As a proud Woman In Horror with a deep affinity for horror, science fiction and fantasy literature, Jenna M. Pitman has established herself as a highly regarded author within the independent scene.
Jenna gets it. Whatever ‘it’ is, she understands it. With a clear understanding of what it means to pen a horror tale, Jenna is an incredible talent in a pool that is drying up as we enter a busier, more technologically advanced day and age. It seems like no one has time to read these days, but for those of you who don’t, you’re missing out on a number of truly wonderful writers. One being this Lovecraft loving lady from Seattle, Washington.
Ms. Pitman has offered her talents to a number of anthologies with such catchy titles as ‘Night Terrors’ and ‘Rock N Roll Is Dead’ and publications. Her contributions can be found and purchased here. She also is the editor and creative mind behind a collection of charitable e-anthologies called ‘Iron Maidens‘.
Recently, I had the chance to chat about a number of fun topics with Jenna and the following is what came from our conversation.
1. Tell us a little about your upbringing into the world of horror.
This really ties in with my answer to number three so I’ll fill in the stuff around that. I guess I would just add that I was brought up in a strict Christian family, my parents didn’t even want me celebrating Halloween when I was a kid (though I DID get to watch ‘The Munsters’ and you had better believe I did). So I sort of latched on to “Christian horror” really early in my life. It’s a little weird but some of those books actually helped me learn more about pagan mythology. They’re all pretty laughable in the way they think non-Christians behave or what pagans believe but one story in particular referenced so many things that occur elsewhere in culture that when I started broadening my horizons I actually used things it talked about to learn about “demons” and other religions. I couldn’t tell you when I started reading classic horror but I started there as a teenager, with Frankenstein and Dracula and Poe. And I started watching classic horror first too. October quickly became my favorite month in high school because they played horror all month long and you could literally flip to anything and find a horror movie marathon. I preferred the Universal monster movies but I watched everything.
I tried writing horror stories for years, especially as a teenager, but it wasn’t until I began reading a whole ton of commercial fantasy that I actually began writing horror well. I’m not entirely sure why that is but I find it pretty amusing.
2. As a fan of the convention scene, what have been a few memorable moments at conventions for you personally?
Well, there was GeekGirlCon last year with the Beyond the Scream Queen panel. And the entire experience was pretty fun. While most conventions have more women than they get credit for (seriously, I hate the stereotype that a lot of women don’t go to conventions) this felt entirely reversed. It was really cool to look down a line waiting for a panel and see more women than men. And the number of men who attended? That was so promising too! Despite all the jokes (men are going to go JUST to pick up women, amirite?!) all but two of the men I saw seemed to be there for really positive reasons. It had a much more laid back and communal feeling than a lot of cons I’ve been to or worked with. I’m not sure if that was because it was a first year thing or not but I’d like to think it was just because we are awesome!
At PAX (the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, WA) a couple years ago I kept getting stopped by people asking if I was indeed Jenna M. Pitman. It was weird, since I’m not really THAT notable, but I did get to brag about being internet famous! Which is probably about as good as being a person famous locally for being a weirdo but I’ll take it.
I used to volunteer with the horror convention up here and our second year I was tapped to do driving. We weren’t holding the convention at a hotel so we needed a way to get our guests from where they were staying to the convention space and we didn’t have that many people who either had a license or could be away that long. I got to meet a lot of people on a really personal level and it was extremely cool. Lloyd Kaufman gave me a Troma DVD and made me feel like a huge success. I spent a lot of time talking with Reggie and Gigi Bannister and the members of Reggie’s band. Kathy Lester gave me her CD (she’s an awesome singer by the way), and and and and… There was so much that happened and I was admittedly pretty giddy. I think one of the highlights was that I did a Women in Horror Panel (with another volunteer, Gigi Bannister, Kathy Lester, Adrienne King and Eileen Dietz) and both Reggie Bannister and Don Coscarelli attended. Reggie had some awesome things to say but later I was taking Coscarelli to a restaurant and he asked me some really good questions based on the panel then said I needed to write about the whole issue. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more flattered.
3. As a writer, was there a particular story or book that really hooked you on horror?
When I was in second grade I read ‘Bunnicula’ by Deborah and James Howe. About 50 times. Then the rest of the books in the series. About 25 times. I wanted to understand everything I could about the monsters in them and I wanted to understand about the movies referenced. They were funny, yeah, but it was the horror side that really pulled me in. I remember checking Dracula out from the library and my parents taking it away from me. I’m not sure if that’s because they were afraid of it from a moral point of view or if they were worried about nightmares they would have to deal with. Admittedly both were legit fears. I DID become one of those freaky people in all black and I DID have terrible nightmares. I can’t think of anything that really stands out after that (unless you count books by Frank Peretti and ‘The Christening’ by Roger Elwood) until I was seventh grade and found John Saul on my grandfather’s bookshelf. I borrowed all of the books he had and then got the rest from the library over the next few months.
