An interview with Lynn McSweeney

Our Writer’s workshop winner this year and featured author for episode 126 is Lynn McSweeny. She is also one of the authors in Our newest anthology Once Upon a Scream. Lynn recently answered a few questions about her writing:

Could you tell us a little about the story you wrote that will be featured in episode 126 of the horror addicts podcast?

OnceUponAScreamFront“Seeking Nepenthe, Fearing Oblivion” is a series of snapshots of a woman whose name keeps changing slightly with every scene change. It’s a tale of alternate universes, posing the question of what might happen if one’s consciousness slipped gradually from one parallel world to the next, without one being aware that that’s what is happening, only to bump up against memories that do not match up to the new world. At what point does the consistent personality gradually become a brand new one? And how much more frightening would this be if all the while during this slippage, you were being played by one of Lovecraft’s Old Gods?

What is your story in Once Upon A Scream called and what is it about?

It’s called “The Healer’s Gift” and is set in an unspecified Celtic Isles past – perhaps an alternative one – where a rural healer is called on just before dawn by a very uncanny young boy. He seeks refuge from the sun, but after her day-callers come to her with their own plaints, the last visitor interacts with her very first visitor of the day, the mysterious boy. It becomes apparent that the lad can shift his appearance, among his other proclivities. Airmid shares her gift of healing with all but hasn’t reckoned on someone with his own, quite separate gifts sharing them in recompense. Bargains are struck, to her regret; but we see that all the interactions throughout the day are conducted by barter, as few in her world have coin.

This is very much in the vein of traditional Irish stories about the ambiguous encounters with the Good People. It’s also a kind of vampire tale that hinges on fertile eggs filled with blood, but that’s just the particular flavor of fairy featured. There’s no evil intent in pursuing the gruesome necessities of the fairy’s existence, and he’s capable of kindness and honor within the parameters of survival. He’s actually innocent. Kind of like a pet dog that can be affectionate to its people one minute, and shaking a rabbit till its neck breaks the next.

I lived in rural Ireland as a child, in my mother’s and grandmother’s hometown, actually. My father had moved us there while he pursued graduate degrees at Trinity College in Dublin. We stayed in Ireland a few years, and I developed a love/hate relationship with its politics and religion, but a deep connection to its myths and wild beauty.

What inspired the idea?

A really scary hypnagogic dream where I heard a knock at my bedroom door, which opens to the back porch. When I answered it in my dream state, this character, an elfin child, wanted in. I took my cane, which was a recent accessory/accommodation to my real, waking life, and made sure to make a protective circle about myself, then furthermore dragged it on the threshold, to ensure boundaries and limit our interaction. I then made this pale, dark-haired dream visitor swear the same oath that the healer in the story extracts from her visitor, word for word. When this hyper-real dream sat down on the edge of my bed, I tried waking myself, hoping it was a dream.

At the time, I was having many dreams trying to incorporate the fact that I now needed a cane to walk. Sometimes the cane would turn into a flowering tree in my dreams, or become Odin’s staff. I often find the start of my stories in dreams or half-dream states and have been plagued all my life with night-terrors and hypnagogic dreams. I don’t hate these states as much as I did when I was young, seeing them as the wellspring of creativity. When I was in my early twenties, I did have a habit of freaking out my first husband by waking up screaming, still asleep but sitting upright, eyes open. Sometimes the states are more benign; my college roommate thought I knew a boatload about antique Chinese porcelain. Evidently I’d been sleep-talking utter rubbish about the Ming dynasty, holding forth with invented expertise till the wee hours. Never knew I did that till college.

To get a little distance from this frightening dream, I then based the healer in the story on my much-loved tiny person of a granny who was a nurse in Ireland right after the revolution, and in truth, also kind of a judgmental pain-in-the-ass who went to mass every day at 6 AM before work. Just to be subversive, I changed her religious perspective; in the story, she’s a closet pagan in an emerging Christian society.

When did you start writing?

