Chilling Chat with Elizabeth Massie

chillingchat

Elizabeth Massie is a Bram Stoker Award-winning and Scribe Award-winning author of novels and short fiction for middle-grade readers, teens, and adults. Her favorite genres areEM Beth Massie historical fiction and horror fiction (which she often calls “skeery stories!”) She also writes nonfiction and fiction for nationwide educational programs. A former 7th-grade science teacher with 19 years in the classroom, she now spends her time writing, presenting creative writing workshops, and drawing ghosts, monsters, and other creatures–all part of her Skeeryvilletown cast of cartoon characters. She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her creative and wonderfully wacky counterpart, illustrator Cortney Skinner.

Elizabeth is a kind person and a terrific writer. We discussed middle-grade and YA horror, Ameri-Scares, and what horror can teach young people today. 

NTK: Thank you for chatting with me today, Elizabeth.

EM: You’re welcome.

NTK: How old were you when you first discovered horror?

EM: I guess it was back when I was eight or ten years old and we as a family watched The Twilight Zone television show. While some of the episodes were funny, some were thought-provoking, and some were sad, others were very scary. Yet, even though they were scary, the characters were more often than not sympathetic. So, the horror hit me emotionally on two levels.

NTK: What was your favorite episode?

EM: Oh, gosh! That’s a difficult question to answer. So many favorites! Here are a few at the top of my list…”Midnight Sun,” “Eye of the Beholder,” and “The Lonely.”

NTK: Did The Twilight Zone inspire you to become a writer?

EM: I think a lot of things inspired me to become a writer. Certainly, The Twilight Zone television show was part of the inspiration. Included with that show, I would have to add The Outer Limits and Way Out which were spooky shows of the day. However, as to becoming a writer, I always loved to tell stories. I would drive my family crazy by asking, “what if,” all the time. Such as, “what if we are driving in the car and suddenly, it flies up into outer space?” Or, “what if you find out I’m not really a girl but an alien?” My “what if” questions would always lead to stories. My family was very patient with me and encouraged me. I think that is because my dad was a journalist/newspaperman who loved to write poetry and my mother was an amazing watercolorist. I was so lucky to come from a creative family! Okay, I realize I contradicted myself. I drove them crazy but they still encouraged me!

NTK: (Laughs.) It’s wonderful you came from such creative people. Stephen King has spoken of the same kind of creative process. He asks the “what if” questions too. What else inspires you? Do you have a muse? Do you find stories in dreams?

EM: I don’t have what people would consider a traditional “muse.” I’m inspired by life—by people I meet or just see on the street, songs I hear, articles or stories I read, experiences I have. And, yes, occasionally by dreams (my Stoker-winning novella, Stephen, came almost fully formed in a dream.) I think the “what if” remains the biggest factor, though. Because, since every story has a problem, whatever experience or person or song I encounter will require me to determine a “what if” in order to get it moving as a story.

NTK: When you write a story, how much control do you exert over your characters? Do they have free will? Do they take you where they want to go? Or, do you guide them?

EM: When I get started on a story or novel, I have a fairly clear idea of who my characters are. And, I have a fairly good idea what I want them to do in order to walk the path I’ve envisioned for them. However, as most writers will admit, we don’t know everything about them and sometimes they will us surprise us and say or do something unexpected. Or sometimes something will happen to them, based on their intended or unintended actions, that will make our jaws drop and we’ll say, “Wait…WHAT?” One of my characters in my novel Sineater died…I had no idea he was going to die. Complete shock on my part!

NTK: You’ve written YA horror and middle-grade horror as well as adult horror. Who is your favorite YA writer?

EM: Jonathan Maberry, Neil Gaiman, and Lisa Mannetti have written some kickass fiction for young adults.

NTK: What’s the difference between writing a YA or middle-grade novel and writing an adult novel?

EM: The answer will likely vary depending on the person/writer you ask. Here is how I see it: In adult fiction, (horror in particular) there are no limits. Write what you want how you want it, as graphically violent or sexually as you feel it needs to be to give the story the impact you are seeking. With YA horror fiction, it’s not quite as graphic…plus, the protagonist should be the age of or slightly older than the intended readers. Middle-grade horror fiction, in my humble opinion, is not graphic. It may hint at violence; there may be injury and in rare cases, a death. The main thrust of middle-grade horror fiction is to be intriguing and scary without being terrifying. And, like YA fiction, the main character or characters are the same age or slightly older than the intended readers. For all three, though, it boils down to this…what is a good story? What grabs the reader, holds the reader, and lingers in his or her mind after the magazine or book is closed?

NTK: Could you tell us about Ameri-Scares? How did this series come about?

