Warding Off the Creepy

On November 3 of this year, I was refreshing feeds and doomscrolling, as one does while waiting for votes in swing states to be counted, when I got a rejection email from a progressive American sci-fi and fantasy magazine. Rejection emails are par for the course when it comes to submitting fiction to magazines, of course, but the timing could not have been worse. The wording of the email was also quite strong. I have a folder in Gmail that I’m slowly filling with rejections, but this particular email hurt more than it should have.

Still, I understand why rejection emails have to be written like this. There are just so many creepy people out there that you have to make your boundaries absolutely clear.

Case in point:

I’ve been receiving creepy “newsletters” from a random man since the beginning of the year. These letters come once a month through the mail, and the handwriting on the envelopes is just as creepy as the personal nature of the letters. I thought I would be free of these letters when I moved to Philadelphia and changed addresses, but the post office has been forwarding them to me instead of returning them to the sender.

There’s a fading culture of zine mailing lists that I think this person is trying to keep alive, but I don’t know him at all, and I don’t know how he got my mailing address, and getting these creepy letters with creepy handwriting is… Well, it’s creepy.

On getting another creepy letter in the mail the other day, I finally snapped and wrote this man a three-line email. I said that I know he means no harm, but to please stop sending me letters because this is creepy, and PLEASE DO NOT RESPOND TO THIS EMAIL. So of course he responds, immediately, saying that he did not mean to be creepy, etc etc etc etc etc, and it was… Yeah, it was super creepy.

Can you even imagine being the editor of a fiction magazine and having to deal with people like this? Of course rejection letters have to be strong.

(Still, couldn’t that magazine have waited a day or two after the election? Honestly.)

I recently read that, according to several university studies, men report that they’re more afraid of being called “creepy” than they are of being called just about anything else, including “stupid,” “ugly,” or “weak.” If I had to guess, I’d say that the anxiety surrounding creepiness has a lot to do with the perception that it’s hard to pin down what “being creepy” actually entails. I don’t think it’s that complicated, though. What “creepy” is all about, at least in this context, is uninvited and unwanted intimate personal contact that is repeated after not being reciprocated. Of course women and nonbinary people can be creepy too, but I suspect that the sense of entitlement many men seem to feel regarding their right to receive attention tends to exacerbate their creepy behavior.

Anyway, I’ve been disheartened by the unequivocally negative tone of some of the rejection emails I’ve received from fiction magazines, but I’m trying not to take it personally. After all, this isn’t about me and the quality of my work, but rather a preemptive attempt on the part of the editors to ward off the creepy.

How to Pass Academic Peer Review

An unfortunate paradox of academic writing is that, if people can read and understand your argument, then they will assume that you have done no intellectual labor. Conversely, if your reader has trouble approaching your writing, they will assume that your work is difficult because of the sophistication of your ideas. In order to publish your work in an academic venue, it is therefore necessary to create artificial barriers that serve to make your writing inaccessible.

Based on my study of the writing of respected and highly cited scholars in my field, as well as my numerous experiences with peer review, these are my suggestions.

(1) Long sentences

Many people drawn to academia think in complex sentences with multiple subordinate clauses and, when lecturing, may take several minutes to finish a single thought. When translated into writing, this style of intellectual processing is generally edited for concision and clarity.

Your job is to reverse the general philosophy of editing and make your sentences longer. The more clauses the better. Commas are largely unnecessary, but you should use as many semicolons as you can get away with.

(2) Large paragraphs

After a certain point, long paragraphs become needlessly difficult to read. This is why writers are encouraged to construct paragraphs of roughly five to ten sentences, with each paragraph beginning with a clear opening sentence that introduces and sets the tone for the material that follows. Writers are also encouraged to begin a new paragraph if their presentation or argument begins to head in a different direction.

In academic writing, however, you need to lose the reader, not help them follow you. It’s therefore important to keep your paragraphs as long as possible. When combined with longer sentences, large paragraphs will ensure that your reader skims the material instead of reading it closely.

