Mark Doubt looks ahead to the genre stars of tomorrow, taking in their work so far and their future in the darkest of genres.
This latest piece interviews Preston Fassel, writer of Our Lady of the Inferno, the new book from Fangoria’s publishing arm.
As we all know by now, the genre behemoth that is Fangoria is back! Not only will horror hounds around the world soon be holding brand new issues of the fabled magazine in their hands, but Fangoria are moving into film production (Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is the first movie released under their new banner) and publishing!
I took a look at Preston Fassel’s Our Lady of the Inferno, the new book from the fledgling imprint, and interviewed its writer.
Spring, 1983. Sally Ride is about to go into space; Flashdance is a cultural phenomenon; and in Times Square, two very deadly women are on a collision course with destiny – and each other.
At twenty one, Ginny Kurva is already legendary on 42nd Street. To the pimp for whom she works, she’s the perfect weapon – a vicious fighter capable of taking down men twice her size. To the girls in her stable, she’s mother, teacher and protector. To the little sister she cares for, she’s a hero. Yet Ginny’s bravado and icy confidence hide the mind at breaking point, her sanity slowly slipping away as both her addictions and the sins of her past catch up with her.
At thirty-seven, Nicolette Aster is the most respected woman working at the Staten Island landfill. Quiet and competent, she’s admired by the secretaries and trusted by her supervisors. Yet those around her have no idea how Nicolette spends her nights – when the hateful madness she keeps repressed by day finally emerges, and she turns the dump into her own personal hunting ground to engage in a nightmarish blood sport…
PRAISE FOR THE BOOK:
“Dripping in 1980s nostalgia… a great character study… very entertaining.”
—Leigh Monson, Birth.Movies.Death
“...reminiscent of a 70s grindhouse style, using transgressive violence to elevate and illuminate... fantastic and will leave your gut churning.”
—Rebekah McKendry, Ph. D., Shock Waves Podcast
Thanks very much in advance for talking to me for Beyond the Void. We’re all big Fangoria fans, so when we heard there was going to be a publishing arm to the returning publication, we were all very excited!
Our Lady of the Inferno is, to me at least, an 80s exploitation thriller. Who/what were your main influences when coming up with the story?
I spent my teenage years renting and old 1970s grindhouse films and 1980s horror movies from various video stores in Oklahoma. My sixteenth birthday was 9/11, and so I came of age in this very uncertain, very dangerous feeling world - from the perspective of a teenage kid in early 2000s Oklahoma, the 1980s felt like this safe, protective era, far from the War on Terror and school shootings and the meth epidemic of my home town.
The 1980s had New Wave music and flashy clothes and this boundless energy and represented this era of endless possibilities – meanwhile, my town was just about to get its first highway. I can remember passing cow pastures on the way to the grocery store. You got to Tulsa by driving for half an hour along two-lane back roads without streetlights. I think something else adding to my 80s fixation was that my town was, in many ways, still sort of stuck there. My favorite place in the world was Eastland Mall, which was all turquoise and magenta on the inside with a giant, neon-lit fountain in the center. So there was this degree of familiarity to the ambiance of the 80s that made it feel uniquely accessible to me—as though I could almost literally escape into it.
On the one hand, when you’re sixteen years old and growing up in a very conservative environment, indulging in subversive cinema feels like this rebellious social act. Oklahoma in the early 00s was—I guess maybe still is—very right-wing leaning, very religiously conservative. A girl got suspended from my middle school on suspicion of being a witch. I’m religiously Catholic, and come from a line of ethnic Jews, and those were two things that you just weren’t. I went to school with kids who told me I wasn’t Christian and that I was going to hell because I was Catholic and not nondenominationalist (sic) or some branch of Protestantism. And you absolutely did not tell anyone if you were Jewish. “Jew” was a common slur at my high school. So renting stuff like Poor Pretty Eddie or Maniac was, to me, like this grand act of defiance against Oklahoma culture at the time. And the fact that I was having to seek a lot of this stuff out only made it feel more forbidden and dangerous and exciting and like this powerful but clandestine raised middle finger to the establishment.
At the same time, I’d begun reading Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford’s Sleazoid Express, which is this sort of travelogue of 42nd Street at the height of grindhouse culture, exploring how the street was this sort of Kingdom of the Damned where one of the common languages was movies, and the role that both grindhouse films and theaters played. And so I became enamored of the idea of telling a story set against the backdrop of 42nd street in the 70s, about the people who lived and worked there. Ultimately, my love of the 80s and my desire to tell that story became intertwined and Our Lady was born.
