Thursday, June 14, 2018

Interview With Christa Carmen

CHHR: Please give a brief introduction here.

I am a writer of dark fiction, and my short stories have appeared in places like Fireside Fiction Company, Unnerving Magazine, Year's Best Hardcore Horror, Outpost 28, DarkFuse Magazine, and Tales to Terrify, to name a few. I have additional work forthcoming from Lycan Valley Press Publications' Dark Voices, and my debut fiction collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, will be released in August 2018 by Unnerving.

I live in Westerly, Rhode Island with my husband and our ten-year-old bluetick beagle, Maya. I have a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in English and psychology, and a master's degree from Boston College in counseling psychology. I am currently pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing & Literature from Harvard Extension School. I work at a pharmaceutical company as a Research & Development Packaging Coordinator, and at a local hospital as a mental health clinician.

My husband and I were married on Halloween in 2016, at the historic (and hypothetically haunted) Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the inspiration for Stephen King's The Shining, of course. When I’m not writing, I am volunteering with one of several organizations that aim to maximize public awareness and seek solutions to the ever-growing opioid crisis in southern Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut.

CHHR: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

 I think that, deep down, I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I’ve been a reader, so since age five or so. With that being said, I don’t think I actually realized this desire until much later. The concept that one could simply ‘be’ a writer was stymied by my struggle with alcohol and drugs during those years when one should be figuring out what to do with one’s life. I’m sober now, and have been for a number of years, but I don’t regret that my path to writing was a bumpy one. I’m not sure I would have ever had that, ‘Hey, I love writing, I could just... be a writer, if I work at it hard enough’-epiphany, had I not endured those experiences, no matter how difficult they might have been.

CHHR: What does your writing schedule look like? 

I try to write Monday through Friday from 5 am to 7 am, and then at whatever other odd hours I can scrape together beyond that. On the weekends, if I have nothing else going on, it’s not unusual for me to write from nine to five, with breaks for lunch and to walk the dog or go for a run.

CHHR: Do you have any interesting writing rituals? If so, what are they?

Hmm, let’s see… interesting writing rituals? Probably not. Persnickety ones? I only write with one of two different brands and types of pens—a black or blue Bic Cristal 1.6 mm or a medium point Paper Mate Flair of pretty much any color—and though they each provide a completely different writing experience, I’m equally indiscriminate and happy with either. I do third draft edits on the computer, but all first drafts and second draft rewrites have to be done by hand, or the words don’t flow adequately. And I’m not sure if this would be considered a ritual, or lack thereof, but I can pretty much write anywhere, anytime, although the ideal time and place would be early morning in my home office, or curled up somewhere comfortable in my house.

CHHR: Do you like writing short stories or novels?

During the actual physical act of putting words onto the page, there is not much difference for me between writing a short story and working on a novel. As for the process as a whole, however, the writing, rewriting, and editing of a short story is far easier than that of a novel, so I tend to enjoy it more, and to be honest, fear it a lot less. I’m challenging myself to rise above that fear, and to become more comfortable with novel-writing, and I definitely feel as though I’m making progress.

CHHR: How is the horror scene where you live?

Rhode Island has a great horror scene! Necon (Northeastern Writers' Conference) is in Portsmouth every year, and I’ll be attending for my second time this summer, and StokerCon was in Providence this past March. Providence is rife with places that were frequented by Lovecraft during his lifetime, from the Athenaeum to the Ladd Observatory, and NecronomiCon is held at the Biltmore Hotel every other year (if you go, stop by Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Council, which is a fabulously weird bookstore and networking center for the Weird literary world). There’s also Mercy Brown’s gravesite in Exeter, the Perron house featured in the first Conjuring film, and other abandoned schools and Newport mansions that are purportedly haunted.

CHHR: Do you use outlines or do you go with the flow?

I do a bit of both. I definitely outline for longer works, as the three novels I’ve written thus far each hinge on twists, turns, mistaken identities, and the like, so I would get hopelessly lost if I didn’t utilize an outline for that type of narrative, but for short stories, I pretty much just go with the flow. Like I mentioned earlier, I have to write everything out by hand, and I can sit down with the concept of a short story mapped out in my head, and get most of it onto the page in a single sitting.

