Creepy Stories (and More) from Victor LaValle and Benjamin Percy
In this special Halloween episode, writers Victor LaValle and Benjamin Percy tell creepy stories, and talk to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about how writing about politics relates to horror. LaValle explains how devices like monsters make it possible to write about how something feels, rather than merely what happened; Percy discusses doppelgängers, and asks whether politically, the call is coming from inside the house.
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Readings for the Episode:
The Changeling by Victor LaValle · The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle · Victor LaValle’s Destroyer by Victor LaValle · Suicide Woods by Benjamin Percy · The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy · Red Moon by Benjamin Percy · Earlier F/n/F, “Against Genre Snobbery,” with Marlon James and Daniel Jose Older
Part I: Victor Lavalle
Whitney Terrell: How do you think about writing about fear these days when people are feeling more and more anxious just from reading the daily news? Given that your writing engages politics, how has writing horror changed for you since you first began doing it?
Victor LaValle: One of the great things about horror as a genre or as a feeling is that there’s almost always something in this world that’s scaring people. There are times in life—like now, I believe—when the dial is turned up even louder, and when horror feels even more necessary, and I would say feels necessary because that feeling, that anxiety, that fear, that terror, needs a sense of expression, needs a place for it to go. Some people, they exercise; some people, they eat; they drink, smoke, or they watch a horror movie or they read something frightening–
WT: It’s kind of like that tea kettle in the background of that scene, going off all the time, is what it feels like to me.
VL: I think that’s right. And in that chapter, eventually, that teakettle gets used. It’s not enough for it to just be there rattling and whistling. At least for me the release is—all right, let’s see this through, as bad as it can get and hopefully real life won’t get as bad as that.
The great thing that horror can do is make use of a device, like a monster, say, in order to make the reader understand how a thing feels.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Even just listening to you read it—I imagined that this would happen, that the pacing of you reading it aloud—I’ve read the scene before, and yet I’m still squicked out. And the part where you write about anticipation—“Unlike pain, the ache of anticipation gets so deep inside you, it can’t be soothed by adrenaline or shock.” So many of the things that you have written came out before, for example, our current administration. And yet as I went back and read and was revisiting them, I kept finding metaphors for the ways that things are now. The ache of anticipation of impeachment gets so deep inside you—
VL: [laughter] I’m always amazed when I read a book from 100 years ago, 200 years ago. And the good ones still find a way that they are talking to me now. It’s amazing when art, when literature can do that, even just in a sentence, speaking to a moment, let alone a whole book.
VVG: So we had your wife Emily Raboteau on the show, because she wrote a terrific essay for the New York Review of Books website about climate change. And we were talking to her about genre and climate change. And she made the point that she thought nonfiction was the right genre in which to talk about climate change at this point. And I was wondering why you chose to use fiction to address some of the other fears that people are feeling now, about racism and xenophobia and violence.
VL: The great thing that horror can do is make use of a device, like a monster, say, in order to make the reader understand how a thing feels, which is not always the same as explaining what actually happened. I’ve chosen fiction, in part because I’m terrible at writing nonfiction. So that’s the first part–
WT: That’s the reason why I’ve chosen fiction over poetry!
VL: I think a degree of self-awareness is helpful in a human being, you know? But the other reason is, I find that particularly speaking of horror, I find it can be a great way to talk about a thing without necessarily having to name the thing. With a story, especially a horror story, people’s defenses can drop, as they feel like, Oh, this is just a tale, this is just a story about whatever. And then you get a chance to make them actually think about the thing that really matters to you.
But in the guise of this creature. The example I always like to use is that it’s really not a shock or surprise that Godzilla should be a Japanese creation after Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as a way to talk about what it felt like for everyone who survived the level of devastation and incomprehension. They could say, it was really terrible when these bombs dropped, and people would say yes or no, I understand, whatever. But if you say, a giant lizard that breathes electric fire stomps through the city, killing anyone and everyone randomly, and there’s no way, especially in the first movie, there’s no way to comprehend it, or reason with it—that is closer in my mind to what they’re trying to express about the event that nonfiction might be able to do.
