An Interview with Andrew Joseph White

Hell Followed with Us features aspects of American Gothic and body horror, and your next novel showcases Victorian Gothic. What about the Gothic/horror genre lends itself to your themes, characters, and plots?

Horror will always be the genre that feels the most like home to me, largely because it’s the only genre that will let me get away with the sort of stuff I want to write. It’s messy, and visceral, and gut-churning! (Plus, once you include a single horror element in, say, a romance novel, it becomes a horror-romance by definition; horror infects everything it touches, and isn’t that wonderful?)

In general, my work focuses on the toughest parts of being a human, on the intersection of rage and pain and survival as a marginalized person, and that doesn’t hit as hard if you’re not allowed to get as dark and uncomfortable as possible. Also, horror is an inherently trans genre—and it’s a great genre for disabled people as well. There’s nothing more empowering than taking control of a genre often used to disparage us, and the conventions of the genre offer very useful metaphors for our lives.

HFWU is in some ways a love letter to monsters. Was there something cathartic about writing body horror? Is there a relationship between Benji’s trans experience and his monster experience?

There will always be something cathartic about body horror, transness, and monsters. The three of them are inextricably linked in my mind; my transness is my love of monsters, and it is the terror of flesh and meat. I talk a lot about my childhood connection with monsters that links both to my gender dysphoria (disconnection from the self) and autism (disconnection from others); monsters were the only place I could ever see myself accurately represented, and I couldn’t write a trans story true to my experience if it didn’t feature monsters.

In that sense, this book felt like coming home. Getting to write a trans child who undergoes a horrific transformation into a rotting beast, only to be loved and accepted by his peers anyway? I wish that my younger self could have had a similar experience.

Gender identity and the bond between queer kids are core to the story of HFWU. Do you find that writing provides a space for self-expression and identity exploration for you? If there was a pivotal story you wrote where that was the case, can you share anything about it?

I wrote my first trans character in high school, approximately three years before I’d realize I was trans myself, and it was terrifying. Seriously—I was wracked with guilt. Not because I was worried about the character being trans, since I’d been writing queer characters for so long that nobody batted an eye, but because I was ashamed of why I was writing him. As far as I knew, I was a cis girl who had no right to be using a trans character to work through my own feelings re: girlhood and gender. I was convinced I was exploiting transness to help deal with my issues. I was cis, so it wasn’t my place, and I was crossing a line.

Looking back, it is genuinely hilarious how deep I was in the closet. That story was the first inkling that my connection to transness wasn’t overbearing allyship for my own selfish reasons. I’m literally trans. And I still love that character to this day!

What authors, books, or stories in other mediums are influential to you?

A fun thing about me is that I’m a hugevideo game fan. Most of the inspiration for my books comes from that medium. You can tell when you start looking too closely: Hell Followed with Us has lots of Dead Space and Resident Evil influences, and The Spirit Bares Its Teeth was originally inspired by Dishonored and Rule of Rose. I joke that I know more about the plot progression of video games than novels, which is why I had to teach myself to write book endings that weren’t just boss battles. Indie horror games will forever be my favorite well of inspiration.

What has your experience in the publishing world been like? What advice would you give to yourself back when you were beginning the publishing process?

My experience in the industry has been . . . weirdly easy? It sounds utterly bizarre—I’m an autistic trans guy, with an extremely low tolerance for people, who purposefully writes off-putting material—but it’s true. I’ve gotten a miniscule amount of rejections, built a meaningful team of friends and peers, and sold four books hardly breaking a sweat. (Am I able to do this because I have a family who shows their support with money, a good job, and other privileges? Undoubtedly.) However, the thing I would go back and tell myself is that it takes a damn long time to get paid around here. So maybe get on that job search earlier so you’re not sleeping on your in-laws’ couch for a few weeks, and don’t expect any royalty statements for a while.

What is your ideal writing space? (Beverages on hand, ambient sound, time of day, chair specs, cat presence, etc.)

These days, since I have a full-time job, I don’t get to spend a lot of time in my ideal writing space; I’m showing up at the office early to get a few minutes of free time, cramming in words on my lunch break, all that jazz. However, on evenings and weekends, I am spoiled. My fiancée decorated the office in our new house, and it’s wonderful. I get to write surrounded by artwork and signed books, plants and crystals and stim toys. There’s a cat bed under my desk, the windows are open to the neighborhood, and I’m blasting music loud enough that my iPhone throws warnings every now and then. (My last project was Halsey and Mothica-centric; I think this one will be Hozier and Barns Courtney.) It’s absolutely perfect.

What, if anything, would you change about the publishing process if you could?

Do you just want one thing? Because I have a list.

Look, just because I’ve had it easy doesn’t mean that it’s actually an easy process. Traditional publishing is an oft-rigged, nepotistic mess. Authors should be paid sooner, and more; editors should be more diverse, and also paid more; unions should exist and be strong, useful tools for bargaining against CEOs; it should be transparent, and honest, and the meritocracy it claims to be. Right now, it’s none of those things. I love being an author—I love it so much that I want to do it for the rest of my life. But it shouldn’t work the way that it does. Artists deserve better.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I’ll pass along the piece of advice that helped me the most: don’t be afraid to get ugly. When I first came out as trans, I was so scared to write awful characters. There’s so much weight put on the shoulders of marginalized authors; the expectation that we create characters who are perfect and understandable so that others can consume them without feeling bad about themselves. So many authors I know are throwing that to the wind, and I’m honored to join them. These days, I’m writing autistic and trans characters who are violent, paranoid freaks, who feed their cruel streaks and wear grudges like badges of honor, and I adore every second of it. Come swim with us! The water’s great here!