EM Ameri-Scares North CarolinaEM: I was a 7th-grade life science teacher for 19 years. I loved it…the energy and sense of fun and life and wonder in kids that age is great. And so, even though I had been writing exclusively for adults for a long time, I thought it might be fun to aim some books toward kids in the 8-13 age range. I didn’t want to just write some random novels, I wanted a theme of some sort. I mean, R.L. Stine had that Goosebumps series, right? As someone who loves history, folktales, and legends, I thought it might be fun to write a scary middle-grade novel set in each of the 50 states of the Union and to base each novel on a historic event, legend, or folktale from the state in which the story is set. The research has been great fun! So far, there are six novels out from Crossroad Press. These are California: From the Pit, Virginia: Valley of Secrets, Maryland: Terror in the Harbor, Illinois: The Cemetery Club, New York: Rips and Wrinkles, and North Carolina: Mountain of Mysteries. I’m nearly finished with the next one—Tennessee: Winter Haunting. Last summer, I thought, “How will I get all of these written before I kick? So I asked Mark Rainey, a good friend and excellent writer with whom I’ve collaborated with in the past (on a Dark Shadows novel) if he would want to join me as an Ameri-Scares writer. He said yes! Thanks, Mark! His first in the series—West Virginia: Lair of the Mothman—will be out very soon!

NTK: What a terrific idea! And, a great way to get kids interested in history and myths. Do you have a favorite American myth or legend?

EM: There are so many legends and folktales! Each time I choose a state, I research and discover fun ones I’d never heard of before. I do love the story of “Resurrection Mary” (basis of the Illinois book) and the legend of the Brown Mountain lights (basis of the North Carolina book.) But you can’t go wrong with the Jersey Devil, the Mothman, or the Bell Witch of Tennessee!

NTK: We’ve talked about your favorite horror TV show. Do you have a favorite horror movie?

EM: This is going to date me, but The Exorcist scared the living jeebies out of me when I saw it in the theater when it first came out. And, I’m a person who has never believed in a devil. Yet, each time the mom or priest started back up those stairs to see Regan, I wanted to shout at the screen, “STAY DOWNSTAIRS YOU IDIOTS! YOU KNOW IT’S JUST GOING TO BE EVEN WORSE THIS TIME!!!” As to other films, my tolerance for graphic gore is pretty low. I love an atmospheric film that doesn’t rely on blood or guts to be scary. I thought Get Out was awesome, as was A Quiet Place. Chilling, edge-of-my-seat viewing, and the stories lingered.

NTK: How did you feel about the new version of Stephen King’s IT?

EM: Don’t hate me, but I wasn’t impressed. The actors were okay but I didn’t find it scary at all. Maybe, because I know the story? Maybe, because I liked the original better? I dunno. But, there were a couple scenes intended to be scary that made me chuckle (quietly so as not to disturb those around me, of course.) I don’t feel compelled to see the second half when it comes out.

NTK: Who is your favorite horror writer?

EM: Again, this is a “hard to choose one” question. For today, I’ll say, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Robert R. McCammon, Gary Braunbeck, Lisa Manetti, Lisa Morton, Monica O’Rourke, Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson—though she also wrote some charming slice-of-life stories—Joan Aiken, Thomas Tryon, Lucy Snyder…I could go on and on! Ask me another day and I’ll likely have another list.

NTK: What do you think horror can teach young people?

EM: I was emotionally challenged watching The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits and reading Ray Bradbury when I was young. And so, I believe that well-written horror not only stirs a sense of fear but also can birth a sense of compassion and empathy for the characters who are experiencing the terror. Well-written horror connects the reader to dark and dire situations and allows the reader to join with the characters as they suffer, learn, and (with luck) come out on the other side. Young readers can learn that bad things happen, that people who persevere will hopefully survive, and that the “oddball” or strange person is not always bad and the “good” person is not always what he or she might seem.

NTK: Do you have any advice for the up and coming writers out there?

EM: I’d advise up and coming writers this: Read all you can in various genres, write freely and not as if your mother is looking over your shoulder, and know that first drafts usually suck. Leave your work alone for a while, then get back to it and EDIT. Also, it’s okay to take a break from writing…sometimes the creative well has to refill. Get out and experience life. Pay attention to people, to situations, to music, to dreams. Everything is fodder. Good luck!

NTK: Elizabeth, what does the future hold for you? What books or stories do we have to look forward to?

EM: The Ameri-Scares series is picking up the pace now…so those who have young EM Ameri-Scares Marylandreaders in their lives—check ‘em out! I think the kids will get a kick out of them…and you might enjoy them, too. Until I get my new website up and running, you can find the Ameri-Scares novels on Amazon or through the Crossroad Press website.  The series is also in development for television by Warner Horizon (Warner Brothers), Assemble Media, and Margot Robbie’s production company, LuckyChap. I don’t know when the show might be completed, or which network they are eyeing (streaming or otherwise), but I’m excited to keep writing the books on which the series will be based!

In addition, I’m working on a horror/historical novel called, The House at Wyndham Strand. I plan on having it done by summer. And, I’m putting together some horror shorts for a new collection to come out in 2019. Don’t have a title for it yet. How about, “Super Scary Shit?” Okay, maybe not!

NTK: (Laughs.) Thank you for speaking with me, Elizabeth. It’s been an honor.

EM: Thank you so much! I enjoyed our chat!

This interview appeared in the February issue of the Horror Writers Association Newsletter and is posted here with the kind permission of Editor Kathy Ptacek.