Our Lady of the Inferno feels like a genre piece, but more akin to the filmic horror genres of the early 80s than the novels of the same period. Is that something you would agree with?
To a certain extent. I’m much more influenced in terms of writing by a lot of non-genre material, or, at least, non-horror material. Some of my biggest literary influences are Flannery O’Connor, E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero, and Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon—all 80s novels, but, with the exception of Dragon, not really horror stories. There’s definitely some influence from the Splatterpunk movement of the 1980s—Joe Lansdale’s The Night they Missed the Horror Show is one of my foundational texts, and I certainly drew upon their emphasis on grit and focus on subculture and counterculture.
One of the challenges for me in accepting the mantle of “horror writer” is that in a lot of people’s minds, horror isn’t a very literary or intelligent genre. They’ll accept that Poe and Lovecraft wrote thoughtful, provocative stories, and a few will maybe give you Steven King, but for the most part, when people hear “horror” they’re not expecting stories with themes or allusions or any real literary depth—just stories about people getting chopped up or possessed or menaced by some creature. And for a certain subset of the literary horror world, that’s an apt assessment—whether because they don’t want to, or feel compelled to, or even maybe think they can’t or aren’t supposed to, a lot of horror writers really do “just” write stories about people getting chopped up or possessed or whatever. And that’s fine. Not everything has to be “about” something. That’s not who I am as a storyteller, though; so, for me, while Our Lady is a horror story, I also feel it could comfortably exist within the world of literary fiction as well. There’s serial killers and people getting killed with axes and all these exploitation trappings, but there’s also allusions to Dante—beyond just the title— and historical references, and there’s some formative playfulness going on with the structuring of the book and at least one meta-joke that no one’s picked up on yet, and there are these allegorical trappings to the story. While I’m very happy with the reception the book has gotten within the horror community, I also feel like it’s not finding part of its audience in the world of readers of literary ficton because they have these preconceptions about what a horror story is, and I wrote the book just as much for those people to read this and analyse it and critique it as I did for people to read and love as “just” a horror story.
There’s a mix of exploitation staples in your characters. Ginny, your protagonist, is interesting and, at times, a little unbelievable. She’s a city whorehouse madam with a sense of self-preservation, and yet she is clearly educated. She teaches her girls languages, quadratic equations and Japanese flower arranging. What can you tell us about Ginny, and how you approached writing her?
Oh, Ginny is a gift of a character. She actually began life as a much more basic, archetypical figure in 42nd Street culture, which was the tough-as-nails prostitute. Because of the environment, and their role in the brutal ecosystem of Times Square, prostitutes were among some of the toughest people on the streets. They carried switchblades in their bras and they were not afraid to use them. And so Ginny was going to be this not-very-deep, rough-and-tumble hooker who’d tangle with a serial killer.
When I was writing her first scene with the Colonel, her pimp, there’s a point where she’s enumerating the reasons a hooker might not come back to work for him, and as I’m writing this I had her start speaking in German. It just came to me, and it sounded right, and so I kept it. And you hear authors say things like they “discover” things about their characters, and, it sounds so terribly pretentious—you’re writing this person, how can you “discover” something about someone you made up? But, it happens. It’s true. It’s a strange creative phenomenon.
And so now this street-fighting hooker is a fluent German speaker. And on the way to her room she’s thinking about a canopy on a bed in her hotel and I knew it was red and I needed her to compare it to something, and, I myself am a space junkie, and so the first red thing that came to mind was a nebula. And it felt right; and so now she’s also educated enough to knew what a nebula is and use it in a simile. And I joke that by the time she got back to her room at the end of that chapter she’d gained about fifty IQ points.
Writing her, I wanted to have a complex, likable female protagonist. I began my horror writing career as a journalist for Rue Morgue Magazine, and, for reasons I can’t quite recall, found myself sort of unofficially assigned to the women-in-horror beat. And through that I got to meet and speak with several female filmmakers, and one recurring thing I heard from almost all of them was that they needed better roles for women in horror films. That parts for women in horror films tend to run along the lines of, “take off your top,” “take off your top and die,” or, if you’re the heroine, then you’re as interesting as dry white toast. In the 90s, writers tried to swing the pendulum to the very “extreme”, long jackets, high-kicking and just sort of unpleasant people who you wouldn’t want to spend any time around in real life.
