One of the highlights of 2014 for me was to appear at the first annual ComicCon Vermont in Burlington. One of the many delights was to meet, talk with, and sample the works of fellow grassroots/up-and-coming New England artists in the field of science-fiction, fantasy and horror, in a variety of meetings and striking voices. One particularly striking discovery was the dark fiction of Connecticut author Stacey Longo. Her collection Secret Things; 12 Tales to Terrify cements her place among fresh voices in dark fiction, with wicked reassurance that the art of neatly crafted short-fiction is alive and well, if you know where to look.
Stacey Longo’s short fiction has appeared in over a dozen anthologies and magazines. She writes a weekly humor blog at www.staceylongo.com and owns a used bookstore in Colchester, CT. She spends her free time reading everything she can get her hands on at home and relaxing with her husband, Jason, and two cats, Wednesday and Pugsley.
After I read Secret Things, Stacey was kind enough to let me pick her brain in this short interview.
One running theme I noticed in the yarns in Secret Things was the use of the unreliable narrator, or technically in most cases, the unreliable POV-character. The realization that what’s going on somehow doesn’t match what we’re being told at face-value, it’s a powerful way to sneakily, steadily crank up the tension and keep the reader off-balance. What would you say keeps drawing you back to this approach?
SL: The world is full of unreliable narrators – I’ve dated, been friends with, or am related to plenty myself. I’d argue that this doesn’t necessarily make them bad people (okay, sometimes it does) but certainly keeps you on your toes around them. Unreliable narrators make life interesting. Plus, some of my favorite books (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Fight Club) feature unreliable narrators, so I’m sure that influence is there, too.
The unifying theme of the collection is clearly secrets, and how everyone has them (as the title suggests and the tag line on the back cover makes explicit) – Sometimes those secrets are tangible things, like covered-up crimes, the characters’ proverbial skeletons in the closet. Sometimes it’s the unspoken resentments and skewed perceptions they harbor over the years, ’til it eventually boils over unchecked into reality and causes tangible problems, like murder. What would you say it is about this theme that keeps drawing you back?
SL: Everybody does have secrets, and I think the reveal of what a character is hiding often makes for an interesting story. It sometimes amazes me the sort of things people feel the need to keep secret. I have consistently found that whatever it is that they’re hiding is not nearly as much fun as what I’ve made up in my head in the meantime.
While your narrative voice is distinctive and engaging in and of itself, elements of your work often reminded me of various old favorites, like Edgar Allen Poe, Jim Thompson and Stephen King. Among your own favorite authors, who’s been a particular influence on you, and how would you say you’ve made those elements your own?
SL: Certainly Poe was an influence, and I think it’s impossible as a horror writer today not to be influenced by King. I try very hard not to sound like King, but the simple clarity of his prose is something I make note of when I’m reading him, and that probably comes through. I’m a huge fan of Jeff Strand, and I love how he uses dark humor. But every author is different, and it’s important to read really good literature and be aware of what you like about it, and try to incorporate those elements into your own style without out-and-out copying it.
The lion’s share of the stories in the collection are straight-up psychological/grounded-in-“reality” thrillers. While they never stray too far from relatable empathy with these flawed characters, there’s an overarching dry, darkly comic flavor to a lot of them – the wicked glee the storyteller finds in these unfolding bad situations is discernible, and infectious…The narrative tone somewhat reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s introductions on old episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, if you get what I mean. The two stories that involve overt paranormal elements [titles redacted to avoid spoilers] stand out in stark contrast to this. These pieces (and to a lesser degree the last of the zombie stories) cut straight to the raw pain, of things like loss and doubt and regret. Would you say there’s something about these paranormal elements that makes them natural metaphors for the things that haunt us through life like that?
SL: Thanks for the comparison to Hitch – that’s high praise! I’ve rewatched those old episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents a million times. Both of the stories you mentioned sprang from real losses that happened in my life at a young age. So arguably, they’re not even metaphors – they are very real incarnations of two losses that haunted me for a long time. But if it makes me sound smarter to say they’re representative of the disappointments and bad decisions we’ve all lived to regret, by all means, say that!
Your “The Stories Behind the Tales” notes in the back of the book were fun and informative. Some of the stories seem to originate, bluntly, as revenge-fantasy pieces. There’s nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. Part of writing effective, honest dark fiction is being willing and able to let out the darkest things in yourself, warts and all. Have you ever encountered squirmy static from people – either readers or family and friends who you bounce your stuff off of – who mistake this for something actually unbalanced or unsettling-in-a-bad-way about you (confusing the message with the messenger, etc., if you will)? If so, how do you deal with that/respond to such concerns?
SL: You’re absolutely right – some of these certainly are revenge-fantasy pieces. I find writing a better form of therapy than, say, stabbing out someone’s eyes with a turkey baster. I’ve had a couple of family members who’ve had hurt feelings over what they perceived as an insult directed toward them, but in those cases, it simply wasn’t about them, and there were enough other character traits in the story to point this out to them. And a few people have mentioned that they think I’m weird/disturbed/crazy. But my immediate family thinks I’m okay, and that’s all that really matters.
That said, when delving into those dark places, do you ever feel like you might be wading in too deep, maybe coming up with a something that’s too over-the-line, over-the-top and disturbing in some ways? If so, at that point, do you decide “Okay, maybe it’s time to reign myself in a bit,” or do you take that as all the more of a sign that you’ve tapped into a new level of something raw and powerful, so it’s “Be willing to go all the way or go home”?
SL: The only time I reign myself in is when I think someone in my immediate family might be hurt or embarrassed by what I’m writing. Remember how I said everybody has secrets? So does my family. That’s when I pull back and try to go in a different direction.
So what future big writing/writing-related projects do you have in the works or on the horizon?
SL: My novel Ordinary Boy is due out in spring 2015 from Dark Alley Press, so I’m working on lining up appearances and readings for that. I’m shopping around a YA novel (My Sister the Zombie) and hoping to find a home for that, too. And I’m currently working on a parallel novel to Ordinary Boy that explores the life of one of the characters from that book.