Certainly by the time I was four. I only vaguely remember being interviewed for a live/recorded radio ad by a wandering reporter for Gooseberry Farms in California when I was three, but my mother recounts how I recited my original, non-dictated reasons that it was a terrific place for children to visit (they had a petting zoo with goats, donkeys, duckies, etc) exactly the same way multiple times, having memorized my own words during the initial interview, take after take after take, till the interviewer was satisfied with his own “spontaneous” dialogue, having taken my consistency for granted by that point. I vividly remember drawing starting at the age of three, winning little shopping-contests for children that my mother entered me into, and I remember making elaborate illustrated 6- to 10-page cards with stories for my younger sister at the same time. All my drawings had stories behind them.

I was mostly focused on illustration for many years (as a creative outlet, for pay upon occasion), doing absinthe and wine labels, wedding and costume party invitations, a children’s book, art ball posters, political posters, a few murals, etc., until arthritis affected the grace of the lines. But I have boxes and boxes of short stories and poems (most hilariously melodramatic) from early grade-school on. I never had the time to try to get them up to my standards till I retired early due to disability. My standards are often much higher than my achievement, especially for poetry.

What are your favorite topics to write about?

Horror, horror/fantasy, science-fiction, a bit of erotica. Usually, there’s an undercurrent of satire. I often don’t unambiguously love my major characters. Sometimes they harbor petty motivations and act accordingly. They can remind me of the worst aspects of my own character, or friends’, or political spheres I’ve been involved with. I hope it’s the opposite of the Mary Sue effect.

What are some of your influences?

Gosh. My mother started me out by reading Greek myths as infant bedtime stories. When I was in fourth grade, family friends from the U.K. gave me an early leather-bound (second or third addition) copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales. I remember my disappointment at his Bowdlerization of the raw originals. Later grew to appreciate the Eddas and Irish and Welsh myths, and of course the heroic tales from The Odyssey to Beowulf.

Read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass at least once a year from the age of six or seven (on my own, rather than being read to) till forty-seven, after which I took some years off. That’s also the age I found Tolkien. The Hobbit was a requirement to read over the summer before the Sputnik-rivalry-funded “special” fourth grade I was enrolled in, which immediately addicted me to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I’ve read through approximately thirty times. I used to re-read books that delighted, perplexed and/or challenged me to see if I could get a fix on how the alchemy was achieved.

I’ll avoid listing poets and just limit it to fiction. These are some I started reading in grade school. I love the lushness of language and commitment to detail of 19th century literature, everything from the social commentary of Dickens, Eliot, Melville and Hawthorne (though I preferred the haunting House of the Seven Gables over The Scarlet Letter), to the fever-dreams of Poe and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, to the well-thought-out worlds of H.G. Wells, the transcendentalism/realism in tension as illustrated by the Brontë sisters, the romanticism of Lady Gregory and the whole Celtic Revival, the spurious verisimilitude of the epistolary novel exemplified by Bram Stoker’s Dracula (way to ratchet up the tension!), to the satire and sexual ribaldry of Thackeray, Fielding, Dafoe, and Cleland.

The wholly original and individual voice(s) employed by our greatest American novelist (in my humble opinion), Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain, certainly influenced me, but mostly in contrast, as his is a style I could never aspire to.

Twentieth century? A random grab-bag of specific authors I’d like to think influenced me, or at least inspired me: Clark Ashton Smith, H. H. Munro, Angela Carter, Roger Zelazny, Philip K. Dick, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Ursula LeGuin, Tanith Lee, P.G. Wodehouse, Thomas Pynchon, Fritz Leiber, Dorothy Dunnett, Robert Graves, Jack London — in addition to all the other usual suspects.

Usually, I prefer the florid over the dry, but the wry over the sentimental, and the satirical over the sincere.

What do you find fascinating about the horror genre?

The horror can be either gory or clean, supernatural or psychological in nature. The structure is one of creeping uncanniness, then freight, then desperation for the protagonist. The questions implied are philosophical and religious. They tap into our deepest fears – and hopes. After all, if ghosts or demons are real, then so is an afterlife, perhaps God. By scaring the reader directly and viscerally, the genre forces one into an empathetic state where it seems the horror is immediate, and oneself in danger. This frisson then grabs hold of the limbic region when considering the philosophical questions. It’s an exercise that is the opposite of formal inquiries into philosophy. I think reacting with one’s gut is a more comprehensive way to get answers. I prefer art to debate; would rather read Blake to understand Swedenborg than Swedenborg himself, or read Shelley’s poems to understand socialism. I don’t say horror bypasses intellectual capacities, rather that it’s a shortcut to the conundrums of existence; and as art, easily communicated to many levels of inquiry. Also, just love the thrill of a good story.