4. It saddens me to hear people say reading is a lost hobby. It annoys me to hear people say things like “That book isn’t scary!”. What is wrong with people today?!
What’s wrong with people today? Well that’s a pretty broad question! But if you mean in terms of horror fans in relation to books I’d guess I’d had to say we need to cut people SOME slack. Almost every sort of writing is suffering, from literary fiction to romance to fantasy. People just aren’t reading and while a part of me wants to shake my finger at them, the empathetic part of me realizes that when short stories were at their peak, back when writers were THE celebrities outside of royal families and war heroes, our entertainment options were limited. Really limited. I can’t really fault people who are working as much as we do in this culture for wanting to get their stories on the run. I DO think that the average number of books read by most Americans these days is really, really low. 1-3 a year? That’s really bad news for us writers and I honestly believe it’s really bad news for people in general. But what can you do? Beyond selling a plot to Hollywood and having it get produced as a big budget film I mean. That really cuts through the noise.
When it comes to people thinking books today aren’t scary, well, sometimes I agree with them. One of the biggest problems I see with a lot of modern horror is that it’s written as though it’s a movie. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are ways you can write “cinematically” and pull it off but you can’t rely on a jump scare to build tension like a movie can. You can’t feed people the frightening images in the same way or use visual angles and music to throw people off. You CAN appeal to all the senses but you need to remember that in a book you have touch, smell and taste you can write about WITHOUT some character awkwardly pinching their nose and going “this stinks!” And internal monologue. If you understand how someone feels in a traumatic situation you can really add an element of terror to a scene that simply saying “and then she ran because the monster had ripped her boyfriend apart and blood and guts were everywhere” doesn’t convey. But there are a lot of writers that just ignore that and it shows in their work.
Then there’s the fact that we’ve become a little numb to some of the tried and true plots. We’ve had at least a century and a half worth of horror literature and almost 100 years of horror and horror images on the big screens and in our homes. The tropes are boring these days. When you see a purple vampire counting as a kid or get your cereal from a pink monster with bolts in his neck it sort of takes the teeth out of the whole thing, so to speak. I’m not saying we should stop with the cutesy monsters, if we did I would have nothing left to decorate my home with and nothing left to dress up at Halloween as! It’s just that we’ve largely left the Universal monsters behind as frightening images and all of the spoofs of slasher movies has done the same to that kind of horror. To get scared we need to change things up, introduce new themes, new monsters or new takes on old monsters, we need to explore the way we react to traumatic events. I think to some extent this is happening. Earlier this century we were really hooked on Japanese horror films and remaking them. I think that’s part of the reason why, their culture has been dealing with their own take on fear for just as long as we have but they see it from a different lense. Then there were the Spanish films and the German films and the Italian films, they all have the same draw; horror from a different view. That can be directly applied to horror novels and short stories. I believe it’s why Lovecraftian horror is getting a boost, it’s mostly not something we’ve seen a lot of (though we’ve seen parts of it) and it’s not a typical horror story. I think a lot of the Lovecraftian/weird horror writers are doing a good job pushing the boundaries and opening new avenues to terror. And some of the bizarro writers who deal with the more frightening themes are paving the way to something new as well.
On the other hand, one of the scariest stories I’ve read was the novella ‘Carmilla’ so what do I know?
5. Where did the idea for your Iron Maidens anthology collections come from?
I was reading a magazine of short stories and the number women raped, sexually assaulted or in some way connected to sexual victimization was sort of a tipping point for me. The following day, when a friend of mine posted a paper on rape in fantasy novels, this idea that had been forming sort of solidified and I was like “this needs to happen.” It’s sort of mind blowing how it seems like no editor out there stops and thinks “wow, I certainly have a lot of women being raped/being scared of being raped/motivated to help a woman they know who was raped/being stuck by some creepy guy feeling her up in this anthology/magazine/line of books.” And honestly, this extends past genre (‘The Iron Maidens’ anthologies concern fantasy and horror) and even mediums. The default “bad thing” to happen to a woman in many movies, comics, television shows, even video games is sexual violence towards her or someone close to her. Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that sexual violence affects 1 in 4 women and I realize that it’s a huge real world issue but it would be nice in the world of entertainment (particularly fantasy and horror) if writers and directors and editors and producers started to understand that the SAME things that drive male characters can drive female characters. I mean, when was the last time you read a book (or watched a movie or played a game or read a comic) with a male character feeling the threat of sexual violence? THAT is an issue in real life too, one that really could use some more attention (both of those being reasons why people protest why it’s ok that female sexual violence is such a common trope), but when you ask someone to name something that seriously deals with the issue of male rape or sexual assault you get “Deliverance” and MAYBE a handful of other responses that the rest of the public may or may not have heard of. I’m certainly not saying that we need to eliminate rape in all stories or that it can’t be useful to show what those who have suffered the effects of sexual violence have gone through but I really and truly believe that the effect is lessened by the number of times its used and how lightly it’s often dealt with. It would REALLY be nice to pick up a book or a magazine and just not have to read that word or that scenario once more, especially if the person who wrote this particular case clearly knows nothing about the issue outside of fiction. And the issues becomes even more important to people who are triggered by the subject. There are plenty of fans of fantasy who have a hard time reading their favorite genre because SO many people insert rape rather liberally. This is less about saying everything else is wrong and more about saying “alright, that already exists, let’s get other things out there too, ok?”
