the body, its changes, or how it acts in tandem or apart from our minds, while exploring queer horror and the monstrous feminine.

What was your process in pulling together and arranging the stories for Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy? You have quite a back catalog of stories, so how did you choose which ones to include? Did you aim for a broad sampling, perhaps, or is Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy more focused on a particular area?

Laura Mauro noted with their collection Sing Your Sadness Deep that they didn’t want to collect all of their stories to a chronological point, but to gather what they felt was their strongest work to date. That seemed wise to me; you only get one first collection. I listed out everything, prioritized, and looked for connecting thematic tissue (and which stories I would have the rights for, of course). Granted, I put this collection together in early 2020, and I’m proud of every story to be published since, but to keep shifting the table of contents would mean never publishing. Eventually, you have to push the book out the door, same as when it’s one long story. I tried to balance length and tone throughout, mixing longer stories with flash fiction, balancing severe tales like “The Law of Conservation of Death” against more humorous ones like “I’m Not a Chainsaw Kind of Girl, But . . .” and then acknowledging that all of this might get thrown out the window by readers who like to hop around out of order.

Since you’ve had so many stories published in so many venues, it can be hard for readers to keep up. Are there any stories in the collection that you’re particularly pleased to be able to offer a second life and a chance to reach a broader audience?

Absolutely! While a handful of stories are available free to read online, others appeared early, like “The Burning of the Blueberries,” and that story of a trans man seeking friendship in a secret society largely went unnoticed. “Candyland” appeared in a February 2020 anthology that was later de-published, so few readers even had a chance to check out a world where teenage girls want to be turned into candy and eaten. Likewise “Hairy Jack” or “Forgive the Adoring Beast.” I’m excited readers will get a chance to check them out at last.

One of the benefits and downsides to horror is that it lends itself well to standalone stories and novels. Do you have any interest in exploring more connected works or even a series at some point? Or do you like being able to start anew with each piece?

Connecting tissue has certainly crossed my mind before. I’ve had readers ask for follow-ups or further explorations of The Possession of Natalie Glasgow, “Feast for Small Pieces,” “Crones in Their Larval State,” “Endless Parade,” and most frequently, The Worm and His Kings. My interest in dipping back into these words comes and goes. Without a story seed that seems right and doesn’t diminish the original work, I can’t really begin to explore further. Starting anew is refreshing. I make new discoveries, sometimes into an entirely new world, depending on how far the premise reaches. I can’t rule out that it will happen, but I like that any reader can pick up any of my work, in any order, and not worry that they’ve missed something.

Your work covers a large swath of different flavors and subgenres of horror and dark fiction. For example, The Possession of Natalie Glasgow is—as the title suggests—a story about supernatural possessions, while Benny Rose, The Cannibal King is a throwback to 1980s pulpy supernatural slashers as part of Unnerving Press’s “Rewind or Die” series, and The Worm and His Kings is tinged with cosmic horror. Your short fiction, too, covers even broader ground. Is there a particular kind (or kinds) of horror that most appeals to you? Do you see any deeper connections between your pieces despite the different modes of dark fiction, or do the different subgenres inspire different themes?

I’m certainly a fan of reading cosmic horror, even though I’ve only written a little of it, and I adore coming-of-age horror. Kids versus the monster speaks to me, and I think speaks to much of my work even when the characters aren’t children. I’m interested in tales that follow the powerless, the marginalized. My book protagonists have all been queer; many of my stories follow queer characters or themes. Monique from The Worm and His Kings is homeless; Yaya from Queen of Teeth works at a corner store before her life falls apart. I’m less interested in exploring stories from the perspective of the powerful; politicians, celebrities, overlords, and so on. While the subgenres draw out different facets, this core carries through each.