Do you have a bead lizard of your own like Nick has in HFWU?

I have the exact one. It was a project from third grade art class, and it does indeed have the garish blue-yellow color combination. It’s ugly as sin and I love it.

An Interview with Peter Andrew Danzig

F(r)iction contributor Dominic Loise talked with psychotherapist Peter Andrew Danzig, LSW, MSS, CTP (they/them), who wrote about The Last Unicorn for Psychology Today. They talk about geek therapy, the film, and the words & work of Peter S. Beagle, which have gone on to inspire generations through the book & film releases of The Last Unicorn.

As we celebrate The Last Unicorn film’s 40th anniversary, we want to go more in-depth with you about the film, its imagery, and its connections to geek therapy. In the opening image of The Last Unicorn, we see predators and prey living together in The Unicorn’s domain, yet the story is about The Unicorn leaving the comforts of her forest to find out what happened to the other unicorns. What does the film say about finding self and a community?  

I think it took a long time for that film to really sit in for me when considering what it means to have community. For a long time, I just thought The Unicorn was searching for the other unicorns. In writing the article for Psychology Today, I was shocked when Peter S. Beagle’s team reached out and said, “This is how I feel.” The Unicorn is special in her forest in that she’s the last, but she has a belief that there are others like her, so there’s always a false sense of knowing for her. For me, the really interesting navigation of community is when she recognizes, “Oh, I haven’t seen a sense of others like me. I haven’t seen and felt this connection.” I think along the way, she gains a sense of community through the characters that she fosters relationships with, like Schmendrick and Molly Grue, and even relationships she fears, like King Haggard and the Red Bull.

The community is not only the unicorns that look just like her, but the people that she built relationships with and the world that she shares. For my own sense of community and understanding of queer culture—but I think this goes for anybody—that has always been the psychological underpinning. It’s not always those you meet along the way that share your intersections, in this case other unicorns, but also the people that are allies—those that see you, believe in you, hope for the best for you, and will go along the journey with you.

One of the first dangers The Unicorn faces is being captured and put on display by the witch Mommy Fortuna. Since “man cannot see unicorns,” the witch needs to use a cheap carnival trick for paying customers to see a real unicorn at her circus of illusions. What does it say about the circus attendees not being able to see a real unicorn considering that “Mommy Fortuna’s illusions work on whoever is eager to believe whatever comes easiest”?

I just have to say how excited I am that we are using the lines from the film. For those who don’t know, Peter S. Beagle was heavily invested in that script and ensuring that it really mimicked the book. I love the line “it takes a cheap carnival trick to have people see a real unicorn.” People don’t always want to see what’s right in front of them. They want to see a version of it. I was never quite sure if that was a metaphor, because Peter follows a lot of that traditional imagery of a unicorn coming to a young maiden at their purest time, so they are visible. So I was always curious what made The Unicorn not visible. I found that there could have been a metaphor there in that she’s not visible to herself. I know that the horn put on by Mommy Fortuna is literal, but I’ve always wondered if Peter is just a very unique writer and has provided some commentary about what The Unicorn doesn’t see in herself. As far as the audience, I think that we see difference and we put it into cages, in a safe place that is away from us. That difference can be beautiful and magical and affirming like a unicorn, and that difference can also be incredibly volatile and quite fearful.

This is evident with the harpy, Celaeno. I always loved that juxtaposition because I don’t know that the harpy is evil. The harpy is just a mythical creature like any other wild animal, and The Unicorn infers, in my opinion, “You should not keep such power in that cage.” So there was this duality of how all the audience members have literal bars between them, and the metaphor is that you’re only seeing what you want to see, but there’s no ability to interact with it. There’s no ability for intimacy or connection. The carnival strips The Unicorn and the fake horn strips her of everything that makes her different and beautiful. It makes her palatable—the horn isn’t very attractive to look at. I think when she sees the image, it’s quite a horrific thing to recognize that that’s the unicorn people see.

The Unicorn is upset that Mommy Fortuna’s customers cannot see her as a real unicorn. Schmendrick the Magician says it’s a “rare person who is taken for who he really is.” But how should we interpret that line later when Schmendrick the Magician wastes time repeatedly trying to cast the correct spell to free The Unicorn from her cage when he had the key from the guard all along?

I think that is a direct metaphor relating to the question: does Schmendrick really believe in himself? As The Unicorn starts her quest at this part of the journey, she’s already captured. If a unicorn—this mystical, undying beast—can get captured, I think that shows a duality between her and Schmendrick. I think they both have abilities. I’ve often wondered, with all the grace and power that she had at the end of that film, that she had that agency all along. She could defeat the Red Bull, so I have a hard time believing she can’t defeat that lock and key. But Mommy Fortuna casts a sense that unicorns are not meant, intrinsically, to understand love, regret, or pain; they are to be beings that don’t house those human emotions. For the first time, just as The Unicorn learns other human emotions, she was given a feeling of inferiority.

