alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


Leave a comment

The Monster Within: An Interview with Kim White

Kim White Retouched 178Kim White is another wonderful author I met at the excellent Books with Bite workshop, led by Nova Ren Suma and Micol Ostow, at the Highlights Foundation this past September. I had such a good time that, basically, I don’t want to let go. Hence this series of interviews with my fellow writers. 

Hi, Kim. I had a really transformative experience at Books with Bite, in terms of re-evaluating what I want to write and why. What was the workshop like for you?

There was nothing not to like about the workshop. The focus on horror themes, the setting in the woods of Pennsylvania, and the stellar workshop leaders made Books with Bite a great experience. But far and away the best thing about the workshop was the other writers—talented women who were generous with feedback and willing to open up and share their own experiences. Everyone was working at a professional level, which made me feel challenged and inspired. I would definitely recommend it.

What’s the appeal in writing about dark and scary things?

I like a particular kind of dark and scary. I’m interested in stories about the monster within. The horror of being the monster is scarier to me than being in the path of the monster.

My first book, Scratching for Something, was a collection of flash fiction that explored this theme. In each piece, a character undergoes a transformation, and their body takes on a physical manifestation of their psychological state. To give a few examples: a man turns into a tree but his human heart remains beating inside the trunk; a woman’s breasts become actual fruit that she has to eat to survive; a man finds he can remove his head and walked around with it tucked under his arm; a woman coughs up her soul and keeps it in a jar, watching it shrink to the size of a raisin. The transformations are monstrous and horrifying but also infused with an inwardness and self-discovery. I’m fascinated by what we make of the dark parts of ourselves.

You also have a novelette about grief that you wrote in response to the 9/11 attacks. 

Diurnal-iBooksYes, in Diurnal, Susan’s past experiences and premonitions of the future indicate that her dream of having a child will go horribly wrong, but she goes ahead anyway. When the boy she gives birth to dies, she raises her daughter as the son she lost. The second part of the story is from the point of view of Gabriel, Susan’s daughter. We see how Gabriel maintains her own sanity with a different kind of magical thinking. Gabriel believes she was the child sending dreams and premonitions to her mother before birth, and that her mother mistook them as coming from her brother. Gabriel believes she has found proof in her mother’s diaries that she was the child her mother was (literally) dreaming about.

Can you tell us about a time when you were really scared?

This is tough to answer because I can’t tell you about a time I was really scared in a few paragraphs. When really scary things happen, like being in NYC during the 9/11 attacks, or seeing someone get shot on 42nd street, or being in a subway car when someone is being stabbed, I have to write stories because the emotions these experiences provoke are so complex. It’s fear mixed with anger, sadness, hope—it often takes years and many thousands of words for me to sort it out.

What’s your favorite scary story?

I like noir films, psychological thrillers, and dystopian science fiction. Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, The Matrix, Enders Game are some of my favorites, but I also spend a lot of time with literary fiction that delves into what really scares me—death and oblivion. One of my favorite terrifying passages is from Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory. He opens with this stunning first sentence: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” The image of life as a fragile crack of light, or as a baby dangled over a dark void, is nightmarish because it feels so true and inescapable. We can’t do anything to escape the oblivion to come—that’s terrifying to me.

bookcover_150Kim White holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and an MFA in poetry from Hunter College. She is the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize at Hunter College, The Catalina Paez and Seumas MacManus Award, the Shuster Award for an outstanding Master’s degree thesis, a Bingham Writing Fellowship from Columbia University, and a Forbes Foundation Grant.

You can check out more of her work here and here.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Picture Thursday: Monsters of the Library of Congress – Part IV, Silly Monsters

After posting on other topics for a few weeks, I am back with the fourth and final installment of “Monsters of the Library of Congress.” This week is silly monsters. These guys just aren’t very scary.