Odds and Dead Ends: Greek Mythology / Cerberus

I like to dabble a bit in mythology and legends here in the Odds and Dead Ends corner, and this week is no exception. Having written on Cuchulain (Cu-hu-lun) and the Cyhyraeth (cih-here-aith) in the past, I decided to leave my Celtic homeland, whilst still keeping up the ‘C’ theme. There are many mythical creatures that have permeated popular culture, but one of the most famous must be the triple-threat hound of hell himself, Cerberus. Pronounced sir-bur-us, Cerberus is a monstrous dog that guards the underworld in ancient Greek mythology, and I’m going to give you a quick introduction to the monstrous pooch.

Guarding the entrance to the Underworld, the realm of Zeus’ brother, Hades, Cerberus is the offspring of Echidna and Typhon, two fearsome monsters both with snake-like parts of their anatomy. One of the most famous accounts of Cerberus is from Hesiod’s Theogony, also accounts Echidna as having given birth to Hydra of Lerna, the famous hydra of multiple heads. It is therefore perhaps not surprising, given all this, that Cerberus is described as having snakes as part of him in many sources.

Hesiod’s description of Cerberus is ‘a monster not to be overcome and that may not be described, Cerberus who eats raw flesh, the brazen-voiced hound of Hades, fifty-headed, relentless and strong.’ (Hesiod, 1914) Considering that the main image of Cerberus is with three heads (hence J. K. Rowling used Cerberus as the main source for Hagrid’s three headed dog, Fluffy, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)), which is something I’ll discuss later, it’s interesting to see him depicted in the old texts with far more heads than we now think of him as having, closer to a cross between Hydra and his other sibling in some texts, Chimera.

In his book Gods and Heroes in Late Archaic Greek Art, Karl Schefold and Luca Giuliani discuss the depictions of Kerberos (another spelling of Cerberus) on the ancient pottery of the time. These depictions are mainly in relation to one of the tasks of Herakles (the Greek spelling of Hercules), who was sent down to the underworld to subdue and retrieve the dog as part of his trials.[1] These trials are depicted throughout the famous epics, including Homer’s Iliad, one of the great epics of the ancient world. According to Schefold and Giulani, this task is ‘illustrated as early as the middle Korinthian period’ (p.129). They also discuss the painting…

by the powerful Lakonian artist dubbed the Hunt Painter… Here for the first time Kerberos has three heads to which Sophokles, following epic authority, refers… and he is completely covered with a shaggy coat of snakes, a feature already suggested on the Korinthian skyphos.’ (Schefold & Giulani, 1992, p. 129)

It’s interesting to see that it’s not even the written word, but pottery, that has clearly defined the monster and set in stone the attributes we associate with him. Even Sophocles, the famous Greek playwright, uses this image as his basis for Cerberus’ depiction.

Something I feel is often misunderstood is that Cerberus is that he stops unwanted people coming into the Underworld. This certainly may be a by-product, but his main function is to stop anyone escaping. Charon was the one that stopped anyone getting in, really, as he was the only transport over to Hades, and not many people that were alive ventured down to the underworld. According to Robin Hard, Charon was so shocked at seeing Herekles, alive, that he took him across to the land of the dead, ‘and was punished for this breach of his duties by being thrown into chains for a year.’ (Hard, 2003, p. 268) For the most part, Cerberus was the perfect creature stopping anything escaping the underworld, as Hard’s description makes plain:

Kerberos would not allow himself to be captured without a struggle and he was a formidable opponent even for the greatest of heroes, for he was not only large and powerful but had three heads (in the usual tradition at least) and a snake in his tail.’ (Hard, 2003)

In a way, Cerberus is the perfect guard dog of mythology. As with all mythology, it’s had some allegorizing over the years, such as being the ‘corrupt earth’ and Herekles’ victory representing his defeat over base, earthly passions, but it’s also perfectly fine to think he’s just a big dog with vicious teeth that will rip your face off. Certainly, one of the most well-known dogs of legend, not only has he featured in re-adaptations of Greek myths (such as in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, (Riordan, 2005), but in video games such as Final Fantasy 8 (Kitase, 1997). Cerberus is a legend, quite literally, and a hell of a lot of fun to imagine and reimagine throughout the years.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Follow him on Twitter: KJudgeMental

Bibliography

Christie, A., 1947. The Labours of Hercules. United States: Dodd.

Hard, R., 2003. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology: Based on H. J. Rose’s Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Routledge.

Hesiod, 1914. Hesiod, Theogony. [Online]
Available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Hes.+Th.+311
[Accessed 08 06 2019].

Homer & Butler, S., 2008. Iliad. Waiheke Island: The Floating Press.

Kitase, Y., 1997. Final Fantasy 8. s.l.:Square.

Riordan, R., 2005. The Lightning Thief. s.l.:Miramax Books.

Schefold, K. & Giulani, L., 1992. Gods and Heroes in Late Archaic Greek Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] Interestingly, these twelve tasks/trials were adapted by Agatha Christie as a series of short stories for her famous detective, Hercule Poirot, which form some of his last investigations in The Labours of Hercules. The detective is, as many can see, is named after the hero, so the theme fits very nicely.