(3) Walls of plot summary or decontextualized infodumps

A major element of writing nonfiction is the ability to present your information or opinion in a way that is carefully curated and summarized so that the reader can understand the most important points. The frequently referenced adage “kill your darlings” is an injunction to remove material that may be interesting to you but irrelevant to the reader.

Meanwhile, the goal of academic writing is to force the reader to perform intellectual labor by refusing to curate or structure information. You should therefore attempt to include as much raw information as you can by presenting facts with no contextualizing details or analysis. Extended plot summary filled with minute details is ideal, but you can also occupy space through prolonged references to secondary sources.

(4) Incoherent structure

In order for writing to be comprehensible, it needs to be structured in such a way that a sequence of events or arguments can be understood according to a chain of logic, with Sentence B acting as a natural outgrowth from Sentence A. This also applies to larger divisions such as paragraphs and subsections.

In academic writing, however, each unit of language should exist as independently as possible. Each sentence should be a world unto itself with no immediate connection to the sentences that precede and follow it. In addition, needlessly long paragraphs will help to ensure that the reader will struggle to understand the purpose any given sentence. Many first drafts display this lack of cohesion simply as a result of being unedited, so it’s often best to leave your first draft as it stands, especially in terms of weak or incomprehensible structure. Again, your goal is to make the reader perform intellectual labor.

(5) Unexplained (and potentially misused) specialist terminology

This should go without saying, but the one of the easiest ways to render your writing inaccessible is by employing as much specialist terminology as possible. A writer interested in communication will introduce specialist terminology, contextualize it, apply it through concrete examples, and use it in a consistent manner so that even a reader who has never encountered the terminology before should be able to understand it by the end of the essay.

In order to maintain intellectual superiority over the reader, however, you should keep your specialized terminology as decontextualized as possible. If you have succeeded in creating an incoherent structure, your reader will not be able to ascertain whether you’re using the terminology in a meaningful way, so it is not necessary that you understand the terminology yourself.

(6) Unexplained (and potentially misused) references

Along with decontextualized specialist terminology, you need to reference other scholarship in a way that is opaque and difficult to follow. As with specialist terminology, it is not necessary that you understand the scholarship you’re citing. It’s probably not necessary to read it at all, in fact. Rather, all you have to do is figure out whose names you need to drop and then do so as frequently as possible.

If you feel uncomfortable with this, it’s important to remember that many prominent theorists have large and complicated bodies of work that require years of study to understand, and that few people have the resources to do so. To give an example, you may not feel confident citing the work of someone like Franz Fanon or Judith Butler without reading or understanding it, but you need to pretend as though you have total understanding so that your peer reviewers can feel satisfied in being able to sustain the fantasy that they have total understanding as well. It’s very much an “emperor’s new clothes” situation, so use this to your advantage.

(7) Incohesive incorporation of feedback

If your manuscript is returned with suggestions for revisions, do not attempt to make sense of them. Address each item in a single sentence, and insert these sentences into your writing at random intervals. Each sentence is a world unto its own, after all, and a lack of cohesive editing will help to keep paragraphs long and incomprehensible so that the editor can’t be bothered to question your revisions.

If a reviewer recommends that you cite something, do so, and make no attempt to incorporate it into your existing argument. Remember, you do not need to have read and understood something in order to cite it, and you most certainly don’t need to agree with it.

(8) Uncritical incorporation of racist and misogynistic scholarship

In my first book, I wrote about how many of the dominant academic treatments of gender in Japanese popular culture don’t account for a female audience or accept the reality of women as anything beyond a philosophical construct. I argued that, if we can acknowledge the existence of female and queer writers, artists, and readers, then our understanding of contemporary transnational media cultures has the potential to be transformed in interesting and exciting ways. This project met with strong resistance at every step of the process, with peer reviewer after peer reviewer telling me that I wasn’t citing enough Western male scholars in my discussions of Japanese female creators. Even more curious, the theorists and scholars I was expected to cite were often men with opinions about race and gender that, to say the least, have not aged well.