CHHR: How did publishing your first book or short story change your writing process?

I’m not sure it did. If anything, that little taste of success just motivated me to keep plugging away, to pursue that new idea, to write that next story. And when I say ‘little’ taste of success, I truly mean ‘little’; my first short story publication was with a non-paying ezine, and was a perfectly professional, enjoyable, and encouraging experience, but I’m definitely not a writer who held out for their first publication to be with a pro-paying market. Baby steps in the direction of that next worthwhile goal is more my style, as opposed to a stringent delay of gratification, although for those writers who have both the talent and patience to do so, I tip my hat to them!

CHHR: What do you think makes a good horror story? 

There are as many different types of horror stories as there are more general genres of fiction, so I’m not sure I could put my finger on a single element that would guarantee a good horror story if incorporated within the work. I do think that all good horror stories have a component of passion, that the reader can feel the author’s dedication to the story they are telling, that the author’s care of concept, their inherent love of writing, their belief in the characters they’ve created, and their trust in their own narrative voice are all bleeding out from between each line of prose.

There are certain things that I think, subjectively, make a good horror story. Stephen King’s portrayals of small-town America at the center of a supernatural catastrophe are always brilliant, and palpable atmosphere, such as the type in Michael McDowell’s The Elementals or David Mitchell’s Slade House are deliciously appealing.

CHHR: What are you currently working on?

I attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in January, where I workshopped a horror/crime thriller called Coming Down Fast. I would love to be able to say I’m finished with the novel, however there are still a few things I’m tinkering with, though the end is in sight. Last August, I met author and artist Dean Kuhta in Providence at NecronomiCon, and I’m finishing up a short story called “The Rest Will Be in Pieces” for Issue #3 of Outpost 28, a Lovecraft-inspired dark fiction magazine to which Dean has invited me to be a regulator contributor. 50% of all proceeds of Outpost 28 go to helping the homeless in Richmond, VA, which is a very nice thing to be a part of.

I have additional work forthcoming from the sci-fi ezine, Space Squid, as well as from LVP Publications' Dark Voices, launching at Edge-Lit 7, one of the UK’s most popular fantasy, horror and science-fiction events, on July 14th. Pre-orders are already live (, and editor Theresa Derwin is hosting a raffle that will enable the majority of profits from this all-female horror anthology to go to Breast Cancer Now.

I have seven or eight other short stories in various stages of completeness, and my goal is to finish one a month over the remainder of 2018, keeping in mind that new ideas will inevitably strike during that time, as well as to participate in a second collaboration with author David Emery, whom I met while judging a short story contest through The Write Practice and Short Fiction Break literary magazine.

CHHR: What is in your TBR pile?

Ha, what isn’t in my TBR pile (my Goodreads ‘To-Read’ list is currently hovering at the 2,496 mark)? Let’s see, in the actual pile of my books stacked on my nightstand at present are the following: Dead is Dead, But Not Always, by Eddie Generous; The Train Derails in Boston, which is the first Jessica McHugh book I came into possession of, and ironically the only one of hers now that I haven’t read; Uncovering Stranger Things: Essays on Eighties Nostalgia, Cynicism and Innocence in the Series, edited by Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr.; Where Nightmares Come From: The Art of Storytelling in the Horror Genre, edited by Joe Mynhardt & Eugene Johnson; The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 8, edited by Ellen Datlow; Gwendy’s Button Box, by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar, which I somehow still haven’t gotten to.

CHHR: What is the last book that scared you?

The last book that scared me… truly scared me, was The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters. I’m therefore thrilled to death that the film adaptation is coming out this August. Waters’ novel does less with more, or to clarify, the reader’s fear and dread arise from understated but consistently-growing tension, ambiguity between madness and the supernatural, and the dissolution of rationality, like it is wont to do in only the very best of Gothic literature.

