If you like horror fiction you’ll like Jodi MacArthur. She writes dark layered narratives that draw the reader in with an efficacy and assuredness that is the sign of someone in control of their genre.
She uses mythology and a clever psychological subtext to evoke her readers’ fears.
She does it all with a deft touch and skill and she keeps doing it.
She has written two novels, ‘Xscents’ and ‘Devil’s Eye’.
If my opinion counts for anything she will be a household name.
She met me at The Slaughterhouse where we nailed a beating heart to the inside of a box and played pool with some eyeballs.
Then we talked about insects and fiction.
Do you think crime and horror fiction are more closely related than people realise?
Both crime and horror appeal to the dark side of humanity. It’s important to recognize the realities of our personal demons. And both of these do the job safely within the confines of a book. Horror is an emotion. Crime is an action. I think each are very defined, but are often blended.
With crime fiction we get to go over the edge and do whatever it takes to get what we want. We get that mad adrenalin rush when the jewel thief overcomes obstacles and the law to get that jewel. But in the end, he always loses, when we make ourselves more important than anything or anyone else, what we are stalking will stalk and consume us. It never ever ends well. With crime there is a building up (how a thief steals a jewel and gets away with it) or a descent (the law catching the jewel thief). A jewel heist is exciting, but you won’t experience the emotion of horror when the alarm bell goes off.
Its not horror until it’s personal. We’d call horror a person chained to the wall in a doorless room being devoured limb from limb by a beast with sharp curved teeth, unless you are Roman in the first or second century. You’d call that an entertaining sports event. However, if a owl hooted three times in the dead of night a Roman might take it as a curse of the gods and pass out from fright, while we’d roll over in our beds and snore. So horror really in truly is taking societal and personal fears and turning it on its head.
So how do we mend the two together to get a good crime (a law that has been broken)/horror (the psychology or motivation behind the crime) story? True life bites harder than fiction. Let me tell you a personal story.
In my early twenties, I managed a low income housing complex. Right before I started, a woman had stabbed her husband in the stomach with a butcher knife. She was taken to the crazy house. The husband, after a week or two in the hospital, moved in with some friends. And their children, both under the age of five, went to Child Protective Services. We can look at that and say, huh, weird. A crime was committed, but you can’t call that horror.
Nobody paid the rent. Neither party was reachable. I started the eviction process. Weeks later. The day before the officer brought the eviction warrant, the husband showed up with a bunch of guys and a big van. They removed several items from the duplex. I talked with the husband about the eviction. He was well dressed, well spoken, and charming as ever. He told me he had no money to pay the rent, and that he didn’t care about anything inside. He said to trash it and gave me the address, where I could contact him. (Which I knew was a fake address, but what can you do?
The next day, what I saw when we entered the apartment and began to dig around was just surreal. It was unspeakable. The children’s bedrooms had locks. Urine and faeces were in the corners, smeared on the walls. Cardboard sat in the windows. A few toys and mattresses lied on the floor.
The master bedroom was covered in wall to wall pornography: magazines, photos, movies. Inches of it. (Later we rented a giant dumpster and actually shovelled it out the window.) The bathroom was littered with used condoms and sex toys. The smell? Indescribable.
This is bad, right? A person doesn’t have to be a detective to put two and two together. The children had been starved and abused. How? Every which way those kind of perverts do it (I spoke with social services later on).
So let’s come back to the original crime. Wifey stabs Mr. Prince Pervert Pedophile Charming in the gut with a butcher knife.
Why was she with him? Why did she stay? And what motivated her to try to kill the SOB? A normal person would think:
A: She was a victim from the start. A kind of person a man like that picks out. He beats her into submission, emotionally, physically, mentally. Fear, self pity keep her there. She turns a blind eye to the abuse her children suffer. Finally, the time bombed ticked and she stabbed him.
B: She was in on it, a fellow perpetrator. Women and men are equally cold hearted and/or narcissistic. How many cases have you heard of kidnap, rape, and murder with a woman/man team? One of my sisters was almost abducted by a man/woman team. I saw it with my own eyes. It happens. In that case, perhaps this woman had been planning on gutting him for months? Perhaps they argued? Perhaps there was a jealousy factor?
But really, who knows right?
The downstairs was trashed and nasty in general. I was pretty shaken. But nothing prepared me for the coat closet.