“Les deux ne font qu’un.” Hand-colored etching, France: 1791

Contrary to popular (American) opinion, the French do have a sense of humor. This 18th-century etching shows Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as a two-headed monster pulling in opposite directions. He appears to be a goat, while Marie is a….dog? Her feet definitely have toes. The caption describes her as “Medusa-headed,” but those snakes look more like long-stem roses made out of pipe cleaners. You’d think if you were going to poke fun at your rulers as you worked your way up to killing them, you’d intensify your cause by making your caricatures of them more grotesque, and not quite so toothless. Maybe the French don’t have a sense of humor after all.

“They thought I was one of those fire belching dragons.” Pen and ink, by Daniel Carter Beard [1889?]

This guy reminds me of Sir Didymus from Labyrinth–cute, earnest, hapless, valiant. But with a tail. And a longer nose. And can I tell you that we had free HBO for a while when I was a kid and before it went away I taped Labyrinth and watched it over and over until I wore out the tape? Because monsters! Castles! Cheeky talking snails with Australian accents! Sinister masquerade! The Bog of Eternal Stench! David Bowie in eye-makeup and breeches! Every frame of that movie has been indelibly etched into my head and–<…..Long pause while I dash over to YouTube and waste an hour of my afternoon watching clips of the movie and reliving my dreamy adolescence….Goodness, but the costuming in that movie was gorgeous! Although, I am unsettled to find that a 16-year-old Jennifer Connolly looks disturbingly like Kristin Stewart….>–um, sorry, where was I? Right! Cartoons, monters, Library of Congress. I’m on it!

Nude, hairy monster

Details from “Represantant d’une grande nation,” J. Cooke [1799]

The French are much funnier when it’s the English drawing them. According to the catalog description, the guy on the left is “a grotesque monster, nude and hairy, representing the Constitution of the Year III.” The description also notes that the monster has “upraised hands.” Really–that’s what they noticed sticking up? His hands?

“The sea-serpent season upon us again,” by Frederick Burr Opper. Cover of Puck magazine, July 31, 1895.

My personal favorite. More political cartooning, this time lampooning President Grover Cleveland. The house in the background is  Cleveland’s summer home on Cape Cod, ‘Grey Gables’. I’m just going to state right now that I have never lived in a house that has a name. What is it about this monster that I find so endearing? I think it’s the collar and tie. Also the gap-toothed smile and the one-eye-open, one-eye-closed configuration. This mammoth sea serpent is at least as big as Prez Grovie’s Grey Gables, but I bet if you gave it a corn dog and petted its whiskers, it would totally take you for a ride in the ocean. Of course, since it also looks like it has a brain the size of a dehydrated pea, it might forget about its passenger and do a deep-sea dive, leaving you to freeze in the Atlantic currents, but, hey– you befriends your sea serpents and you takes your chances.

That concludes this offering of ‘Monsters of the Library of Congress’ (Shockingly, all images are courtesy The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs) Missed an installment? Want more? See Part I – Humanoids,  Part II, Beasts, and Part III, Machines.


1 Comment

Picture Thursday: Monsters of the Library of Congress, Part III – Machines

Short post this time, because the dominant monster of this week has been the one inside my maxillary sinuses, gumming up the works with all kinds of intangible crud. I’ve been on a strict regimen of two naps a day, and I rouse for the hour when my desperate fingers scrabble open another blister pack of Tylenol Multi-Symptom Cold & Flu.

For today’s feature, I have two machine monsters.

Locomotive threatens an automobile at a road crossing

“The grade crossing monster,” by W.A. Rogers, 1911.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any additional info on this one. It looks like a pretty straightforward commentary on the perceived danger of railroad crossings to the fledgling automobile. In 1910, only 200,000 cars were manufactured in the U.S.* I like how the train, while clearly mechanical, has taken on the characteristics of a snake, with two stabbing fangs and a forked tongue.

Fierce machine monster rolling over a city

[Smoking monster engine destroying town], by Wladyslaw T. Benda, circa 1922

Straight out of a steampunk nightmare, this creature is a smoking, clanking ravener of humanity. Its relentless metal wheels roll over the houses and culture of the tiny towns below. Monstrous & mechanical, though it has headlamp ‘eyes,’ it is clearly indifferent to the lives it shovels and crushes. Presumably a metaphor for the First World War, I actually find it really disturbing.