I also realized, during my time as a tenure-track professor, that academia as a whole is frustratingly conservative underneath its mask of progressivism. Moreover, a not-insignificant amount of English-language scholarship is essentially a celebration of white heritage. There is unfortunately very little solidarity between women, queer people, or people of color when it comes to peer review, as many “outsiders” tend to justify their inclusion by overcompensating as gatekeepers. You therefore have to – you have to – cite white men who were (or still are) openly misogynistic and critical of “the lesser races.” If you are disgusted by this, as I am, and if you try to resist it, as I did, you will be perceived as not respecting the methodology of your discipline and not taking the enterprise of scholarship seriously.

A careful and experienced writer will be able to fix most of the stylistic issues (and issues regarding inclusion and cultural sensitivity) common to academic writing during the process of editing. If you want to pass peer review, however, you need to emphasize and perhaps even exaggerate such problematic elements. Again, the goal is to make your writing difficult to approach and understand so that you seem more intelligent.

You may be thinking that this “advice” is parody. Please allow me to assure you that it’s not.

As much as I wish this weren’t the case, I’m dead serious. I started off as an extremely “scholarly” writer, but I gradually trained myself to be more “accessible,” a word that’s almost always used as a passive-aggressive insult within academia. Unfortunately, I found that my success with peer review diminished in direct proportion to the growth of my skill as an editor. I therefore had to retrain myself to produce performatively esoteric writing, and I recently had two articles accepted for publication only after “revising” them according to the guidelines I listed above. No one knows more than I do just how utterly absurd this is, and I am very tired.

Perhaps you find academic writing and the process of peer review to be elitist and exclusionary. Perhaps you may also suspect that the fundamental structure of academic publication actively works to silence and discredit diverse voices and opinions. If this is the case, let me ask you the question I’ve been asking myself almost every day for the past year: Why are you so invested in academia, then?

Balthazar from The Demon King

I’m working on creating a character design for Balthazar, the main character of The Demon King.

The visual aspects of his magic are based on the Twilight magic from Twilight Princess, which is a lot of fun to draw. Unfortunately for me, the reader isn’t going to see him casting the magic he specializes in until much later in the story, although other characters will occasionally allude to the fact that he’s able to do something they can’t fully perceive or understand. A large part of the story’s broader narrative arc therefore involves a lead-up to the revelation of what type of magic Balthazar is using, as well as how he’s using it – and why. The Demon King begins as something like a high fantasy sitcom, but (hopefully) it will gradually get deeper into worldbuilding and character backstories as it progresses.

Anyway, I’m still trying to settle on Balthazar’s face model, but I’m moving in the direction of Ranveer Singh, who has interesting and expressive features.

I’m also still trying to figure out his clothing. Specifically, I can’t decide whether his outer robe is the robe of a Roman Catholic priest or a Japanese Buddhist priest, or whether he just threw a blanket over his shoulders.

And please don’t think too hard about how his horns are attached to his head. It’s… magic?

The Sun Also Sets

This is an illustration of Ceres, one of the main characters in an original story I’m working on called The Demon King. (If you’re interested, I’m posting my first draft on AO3, but it’s still very much a work in progress.)

The idea behind this character is that “pure-hearted” video game princesses like Peach and Zelda always seem to rule their kingdoms mainly by themselves, which is a bit disturbing if you think about it. The Demon King has a larger narrative arc, but for now it’s mainly a play on video game tropes, and Ceres is a way for me to explore questions relating to how “legitimate” power and authority are often presented as “feminine” in many fantasy-themed games.

In any case, I’m writing Ceres as a horrible dramatic bitch, and I love her.

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince is a 2D puzzle platform game about two small children making their way through a creepy murder forest. Unlike similar games (such as Limbo, which jumps immediately to mind), The Liar Princess might best be described as an interactive storybook. The game’s emphasis is not so much on puzzles or platforming, but rather on using the conventions of gaming to help deepen the player’s connection with the characters as they travel through the story together.

