Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Erin Cole

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200x320Erin Cole is a widely published writer of horror and mystery fiction.

In 2009 she was shortlisted in the Tom Howard/John H. Reid SS Contest and won honourable mention in the Williamette Writers Kay Snow Contest.

What Erin does particularly well is layer a narrative with a professional knowledge of mental states that subvert reality and threaten our sense of what we know. In her novel ‘Grave Echoes’ Kate Waters suffers from narcoleptic hallucinations.

She is currently working on her second novel in the Kate Waters Mysteries and a short horror anthology collection due fall of 2011.

She met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about fugue states and the Corn God.

Charles Brockden Brown wrote American Gothic in the eighteenth century. In ‘Edgar Huntley’ the character Clithero commits murders while sleepwalking. It shares some interesting territory with your novel ‘Grave Echoes’, in which Kate Waters has narcoleptic hallucinations. As an author and a psychologist do you think the uncharted parts of the human psyche contain the material for horror and that fugue states exist?

Absolutely, on both.  My studies in psychology (note I am not a licensed psychologist) favored neuropsychological behavior and perception.  I think when you begin to understand how the brain processes information, you uncover the true mechanisms of motivation, whether it be fear or hunger, as well as the psychological underpinnings of horror.

H.P. Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” which he had right, but why?  The homo sapien brain has this incredible ability to “consciously” dig up memories and to “invent.” These two abilities working simultaneously together can create ideas and fears so grotesquely far from what one should really be afraid of.  Our ability to imagine makes fear of the unknown the worst fear.

Furthermore, in the process of recollection, the mind surfaces millions of years of evolutionary emotional responses, and these come into play every time we consciously recollect or strive to comprehend a frightening encounter.  When our hearts quicken in the shadows, are we not really enacting on innate reactions, which developed from near-death attacks by saber tooth tigers?  Joseph LeDoux’s Synaptic Self and The Emotional Brain are fantastic books on this subject that even the layperson would comprehend and enjoy.

Fugue states are real; however, most of them are either drug or trauma related, or are precursors to brain disorders and diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Do you think that some people create the thing they fear the most?

I do think some people create what they fear the most, some sort of demented self-fulfilling prophecy, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing—overcoming and facing fear can be a powerful tool to growth and success.  But, I also think many of us might not have a clue as to what it is we fear the most, and that upon discovering it, is when our worst nightmare unfurls.

Who are your main literary influences?

Some of my favorite authors as of lately are John Hart, Neil Gaiman, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Joe Hill, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Nevada Barr, Paulo Coelho, Michael Crichton, Caleb Carr, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and earlier influences included Anne Rice, Kathleen and Michael Gear, Jean M. Auel, Max Ehrlich, George Orwell, Harper Lee, Robert James Waller, Shel Silverstein, and Carolyn Keene.

In Haiti Zombification is achieved by the use of herbs. Do you believe much fear and the political use of fear can be allayed by the understanding of brain chemistry?

Haitian Zombification is the belief that through a drug called tetradotoxin (TTX), people can steal the soul of a perfectly, healthy, and independent thinking person.  TTX is a toxin that is 500 times stronger than cyanide and is found in the ovaries of puffer fish.  When ingested, the nervous system shuts down, though brain activity is fairly normal, yet the person is still living. This has resulted in some being buried alive, hence the resurrection of the individual as a zombie.

How does this fit in with politics?  Think Heaven’s Gate and the Manson family, or dare I bring up certain government and religious sects?  Zombification (people, usually those in high power, who steal another’s free-thinking behavior) has existed since the beginning of civilization because fear is the ultimate tool in motivation and transformation.  Individuals that use fear to persuade and control other people know this well: If you are starving, cold, and are being chased by a bear, you will not search for food or clothing at that particular moment; you will try to escape the bear. Fear always takes first priority.

Once the emotion center of the brain is triggered, it is increasingly difficult for higher processing areas to function, and much of our survival depends on this arrangement—if we had to think of how to respond to immediate danger, we likely would not survive.  But drugs and “induced-fear” can certainly have a similar effect in impairing frontal lobe processing, causing individuals to become callous and nasty (as was studied in the famous Milgram Experiment in 1963 on obedience to authority figures, or the looting and rapes during Katrina, and all the other atrocities inflicted during war).  Although these zombies don’t climb out of graves, without adequate frontal lobe processing at some point, they will eventually be climbing into them.