One of the threads that seems to emerge in your work is the idea of storytelling and, in particular, how stories can be misunderstood. For instance, the enormous not-quite-human Gray Hill in The Worm and His Kings is an urban legend to some, a monster to others, but—in her own history—something completely different. The Worm itself seems to be a cipher onto which its adherents project their own theories and desires, right or wrong. The titular Benny Rose, the Cannibal King is also an urban legend come to life, but one whose origins are constantly revised, obscuring the truth. What role does this shifting of identity play in your work? How does this storytelling operate, both as a method of control and—as in the end of Benny Rose—a method of reclaiming?

We can’t help making assumptions sometimes. We know we shouldn’t, but we do it anyway. The unknown frightens us, and so a human response to this is to explain it. Sometimes we hear the phrase “unexplainable phenomena,” but that doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny and presumptuousness of human imagination. We don’t need to know all the facts, or any facts, to decide we understand what we’re talking about and invent a story around it. That’s part of what makes people frightening, too. These invented stories can be used to exploit, or justify, or to comfort. Even as readers, we can’t help but assume or speculate on what’s going to happen next, or believe that we know the mystery’s answer before the end, and sometimes we’re led astray by others’ assumptions. But at least when we’re reading, that’s us looking ahead. We’re trying to find the answers. The tales told around Benny Rose are so mired in the past that any genuine exploration of them, like Desiree speculating on the truth in the finale, a new approach becomes focused on the future. Against a presumptuous past, that’s a radical action.

Your books—such as in Benny Rose and The Worm and His Kings—feature very central “monsters,” but they also include ordinary people who are devotees or conspirators, and therefore find something useful in the monster. These people don’t necessarily summon or create The Worm, Gray Hill, or Benny Rose, but they find a way to exploit them for their benefit. How do you view “monsters” in horror fiction? How does this work with the monstrousness of everyday people?

I’m a queer woman, and we horror fans of the queer community have spent a lot of horror history sympathizing with the monsters. Not just the obvious ones like Frankenstein’s monster or King Kong, but the lot of them. I think many of us can also relate to exploitation. Everyone and everything has their own perspective and the capacity to both heal or harm others, their own goals. They’ll justify the harm they do with what they intend to gain, especially if they view it as worth the cost, as in Benny Rose, or empirically valuable or even selfless, depending on which character you ask in The Worm and His Kings. Ultimately, these are people who cannot get what they want by their own power, but they can find a tragedy and exploit it.

We’ve touched on how your work crosses subgenres, but who are your particular influences when it comes to horror? Other than those influences that you are drawn to, are there any authors or works that you move away from—ones that your work aims to push back against or respond to?

My most prominent influences when I was an adolescent were Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. Later, those shifted into discovering writers whose works span earlier, such as Shirley Jackson and Ramsey Campbell, to contemporary influences such as Caitlin R. Kiernan, Sara Tantlinger, and Stephen Graham Jones. I can’t say that I focus on or intentionally push against any particular author. They’re not in my head while writing, usually; my characters, themes, and stories dominate. That said, story seeds have dropped out of frustration with overdone tropes or ignorant takes. “Feast for Small Pieces,” for example, came to life after I’d read three stories in a row, in different publications, where a femme fatale archetype had really been minding her own business while the protagonist blamed her for his troubles and the eventual destruction of his life. My frustration poured onto the page.

One of the issues of writing in horror and its various subtypes is that they often come loaded with pre-existing cultural baggage. Here, I’m specifically thinking about The Worm and His Kings, which has been described as “cosmic horror,” given its exploration themes like humanity’s place in the cosmos and how we respond to immensely powerful yet disinterested forces and voids. The term “cosmic horror,” however, still has strong popular ties with H.P. Lovecraft and his work, such that almost any work in this area—rightly or wrongly—is assumed to be in conflict or conversation with him. To that end, did you feel the influence of Lovecraft while writing The Worm and His Kings? Do you have a relationship with his work?