When we opened the door. It was dark and empty. The pull light didn’t work. The door locked from the INSIDE. We saw something on the walls. Got a flashlight. Scribbled in red crayon over and over everywhere on the walls were words. A simple sentence. This simple sentence has haunted me ever since.
“Amy is broken on the inside”.
Amy was the name of the woman who had stabbed her husband in the gut with a butcher knife.
Bam. There. Ladies and Gentleman of the jury, we have horror.
She was crazy. Psychotic. Multiple personality? Or (more politely and politically correct) Dissociative Identity Disorder? Schizophrenic? Who knows. Given a cool hearted, charming man like her husband and a psycho like her, most likely they worked as a team. The horror those little children went through is just unimaginable.
So is crime and horror the same? No. But do they go together? If you want to be scared shitless- hell, yes.
What are your views on President Obama and the last decades of American politics?
Are we still talking about crime and horror? If so, perhaps we should move to the moon where I shall reign as goddess. If that isn’t an option, then my personal views are these: Government was created to protect the people, not to control the people – to protect people from harm, abuse, fraud etc, not to protect people from themselves. I believe in individual responsibility. I believe in giving to others out of kindness and generosity, not by force from the authorities. I believe the human spirit in order to flourish needs liberation and the freedom to make decisions and suffer consequences. If you don’t wear a seat belt, you can accept the risk that in an accident you might fly out the windshield and be decapitated. Should it be a law to wear a seat belt? If we are at the point of making stupidity laws for stupid people, the battle was lost long ago. We need the freedom to be stupid, as well as the freedom to be intelligent.
President Obama? No fucking comment.
What fascinates you about insects and are you going to be writing about them?
Their long spindly legs, the light hum of a wing, pinchers, polkadots, teeny tiny eyeballs… what is there not to be fascinated with? I have many memories with bugs, or critters in general. My earliest memory was at my grandmother’s. I had awakened at dawn due to nightmares. I wandered out of my room, sat down at the kitchen table and laid my cheek on its cool surface. I felt a tickle on my leg. I remember scratching it, then feeling more tickles over my thighs, ankles, stomach… I drew back from the table and to my horror found myself covered in hundreds! (dozens) of baby spiders. The egg sack had just hatched. I remember trying to scream, and not being able to breathe. When I finally did let out that yowl everyone in the house thought surely someone had murdered JoJo in the kitchen.
Ants. Ants fascinate me. And I’m not the first. There are references back in some of the earliest writings, fables, the bible, the Koran. Through the centuries their colonies/societies have intrigued mankind. Of course, one of the ways they communicate is through pheromones or scents they leave. This summer I researched the human sense of scent, and was fascinated to find that we ourselves emit different pheromones that people react to emotionally and physically as much as they would with body language or vocal communications. And yes, this includes sexual attraction. We talk about visual physical attraction but it seems we can be just as sexually attracted to someone based on his or her pheromones (or animal attraction). It was their scent you most likely noticed first. If you believe in love at first sight, then I’d suggest love at first scent (and guys I’m not talking about farts, so please don’t go fart at your potential romantic interests or your significant other for that matter). To get your man in the mood, a woman might light a pumpkin scented candle (essential oils) or dab on lavender. Do both at the same time for extra fun. For women, surprisingly, the smell of cucumbers and good & plenty candies create the strongest arousal. Licorice does it also for both guys and girls. Anti arousals: cherries, men colognes, and charcoal barbecued meat.
ANYWAYS, after a discussion with Jason Michel earlier in the year, I got to thinking about cautionary tales (fables and fairytales), where they come from, how they are formed. How people, religion, societies take a story and twist it from the author’s original intention, and re-spin it based on their own spiritual/political beliefs. People will do amazingly heroic or horrific acts for what they believe in. I wrote an article on it for a zine that had asked for some nonfic work. It was rejected because of form & style. Blah. Blah. They wanted formula. Which I suck at.
An idea occurred while writing the paper to write my own fable about ants, then create a society which valued the story (which occurs in the village of Secretos, fictionally located in the northern mountains of Peru). Throw in some power hungry mongrels, coca fields (which I did extensive research on as well– cool plant!) thug wars, underground tunnels and factories, chained men running on hamster wheels, lust in a bottle (human pheromones mixed with botanical essential oils), warrior women in leather, a pied piper in a cat suit, a feverish priest declaring the fable a prophecy, and you’ve got yourself a real weird story that made itself into a novel over the last couple months.
So yeah, I wrote about ants.
Do you think people only wake from a dream when it becomes a nightmare?