Disdaining/avoiding the usual pace of reality-based narratives, horror plunges the reader directly into these existential questions. By compressing the emotional arcs of a lifetime into one story and heightening the emotional stakes of investing in the agonist (whether prot- or ant-), horror acts as a literary hothouse to force its particular flowers out of season.

What are some of the works you have available?

I have an almost 10,000 word story “GildenPelt and Forbearance” under a pen-name (Colette Torrez) that should see print within the next month in the upcoming Giant Sex Issue of Imperial Youth Review, a print magazine based in the U.K. It’s an erotic science fiction tale riffing off Goldilocks and the Three Bears, with a dollop of satire of the brave new world they all negotiate. The magazine itself is published by Horn Dog Press and co-edited by Garrett Cook and Chris Kelso.

The sex issue (Issue 3) was over two years in the making and features never-before-seen work from William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Plymell, as well as a feature about ecosexuality by Annie Sprinkle. Just this weekend, two frequently published authors are staying with me, both of whom time-share a porn pen-name – Emma Steele, whose work will also appear in this issue.

Here’s a link to IYR’s FaceBook page, which can also be found by looking for the Imperial Youth Review Newsroom:

and here’s a link to the blog, which will be updated to include information on Issue 3 as soon as it is in print.

Also coming: in early March I won a contest to write a 1,000-word story inspired by photo taken by Mazatlán-based photographer and writer Kristopher Hensel, to be printed in his upcoming book of photographs and memories of Mazatlán, Mexico. The prize was quite generous, and came with a fancy certificate for the Inaugural Kristopherian Prize for Short Fiction awarded by the Board of Governors of same.

The story is called “Apotheosis of the Ultimate Surfer” and is fantasy with a soupçon of horror. Photographer Kristopher Hensel and editor/author Garrett Cook judged the contest, and will publish an online anthology of the four runner-up stories, as well as mine, two weeks from now, in what will be a teaser for the upcoming book. To see the picture that inspired the story, here’s a link

This site will announce when the online publication happens.

What are you currently working on?

A time-traveller short story with a little bit of satire called “Garden of Hedon” – trying to figure out the right place to submit it. It takes for its premise Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” and the butterfly effect, makes a sharp left, then goes straight off the cliff with it.

Sci/fi story about a drug-dealing planet peopled by highly conscious and therapeuticized people whose society is run as a collective. The new drug they hope to make a fortune on has a few unfortunate side effects, as they discover when they introduce it to a delegation of would-be buyers from another planet. Still working out the kinks in this story.

Outlining an erotic/fantasy/horror/sci-fi story/screenplay to submit on spec to friends of friends. It incorporates Hawai’i, were-creatures, a full moon eclipsed by a spaceship, what washes in on the tide, and erotic encounters that, alas, do not end happily.

Finished another erotic story called “Just Another Tuesday Dinner with the Missus”, which is the first in a series I’m considering – kind of like “Tuesdays With Morrie”. Or not.

Just starting notes in a collaborative mystery with an old friend from Ireland who wears many hats: she is a sculptor in stone; landscape designer and artist; garden guide in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales; as well as a horticultural lecturer and writer. I’m excited about the possibilities of working collaboratively as well as trying a genre I’ve only flirted with in my other stories, as well as committing to a long work. She and I share some overlapping aesthetics, but wildly diverge in our life journeys, so I think it will be productive and fun — and challenging — to create something with her.

Where can we find you online?

I’m actually not online yet. I’m afraid of all the work and time it’s going to take. I’m enjoying writing stories and finding publishers for them when I think they’re ready to fly the nest. My FaceBook page is minimal as well, due to not wanting it to be a time suck. Guess getting an online presence will be the step after that.

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