Oof, this is a rough spot. I’m always hesitant to speak about Lovecraft; he has an inarguable influence and countless fans. I’ve read many of his stories, and while I think the imagination is something truly special, the perspective is extremely limited. There really isn’t consideration for the perspective of the other, no sympathy for star-crossing devils except a brief comment in In the Mountains of Madness, and then it’s only to demonize another species. I didn’t consider Lovecraft while writing The Worm and His Kings, only my world, my perspectives, but it’s undeniable that his influence is present. There are different kinds of cosmic horror, for example, fiction influenced by The King in Yellow. The focus on unfathomable forces that move through the stars and treat eons as moments is certainly more Lovecraftian, and the concept explained early in The Worm and His Kings that our world is a parallel abomination from Earth’s original timeline fits a similar cosmic dismissal of humanity’s ideas of self-importance.

Shifting from the past to the present, who are some of the contemporary authors that you find to be doing interesting work?

I’ve mentioned Caitlin R. Kiernan, Sara Tantlinger, and Stephen Graham Jones already, but I could go on all day. Gwendolyn Kiste, Laird Barron, Eden Royce, Laurel Hightower, Lee Murray, Joanna Koch, Laura Mauro, John Langan, K.P. Kulski, Jessica McHugh, and many, many more. I could keep at it endlessly. There is so much fascinating, unique work being done today. It’s nearly impossible to keep up. We’re living in a rich time for horror fiction.

Because your work crosses so many subgenres, are there some that you haven’t yet gotten a chance to delve into, but that you’d like to? When you are developing a story, do you first pick a type of horror to work in, or does some other element kick off the process and dictate the subgenre it ends up falling into?

The story seed always comes first, whether that’s a line of dialogue, a character’s personality, a plot premise, a setting, or so on. Everything else grows from there. Potential subgenres either bud or wither from there, as these can go in more than one direction. For example, Benny Rose, the Cannibal King carries elements of coming-of-age horror, slasher, and folk horror. I could have leaned more into the folk horror elements and a different book would have emerged, likewise had I leaned deeper into coming-of-age horror, but while those two subgenres still leave their fingerprints on the book, I steered its focus toward slasher because I felt that would tell the strongest possible story, Desiree and her friends versus Benny. What story seeds appear in the future will say what else I end up working on, but there are certainly ones I’d love to explore whenever the story seed comes. I would love to work on a werewolf book someday, and certainly a book that leaned deeper into coming-of-age horror than Benny Rose, the Cannibal King.

Given your experience working in different areas of the genre, do you have a theory of horror in general? What is it that you look for in horror, and is there a particular area which you think horror does particularly well that other genres might not?

Horror is healing. That’s my theory in a nutshell. I get emotional sustenance from consuming horror. Dread excites me, tales of overcoming the terror fill me with hope, fear and empathy for the unknown gives me connections to people and things that have never existed. Horror heals because it tells the horror in my heart that I’m seen and understood. I also feel horror is the genre of honesty, and while I wouldn’t call other genres dishonest, I think horror can’t help but be inherently honest. Everything feels more real to me when it’s steeped in horror, no matter how fictional.

Conversely, are there any areas you see where horror falters or struggles? What kinds of genre tropes or presentations are you ready to see retired?

Tying back to honesty, this leans on the downside. With horror feeling inherently honest, it comes off as crass and unnecessary when an author goes out of the way to shock and insult the reader and then paint this as daring. It isn’t daring; it’s lazy. I’m sick of men writing about sexually assaulting women, for example. The “you can’t handle me” writers show a lack of understanding for the genre and how fear and dread work in human hearts.

In addition to writing, you’re also making your first foray into the world of editing as the guest editor for a special issue of Planet Scumm. Notably, the call for submissions was focused on seeking out work from writers of normally marginalized and underrepresented genders—specifically, from cisgender women, transgender women, transgender men, non-binary people, and genderqueer people. While there’s been progress in recent years towards increasing representation in speculative fiction, there’s obviously still much more to be done. Can you tell us about why this work for representation in this area is so important? What do you hope to see going forward?