I had a dream once that I was at my aunt’s. We were sitting at her kitchen table talking about her cats and kids. She asked me about my writing, and she said she’d do whatever I needed to help me with my dream. We had steamy cups of coffee and muffins. I remember telling her, “Sandie, I had the most awful dream that you’d died and I hadn’t found out for months later.”
She took a sip of her coffee and said. “Oh Jo, I am dead. I’ve been dead for awhile.”
I remember being shaken and I started looking around her home, and real life began to dawn on me. “You can’t be dead, we are sitting here talking.”
“This is a dream sweetheart.” She grabbed my hand. “But don’t worry, I’m here for you every step of the way.”
I remember feeling the tug of reality, of waking up. I burst into tears and said, “I don’t want to go back. I want to stay with you.”
“You have too much to do, Jo. Go back. We’ll catch up later.” Last I remember she was giving me a huge hug and told me never to forget.
I woke up in a pile of tears and my own messy life. My aunt has been gone for a couple years now. I’d given anything to go back to the simplicity of her home and warm laughter. SO, sometimes the horror is waking from a good dream to the nightmare that is your own life.
But let’s get to the heart of what you are asking. I think when we are set on a way of thinking, a life path, a belief, a religion it takes something juristic to change it, and yes, often a nightmare of sorts. You can be bouncing on your way through life, you make money, you got religion, you have wonderful relatives, the perfect spouse and your children are on the swim and dance team. Perfect. And then, one day, your child comes to you and says Grandpa has been touching him in certain places.
Thwap! (as an old Batman comic bubble might say)
What do you do? Something has been going on under the radar you hadn’t seen. You have two choices: ignore it, tell your child you are sure it’s nothing (so many people sacrifice their children for the sake of keeping their world the same) or follow the breadcrumbs to find more horror than you ever saw on tv or read in Stephen King book.
Problem is. There’s been signs all along, for some reason (and who am I to judge?) you CHOSE not to see it. So when the shit hits the fan, it’s decision time. Are you going to wake up and deal with it or are you going to fall back asleep into your perfect world? Herein, the horror lies.
Fiction is a safe place to expose and explore nightmares. To follow the paths of others who wake up, and watch what they do. Horror is so metaphorical and mimics true life. I choose to write nightmares because it also helps me deal with my own personal demons. Nothing brings me more joy than scaring the hell out of readers and making them smile at the same time. Sort of an oxymoron, but life is an oxymoron dammit!
The extremities of human psychopathology, be they war crimes or the nauseating acts of child molesters are caught deep in the throat of our collective consciousness. You say rightly that people wake up to such horrors after crafting a good life that is partly image and the revelations and ramifications that these revelations bring are too real for humanity and inhabit no fictional world. TS Eliot said ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality.’ Many people who have found that monster in their cellar acknowledge a lurking doubt, some body of observation where they suspended and pushed away a sense that something was wrong, why do you think people push their unconscious knowledge of these crimes away?
Oh geez. We all have our reasons don’t we? Acknowledging ‘these crimes’ requires us to CHANGE our perception of a person, situation or a relationship. I think one of the hardest things for we as humankind to accept is change. Nothing stays as it is, even the planet doesn’t hold still. It revolves, it goes through cycles, and so do we.
I heard once that the people who survived the concentration camps were not the extreme pessimists, nor the super duper happy positive thinking people, it was the people who accepted the reality of the horror of their situation but did the best with what they had. That doesn’t mean they lost hope or did not make plans for the future, but it does show willingness on their part to accept change/reality.
Psychology, my dear Watson, is afoot:
Remember the story awhile back, about the family that owned an apartment complex in Austria? A family of two parents and four children. The father began molesting one of his daughters at the age of eleven, when she was eighteen he lured her into the complex’s cellar. After raping and drugging her, he handcuffed and chained her in a dark room. He gave his wife (the mother) a running away letter “written” by the missing daughter. And his wife accepted it.
He kept his daughter there for twenty-four years, raping her on a consist basis. She birthed him seven children. Six lived. He burned the infant that had died (from neglect) in a kitchen oven. Some of the children he brought upstairs to his wife and said they had been dropped off on the doorstep by the missing daughter. The other children stayed with their mother in the cellar and had never seen the light of day.
Now you tell me, did the mother or siblings of this kidnapped girl ever wonder why daddy was bringing extra food to the cellar? Why he visited there so often? Did anyone ask why he was building and digging underground? Did NOBODY hear a sound, a scream, something?