I wanted to create a protagonist who demonstrated the full spectrum of humanity, and was a fully realized individual. Who would have her own hopes and dreams and likes and dislikes, who would be flawed but loveable in spite of her flaws, who—like a real person—be by turns both gentle and savage.
And the other thing I wanted to do was subvert reader expectations. At numerous points throughout the story I thought to myself, what would normally happen here, what are readers expecting to happen, what sort of ideas are readers formulating about different characters? And then I set out to challenge those expectations, and by that turn, make the reader think about their own preconceptions and why they’ve got those preconceptions. And so with Ginny I wanted to flip every stereotype of hookers in horror on their heads. She’s a hooker, and she’s got a heart, but it’s probably made of iron and not gold. She’s street smart, but she’s also formally educated.
Conversely, Nicolette is almost elegantly simplistic. She is written as an animalistic predator. Is there a sense of yin/yang to the two characters?
Oh, definitely. I decided that, if Ginny were going to be this complete person who represents the complete human experience, then Nicolette was going to be this feral sub-person, someone with pieces missing out of her. If Ginny was someone who builds people up and develops communities and encourages the people around her to be their best selves, then Nicolette was going to be a predator, someone who cuts people down—literally consumes them--, someone completely devoid of empathy. If Ginny had this rich and beautiful inner life, then Nicolette was going to be completely ugly and empty on the inside.
Even their sections of the book reflect this—all of Nicolette’s segments are shorter than Ginny’s, and I went out of my way to try and use more simple sentences in Nicolette’s sections, and more compound sentences and compound-complex sentences in Ginny’s, so the rhythm and cadence of those sections would represent the respective characters’ personalities and train of thought.
I tried to represent that visually in the book, too. In Japanese culture there’s an idea of the red oni and the blue oni—two ogres or demons from Japanese mythology—that constitutes a sort of basic personality test. It’s a bit more complex than this, but, essentially, the red oni is the bruiser and the brute, the blue oni is the intellectual and the nurturer. And, weaving in Ginny’s own love of Japanese culture in a sort of meta-textual way, when I describe her and Nicolette’s best suits at two different points in the story, Ginny’s best suit is blue and Nicolette’s is red. Conversely, Ginny’s favorite color is red, Nicolette’s is blue. Near the end of the story, when Ginny has finally learned to reconcile some things about herself and her past, I describe her final suit as purple—the fusion of red and blue.
It’s good to see that all the main characters are women – but at the same time it’s a difficult trick for a male writer in the exploitation genre to get right. A story about a bunch of New York prostitutes is going to struggle to pass the Bechdel test. Did you worry that the motives, methods and presentation of your characters might make them come across as unsympathetic? How did you tackle this?
I felt comfortable writing these characters for a number of reasons. I’d spent considerable time discussing the concerns of female filmmakers and fans on their representation in film, and so I felt that I had a complex understanding of what other writers were doing wrong in terms of creating and depicting female characters. Another reason I felt comfortable was that, I feel, one of the impediments to male writers writing female characters is that they think there are impediments. Women are people. They’re not these mysterious, inscrutable beings with a code you’ve got to crack in order to write about them.
So, while I was telling an exploitation story, I wanted to be careful never to be exploitative in my depiction of its characters, if that makes sense. And I was very consciously keeping the Bechdel test in mind writing it. I wanted to make sure that when it was complete this was going to pass. And some of the best moments in the book, to me, come out of Ginny and Trish’s interaction. I think my absolute favorite moment might be what I call Trish’s “you are made of suck” speech to Ginny, where she sort of reads her the riot act and you suddenly realize that in a story full of emotionally constipated people, this seventeen-year-old, trash-mouthed valley girl has got an astounding level of emotional intelligence.
In terms of sympathy, there was a challenge, albeit one that I imposed upon myself. In the furtherance of making Ginny a complete person, I wanted her to be flawed. And in the furtherance of challenging the reader, I wanted to see how far I could take those flaws but keep Ginny sympathetic. Too many heroes, male and female alike, are untainted or uncompromised. Even when they do bad things, it’s always for a good reason, and not because they lost their temper or because they gave into a negative impulse. Ginny does a lot of terrible things for good reasons, but she also does a lot of terrible stuff because she’s a human being and human beings are sometimes shitty. If I’d have made her too sympathetic, I feel like it would have been a betrayal of my own mission statement.