In 2019, multiple women in horror noted, without naming names, that a horror anthology had released with several men and only one woman on the TOC. We soon realized we weren’t all talking about the same anthology, and then discovered anthologies that had no women on the TOC in the same year. Evening out the gender representation barely scratches the surface for inclusivity, let alone POC rep, queer rep—it’s severely limiting the perspective of the overall book and ignoring the variety of talented writers. We do not live in a homogenous world. And the problem isn’t special to horror; you can find it in every genre. Hopefully, a day will come when these special calls won’t be needed to help even things out, but right now, it’s necessary. I hope to see more editors take care when observing both their tables of contents and their own biases that they probably don’t notice. When an editor says they only want the best stories, and the TOC turns out mostly straight white men, they have an extremely limited view of what “best” means. A limited perspective needs expanding.

Going back to the issue of representation and portrayal of historically underrepresented identities, your work includes a number of queer characters. Sometimes the character’s identity is just one small facet of the character—I’m thinking, for instance, of Margaret (the midwife/witch) from The Possession of Natalie Glasgow, who we incidentally learn has a wife—and one which doesn’t have an overt narrative impact. By contrast, the protagonist of The Worm and His Kings is Monique, and her being a trans lesbian is inextricably tied to the plot, theme, and the very bones of the story. So, while your work features queer characters, their queerness ranges from a minor detail to a central element. Could you tell us a little bit about how you see the work of representing queer people in your stories? How do you approach representation in terms of how centralized a character’s identity as the “Other” is to the story?

To borrow a phrase, “I’m also a client.” I’m a queer woman, and I want to see myself in horror. Queer characters, definitely, but also queer themes, queer worlds. That ideology often decides more about the story than the plot in a bones-deep way. Short fiction offers a wonderful avenue for these explorations. The central character of “The Law of Conservation of Death,” the second story in Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy, is presented as a straight woman haunted through her reincarnations by a ghost from a past life, but the story pairs thematically with transitioning, the past often feeling inescapable and all-consuming (at least at the time I wrote it). There’s room for queer characters to have their relationships or self entangled in the story, and that’s good for highlighting our issues in the LGBTQIA+ community. Likewise, there’s value in queer characters experiencing situations that are neutral to their sexuality as it helps normalize the perspective of our presence in the world, especially for readers who don’t know queer folk in real life. Queen of Teeth’s protagonist is a lesbian, and she engages with other women throughout the story, but plot-wise she isn’t targeted for this, and thematically the book focuses on agency in a world where our bodies are considered someone else’s property. And yet despite saying this, I know that my queer perspective colors everything I write. I don’t know a different way to see the world. Maybe the past really is inescapable in that way, every presentation of relationships and societal expectation seen first from the doorway of a closet. Or am I being limiting? I have no idea. There are so many facets to queerness, even within a single person’s life experience, that the possibilities for exploration feel endless. My hope is that readers feel something new that they hadn’t considered before, whenever they’ve finished one of my stories.

Finally, what else is on your horizon? In addition to concrete projects and set releases, are there any new directions you’re looking to explore in the near future?

Right now, I’m working with my publishers to finalize the 2021 releases. I’m also working on short story deadlines, which feels like something I’m always doing, and gathering up notes for the next book that will explore some new territory, but it’s too early to talk about that yet. I’ll probably start in April. Or maybe June? I wrote Natalie Glasgow in June 2018, Benny Rose in June 2019, and a lot of Queen of Teeth work in June 2020, so, maybe? June seems to like me for books.

Gordon B. White

Gordon B. White

Gordon B. White is the author of the collection As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions (Trepidatio Publishing 2020). A graduate of the Clarion West Writing Workshop, Gordon’s stories have appeared in dozens of venues, including The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 12 and the Bram Stoker Award® winning anthology Borderlands 6. He also contributes reviews and interviews to outlets including Nightmare, Lightspeed, Hellnotes, and The Outer Dark podcast. You can find him online at gordonbwhite.com.