You can’t go 24 years without nobody knowing nothing. Someone knew, but chose to ignore, because acknowledging the horror, the truth of the situation, was too much of this TS Elliot quote to bear.
So. Humanity not only suffers at the hands of such sickos as this man, but just as much from people refusing to acknowledge such sickos exist. Why? Because it will change our perception of how we want things to be or stay. Again, truth bites harder than fiction.
How much truth do you think it is possible to put into fiction and how do you adapt truth as a writer?
I’d like to quote King for your question. He says, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” So let’s think about that. Fiction is like one giant metaphor for the truth. So there has to be truth in the metaphor because the metaphor is the truth. If we want to empower our reader’s imagination and take them on a journey, especially a dark journey, they will need to trust. And the way to build trust is to tell the truth. The way to tell the truth is to take a piece of life, say, a beautiful butterfly fluttering around enjoying its freedom, and stick it into the middle of a sticky spider web. We will all watch fascinated while the spider crawls out of hiding, climbs across its silk. The butterfly fights and struggles for its life. Will it get away or will the spider eat it? Depends on how strong the web is or how strong the butterfly’s wings are. Who wins? Who is good or evil? Depends on the slant. Depends on the characters. The jury (reader) ultimately decides this, as they should, because we as storytellers give freely and the reader takes away what he or she wants.
We do know, all of us together as one KNOW, one way or another the spider or the butterfly is going to get what it wants. This is the truth. What happens next and how? That is where we as storytellers can weave our own fictional webs. It is where we seduce our reader’s minds. And once we seduce, once they know we are telling the truth, they can trust us to take them through the house of horrors…. And that is when the magic happens. Ha ha, and what is magic? Masqueraded truth used in a way to entertain, delight, and dare I say, frighten. In times past and even now, those who can perform magic are regarded as powerful, and sometimes I think artists think of themselves this way. But, I believe, storytelling isn’t about power, it is about humility. Without the audience or the reader, there is no magic. We as storytellers cannot physically grab a person and force them into our world. We seduce, we tell them the truth so they will trust, and only then will our worlds and imaginations collide. The reader can take and leave what he chooses. Free will. Even when it comes to fiction. It’s all about truth and trust. Just amazing. This is only one of the reasons why I am so enchanted and in love with this form of art.
Tell us about the significance of the number 13 in your life.
Well, for starters, it is the font number when I copy and paste your interview questions into my Word doc. It is also the size of my clown shoes. It is one inch more than a foot. I won a jar of jellybeans with the number 13 in first grade. It is the number of colonies that came together to sign the Declaration of Independence (which is quite lucky if you ask me).
The only thing that scares me about 13 or Friday the 13th is the western collective conscience believing bad things will happen on that day. A group of people putting out negative vibes as one great force of emotional power scares me way more than a simple number ever will.
Triskaidekaphobia (the fear of 13) can be traced back to Norse mythology. Odin throws a dinner party for 11 of his closest friends. Loki, mischievous as always, decides to crash the party making the number in attendance 13. However, in this story Loki’s mischief turns malicious when he orchestrates the murder of Odin’s beloved son Balder (the god of truth and light). The death of Balder was the real turning point in Norse mythology leading to Ragnarok.
Why do you think mythology is so important in the history of human civilisation?
We all have questions don’t we? Why? Where? How? When? Who? Every culture and society try to answer these questions with their own mythologies, legends, stories, fables etc..Again, they are a metaphor for truth or vice versa. Often times these tales become religion. And the religion sets the standards and morals of the society.
If I had four people hold you down on an altar and I used an obsidian knife to rip open your chest and tear out your beating heart, then later dismember your body and eat it: America would call that murder and cannibalism. I would get the electric chair or your tax dollars would go to keeping me well fed, educated, medically cared for and physically protected within prison walls for life. The Aztecs would call it sacrifice and for this great deed the world would keep spinning, and I would have pleased the sun as well as the rain god. Our people would be rewarded with rain for the crops, as well as personal blessings from eating the sacrificed body.
So it is different for every society and culture. The stories that have stuck around for hundreds or thousands of years have stayed because either there is a morsel of truth to them, or because of their truly entertaining/shocking nature. I think they are fascinating and there is something to learn from it all.
Mario Praz wrote the seminal study of Romantic Literature ‘The Romantic Agony’, exploring the links between it and early Gothic literature, which morphed into horror fiction. He explored decadence and morbidity as lying at the roots of the genre as well as graveyard fiction. To what extent do you think morbid eroticism and as Mario Praz saw it, the ghost of the Marquis de Sade hangs over the modern tradition of horror?