I’ve edited a few things in the past and I might not exactly be an expert but I know what I’m doing. I had also just finished reading a charity e-anthology I had enjoyed so I decided that it was a project I could take on. I contacted the organization Students Active For Ending Rape and asked if they would be interested in benefiting from such a project. SAFER works on college and university campuses across the country to help change policies to make victims of sexual violence, well, safer and hopefully make it a less frequent occurrence. While the anthology will only deal with women (since, like I said, men aren’t really affected by this trope and I’d rather not include stories about male rape just to “even things out” or anything) SAFER works with everyone, no matter their sexual identification and I think that’s incredibly important.
The first anthology is fantasy themed and it’s open to submissions from anyone. I have a number of people who have agreed to write for it already. I’m taking submissions through September and publishing either in late November or early December. A horror edition might be in the works for Women in Horror Recognition Month (I’m still waiting on some things) and if that goes through I’d be taking submissions through December and publishing it the first week of February 2013. Since it would be for WiHM it would focus more on women writers though I might add a story from a man or two if their past work has shown a history of real understanding women. If I end up not doing this for WiHM then I would make the submissions for a horror volume open to anyone. I might be considering some more themed editions later if both of those are successful but that would be in the future. For anyone interested they can find the website easily enough. There are links to the guidelines and an FAQ at the top that should answer most questions.
6. As a fellow Lovecraft enthusiast, what is your favorite tale of his?
The big one I enjoy is ‘The Colour From Outerspace’. I also really liked ‘Hypnos’ and ‘The Tomb’, ‘From Beyond’, even ‘Polaris’. I like his ‘Dream Cycle’ stories more than a horror fan ought to I hear but that’s fine with me.
7. If you could sit and get to know one literary mind, past or present, who would it be and why?
George R.R. Martin! He’s totally my hero. People know him as “that guy who wrote the books Game of Thrones is based on” but he’s been writing speculative fiction since the 70s and he’s written EVERYTHING. He’s worked in multiple genres, worked with so many different people, worked as a TV writer (before ‘GoT’). In a perfect world I would write in even more mediums than he has but George R.R. Martin knows story in a way a lot of people just don’t. And I am such a dork for a well constructed story.
8. At the Geek Girl Con’s Beyond The Scream Queen Panel, you were joined by some of the biggest names in Women In Horror. What was that experience like? Did any of the ladies offer any words of wisdom or anecdotes that you especially took home with you after that trip?
Well I live in Seattle and I actually worked for GeekGirlCon last year so it wasn’t much of a trip for me! Having said that, the panel the discussion both before and after were my favorite part of the entire convention. It was so great to finally meet these wonderful and talented women I’d been talking to for years on line and we spent so much time just talking about things we are all passionate about. The whole experience was sort of mind-expanding and while I can’t think of anything specific that struck me I can say that I walked away with a lot to think about and seeing some subjects in a different way.
9. If you were running an all-night horror movie marathon, what films make the cut and why?
Hm. I feel this would be a little different than my five favorite horror movies because sitting through five films is a lot to ask from people. I would also want to tailor it to that experience. I would likely want base the movies off the attendees – how familiar they are with horror movies in general, what sort of horror they’re fans of, if they know indie films or just the big stuff, if they know any foreign films, whether or not they like the sorts of horror I like… So on and so on. I guess, if I were introducing people to the sort of horror films I like I’d have to go with:
‘Carnival of Souls’ because somehow I always forget just HOW creepy that film is.
‘Die Fabre’ – An adaptation of ‘The Colour from Outer Space’ from Germany. I love it. They managed to pull off one of the most “unfilmable” stories from a host of unfilmable works.
‘Ginger Snaps’ because, well… Is “it’s Ginger Snaps” a good answer? Because I heart it lots and lots and it makes me think of my best friend. Plus it’s written by a woman and I think handles the subject of female sexuality in a really wonderful way.
‘The Descent’ because it’s one of my favorite movies ever and it just so happens to be horror, so it counts, right?
‘The Raven’ (the short from the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival 2011) Mainly because it’s short.
After that many films I think everyone would be ready to go home! But this is a nice note to end on because it kind of recharged my love of Poe. I always liked his work, a lot, but I got tired of the same old same old when came to how his stories are typically viewed. This is so different, it actually made me look at the entire poem differently and that is NOT easy to do.
It was a real pleasure chatting with Jenna. Please look into her ‘Iron Maidens’ project and I look forward to even more fantastic things from Ms. Pitman in the near future!
For more information on her career and projects, please check out her Facebook fan page!