I think sometimes we have the keys to what we need all along, and we need affirmation. We need to be freed from our cages, but sometimes we cage ourselves. Whether Schmendrick had the magic or the keys it took to let her out, I think both of them were navigating having this gift and not knowing how to use it. You have a unicorn caged and a magician who can barely use his magic, but the keys are right there the whole time. I think that that is the genius of this film. I was always like, “Just open the damn cage. Just open the cage!” It’s rare that people can see their gifts without a degree of arrogance. I don’t think that we live in a society—whether it’s science fiction or otherwise—that promotes difference, people straying from the binary, and people feeling a sense of autonomy in their bodies. There is magic in our world. I really do believe it. Not necessarily the way that it is in The Last Unicorn, but I think human’s ability to communicate—for you and I to talk about these complex emotions—this is magic. I don’t think that we encourage that enough.

Let’s talk about how upset Molly Grue is when she first sees The Unicorn. She meets The Unicorn with “Why did you come now?” instead of when she was a young maiden. Is there a set time in life to see a unicorn?

This is my favorite part of the entire film, when she says, “Why do you come to me now when I am this?” She later says, “Of course it would be the last unicorn in the world that comes to Molly Grue.” I love that part of the film so much because I think there is a part of our lives where we feel a sense of vivacity, a sense of wonder, where anything is possible. The Unicorn—in both the film and the book—sees a fairness in Molly Grue. She sees a purity and a beauty, but Molly Grue has internalized by this point in life that she’s not a young maiden. She takes care of a traveling group of Robinhood-esque wannabees. At this point in age, I would argue that she was probably not virginal. She’s not eased of spirit. Molly Grue is in pain. Molly Grue knows that there is an end to her life. She understands morbidity. She’s human. She has suffered. It always breaks my heart that The Unicorn can see under all that suffering, pain, and psychological distress that there is this pure, magnificent woman. She showcases it throughout the entire film, but I don’t think Molly Grue realizes it until the end when The Unicorn leaves. I think it takes The Unicorn leaving for Molly Grue to have her own agency.

My heart always hurts so much because I relate it to my queer experience, though this can go for people of other intersections and experiences navigating anything from toxic masculinity to race to intersections of ableism. The Unicorn coming to all of us just raises the question of where do we find love? It took me a long time to recognize that I could be loved for all the things that I intrinsically am, not the things that I was taught I have to be. When you find that love, when somebody can see that, I think that’s magic and that’s beautiful. And I think it does cause us pain. When somebody says “I see you. I don’t care. I don’t care about this or this or this. I love you. I see you for who you are. I come to you.” I think it’s the most beautiful, affirming moment in film animation in general. That’s true love. Just unadulterated love in that moment from The Unicorn. I think that’s where she might start to understand.

We find that the other unicorns disappeared due to the obsessions of King Haggard. What does it mean that King Haggard’s throne room looks like a cell? And what is the significance of The Unicorn’s prison of a human form to hide her from The King considering the line, “If you become human enough to cry then no magic can change you back”?

I think it says a lot that King Haggard lives in destitution. He’s let his kingdom fall along with his responsibility and his nobility as a King. He’s stripped himself of anything that would warrant him as kind. He has almost all the unicorns in the world. Even when The Unicorn is in his castle and he knows he has her, he’s still unhappy. He says, “The only time I feel beauty is when I look in the ocean.” His unhappiness raises the question of what happens if you have everything you want, everything in the world? You have every unicorn and all the magic in the world at your fingertips, and you’re still not happy. Where did you go wrong? Where did we as a community make you feel that you needed more and more? He’s insatiable. But I never looked at him truly as the threat. He is the adversary, and he controls the Red Bull to an extent, but I was always mystified by that because I don’t think the Red Bull could easily be controlled. I always thought that maybe the Red Bull was a metaphor for King Haggard or his fiery anger. The line, “If you become human enough to cry then no magic can change you back” appears in the same scene where King Haggard says, “Don’t forget yourself. You’ve forgotten yourself.” He lifts her hair and looks in her eyes and there’s a reflection of him where originally there was no reflection. That’s because The Unicorn hasn’t had experiences. It’s a detriment if The Unicorn discovers true love. The Unicorn is then going to discover sacrifice, and I think King Haggard is counting on that.

Schmendrick is very smart to say, “if you become human enough to cry,” there’s nothing I can do for you. If she becomes human enough to have these experiences, as she does when she loves the prince, she’s going to lose her mission, her advocacy, and her sense of agency. It is a tragic line because it is so forthcoming and foretelling for the rest of the story. In the end, she’s still the last unicorn. Even though they’re all freed, she then wanders her world just as alone, if not lonelier, than when she left the forest because now she knows sacrifice. She will never forget loving a prince, a person she can’t have. There are things in this world that we can’t keep together no matter how much we love them as humans. You’re not in control. For a unicorn, an immortal beast, to struggle with that immortality is also its own beautiful disaster. It’s a violent beauty to me. I look at it as beautiful and incredibly dark, which is I think what the film represents. If a unicorn can learn to love and almost sacrifice saving magic for an entire world, it shows you how dangerous love can be. In a good way.

The film ends with the other unicorns freed and a community of creatures no longer oppressed by King Haggard. The Unicorn returns to her forest but takes with her a part of her time as a human—regret. What does it mean to bring humanity back to a utopia?

I think everyday people with generally good intentions wish for the best. We all hope for this utopian world where maybe we can end suffering. It’s a really hard thing I navigate as I bring therapy and psychology into this framework. It’s why I wrote this article—to explore how I see this movie now as a near forty-year-old queer, Latinx person in a way that I couldn’t quite register my entire life. The Unicorn set her goal and released magic into the world, and she says to Schmendrick later on, “Unicorns are in the world again. No sorrow will live in me with that joy…” She also mentions no unicorn knows regret, but she does. She says, “I thank you for that part, too.” I think she recognized that immortality and magic are not the answers to utopia and that there are other creatures that are going to have experiences for much shorter time than she will as a unicorn.