I can’t agree with Mario Praz that decadence and morbidity lies at the root of horror. I’m not indulging in base desires because I have some kind of unnatural obsession with body parts and places I can stick them. To be honest, I think Praz is rather arrogant to make these assumptions.
As a horror writer, I am seeking the truths of the human condition. And the truth, what lies at the root of horror, is what has scared humanity since the beginning of time: Death.
We are afraid of pain. We are afraid of change. We are afraid of the Grim Reaper with his scythe and skeleton smile. We are afraid of what happens after death. Is there a god or devils or demons or angels or boogey men in the closets. Or is there nothing? Do we simply disappear and get sucked into some black void? We simply never really existed. Perhaps we are just scribbled words of something far bigger and greater than we are; a rough draft crumpled and tossed away.
We were afraid of this before Marquis de Sade entered the scene, and will be as long as humanity exists.
I do not have a MFA or PHD. I have not studied intensely on these subjects. I am not a philosopher or a theologian. I just want to tell a damn good story. To do this, I tap into the vein of humanity and draw out what I find. I write what I know, what I’ve experienced, and what I’ve imagined.
I wish I had some grander answer for you, but that’s about it.
You frequently refer to The Sea Of Imagination. Most recently it has come up in your pirate series. What is it and what are you talking about when you refer to it?
I believe everything that has been or will be exists in some kind of gigantic collective consciousness: an unseen world of possibilities and impossibilities. Every single one of us has access to it. You do not need to be Beethoven, Poe, Da Vinci or Britney Spears to drop a line and go fishing.. You can be some half assed crazy trailer trash white girl from nowhere and everywhere. A composer once said that he doesn’t create his music, he simply remembers a song he had never heard before, as if it had always existed and he is simply recalling it. That is how it feels when I write my stories.
I have a little wooden boat that I’ve patched together from my own life’s tool shed. I have a fishing rod with a string and nightcrawler dangling from a hook. When I cast it into the sea, I honestly have no idea what I’ll catch. And when something latches and starts tugging there is always this “Oh SHIT!” moment. It could be a 30 ft hammerhead. How will that fit into my little boat? It could be a tiny minnow, boring and insignificant, but thriving just the same. It could be a Bowie knife snagged out of the hands from a huge WWF wrestler and you better believe he’s coming up after it. Or perhaps there is a shrewd woman who creates sex in a bottle and rules the world through lust addiction. Or perhaps there is a Captain Rueben Viper searching for the Cave of Ali Baba to win the heart of what he thought was his true love until the mysterious frogslinging Amazon goddess steals more than just his treasure map. Or perhaps a man whose soul was stolen by demons and his salvation is held in the hands of a little girl who possesses only shards of sanity- a gift of dried violet petals from her father…
In the Sea of Imagination anything and everything can happen. There are no limitations. There are no giant eyes in the skies watching our every move and ticking off points on the nice or naughty list. It is free for all and all for free with two stipulations. One: Like the wind, you must believe in it, although you cannot see it with your physical eye. Two: If you have the balls to bait a hook and throw it in, you must be brave enough to deal with what you’ve caught. There is no excuse for cowardice. Catch and release is for sissies. And the world has enough of those.
On the sea of imagination, there are great islands brought up from volcanoes of great minds. Their names are Defoe, Poe, Dickens, King, O’ Brien, L’engle, Koontz, Keats, Benson, Stroker, Shelly, Palahniuk, Lewis, Harper, Golding, Dickenson, Suess, Steinbeck, Marie De France, Grimm, Wilde, Ash, Salvatore, on and on…
Their characters play out lives on these islands and I am delighted to be able to anchor my boat off shore and watch these brilliant catches. And what an amazing thought to think my characters create their own volcanoes and islands for others to enjoy.
Thank you Jodi for giving an outstanding and thoughtful interview.
Thank you so much for the Chinwag and showcasing at the Slaughterhouse, Richard. It’s been a mind-bending and absolute delight engaging with your keen and perceptive mind.
Pillow Talk, Spindled Souls, Weeping Stones (scroll down), Rabid, WILDCARD, Painted Black (scroll to last story), and there be me beloved thievin’ piratical series, The Wicked Woman’s Booty. For the daring and not easily offended you can explore my random rants about life and writing here.