This game was created by Nippon Ichi Software, which has developed a reputation for cute horror games with titles like Yomawari: Night Alone and A Rose in the Twilight. Still, I think The Liar Princess isn’t so much horror as it is dark fantasy, or fantasy with a few creepy elements and a touch of dark humor. There’s nothing explicitly violent or disturbing in the story or imagery, and the game itself is quite easy. I probably wouldn’t give this game to a young child, but playing it was a relaxing experience for me as an adult horror fan.

The plot and the gameplay go hand-in-hand, much like the eponymous princess and prince. The story has strong fairy tale elements, with a wolf asking a witch to turn her into a human so that she can save a prince. The prince’s misfortune is the wolf’s own doing, as she accidentally blinded him with her claws. The player’s goal is therefore to help the “princess” escort the prince to the forest witch to be cured before he discovers that she’s the wolf who blinded him. In her beast form, the wolf is powerful and impervious to attack, but she can only hold hands with the prince to guide him forward when she’s in her human form. The wolf can change forms at will, so the main challenge lies in positioning the prince in exactly the right way so that he can walk forward while remaining safe from harm.

The Liar Princess has five levels with four stages each, with a short prologue and a longer “final boss” level. (I’m using scare quotes because this final level is more of an obstacle course than an actual boss fight.) It’s relatively easy to figure out most of the puzzles through trial and error, and the death of either character usually only results in a small setback that generally involves the welcome reset of a specific puzzle. The game also gives the player the option to skip a stage after ten minutes if there’s a puzzle that’s just not clicking. Most of the actual fun of the gameplay involves searching each stage and taking calculated risks to find secret collectibles, which unlock pages of concept art and segments of the forest witch’s backstory. More than anything, The Liar Princess reminds me of the Metroidvania-lite feel of Super Princess Peach in that there’s no real sense of danger and failure is never punished.

The sort of people who complain about games being “too easy,” including no small number of professional reviewers, didn’t hesitate to make that complaint about The Liar Princess when it came out in English translation back in early 2019. The undemanding level of difficulty isn’t a deal-breaker for me personally, but I have to admit that the game isn’t without annoyances. There are a few number puzzles in the third level that are bizarrely tricky, for example, and sometimes it can be hard to tell whether you’re taking the incorrect approach to a puzzle or whether there’s been a glitch in the hitbox for a certain switch that isn’t triggering for some reason.

That being said, the main appeal of this game is visual, with its expressive characters and stylish backgrounds. (In fact, I might even go so far to say that The Liar Princess is perfect for people who love the visual design of Hollow Knight but don’t have the patience to deal with the gameplay.) The character designs are especially interesting and creative, from the weakest enemy in the first stage to the flower-eating “mole” creatures at the end of the game. Although the basic shape outlines are cute and simple, there’s always a fun twist somewhere – when the first mole creature opens its mouth, for instance, you are in for a treat. The game plays with its visual style to make all manner of (relatively gentle) jokes about how the prince doesn’t know that the characters he encounters are all people-eating monsters, and these jokes collectively raise questions about “blindness” and “monstrosity” that are subtle but engaging (and not in the least bit ableist).

My favorite part of the game is the wolf herself, who makes horrible decisions but is basically decent. Despite the fact that she is clearly lying in a way that hurts other people and herself, you can’t help but sympathize with her as her good intentions lead her increasingly astray. The development of the friendship between her and the prince is extremely cute, as is the way both characters smile when they’re holding hands. I’m also a fan of the unapologetically evil witch, and it’s worth seeking out the game’s collectibles in order to learn more about her story.

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince isn’t a perfect game, and many people will probably think it’s too easy and too short. Playing it from start to finish took me about five hours, including the time I spent going back to earlier stages in order to pick up collectibles I missed and rewatch the cutscenes I unlocked. Despite a few frustrations with the gameplay mechanics, I loved The Liar Princess. I’m somewhat surprised that this game is considered to be a niche title, because it’s refreshingly accessible and a lot of fun. Although the most obvious comparison would seem to be something like Limbo, The Liar Princess actually feels much more like Journey – it’s a visually immersive and relatively chill game about loneliness and companionship that’s easy to dip into for fifteen minutes at a time when you want to relax and unwind.