Nowhere in the film does Peter S. Beagle navigate relationships. They don’t say The Unicorn falls in love with another unicorn and we have a happy ending. The Unicorn may love one person who will die, and who she will outlive, and that is incredibly sad. I think that there is no perfection. The Unicorn got exactly what she asked for: the animals are safe and there are unicorns in the world. But this utopian magic, this world of perfection, is just unrealistic. The Unicorn is quite naïve at the beginning, but part of me wonders if she’s braced herself for future iterations of conflict now that she understands it a little deeper.

You wrote in Psychology Today about the image of The Unicorn facing King Haggard’s Red Bull. Prince Lir says, “Heroes know that things must happen when they must happen.” But it’s not the prince or even Schmendrick’s magic that saves The Unicorn. When Molly Grue asks, “What’s the point of magic if it can’t save a unicorn?”, Schmendrick answers, “That’s the point of heroes.” But isn’t it The Unicorn who saves herself by fighting back against the Red Bull?

“Heroes” is a word that has been floating in my vernacular and resonating with me in my own interpersonal ways and as a theorist on emotions and psychology. What is a hero? Schmendrick the Magician can’t save The Unicorn, and Molly asks, “What if you can?” He says, “That is what heroes are for.” Heroes are people that remind us that we can. The hero tries to show The Unicorn how much he cares for her. He is fallible, human, and imperfect next to a creature that has always been defined as perfection in our vernaculars and our psychology. While The Unicorn is the only one equipped to defeat the Red Bull, she couldn’t do that unless the hero sacrificed himself. That’s what heroes are for. Magic is not sacrifice. Magic is intentional and very controlled, but a hero takes a chance. King Haggard knew that in raising his son. Prince Lir went in front of a Red Bull creature and put his arms out. He didn’t come with a sword or with magic. I find it hard to believe, with his character development, that that hero did not know what he was doing by showing this unicorn—this person for a time that he truly loved—that this is what sacrifice looks like. I need you to take us the rest of the way. I can’t do that for you. That’s what heroes are for, and it is just such a beautiful moment.

At the end, you see The Unicorn come and be teary eyed and give him life back. There’s this great scene where he falls, and they pan over to The Unicorn and her eyes get really wide. It’s the only time that I remember in the film where The Unicorn doesn’t look beautiful even when she’s in distress. Even when she’s running with the Red Bull, she’s in pink colors and it’s beautiful to watch regardless. But her eyes get really wide, and you see this beautiful, kind creature get angry and attack. I think that’s what heroes are for. I think they’re there to remind us not that they can save us, but that maybe we can save ourselves.

Tell us about other projects you have coming up and where we can find you online.

There are quite a few projects coming up. My website is under rehaul right now. I’ve got a couple of articles that will be hitting Psychology Today on various intersections of geek culture. I have a book coming out that is part memoir, part relational experience, meaning shared experiences of a lot of people—mainly self-identified geeks. The working title is Don’t Toy With Me: A Geek’s Guide to Expression and Acceptance. “Don’t Toy With Me” is a play on words. I’m a toy analyst. I like to collect toys and learn the history of how they’re made, how they impact gender or socialization, how they impact society, and what toys are for. The book brings in a little bit of research relating to why we tell people to stop playing and having fun. The book is slated to come out in 2023 through Leyline Publishing and it’s meant for everyone who identifies as a geek. The Last Unicorn chapter will be in there, almost intrinsically throughout. My nod to one of the lines in the book that I can share is, “It takes a village to raise a unicorn.” I talk about how it took a lot of people affirming me over my lifetime to make me feel courageous enough to challenge psychology as a field and to challenge my colleagues in different ways of thinking. If people want to find more information, my website is where you can sign up for my mailing list. You can also follow me on Instagram @peterandrewdanziglsw and under my name across all other social media.

Don’t Box Me In: Finding Confessional, Self, & Dirtbag, Massachusetts

Published July 19, 2022 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

(Trigger Warning: This article contains reference to suicidal ideation and suicide-related behaviors. Please read with care.)

Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional is not about dusting off the skeletons in the family closet after leaving home. Instead, these essays are Isaac Fitzgerald clearing off the mirrors of his current makeup to better reflect on himself. The collected pieces in Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional are the stories of Fitzgerald finding himself and a substitute family, starting from his grade school years through his twenties before returning home. The book is not only about Fitzgerald raising himself from an early age when his parents are unable to care for him but also about picking himself back up time after time throughout his life.

The subtitle lets the reader know that this is a confessional and one of the main themes is, who do we choose to confess to? The piece “Forgive Me” deals with Fitzgerald being a former Catholic and walking away from the church at a young age. This essay also goes into how heavily involved his parents were in the Catholic church and the scandals of the Archdiocese of Boston. “Forgive Me” examines the questionable behavior of priests in Fitzgerald’s presence and how some of the events sent Fitzgerald on a different path than his parents. With that stoic form of confessional removed from his life, Fitzgerald looks at nontraditional places to confess, such as in bars, in the essays “Hold Steady” and “Home.” After moving away to the west coast, it is through working in the San Francisco bar scene that Fitzgerald finds a family amongst his coworkers. They also devised personal commandments to follow when going out to other establishments. These commandments helped remind them why they did their service job, as they dressed up for an evening and showed some respect to their fellow service industry professionals. As a young man, these commandments gave Fitzgerald a focus and foundation not found in the home he grew up in.