Benda was a Polish-American artist and illustrator. He was proud of his heritage and often drew heroines in Slavic costume. He designed propaganda posters for both Poland and the U.S. during both World Wars. Later in his career, he turned from illustrating to making masks.

That’s all for the day. My snot-filled brain just can’t take any more.

Want more? See Part I – Humanoids, and Part II, Beasts

[All images from The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs]

*http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Motor_vehicles


3 Comments

Picture Thursday: Monsters of the Library of Congress — Part II, Beasts

Welcome to the 2nd installment of historical monsters. Up today–animal and other ‘beast’ monsters.

7-headed beast from 'Revelations'

Woodcut. Apocalypsis Sancti Johannis. [Germany : ca. 1470].

Starting with some classic beast-action from the Christian bible, this 15th-century woodcut shows “Saint John seeing a…seven-headed beast that looked like a leopard rising out of the sea.” You can tell it’s a leopard because of the spots. I like how each of the seven heads appear both feline and human.

Sea monster

Sea monster, by Udo J. Keppler [1872-1956]

The sea, being all big and fathomless and salty, is a popular place to store your monster. Here, in a political cartoon from 1901, this cranky-but-not-violent looking sea monster in the shape of a lion (?) references Odysseus mythology to comment on the Tammany Hall corruption scandals in turn-of-the-last century New York. I think today’s political cartoons would benefit from more sea monsters. It could only raise the standard of discourse.

Carolina Fertilizer advertisement

Wood engraving, advertisement for Carolina Fertilizer, 1869

Sea monsters aren’t just useful for scolding naughty politicians into more moral behavior, they’re also good for….selling fertilizer? Apparently so. This ad dates from just after the Civil War and shows “prehistoric monsters” tussling (& dying) in a swamp. According to Carolina Fertilizer’s promotional strategy, their fertilizer “…is made from the PHOSPHATES of South Carolina, and is pronounced by various chemists one of the best Manures known, only inferior to Peruvian Guano in its FERTILIZING PROPERTIES. These PHOSPHATES are the remains of extinct land and sea animals, and possess qualities of the greatest value to the agriculturist.”* So there you have it: only inferior to Peruvian Guano. Can’t argue with that.

Lithograph of minister in boat surrounded by demons

“A minister extraordinary taking passage & bound on a foreign mission to the court of his satanic majesty!” Lithograph by Henry R. Robinson, 1833

I love the skeleton horse at the top – I kind of want one myself. I’d  feed it raw hamburger & the ashes of carrots. I’d always keep a supply of sugarplum fingertips in my pockets and…um, sorry. Pony love gone wrong. Where was I? Okay, so actually, this drawing is tabloid journalism, 19th-century-style. According to the catalog record, this is [a detail from] “the second of two prints surrounding the scandalous trial of Methodist minister Ephraim K. Avery for the brutal murder of factory girl Sarah Maria Cornell.[…] Avery has departed the scene of his crime where his victim, now expired, still hangs strangled from a post. Her shoes, kerchief, and a note reading “If I am missing enquire of the Revd. Mr…” lay nearby. As monsters fly overhead, Avery is rowed toward a shore at right where an inferno blazes and a man is boiled in a cauldron.”

Illustration showing 'drug habit' as a 3-eyed monster

“The new morality play exit demon rum–enter drug habit,” by W.A. Rogers, 1919.

More social commentary. This 3-eyed, fanged, and ugly dude with forked tongue appears in a pen and ink drawing published in the New York Herald, Jan. 23, 1919, representing fears of a new threat of drugs (as opposed to the familiar old threat of alcohol) to U.S. society. What you need to know is that the Constitutional Amendment (18th) kicking off the Prohibition Era in the US was ratified by Congress on Jan. 16, 1919. The fez and billowing pants presumably reference the idea that drugs such as opium and heroin hail from the Ottoman East.