2020 Writing Log, Part 36

– I posted the third chapter of The Demon King. I’ve really been enjoying writing this. I think I’d like to start talking about it and promoting it more on social media.

– I wrote the first half of Chapter 43 of Malice. I also edited Chapter 42 and posted it on FFN.

– One of my favorite monster artists, who also happens to be a big fan of Wind Waker Ganondorf, created an amazing illustration for an upcoming chapter of Malice. The artist is @BiteDiamond on Twitter, and you can see the full illustration on their Tumblr (here).

– I posted the fifth story of Night of The Final Day, a series of vignettes about Majora’s Mask. This one is about Shiro, the Clock Town soldier who is afraid that no one notices him and gives Link the Stone Mask after the player speaks to him in Ikana Canyon (or the Pirate Fortress in the 3DS version). I based this story on a popular fan theory and used a narrative trick I’ve never tried before, and I managed to genuinely spook myself out in the process.

– I wrote the first half of the story I’m submitting to the Ties of Time zine. It’s called “The Flower Thief,” and it’s about Ganondorf coming to Hyrule for the first time as a child.

– I applied to be a writer for two original horror-themed zines: Midnight Gathering and Carpe Noctem.

– I also applied to be an artist for both zines. I’m much more confident in my writing than I am in my visual art, but I think I’ve managed to develop a halfway-decent art portfolio. In any case, it doesn’t hurt to try, right?

– “Apartment Hunting,” my contribution to the anthology for the 2020 Philly Zine Fest, is now available for free along with the rest of the digital zine, which you can download (here). The first Philly Zine Fest was the first small press event I attended, and I was excited to be able to participate this year. “Apartment Hunting” is an original short story written specifically for this anthology that’s very loosely based on my experience of trying to secure an apartment in Philadelphia in March, which was right when people were starting to understand that the world was on the verge of changing drastically. It was a supremely uncanny experience, and some of the properties I saw were… interesting, let’s say. I probably won’t post the story here on this blog until next year, but you can see the illustration I created for it (here).

– Speaking of zines! I mailed out almost my entire print run of my Haunted Houses zine. Last week I mailed free copies to people who responded to my announcement posts on social media, and this week I received a huge batch of orders for the listing on Etsy. I only expected to mail out maybe thirty copies if I was lucky enough to get a strong response, but I ended up mailing out almost a hundred. That was wild, and I’m still trying to process how blown away and grateful I am.

– And finally! I had intended to release the Legend of Haiku zine I edited this weekend, but the process of mailing out so many copies of Haunted Houses, as well as the blitz of social media messages I exchanged with people in the process, occupied most of my free time during the past two weeks. Still, the project is gradually coming together! I finalized the standard page layout design and the design of a few other aspects of the project (like the cover and contributor info pages), and I only have a few more tasks that need to be completed.

I should say that I’m still submitting original fiction to magazines, of course, and I think I may have even made it out of a few slush piles recently. I still haven’t made the final cut, though – at least not yet. I feel like the landscape of publishing may be changing, though. The zine projects I’m currently applying for and participating in are extremely slick and professional, and they’re much more stylish than many traditional fiction magazines (at least in my admittedly inexpert opinion). Also, because they have dedicated social media editors, their reach is much larger than most people probably think of when they hear the word “zine.” In addition, these zines will usually invite artists with huge followings on social media to contribute, expanding their reach even further. On top of that, many of the artists who submit to the zine as contributors may have giant followings as well.

So, while I’m still trying to establish myself as a writer by submitting to fiction magazines, I don’t think I’m wasting my time or talent by applying to write for fandom zines and original zines while making zines of my own. If nothing else, it’s been an incredible experience to be able to work within a supportive community of other creative people without the pretension (and expense!) of a formal MFA program or writing workshop. I feel as though this is perhaps a secret that I should keep to myself, but I’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences with the new generation of the zine community.