WT: I have this whole theory and you can tell me whether it’s bullshit or not. Or maybe Sugi will. So there are certain periods of time when certain genres work best at doing that work that you’re talking about right now. You could think about the Western at a certain point in American history, or you could talk about science fiction in America in the 50s and 60s, and I think we’re going through a horror sort of Renaissance now. If you’re looking at Jordan Peele’s work and Blumhouse productions in general—and I feel like there’s a reason for that and I think it is that horror’s been able to speak to something that’s underneath the culture that wasn’t being surfaced.
And you’re talking about composing books before Trump became president. But Black Lives Matter started before Trump became president, too, right? And we were in a period of time when everyone’s like, everything’s okay, everything’s okay, everything’s okay. But other people listening on perhaps a deeper register were saying, hey, maybe things aren’t okay. And I feel that horror has been a way to speak to that.
VL: Yeah, I definitely would agree. I don’t think that theory is bullshit. A horror writer named Brian Keene is the first one I ever heard point that out. He said that, in particular, horror thrives under Republican presidents. And then if you think back on all the horror you love, it’s Nixon era. It’s Reagan era. It’s Bush, or Bush Two, now Trump. And his point was not necessarily that one kind of administration forces it so much as like, a certain degree of anxiety and fear is often what is bubbling underneath rightward pushes in the country, right? Like we’ve gone too far this direction. Now we need to go back that direction. And that bubbling fear finally comes up and you get this kind of work. When he first said, he said it I think just as Trump was being elected. He said—I’m paraphrasing—I wish we weren’t about to get some great horror, but I think we are. And I think he was right.
* Part II: Benjamin Percy
Benjamin Percy: These superhero movies are the equivalent of the Western at this time. I’m sure that people were grousing about John Ford as well back in the day. It’s such a dominant medium. And right now, it’s our American mythology—you have good and evil playing out on the screen, in a way that’s somewhat akin to the white hats and black hats of yesteryear. And I think that you see a similar moral play at work in a lot of horror as well.
I hadn’t thought about the role social media plays on this, in the doubling of self, that you have an online self and an offline self.
Horror can be almost morally instructive at times, as the screen franchise taught us. And you see a boom in different types of storytelling typically tied to cultural unease. Frankenstein is born out of the Industrial Revolution. The fear of science and technology, the fear of man playing God. And Godzilla is about post-atomic anxieties, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about the Red Scare, and communists living invisibly among us. So, after 9/11, there was a slew of post-apocalyptic and apocalyptic narratives. And if you look at what’s happening right now, we’re in a golden age of horror filmmaking. I think it has everything to do with the divisive situation that we find ourselves in under the Trump administration.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So some of what we’re talking about was referenced in an episode we did with Marlon James and Daniel José Older called Against Genre Snobbery. Horror and cinema and horror and literature have been combining, as you mentioned, in really interesting, increasingly frequent and high-profile ways over the past few years. You mentioned Get Out, Us, there’s the forthcoming reboot of The Twilight Zone series; Whit mentioned Blumhouse earlier. There’s the Insidious franchise, the Purge franchise, the Saw franchise, and remakes of films made in other places—I think of The Ring, which I could barely get through because I was terrified.
And, of course, there are writers like you and our first guest, Victor LaValle, who have been interested in the form, not to mention Stephen King whose books are still being made into movies, Helen Oyeyemi, Carmen Maria Machado—the list goes on and on and on. So why this horror renaissance now, do you think? You mentioned the Trump administration. Can we, as we so often do on this podcast, tag quite a bit of it onto them?
BP: Well, it’s that, it’s social media, it’s the divisive times that we live in.