And now I leave you, good readers, with this horrible, hideous, fantastical, impossible beast. Machine mosters and comic monsters are yet to come.

Woodcut of a rhinoceros, by Albrecht  Dürer, 1515

“The Rhinoceros,” woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, 1515

[All images from The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs]

*From Lives Between the Tides, by John Leland. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. p38-39


Leave a comment

Picture Thursday: Monsters of the Library of Congress – Part I, Humanoids

I like words as much as the next writer/reader but, hey, sometimes I just want to look at pictures. Today, I have some Monsters from History!

Monster with crossed honrs by Thomas Rowlandson

Study of monsters, by Thomas Rowlandson, 1756-1827

According to the catalog entry on this one, Rowlandson was “sometimes accused of being coarse and indelicate.” The other figures in the same study do show acrobats or gymnasts oddly placed on top of lizards.

Monster by Oliver Herford

“A horrible monster glared at them.” Illus. by Oliver Herford, 1863-1935. From “The Woog and the Weez,” 1895.

This guy is from a children’s book. He’s also carrying a large book. Is he trying to scare them with reading? I hope not!

Monster on a raft collecting Buddhist worshippers, by Kobayashi Kiyochika

Harvesting in an enemy river, by Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1847-1915

Now we’re getting serious. Our man on the raft has some demon teeth, and he’s scooping up the bodies. Interestingly, the catalog calls this “a humorous picture.”

Monster holding knife and bomb

Bomb-throwing monster on German anti-Bolshevist poster. Illus. by Julius Engelhard, 1883-1964.

In some ways, the most disturbing. This is a propaganda poster from 1918, dehumanizing a political opponent with visual scare tactics. The [translated] original text reads: “Bolshevism brings war, unemployment and starvation.”

That’s all for today. Stay tuned for more monsters: beast-monsters, monsters of the machine age, and humorous monsters.

[All photos from The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs]


3 Comments

Monster of the Year

The material forms of our collective nightmares are subject to fashion. This year would have to be the year of the vampire. Zombies are also popular.

But just as low-waisted flares get the shove from the fashion scene to make way for armpit-hugging granny jeans, there isn’t room for all our monsters at one time.

A monster we don’t hear much from lately is the cannibal.

Body parts for sale

Body parts for sale

I work in a library, and whenever I go to the water fountain, there’s always a reshelving cart parked right there, full of intriguing titles. This week’s winner was, ‘Our Cannibals, Ourselves,’ by Priscilla L. Walton.

Walton traces conceptual origins of the cannibal to Homer (Polyphemus the Cyclops enjoys the occasional meal of raw sailor), but notes that the word doesn’t enter European languages until Columbus.

As you might expect, there is a lot of ugly racism/colonialism hovering around the representation of cannibals, from H. Rider Haggard through Gilligan’s Island. But there is also the possibility that cannibalism doesn’t have anything to do with actual eating at all:

The admiral says that he well believes there is something in this [report of cannibals], but…they must be an intelligent people…He believed that they may have captured some men and that, because they did not return to their own land, they would say they were eaten.” -from Columbus’s diaries, Walton, p.2ocos_plw

I really love that. That being ‘eaten’ could mean being swallowed by another culture. In many ways, that would make the US, the British, the French, and all the other dominating cultures, the true cannibals, not the poor guy in the palm leaf sarong and the finger-bone necklace.

So where does that leave us in monster-movie land? I’m not sure, but from where I’m sitting, it looks like cannibals are due for a re-examination.


Leave a comment

I HAVE to read this book

“One morning Ricky Rice, a former heroin addict, receives a mysterious letter at his job. Inside are a one-way bus ticket and an invitation to travel north, to a remote location in Vermont. When he arrives he finds a secret society of black folks, calling themselves the Washburn Library, tucked deep in the backwoods…”

Read the rest from the NY Times Papercuts interview here. (Thanks, Tayari)

Also?

Also, one of the characters gets impregnated by a monster.

Seriously, why have I never heard of this guy before?