[Today, we sit down for an interview with speculative poet and horror author, Emma J. Gibbon. Here. she discusses the folklore and mythology which influences her work; her new collection, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet, which will be available on 22 May; and her favorite speculative authors.]
evOke: What place do spirituality, mythology, and folklore play in your writing? Do you find yourself drawing on one corpus of beliefs or another for your work?
Emma J. Gibbon: Most of my stories are shot through with references, especially mythology, folklore and urban legends, and about what happens when you die, which is one of the underlying questions of all ghost stories, I think. Aside from the stories that very specifically refer to folklore and mythology such as “Black Shuck Tavern” and “Rise,” many of the others come through unconsciously and I only recognize the themes retrospectively.
Despite going to church schools as a kid, and only because they were the nearest to our house, I wasn’t raised in any specific faith tradition and my personal beliefs are varied and chaotic and contradictory so I’m just as likely to pull out a reference to ancient mythology or an ‘80s horror film as I am Christian doctrine or humanist ideas. Also, I absolutely have characters that have different beliefs from me, and as I often write in first person narrative, that can get a little muddy.
evOke: Your collection Dark Blood Comes From the Feet just came out at the end of May. First, congratulations! Second, the collection has been described as “strange and eclectic.” What draws you to the weird, the horrible, and the strange? What do you find so compelling about such stories and the characters who inhabit those worlds?
EJG: Thank you very much! Last year, I was at a conference where Stephen Graham Jones was the guest of honor and I’ll have to paraphrase, but he said that for him, horror was “baked in.” I think the same is true for me for the weird and dark stuff. I’ve always been like this! I remember as a kid begging my mother to let me stay up and watch Hammer horror movies and Tales of the Unexpected. My first heroes were Batman and Adam Ant, and honestly, not much has changed since.
It’s kind of like dream logic, except that when you wake up from a dream, you think, well, that didn’t make sense. Night time logic in stories, you think, I don’t understand why that made sense, but I feel there was a kind of emotional truth to it.
I’m also very interested in characters who deviate from the norm of what we expect in stories. I like to give the spotlight to the people who rarely get to be the protagonist or get the happy ending. In my stories, the monsters often win and they’re not the ones to be feared anyway. Honestly, if you’re a regular dude in my stories, it’s probably not going to go well for you.
I have tried to write lighter, more “normal” stuff and it just doesn’t work for me. It’s like trying on someone else’s shoes or spectacles — they don’t fit, and I can’t see properly.
evOke: Dark Blood contains seventeen stories. Which proved to be the most difficult, but satisfying, to write, and why?
EJG: “Cellar Door” is the story that I always wanted to write. I love haunted house stories, love them. So I always wanted to write one. I hope to write more, in fact! I’m very fond of unreliable narrators or narrators who you know are telling the truth, but you can see why society would deem them unreliable. I am also genuinely frightened by the idea of spaces changing with no logical reason. If you ask my husband, he’ll tell you that I have trouble with space and time, and it’s true. My spatial awareness is awful (I’m a terrible driver) and my concept of time is slippery. So while I love House of Leaves beyond reason, it is also something that terrifies me.
For the longest time, I had a clear idea of one of the scenes in “Cellar Door” which I can’t tell you as it’s a spoiler! I knew that I wanted to put these elements together, but I shied away from it for ages because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to execute the shimmery ideal that was in my head on the page as I wanted. Finally, I think it was one of the Nanowrimos (which I never win at) and I just wrote, stream of conscious style, and I finally got it out.
evOke: Were there any stories that you wanted to include in Dark Blood, but did not?
EJG: There was a story that was supposed to go in, but it was due to be published in an anthology first. The publisher of the anthology sadly passed away, so the publication was delayed. That meant that it wasn’t available for the collection. I wrote the story especially for the anthology so I wanted it to go in there first.
evOke: What sort of research went into writing these stories? Lots of trips to the library? Hours online? Personal experience?
EJG: So here’s a confession — not much! And I’m a librarian for my day job, so pre-pandemic, I was at the library nearly every day so that’s no excuse. That’s not to say I don’t research, ever. While writing the stories, I didn’t do much in the way of focused research, but in a way, I’m always doing research. I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to ideas. I’m interested in a lot of things, so I have a tendency to collect obsessions, and my librarian brain will go down the rabbit hole of research and I’ll read a lot about it — both online and in books — just for fun, rather than directed. That then goes into my brain mulch (Neil Gaiman calls it “composting”) and it will turn up in my writing later as if from nowhere. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not too good spatially so a lot of my settings are based on places I have been or know very well.
The only story that was slightly different from that was “This is not the Glutton Club.” This story was written to replace the one couldn’t go in. It’s a story for which I had the core idea for a while — a group of people who contract diseases on purpose — but it was not until I realized that I wanted to try it as a nested story that it came together. Another complication is that I wrote the first draft by hand while bedridden with pneumonia. It’s set in Victorian times, so I had to make sure that there no anachronisms when it came to the diseases they discuss and their understanding of transmission. Luckily, my friends are all super smart so a quick Facebook request meant that I could crowd source my research when I wasn’t physically up to it. I also wrote myself notes to check on when I was feeling better and doing edits. I was left which a much greater respect for historical fiction writers.
evOke: Where can readers find Dark Blood?
evOke: Dark Blood will released by Journalstone. How did you come to publish the collection through them? Did you submit to Journalstone or did they seek you out, or a bit of both?
EJG: I submitted to them. I was literally pulled out of the slush. I have a list of publishers that I would like to work with based on the work they have put out previously. Trepidatio and another publisher were both at the top of the list. They both put out calls for short story collections at the same time. I’d not planned it necessarily, but I realized that I had enough material for a collection, so I went for it, genuinely not expecting to be picked up. Then I got the email from Trepidatio and it all became very real!
evOke: For readers who love your work, which other authors would you recommend?
EJG: This is a hard question as I don’t want to be guilty of hubris! Other, very lovely and talented people have compared me to Shirley Jackson, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and Johnny Rotten! Some of my favorite writers that I aspire to be like are Kelly Link, M. Rickert, George Saunders, and Angela Carter.
evOke: What other projects are you working on?
EJG: Oof, that’s the question! I feel a little in limbo at the moment, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic, but was there before. I would like to write a novel. I had started some preliminary notes, but quarantine brain has stalled that. I think I have enough poetry to put together a collection so that might be something to work on. I have more short stories I want to edit and write. For now, I’m “filling the well.” I’m trying to read in short bursts (see aforementioned quarantine brain), catching up on some shows that I never saw, re-watching some favorite films. I think if I let my brain work on it in the background, my next project will come to me soon.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there.]