Confessions also lie at the heart of the book’s second major theme: when your house isn’t a home. Dirtbag, Massachusetts deals with Fitzgerald coming to terms with his parents’ rocky relationship. They were both married to other people when they met and had him. Though they divorced their other partners and married each other, his father would still continue to have affairs. Financial circumstances would cause an eight-year-old Fitzgerald and his mother to move to rural western Massachusetts while his father still lived and worked in Boston. Fitzgerald’s mother would soon start confessing her suicidal ideation to her young son. She had nowhere else to turn since the church she was so committed to consider the act a mortal sin. Soon, young Fitzgerald would become the parent, raising himself and rescuing his mother from her suicide-related behaviors. Dirtbag, Massachusetts deals with how Fitzgerald grew up not allowed to talk about his mother’s suicidal ideation and keeping secret what was going on at home. “When you can’t talk about something, you’re prevented from naming and describing it, from making it real,” Fitzgerald writes, addressing the stigma around mental health awareness.

The secrets of his home life uncover more heavy subject matter in Dirtbag, Massachusetts. Fitzgerald writes about the recklessness and self-destruction of his youth—drinking and the drugs he took when trying to find his footing in different social circles and when processing his relationship with his parents. From being a poor rural kid at a private school in “Dirtbag, Massachusetts” to climbing the Himalayas in “High for the Holidays,” his smooth writing style helps tell of his healing without bulldozing any details of the rough road traveled in finding closure. This is a book about recognizing ourselves for where we are truly at in life when we look in the mirror. Fitzgerald also learns about not being judged or judging people by their environment from his life in rural Massachusetts. You find yourself rooting for him as he goes beyond its borders and finds clarity through his travels throughout the years.

At its heart, confession is putting to rest shame or embarrassment so the person can move on. Dirtbag, Massachusetts is about seeing our present self and being comfortable in our own skin, as Fitzgerald does in “Confessions of a Former Fat Kid.” There is also the discussion of living with our real selves, not fictional copycats like when he writes about his teenage Tyler Durden self in “The True Story of My Teenage Fight Club.” Apart from exploring the concept of confession, Fitzgerald also makes a point to examine finding purpose in life. In “Maybe I Could Die This Way,” he examines his self-destructive behavior and travels overseas to join the Free Burma Rangers. At the time, Fitzgerald thought that if he was going to destroy himself, it might as well be for something but in giving himself to a mission he found a reason to go on living beyond his time in Myanmar (FKA Burma). The heights Fitzgerald is willing to travel to return to a relationship with family can also be found in “High for the Holidays,” when he writes about climbing the Himalayas with his father and sister. But the throughline of the book is recognizing that we are not the sins of our parents. As Fitzgerald states after addressing the generational trauma of his father being beaten as a child, “We are all sinners, forged out of others’ heat, sinning and sinned against.”

Dirtbag, Massachusetts is a quick read and I would recommend it to anyone trying to find themselves. It is also a book that can reach readers who walked a path similar to Fitzgerald’s and use his experience as a guide for coming to terms with their relationships with one’s self and others. Isaac Fitzgerald knows his truth and his faults and speaks honestly about the work he has done to find a healthy relationship with himself and his family, which is what anyone struggling to better themselves would want to read. Dirtbag, Massachusetts is a collection of essays that encourage any reader to put together their own confessional in order to seek closure with the past.

An Interview with Drea Washington

The current season of Scream, Queen! podcast has discussed more TV and movies in the body-horror genre. Can you go into what body horror is for people not familiar with it?

The most general way to describe body horror—it’s just gross-out, super offensive violations to the body. When you see these things happen, it will affect you in a very psychological way. A good example of that is Society by Brian Yuzna, a movie that is really over the top with things like mutations of the body, incest, and other stuff that adds to the disturbing elements of it. The Thing is also very clearly going for that. Also most David Cronenberg stuff—not everything, but most of his early work—is not for everybody. I had a very hard time watching The Fly remake.

If body horror plays on our anxiety by facing us with disruptive imagery, does the recent popularity of this horror genre alleviate or lean into anxiety during these current uncertain times? Are there times when body horror has been pushed too far for you?

It’s interesting when you look back at your podcast and see people getting things out of it that you didn’t even realize. I didn’t realize we chose so much body horror this season, but there seems to be a lot of that content out there right now. I guess that really says something about the state of mind people are in.

I was a child when I first saw The Fly. I watched a lot of stuff as a kid that most kids couldn’t handle, and for the most part, I was able to process those things. But something about The Fly was just too gross-out for me. I had a visceral reaction to it. It didn’t matter how much I liked Jeff Goldblum or Geena Davis, I just could not. I’ve recently tried, and I just cannot do it. It’s very rare when a horror film does that to me. There was another one—I think it was called Necromancer—and it’s really gritty and fucked up. It’s really popular amongst some people, but I’m not one of them. I can’t do it. Cannibal Holocaust also falls into that category. That’s really hard to watch.

Building off The Fly, you discussed Mosquito State in an episode. How connected is body horror to insects?

What they did with Mosquito State was really clever, and yeah, there is a connection. It’s a good way to not generalize society, but show how we can work as robots in a sense. Mosquito State is taking place during the housing crash in 2008, so that’s what’s really going on in this guy’s world. The mosquitos are feeding off of him and he finally becomes one with them. I was pleasantly surprised by that film, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to handle that. The mosquitos alone were very irking, but the way they did it was haunting and very thoughtful. I would’ve never thought to put a movie together like that, but I’m glad that director did. It was unexcepted. I didn’t know I needed to see a film like that.