One part of The Little Stranger scared me more than any other, and this was the scene in crumbling Hundreds Hall where inexplicable burn marks appear on the walls, and a strange tapping noise plagues Dr. Faraday and Caroline Ayres. By this point in the narrative, the implications of this tapping have been hinted at to such a masterful degree, I felt like the frog in the pot of water that realized it was boiling only a moment before its death. To me, The Little Stranger is on par with The Monk, Rebecca, and other classics of Gothic literature, and hits its notes of mystery, horror, and dread with perfect pitch. 

CHHR: What is your favorite horror book?

The first time I read Salem’s Lot, I was thirteen years old, soon to embark on my freshmen year of high school, and a Stephen King virgin. If you’re from a small town, the characters that inhabit the Lot are you own neighbors; Matthew Burke is your high school English teacher; Father Callaghan is the priest at your church; Ben Mears is the outsider everyone notices, and is instantly suspicious of.

I still remember the setup of my old bedroom: full-sized bed pushed into one corner, a set of double windows looking out over a spacious backyard, flimsy curtains that would let in the shadows on moon-drenched nights. I did gymnastics for a number of years, and had adopted the slightly morbid habit of hanging bouquets of flowers I’d received at competitions upside down from thick nails on the walls of my room, like a collection of winged insects pinned to display boards that rustled ominously when disturbed. There, pink roses and white carnations, lilies with petals like tongues, and fragile, flaking baby’s breath would desiccate into shapes far more abstract and Burtonian than they’d been in life.

On this particular evening, I came to the point of Barlow’s siege where Danny Glick is sent to the window of Mark Petrie in an attempt to receive an invitation to enter Mark’s room. As my mind conjured up the image of the vampire-boy tapping at the second floor window, both terrible and tempting as he floated there, suspended in the mist, my eyes flicked to my own window, waiting for the inevitable figure to appear, a silhouette against a glowing, pregnant moon.

The flowers lining the walls shed their associations with accomplishment and joy to become so many hanging bats, swinging from their elongated feet, grinding their needle-sharp teeth. Swallowing my fear, I forced myself to read on, making my way, in tentative fits and starts, to Matt’s summons of Ben to the deathbed of Mike Ryerson.

At this point, I decided there was only way to get through the night unscathed: traverse the room—hopefully uninterrupted—and retrieve the cross my aunt and uncle had gifted me for my First Holy Communion. I made it to the jewelry box on the opposite wall—beneath the most menacing cluster of poisonous-looking petals—and back without a single childhood-friend-turned-vampire making a bid for my soul, but to this day wonder if that cross may have provided protection from the potential acquiescence I may have given a particularly persuasive vampire.

A year and a half ago, I reread Salem’s Lot for the first time in ten years (I’d read the book again in my early twenties after purchasing the Doubleday Illustrated Edition). I don’t recall what aspect of the story stuck out most to me in my twenties, and was anticipating experiencing at least a twinge of that same fear when Danny comes to Mark’s window, but none of that old panic resurfaced. Instead, the most visceral reaction I experienced occurred while reading of Ralphie Glick’s funeral. Mr. Glick’s pitiful cries and disconsolate outburst were so raw and real that I realized something about the townspeople of Jerusalem’s Lot I couldn’t have known at thirteen.

It was not the threat of bloodstained vampire fangs that caused me to reach for my cross in the night, but the town’s lack of connection, the dissolution of once-bonded relationships—Sheriff McCaslin giving up on a town not yet past saving, Sandy and Roy McDougall’s failure to do good by their ten-month old son, Eva Miller endangering the residents of her boarding house by turning a blind eye to the goings-on in her root cellar— that made me shudder under the sheets and wait for the sun to lighten the horizon through my gauzy curtains. That need for human connection is a sentiment that only grows stronger with time, much like the appeal of Salem’s Lot itself.

CHHR: What is your favorite horror film?