( You can follow me on Patreon if you’d like to support my work! )

Art Commission Red Flags

I don’t have an exact count, but I’ve paid artists for roughly 150 commissioned comics and illustrations during the past five years. This isn’t because I make lots of money (nope) or somehow had lots of money to begin with (also nope), but rather because I’m passionate about art and comics and creative collaboration. I understand that “passionate” is a word a student might use in an application essay, but I have a hobby that I really enjoy, and I don’t do it for the sake of “advancing my career.” I do what I do primarily for selfish reasons – because it’s fun – but I also genuinely want to support the online communities whose work I enjoy.

So, to summarize: I’m not wealthy, but I love art and want to support artists.

I feel as though I have to say this as a preface because I’m afraid people will read this post (or not read it) and jump to the worst possible conclusion about who I am and what my motives are for writing this. Still, I think it’s worthwhile to share my experiences with commissioning artists, because these experiences have gotten much better as I’ve learned from my mistakes.

I’m going to say that about 19 out of 20 commissions go well, by which I mean there’s good communication with the artist and the final product is delivered as expected. There are key commonalities between the projects that don’t go well, by which I mean (both or either) communication fails or no art is ever created. Here are the five major red flags:

– The artist says they’re open for commissions, but they have no examples or prices listed. Even someone taking commissions for the first time should have, at the very least, a formal commissions post (or comparable online form).

– The artist approaches you to commission them, or a mutual acquaintance asks you to commission them on their behalf. “Doing a favor” for an online stranger rarely ends well, especially if there’s money involved.

– The artist is misrepresenting their age and is actually under 18. It’s important to support young artists, but it’s illegal (and more than a bit creepy) to pay them if they can’t legally use PayPal or Venmo. Some young artists have technically polished and creatively sophisticated styles, so how can you tell? Well…

– The artist’s main social media feed gives you a bad feeling. Many creative people are socially and politically engaged, and this isn’t about white-coded “professionalism” or “tone policing.” Rather, if someone’s entire social media feed is intensely negative and filled with strong language, they might not be in the proper headspace to work on a creative project with a stranger. Also, it’s important to trust your gut instinct when it comes to certain dog whistles. (One of the most bizarre failed commission experiences I’ve had culminated in the artist sending me a long chain of angry DMs filled with homophobic and ethnic slurs, that was wild.)

– The artist insists that you sign a commercial contract for a private commission. You should not be entering into a commercial contract unless you’re commissioning an image for commercial purposes. In the case of fandom commissions, a contract like this is blatantly illegal, and the party who bears the legal guilt is the one who offers money for the theft of someone else’s intellectual property – you, in other words.

Regarding that last red flag, it’s my understanding that many professional “fine artists” require contracts for private commissions, generally due to the amount of money and labor involved. And if you have the means to pay a professional painter $5000 to create an oil portrait of your D&D character, then you should absolutely live your best life. Still, the contract you’re signing won’t be commercial, with the main difference between “private” and “commercial” contracts being a matter of usage rights. Generally the sort of people who advertise for commissions on social media aren’t going to be expecting this, but I’ve had few surprises. What the request for a contract means is that you’re probably not the sort of client the artist is looking for, and it’s best to respect that.

If a commission fails, for whatever reason, I think it’s important for both parties to walk away with no hard feelings. For me, this means not badgering the artist, not badmouthing them within the community, and not asking for the commission fee to be returned. In the end, commissioning art is supposed to be fun, and the ultimate goal is to support artists, especially early-career artists who are willing to create custom illustrations that even someone like me can afford.

Still, as I said, I’m not wealthy. I love art, and I love working with artists, but I’m only able to do so through very careful budgeting and corner-cutting in other aspects of my life. I assume that most people who commission art projects can sympathize, and it doesn’t benefit anyone to throw money into a hole. You can support an artist by contributing to their Ko-fi or Patreon, or simply by sharing their work. Failed commissions are tough on both you and the artist, however, so it’s best to avoid trouble before it begins.

It’s always a good idea to be careful with giving money to online strangers, even if they’re very talented online strangers. Still, I want to emphasize that the vast majority of my experiences commissioning art and comics have been overwhelmingly positive. If you’re interested in commissioning art, please allow me to encourage you to go for it!