Do you find that a show or film dealing with a theme may get you through those grosser images? Like how John Carpenter’s The Thing carries over themes of paranoia from the original remake of the 1950s film.

It’s all about how the gore is done. Certain makeup artists have a certain technique and a certain way of getting something out of the audience. Certain textures and the way things are applied have a lot to do with the overall outcome. It’s biological horror when you see the body being affected like it was in Mosquito State. I thought that was going to leave me feeling not great and I was not going to be able to handle that film. Instead, something about the way it was directed left me not even thinking about the mosquitos—I was thinking about the story. His body was becoming grotesque, but people in the movie were deliberately ignoring him and his appearance because they were more interested in the numbers and what he could provide. So visually I do react to certain things, and if it looks a certain way I might not be able to handle it. But for the most part, I’d say I’m a trooper.

Drea Washington

Is there any correlation between finding the beauty in the grotesque when watching a body-horror film like Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and being able to better sit with one’s anxiety? 

As a person that loves horror films, there is absolutely something to gain if you can get over whatever’s been put in your mind and poisoned you on the ideas of what horror can be. Horror is incredibly diverse, and it can unlock things in your brain that you didn’t necessarily know were there, and it’s not a bad thing. It can definitely be a release and sort of an anti-anxiety aid. But I don’t know what it would take to get a person who doesn’t care for horror to sit down and appreciate it. It is interesting how many people are watching Squid Game, though. I was surprised, but I also completely understand that everybody is watching this show during a pandemic. But I was also just like oh, ok, that’s interesting. I think it was, or is, the most-watched show ever on Netflix, and that show is fucked up.

Your episode on the Netflix series Brand New Cherry Flavor made me want to watch the series. How does a show about movie-making and deals gone wrong resonate with the “being responsible for our creations” message of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?

I’ve watched Brand New Cherry Flavor twice, and I got so much more out of it the second time. I didn’t really get it the first time. It’s a show that you need to pay attention to, and if you get distracted, you’re just going to miss some of the gems. The lead actress in this film plays against—I can’t think of the other actress’ name—she makes these extreme horror films that are lowkey snuff. What comes of that—what she’s willing to sacrifice, just for this film, for her art—she destroys a lot of shit and creates a lot of chaos. SPOILER ALERT: she makes it out in the end, but not unscathed.

I think we always have to be thoughtful of the things that we create, and responsible for the content we’re putting out into the world. Some people say it’s just freedom of speech, but I think there has to be a certain amount of responsibility and accountability. If you’re intentionally trying to make something to wake up somebody, to provoke thought, then cool. But if you’re intentionally doing something to bring negativity, to cause harm, that doesn’t come from a thought-out place, I think that’s the kind of work that can be very dangerous. When people fuck up, they need to be called out on it.

Are there any works of body horror that you wish to recommend which haven’t yet been mentioned on Scream, Queen!? And how can we listen to the podcast and follow your work?

I like the director Brian Yuzna who did Society. He also has something called Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation. I was watching it last night and it’s just as fucked up as I remember. I believe he also wrote Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker, which is also worth a watch, but part four has a lot more body horror in it. Cronenberg did Videodrome. I think we discussed Thinner and Raw on our show, which are both awesome. Last but not least, I’d say check out Titane, which I watched recently. It’s by the same director of Raw, and this lady has sex with cars and . . . yeah, it goes from there. It’s a really outrageous film, but very cool.

You can find us on Instagram @screamqueenpodcast. And you can find me on Instagram @heygrlhey. Our podcast is available wherever you listen to podcasts—Spotify, iTunes, or Apple Podcasts—so tune in. We’d love to have you. I also want to do a shoutout to my podcast partner, Tommy Pico, who just got nominated for a Golden Globe for his work on Reservation Dogs. He and his all-Indigenous writer’s room were nominated for the Best Musical/Comedy Series Golden Globe. I’m super proud of all of them and really proud of my boy, Tommy.

A Review of Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century by Kim Fu

Published February 1, 2022 by Tin House.

In Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, Kim Fu creates eerie, unsettling worlds in all twelve of her deeply vivid short stories. This collection features a young girl who grows wings on her legs; a Sandman that envelopes one in wholly dark, uninterrupted sleep; a doll that belonged to a young, dead girl and now takes on a life of its own; and other human and nonhuman monsters. Nothing is impossible within these pages. And while the stories never stop being surreal and imaginative, at their core, they are stunning tales of the human condition. In one story, one of Fu’s young female characters says, “The realm of pretend had only just closed its doors to us, and light still leaked through around the edges.” In reading—experiencing—this book, I found myself submitting to this realm of pretend in a similarly child-like and awe-inspired manner, getting completely immersed in its many diverse offerings.

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century is instantly arresting. In the first story, written entirely in dialogue, we are introduced to an operator who helps people experience lifelike simulations of events and occurrences they imagine and desire. But when the protagonist requests to see her dead mother and stroll around a garden with her, the operator, constrained by rules surrounding death in the “handbook,” says this is not possible. The conversation between the two is at once humorous and illuminating. Although it is set in a dystopian, futuristic time and location, it grapples with political ideas of the present with extreme nuance and subtlety. When the protagonist asks how simulations of murdering someone or being a “gun-slinger in an old Western” are okay but simulations where someone is momentarily brought back to life are not, I could not help but think about our own world, how we do not shy away from violence and its glorification but are terrified by the softer parts of ourselves, like grief. The book is populated with such examples harking back to our own reality, where Fu employs the fantastical to say something meaningful about the world we find ourselves in.  Her writing here is crisp and evocative, and she relays powerful emotions through what is left unsaid, displaying masterful control over her craft.