My favorite horror film of all time is the original Martyrs; unfortunately, the 2015 US remake was a complete letdown, although that didn’t come as much of a surprise. Martyrs, a 2008 French film written and directed by Pascal Laugier and starring Morjana Alaoui and Mylène Jampanoï, starts with seemingly supernaturally aspects, delves into the torture porn I don’t typically relish in but which I think is fully utilized for the purposes of this story, and then takes a sharp left-hand turn into psychological horror and existential dread (I’m a huge fan of horror that melds multiple sub-genres into one, like 10 Cloverfield Lane). Martyrs’ final scene allows the almost-final girl to bypass the control of her tormentors, and achieve transcendence by denying it to those who’ve wronged her, and because of this, I found the film, in spite of its brutal treatment of women, to actually be a triumph for the female protagonist.

I think the reason the American version of the film failed, interestingly enough, is because the director attempted to do away with the very thing that made Laugier’s Martyrs so effective. The remake was directed by Daniel Stamm, who was quoted as saying, "[The original film] is very nihilistic. The American approach [that I'm looking at] would go through all that darkness but then give a glimmer of hope. You don't have to shoot yourself when it's over.” That he felt the film would be better served by including that ‘glimmer of hope’ is almost absurd when you’ve seen the original film. I’m always intrigued by US filmmakers’ certainty that Americans want hope, that we want that happy ending. The alternative ending to the 2005 British horror film, The Descent, makes a similar inference of its US audience, which is where the different ending aired. I hate that alternative ending, and think the original is so much bleaker, and therefore so much more beautiful!

CHHR: What type of music do you listen to? What’s your favorite album?

My music consumption has gone down drastically in the last few years since subscribing to Audible and utilizing the OverDrive App for Libraries. I listen to audiobooks constantly, but when I’m not chipping away at a good thriller, classic, or horror novel, I listen to rock (classic and alternative), a bit of rap, ska punk, soul, a very minimal amount of pop, and find horror film soundtracks to be great background music while writing, if I’m in the right mood for it.

My favorite album, sheesh, that’s a hard one, since there are albums that were my favorite at one time, before I tired of them or moved on to a different album or artist. If, say, I could only ever listen to one album for the rest of my life, I’d probably have to say Aerosmith’s live album, A Little South of Sanity. Because let’s be honest, who doesn’t relish in belting out the lyrics to “Crazy” and “Cryin’” and “Love in an Elevator” when their alone in their private recording booth, I mean, car?

CHHR: What is your spirit animal?

I’ve always felt particularly drawn to birds, and when I was a little girl, I became obsessed with the idea of having a parakeet as a pet. My younger sister and I started the ‘Blue and Green Parakeet Cleaning Service’ in order to showcase our steadfast sense of responsibility, and subsequently prove to our parents our worth as potential bird owners (mind you, this was predominantly my idea; my poor sister was like, ‘Cool, birds! Wait, why do we have to clean again?’). We ended up getting a pair of English budgerigars for Christmas (of course we did, my parents would have gotten them for us regardless of my half-baked house cleaning scheme!), and I loved watching those small, colorful birds strut from perch to perch, and chitter to themselves with those perfectly curved, waxen beaks.

Today, I still have an affinity for all creatures avian, but I think my spirit animal is a little less colorful, and a little more intense, than those budgies of my youth. A crow can be partially migratory, yet many remain ‘resident’ to one particular area, and I think that sums up my prior wanderlust (I’ve lived in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and all over Boston), and ensuing tendency toward embracing my homebody nature (I’ve since settled back in my hometown of Westerly, RI). Crows are always inquisitive, sometimes mischievous, and occasionally hostile. They’re intelligent, travel in murders, and their signature ‘caws’ are representative of an amazing array of communication skills. Oh, and of course, their go-to garb is black.

CHHR: What is your favorite beer?

I have not had a drink in a number of years, so the answer to this question would be none of them. Or perhaps all of them, and that is why I no longer drink. ;)

CHHR: If you could have a beer with one author, who would it be?

If we can change it to a cup of English breakfast tea, I would have to say Stephen King. I know, I know, it’s clichéd, even predictable, but Stephen King doesn’t sit down with just anyone, and I’d like to simply enjoy a leisurely conversation with the modern master of horror about great novels, the genius of audiobooks, and the joy of compact dogs with super-short legs.

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