You look at Us by Jordan Peele, and it’s a double entendre. Us is also the US. And he’s mining that divisiveness in the film, and the separation and duplicity and moral confusion that we so often see online, that we witness in the headlines. And you also see examples of this in the rise of cli-fi. I don’t know if you’re familiar—science fiction that has environmental disaster at the heart of it, whether the coastlines are flooding or whether the center of the country is a desert wasteland. It sometimes feels like destroying the world has never been more popular because destroying the world has never seemed more possible.
WT: We talked to Omar El Akkad about that. And we’ve had Claire Vaye Watkins on and her novel was considered cli-fi.
BP: Gold Fame Citrus, right.
WT: The thing that’s interesting to me that you’ve mentioned that I hadn’t thought about is the role social media plays on this, in the doubling of self, that you have an online self and an offline self.
BP: Yeah, an avatar.
WT: Us is about doppelgängers and then I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet—I’ve read about it but haven’t seen it—the new movie Parasite is getting tremendously good reviews. Are you guys familiar with this? Have you read about it? It’s also a doppelgänger movie that’s been getting compared to Us.
BP: I have not seen it, but I’m a fan of his work. He also made The Host.
BP: And, you know, on that note, I have a creepy story that plays into this and that you might have heard.
A father walks into his child’s bedroom, and he sees his boy pale and shivering in the bed. And he asked, What’s the matter? And the boy says, I think there’s something under my bed. And the father says, I’m sure that’s not the case. And he gets down on his knees, indulging the child, and lifts the dust ruffle and peers beneath the boxspring and sees there a face, a pale and shivering face that seems somehow to belong to his boy, who says, I think there’s something in my bed.
And I love that story because of its duplicity, because of its moral confusion, because you’re wondering, is this the predator? Is that the victim? Or are they both the monster?
VVG: God, I’m not even going to be able to listen to our own episode. I have this very distinct memory and Ben, maybe you’ll know what I’m talking about because you know all of these references. I have this distinct memory of reading a story about body snatchers when I was a kid. I had gone through the more cheerful safer parts of the children’s library, and then was reading this book in which someone was confessing to his neighbor that he had killed someone. And the neighbor is becoming increasingly creeped out and then says, What did you do with the body?
And at the end, the other character says, This is the body. And I’ve been thinking about this story at least several times a year since I was probably eight years old. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know who wrote it. But the creepy feeling that I had at the end of that—the ‘this is the body,’ has stayed with me, precisely for the reason that you mentioned. I had thought that this character was one person all along and then it turns out that I was wrong. I was wrong about everything and that frisson of horror–
BP: The idea of a shadow self, right, or the idea of a twin. The idea of a duplicate. The idea, too, of a subterranean world. It’s something that I’m exploring a lot of in Suicide Woods. You see it in The Cold Boy, you see it in The Uncharted. But you see it too in Stranger Things, where there’s the Upside Down right? The dark mirror of our world. You see the exact same thing in Jordan Peele’s
Us—the subterranean world with doppelgängers in it. This is something that Jekyll and Hyde is exploring, the Incredible Hulk is exploring, that The Werewolf is exploring. T
he fact that we have an inside face and an outside face, that we might behave in a lawful civilized manner when the shades are up or when we’re out in public, but then sometimes due to too much to drink or too much to snort or too little sleep or rage or whatever else, we become unhinged. Something wild inside us, and fanged inside us, is uncaged. And we’re once again wolves ranging the woods. So I think this idea of darker territories that can be explored and inside of us—you see that in my fiction—sometimes it’s through the prism of civilization clashing with wilderness. But you see this replicated in all sorts of media right now as well. And I think it has everything to do with us questioning, Can we trust ourselves when we look at how we behave online or in politically heated moments?
VVG: I feel like my very clear answer to that is no, we can’t. Run.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai and condensed and edited by V.V. Ganeshananthan. Photo of Victor LaValle by Teddy Wolff. Photo of Benjamin Percy by Arnab Chakladar.