Papa Doc used Voodoo and the TonTon Macoute to coerce his citizens in precisely the manner you describe. The family has been seen by social commentators as the basic building block of the body politic. Given your comments in the last answer and considering the family as the reception point of political and religious influence to what extent do you think that marriage is a form of mind control, and how far have we moved from its patriarchal roots?

You know, I’ve always suspected that my husband was up to something.  I think it really depends on who you ask or where you live.  I believe everything has a cyclic nature-that is the order of the universe: create and destroy, create and destroy.  Marriage, and the culture that embraces it, are also cyclic.  What is considered the “norm” in America is not the norm in India, Peru, or Indonesia.  Each society is at a different stage in the cyclic nature of marriage and everything else, what it means to be married, the drive behind it (power, union, love), and how it evolves through generations.  I think many cultures have steered away from its patriarchal roots (Hello 1970’s in America!!) and at the same time, others are headed back into it.

My grandmother would never get away with half the things I tell my husband today.  Imagine rule of thumb, derived from common law that a man was never to beat his wife with anything thicker than his thumb.  But who wears the pants now?  Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Michelle Obama, Erin Cole?  Nope.  I believe in give and take.  Marriage is a form of control—it is a bonding, a continuous dedication and promise to another person, not one that can’t be broken, but if instilled and nurtured with the right mindset by both persons, it can be freeing too.

What do you think has happened to the Corn God?

He’s in my backyard, waiting to fillet me.

In Aztec, Peru, 1020, we know priests performed sacrificial rites for the worship of gods and goddesses—one of them was for the Corn God, Xipe Totec (pronounced zhē pā tō ték), the God of vegetation and renewal.  At the Spring Equinox, a special Aztec priest would fillet a human, literally peeling the entire skin off in one piece, which they then wore for days to celebrate life, rather than death, for the sake of crop.  The skin resembled the cornhusk, the priest the seed of life beneath the husk, like kernels.

Fast-forward a thousand years to Carl Jung.  His archetypes are modern day gods and goddesses derived from ancient cultures.  I do believe in this idea of archetypical thinking, that deities represent specific powers and wonders that people can tap into.  The collective unconscious is the current societal pattern, energy, and movement of which we are all a part of, in varying degrees, and it is through tradition that the Corn God still lives.  However, instead of peeling off the skin from an unfortunate victim, civilizations practice the celebration of life and renewal by other, more civilized means.  Wiccans bring offerings (mostly organics) to the Gods and Goddesses at Sabbats and hold symbolic rites, Burning Man is a festival in the Black Rock Desert, in which people spend a year crafting something, maybe from wood, a painting, etc. that they burn at the festival.  It is a sacrifice of effort, a devotion to spirituality, and a regeneration of growth in letting go, or letting things die off, as is the natural order.  I think every culture and religion practices the same symbolic ideas as the Aztec Corn God rites, though substantially different in details.  The Corn God is in all of us.  Or should be.

We have seen many examples of authoritarianism since the Second World War’. Wilhelm Reich wrote in ‘The Mass Psychology Of Fascism’  ‘Always ready to accommodate himself to authority, the lower middle-class man develops a cleavage between his economic situation and his ideology.’ Do you think he was right? And if so to what extent do you think that the deferral by the insecure of their authority to those they see as powerful and the sacrifice of or the submission to ideology is behind many of the problems we face today?

There is no doubt that money is power and power is corrupt.  I do think that Wilhelm Reich was right in his statement regarding the dissonance in the middle-class, especially then, and even true today.  The path to success and happiness (or survival 1930 Germany) often encroaches on our ideals—in order to achieve it requires sacrifice, always; but, are we able to discern when those sacrifices tear at the seems of our dogma?  When you throw in violence and sexual tension, it is only that much harder to defect or resist.  The studies from the Milgrim experiment were shocking, and for a good reason.  Most of us are animals.  I say the rest must be aliens.

A world free of authoritarianism?  Could it ever really exist?  What would we have to do to get there, as a whole, and then wouldn’t that just bring about another form of fascism?  See what I mean by cyclic.  Really, we’re just rats on the wheel.

Do you believe that DNA will discover there is such a thing as innate evil or do you think that belongs to religion?