How did the deal with Fangoria come about?
It’s almost an unbelievable story. While I was still writing for Rue Morgue, a friend of mine named Jessie Hobson, who runs a website called Cinedump.com that covers general pop culture, received a press release that Cinestate was filming a new Puppet Master movie and that they were shooting it in Dallas, where I live, and that they needed extras. He suggested I apply and I did, since, even though I’d been writing about horror movies for four years at that point, I’d never been on a film set. And I got chosen, and I showed up at the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Dallas and spent a week running around in the dark getting killed and meeting a whole bunch of cool people.
Around the same time, I’d gotten Our Lady picked up by this independent horror press based out of Georgia called Fear Front, and it was in print for a few months and sold like 20 copies and then they went out of business unfortunately. I thought that was it. But in the meantime I’d managed to secure some positive reviews from the horror press, and based on that I was invited to host the writing panel at the Texas Frightmare Weekend horror convention held annually at Dallas. While there, I caught up with one of the Cinestate employees. I tell him about the book and he asks if I can bring him a copy the next day at the Puppet Master panel. And so the next day I attend the panel and that’s when I realize that the guy is Dallas Sonnier, founder and CEO of Cinestate. And that was sort of my “oh, wow” moment, where it felt like maybe something really big was about to happen.
Flash forward two months, and I receive an email from Amanda Presmyk, Cinestate’s VP of Production, asking me to come down to their offices for a meeting with her and Dallas about the book. And I came in, and they explained that they’d like to purchase the film rights; by this time, my publisher had gone under, so I whipped out my publishing contract and asked if they’d be interested in republishing it as well; and then, I realized, “You know, you’re never going to be in this room again, you’re never going to be in this situation again.” And so for good measure, I said, “Hey, why don’t you hire me to work for you, too?” And Dallas and Amanda exchange this look, and Dallas smirks and says “We just might have a place for you.”
Flash forward another month, and I’ve signed what feels like every NDA and contract under the sun, and I’d assumed they all had to do with my book. And I’m in the lobby of the Texas Theater, about to go in and watch Event Horizon in 35mm, and I get a call from Dallas telling me that he’s seen I’ve signed the last of the things I need to sign, and now he can tell me why he was interested in my book. And he says, “I bought FANGORIA.” And he goes on to explain that he wants to use Our Lady of the Inferno to launch a FANGORIA literary imprint, and to put out a FANGORIA produced film adaptation, and that he wants me to work for the magazine. It was a magic moment. It’s all been magic. I am and want to remain incredibly grateful. I know that other people who’ve worked just as hard or harder than me haven’t gotten the same opportunities. And I work with such great people. Before I got this job I dreaded going to work in the morning. I was working in an eyeglass lens manufacturing facility and I loathed it and it was an incredibly, incredibly toxic environment. I hated getting up in the morning. And now I get to get up in the morning and come to a job I love with people I love working with. They’ve become my friends.
So what’s next for you? Is there more to come from The Deuce and its denizens?
I have at least one more Deuce story to tell; this one’s a different type of story. If Our Lady is about the last gasps of the Deuce, when crime finally started getting cleaned up and this subculture was experiencing its last gasps, this is a story about that culture at the height of its decadence and depravity. So it’s an ugly story in a lot of ways. It’s a much darker story, one without a hero, and one that occupies a world of nihilism much more than a world of optimism. It’s the Maniac or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to Our Lady’s Silence of the Lambs.
Preston, thanks very much for your time. Anything else you want to say before we wrap this up?
I crafted a playlist to accompany a reading of the book and help create a more fully immersive experience. It’s entirely composed of songs that the characters could’ve heard on the radio or seen on MTV during the week the book takes place, and I curated it so that as you’re reading, if you listen to the playlist in order, the songs will reflect things happening thematically in the book. You can listen to it at: SPOTIFY PLAYLIST
Our Lady of the Inferno is available now in digital or paperback. You can find it here on Amazon or at any of your preferred places to purchase books.
Also, you can still subscribe to the all new FANGORIA at Fangoria.com!
This week on Beyond The Void Horror Podcast is back with their segment #graveplots! Where they make a movie up on the spot. This week it’s Ouija Cop. About a cop who communes with the dead to solve crime. There’s even a faux trailer for the movie! You can listen here or you can Listen/Subscribe on iTunes here!