What is sensational about Fu’s book is how easy it is to find yourself equally swept up in each story and the rich world that comes with it. In “Time Cubes,” time is everything, and yet, it is also a mere construct, elastic and malleable. In how she paces the story and in its ebbs and flows and momentum, Fu establishes an interesting relationship between form and content. By illuminating modern human loneliness, this story shines. One of the other stars of the collection is “#CLIMBINGNATION,” which, among other things, is a story about social media, optics, death, and human cruelty. Its ending is devastating and surprising, illustrating one of Fu’s consistent talents—how she is able to conclude each story with impossible power and impact. “Twenty Hours” is an unnerving tale about a couple who own a machine that allows them to kill each other but then also bring each other back; it is dazzling in its ability to shift from a dark, gruesome tone to one of surprising tenderness and domesticity. In “Bridezilla,” people resign themselves to the existence of a sea monster and it barely makes the news, which is not very different from our current attitude towards the climate crisis. The passivity of the bride’s fiancé seems to mimic our passivity towards global warming; Fu skillfully infuses these sharp and telling parallels throughout the collection.

Fu’s writing is incisive, lyrical, and inventive. I sped through this collection as if in a trance and felt dazed for hours after. In this spellbinding book, the real and unreal exist simultaneously and in complete unison. This dreamlike quality is threaded through each story, making this collection surreal and uninhibited while also incredibly human and fresh. Reading it is like waking up from an afternoon nap, disoriented yet completely satisfied.

A Review of The Traditional Feel of the Ballroom by Hannah Gamble

Published June 30, 2021 by Trio House Press.

Hannah Gamble’s second poetry collection, The Traditional Feel of the Ballroom, never shies away from the violence of her themes, which address misogyny and rape culture. Her direct and often conversational tone makes the collection accessible to new readers of poetry—the speaker often pausing to explain her process, including her hopes and aims for a piece. The first poem in the collection establishes this rapport with the reader immediately:

I’ve wanted to give people

who come to see poetry a little something extra,

and me, blabbering, is all I’ve ever had

to give or to keep or to be with on my own.

There’s really very little art in that.

You’ll never hear me say it’s noble.

This delicate balance of egalitarianism and artistry does not always succeed, however. Certain sections of the book feel like there’s little room for trusting the reader in thinking critically about the collection’s themes. More experienced readers of poetry may feel frustrated, at first, as they wait for the collection to find its bearings. Later poems, however, dive delightfully into surrealism and extended metaphors that outshine the rest of the collection—a quiet sigh builds in my chest in the release at the end of Gamble’s poetry.

Many readers, myself included, will find themselves grappling with their own internalized misogyny while reading poems like “Always Given,” because Gamble never shields her readers from difficult themes.

I knew I couldn’t fight him off, or that even if I could,

there would be 5 others like him waiting.

I chose to welcome him, in my way.

Other women were nearby

so I wasn’t afraid.

He kissed my neck and I said “Oh, yeah,

people tend to like that.”

He bit my earlobe and I said “Oh, yeah,

goin’ for the ear.”

I was trying to be above him.

Above the doorway, above the street.

Above the other women who wouldn’t have

“handled it as well.”

Even as the speaker tries to “handle” the situation, she is looking at herself from a disassociated perspective, showing us how self-defense can appear like self-sacrifice. We see it from the women standing by, “grinning—in on the joke I was / trying to make of the man,” perfectly illustrating the way discomfort and powerlessness can only be met with a nervous grin, a fleeting grasp at controlling a situation. In the volta of the piece, the illusion of control shatters for the speaker: “Only upon seeing my friend’s face did I see that / I had been mistaken about what was the joke, / and who was the joke.” In these moments, the simplicity of Gamble’s writing brings these everyday occurrences into sharp clarity.

In other pieces, in which Gamble finds her poetic muse in the surreal, she allows an extended metaphor to express her themes, rather than the speaker’s direct reflections. In the poem “Growing a Bear,” she creates a keen contrast between whimsy and domestic decay:

You haven’t even considered how your wife will feel

when you have finished growing your bear. You could

write a letter to her tonight, explaining how your life

was so lacking in bear.

“Janet, it’s nothing you’ve done—

clearly you have no possible way of supplying me with a bear

or any of the activities I might be able to enjoy

after acquiring the bear.”

The bear is the elephant in the room, a sex life like beating a dead horse, an unexpressed middle-aged desire, a receding masculinity. The use of second person and passive voice adds to the dubiousness of this experiment and how the husband plans on explaining his needs within this marriage. The speaker is attempting to convince us of his need to fill the bear-shaped hole in his life, but the reader must extrapolate their own meaning out of the bear, the wife’s isolated nighttime routine, how friendships between adult men in suburbia wax and wane now that they are “past the age of college athletics, / most friends don’t even know what each other’s bodies / look like, flushed, tired, showering, cold.” This poem, alongside the curious bestiality of “The Queen,” evokes the ferality tucked in the guts of our patriarchal society. Gamble joins a tradition of poets using a persona to express the viciousness of girlhood and womanhood—the act of unmasking through the use of a mask—similar to Claudia Cortese’s Wasp Queen or Franny Choi’s Soft Science.