I don’t believe that nature is evil.  Animals kill each other for food, territory, and protection of young or procreation.  It is not evil to want to survive; in fact, it is unnatural to not want to survive.  I believe evil is strictly a perspective on “cause.”  We must explain our universe and the things that we fear or that pain us, and those are often perceived as “evil” or “bad” in doing so.  W.H. Auden, “Herman Melville,” once said, “Evil is unspectacular and always human.  And shares our bed and eats at our own table.”  Since religions give order and safety to thoughts and emotions, evil and good, right and wrong are definitely pillars of its structure.  Labeling actions, things, and people give us a sense of control, though incorrect they may be.

Still, the term evil is quite powerful when trying to understand genocide, war, or violent shootings across the world.  People who kill, seemingly senselessly (aka = evil), I believe are actually exhibiting animalistic behaviors—the fear that something or someone is trying to take over their freedom, their means to survival, protection of kindred, etcetera.  No matter how removed those underlying fears seem to be in that given situation, those innate, wild emotions are there, and they become the motivation for heinous acts of violence.  Because our species has evolved significantly in comparison to other animals on the plant, I think it’s assumed that we should have control over our actions / emotions.  Unfortunately, not everyone’s brain is equal.

I do love the idea of “evil,” especially being a writer.  It has a place in almost every story.  With roots in a number of emotions, evil is moving; it is the heartbeat in fear, and many times truth.  Evil is its own entity…within the mind.  It instills a bit of paranoia, uneasiness, and vigor—a feeling of aliveness.  On occasion, it brings out the good in others!

Denis Saurat in ‘Death And The Dreamer’ writes ‘God takes his pleasure in creatures that suffer and sin and are ignorant of him’. If this is not different to what Gloucester says in ‘King Lear’  ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport’, what does this reveal about the psychology of religious need and the dependency on an ideal?

What is blind faith?

Religion should put flowers in your potholes, but there are some religions—and cults—who don’t hand out the seeds, unless one sacrifices, and the greater the sacrifice, the more honorable he or she becomes, right?  Cain and Abel—need I say more?  It is this type of “sacrificial” thinking, this belief that one must impress the Gods (for they are jealous and merciless!) that I believe connects with the quotes of Denis Saurat and Gloucester.  And the more one sins, the greater their sacrifice must be.  That should be pleasing to any God.

Psychology thrives in religion—why people have faith, what they use it for, how they use it, and why it is still the utmost, on-going issue (if you can call war an issue) of every civilization since its creation.  For this reason alone, it cannot be ignored.  Huston Smith’s book, Why Religion Matters, combines traditional and progressive views about the human spirit, and why religion is important.  He states, “…the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with an unending phantasmagoria of entertainments, obsessions, addictions, and distractions of every sort.  But the longing is there…”

I’m not sure how much I can agree with the modern world interfering with religion (sometimes it feels like the other way around), but I do think that for some, religion is vital to their spirit, and if it does make one a better person, it is a good thing.  Too often though, religion becomes a dependency, a blindfold—a sidewalk strewn with the wings of flies.

What brought you into writing?

Mystery and horror have always been my greatest interests, whether it was movies or books, and so it was inevitable that my writing would also steer that direction.  I have been inspired by several books along the way, Salem’s Lot, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, 1984, The Relic, Women Who Run with the Wolves, and Black Water, to name a few, but I enjoy reading cross genre, and think it is important for every writer to extend beyond their usual tastes.  I feel it brings more balance to one’s craft and helps them hone in on voice and style.

I see that most writers have an early experience with writing, whether it is short stories, poems, or lyrics.  I have always taken a liking to writing, and so when life opened the door for me to do so, on a more serious level, I became immersed in it.  Once I put fingers to keyboard, hours would fly by.  I knew then that writing was going to be more than just a hobby—it’s a vital passion now.  Writing has connected me to something deeper in myself and others, and in turn, provides a creative and rewarding outlet.  I believe that if you are meant to write, you will, no matter what path in life you take.

Thank you Erin for a profound and great interview.


Erin Cole writes mystery, horror, paranormal, and speculative fiction.  She has been published in various print anthologies and online magazines, and is the author of Grave Echoes.  She is currently working on her second novel, Wicked Tempest, and her first horror collection due fall of 2011.


Author Website:
Grave Echoes :

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