Haunted Houses

Earlier this week I published my newest zine of horror-themed microfiction. Haunted Houses contains fifteen very short stories about haunted spaces and the terrible people who inhabit them. The cover art is by @QuinkyDinky, and the zine contains interior art by @irizuarts. I’ve got a listing up on Etsy (here), and I’m also promoting the zine on Twitter (here) and Instagram (here).

This zine is quite short, with each story and illustration occupying only one page. This is partially a trick of formatting, but it’s also a result of careful editing. You wouldn’t want to spend too much time in these places, after all.

I have to admit that, even though I’m categorizing this zine and the two other collections of microfiction that preceded it as “horror,” I’m on the fence about what genre my stories actually belong to.

In my mind, the genre of horror isn’t about a specific set of tropes or narrative structures. Rather, horror is characterized by the psychological and visceral sensation of unease it inspires.

I personally prefer to think of most horror, including the stories I write, as “dark fantasy,” or perhaps simply “magical realism.” I’m not easily creeped out by fiction, mainly because the real world is so lowkey awful so much of the time. As I write this, the National Guard is setting up base at a West Philadelphia Target in advance of the presidential election next week, ostensibly as a “defense” against people engaging in civic protest. There are actual tanks in the parking lot of the place I go to stock up on toilet paper, and that’s really scary. But monsters? Not so much.

I’ve always tended to identify with monsters, and not simply because so many villain characters are overtly coded as queer. Monsters are about disrupting the status quo, and I can get behind that. Postwar American horror cinema, including the slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s, is all about interlopers quietly invading small-town America and infecting people. The story behind many of these movies basically boils down to this: Can you even imagine scary things like communism and feminism and civil rights secretly gaining a foothold in our town? (Stephen King goes into fantastic detail about this in his 1981 book Danse Macabre, if you’re curious, and I think the book still reads well and holds up in many ways.)

To me, monsters aren’t scary because I am the monster, which is an uncomfortable set of life experiences to try to talk about in fiction or otherwise. There’s nothing you can specifically put your finger on regarding why people treat you the way they do, but you know there’s something a little off.

Fuck Sigmund Freud and his weird misogyny and homophobia, but I think I’m on the same page with him regarding “the uncanny” as one of the primary components of horror. Freud got a lot of things wrong in his career, but something he gets absolutely right is that it’s difficult to discuss the uncanny in concrete terms.

The uncanny doesn’t just apply to appearance, of course – social interactions and environments can be uncanny as well. If what I’m writing is horror at all, it probably falls into the subcategory of social horror, which focuses on people behaving in a way that’s almost human, but not quite. Many horror stories are cathartic, in that the status quo is threatened but ultimately restored at the end. Even if things have changed, we can feel relief in the knowledge that at least they’re getting back to normal. With social horror, however, our anxiety is never resolved, because we now understand that the status quo itself is horrifying.

It’s difficult for me to talk about the details of my identity and life in a mimetic way. When I’ve tried, it’s been my experience that people either won’t believe me, will think I’m being manipulative in an attempt to elicit undeserved sympathy, or will be put off by the political elements underlying my descriptions of the ways in which I’ve had to move through the world.

The point of the stories in Haunted Houses is not to try to explain why certain aspects of my life have been unsettling, but rather to create a sense of the uncanny in order to communicate the sense of feeling unsettled for reasons you can’t quite explain. Sometimes my stories about haunted houses are about the hidden trauma of being queer in a society that goes out of its way to create monsters; but, in the end, I just really like telling stories about strange people occupying uncomfortable places. I enjoy exploring these themes both as a reader and as a writer, and I’ve found that summoning the courage to open the door and peer into the darkness on the other side is, if not total escapism, still good spooky fun.

And right now, at this specific moment in time, I think we can all relate to the uncanny experience of feeling trapped in a haunted space, because this is our daily life – we live here now.

Cats Will Kill You

I have nothing but the strongest admiration for everyone who shares their living space with one of these little murder machines.

I drew this comic for the Catsploitation 2 zine created and edited by Matthew Ragsdale (@blankvalleyfilm on Instagram). You can get a copy of the zine from Matthew’s store (here).