However, some poems unfortunately fall back on bioessentialism in their critique of rape culture as they illustrate the societal connotations of vaginas and penises. “The Sun and Open Air” and “Cabana” felt like they were over-simplifying that binary, making it difficult to parse what was tongue-in-cheek and what was meant earnestly—especially when the tone of the collection emphasizes directness. Other poems succeeded gloriously in their commentary because of their humor and specificity: “your dick would have rowed you through / the world like a paddle—[.]” While others felt like gross generalizations: “The man who, rejected . . . was biologically programmed to put things in” or a couple of stanzas later in the same poem: “if it weren’t for dicks, all vaginas would be naked at the seaside—always.” These lines rub me the wrong way—they stray from the specific moment and speaker, creating a synecdoche in which the vagina represents all of womanhood and dicks are “biologically programmed” to threaten anyone with a vagina.

These poems feel like they are doing a disservice to the collection as a whole and its mission to explore the nuances of rape culture. While every poet writes from their own experiences, when writing about sex-based violence, the writer should also consider how cisnormativity plays a role in moralizing genital metaphors.

The Traditional Feel of the Ballroom finds its place among narrative feminist poetry and is ideal for readers who are new to reading poetry and would feel intimidated by an experimental collection. The pieces inside highlight the everyday trials of being perceived as a woman in a misogynistic society and the ways it makes one rage and cry and sometimes just sit in quiet contemplation. The collection comes to an end as simply as it began, with the speaker’s earnest voice, “Now I don’t have to tell you / anything more about it.”

Book Review: Selected Tweets by Tao Lin & Mira Gonzalez

Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project. In the interests of accuracy we have retained the original wording of the interview.

A critical review of Selected Tweets, comprised entirely of tweets:

This review was the absolute worst I’ve so far had to write. Ad litteram everything I tried in regular format didn’t work out.

I inadvertently ended up avoiding this review quite a lot, to be honest, as I didn’t know what exactly to say.

You’ll find, I’m sure, it’s almost impossible to write about a collection of things which—in and of themselves—seem inconsequential.

And this is what tweets are, or rather more-so what they appear to be: inconsequential.

But I wanted to look into a proper method of demonstrating that these things can, in fact, be used properly as a medium.

And so I had the absolutely poor and unfounded idea to get creative with the project—this review being the result:

Selected Tweets is the result of a joint collaboration between alt lit writers Tao Lin (@tao_lin) and Mira Gonzalez (@miragonz).

It ostensibly collects about 5-7 years’ worth of tweets from the two figures, the majority I can assume weren’t written in the…

“publication” mindset. For as candid as tweets can get, these are basically the epitome of genuine.

I make this disclaimer only because the collection might otherwise seem to have been sponsored and funded by Xanax and Xanax alone.

Appearance-wise, Selected Tweets is a work of art: Illustrated, naugahyde-bound, and its cover silk-screened with faux-gold and silver.

On public transportation, I actually took measures to communicate to people that it wasn’t the bible I had, but probably the total opposite.

It’s split almost directly in half between Mira and Tao, with collections from various accounts and “bonus” essays to cap them off.

There are also drawings by the two contributors scattered throughout, be they of their various subjects…

Or in Mira’s case, of the same face plastered onto different objects, animals, what have you.

I think it’s probably avant-garde.

And Tao, though the covers of his books may suggest otherwise, comes off in these bits as a very poised artist.

I’ll probably be focusing primarily on Mira’s half for two different reasons:

  • Because Lin has recently been the subject of some controversy which I have no strong feelings one way or the other toward…
    • (It’s a fire I’d wish to inform of, but not to stoke in the meantime.)
  • And because Mira’s half is really a lot more interesting both in structure and in content.

Tao tweets the same way he writes; if you want a redacted Lin novel, there’s no better place to find that than his Twitter.

This, however, is not to say his half should be ignored—I would simply have enjoyed to have seen more done with it.

(Of course I would be asking to restructure a true-to-form and candid assortment, going against much of what the collection is)

(Very neutral feelings regarding this half—it’s witty, it’s smart, but it’s not as ambitious as I would have liked it to be)

Mira’s tweets, however, usually run the gamut from hilarious to sad to a kind of amorphous gel made up of the two.

They’ll leave you not knowing what emotions you should be feeling. Should you laugh? Should you empathize?

There’s a kind of efficacy in this medium which breaks down the proto-narrative wall between speaker and participant.

My guesstimate is that this is probably because the audience has to some extent a knowledge of what twitter is/does…

That in the eyes of the participants it’s left synonymous with the most direct thoughts, the most quotidian ideas…

And what Wil Wheaton is having for his fucking breakfast.

And when coupled with Mira’s (and I guess Tao’s) looks into (t)he(i)r daily activities and exploits, the collection gets very real very fast

One very poignant example which returns often to me whilst writing this review is @mira_crying.

This account details just what its name suggests, and if anyone out there thinks that tweets can’t convey what regular writing can,

I dare them to read this and retain that thought, because even its opening disclaimer manages to sting just a little.

Really, I’d suggest upon reading this collection, the participant hold firm the idea that instead of just tweets, they’re reading…

Something more along the lines of a *very* redacted essay, as that’s more what these come off as:

The throwaway thoughts which, while they can’t be expanded, are no less important than the expandable ones.

(Some of them maybe a little.)

There’s a lot I could go into with this collection: how funny it is, how absurd it gets, its often white-knuckled grasp on dark humor…

But those are facets I decide to leave for the reader’s discretion, because while a bit on the experimental side…

This collection definitely deserves its fair share of readers.