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Interview: Horror author Philip Fracassi

pablo (1)

Recently I had the opportunity to pose a few questions to Philip Fracassi, whose horror novelettes ALTAR and MOTHER have been getting some terrific buzz from respected names in the field (and who was kind enough to endorse The Pseudo-Chronicles of Mark Huntley). I was interested to hear about his inspirations as well as his take on the horror genre today. First, here’s a quick bio:

horror author Philip FracassiPhilip Fracassi is an author and screenwriter living in L.A. His screenplays include films for Disney Entertainment and Lifetime Television, and his latest thriller, Girl Missing, stars Francesca Eastwood and is available on demand via iTunes and Amazon. He is the author of the literary novels THE EGOTIST and the forthcoming DON’T LET THEM GET YOU DOWN, and the horror novelettes MOTHER and ALTAR, both by Dunhams Manor Press.

Deck: How long have you been writing horror, and what kind of training or study did you have? How long have you been writing in other forms, such as screenwriting?

Fracassi: I started writing in 3rd grade. Lots and lots of short stories with a focus on science fiction. I wrote my first horror novella-sized story when I was in 7th grade, mostly during Math class. It was about a group of kids fighting off a monster that lived in the park around which their neighborhood was built. Can’t remember the title…

I’ve been writing ever since, on and off, with varying focuses. Between 1998 and 2010 I wrote primarily literary fiction – short stories about relationships, etc. There were some creepy creature-features in there, but mainly literary stuff. During this period I wrote 3 novels – THE EGOTIST, DON’T LET THEM GET YOU DOWN, and HAPPY HOLLY. I’m planning on releasing these 3 books over the next 6 months as self-published titles via Amazon. THE EGOTIST is currently out as an eBook and used copies of the original print copy are around, but they’re stupid expensive.

I started screenwriting around 2011. Sort of fell into it. Started by writing movies about talking dogs for little kids, all distributed by Disney, including my first screen credit: a Disney movie called Santa Paws 2: The Santa Pups. I then developed my talent enough to write original scripts, and I wanted to focus on horror and the supernatural because A – that’s what I read ever since I was a kid and B – there’s a great market for horror.

I sold an original script called “Girl Missing” to Marvista Entertainment in 2014, and that was later broadcast on Lifetime Television and is now on demand via Amazon and iTunes. I have another supernatural thriller being developed right now called “Vintage.” Hoping that one goes into production in 2016, but you never know.

It was during this period of screenwriting that I had the revelation to start writing horror stories again. Cut to 2015, and I started writing what eventually became MOTHER

Deck: Who are your biggest influences? I couldn’t help but note that there are two characters in MOTHER named Howard . . .

Fracassi: My influences are varied, and writers I read and enjoy are not necessarily influences. I think of influences as folks who inspire me to create, or folks whose writing style inspires me to alter my own style, often significantly. While I’ll always write in my own voice, it’s definitely a chorus of other voices I’ve read over the years, as well. That said, my writing influences are classic giants such as William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, M.R. James, and more modern horror writers such as Ralph Robert Moore and the great one, Laird Barron.

Deck: You work full-time in Hollywood. Has that world had any effect on your dark fiction?

Fracassi: No, not really. Other than my screenwriting sometimes sparking ideas for my prose. But living and working in Hollywood isn’t any different than anywhere else when it comes to exposure to dark ideas.

Deck: You recently re-released your novelette MOTHER, a story of, uh, domestic discontent (trying not to give too much away here). What was the seed of inspiration for this story?

horror author motherFracassi: MOTHER was inspired by the idea of sleeping next to someone you love, someone you supposedly know better than anyone, and reaching across the bed to caress that person one dark night, to touch that person and feel their warmth and love… and finding something else altogether. Something so dark and horrible that it might make you question not only what lies beside you, but who, or what, exactly you’ve been living with all these years.

Deck: The narrator of MOTHER is an unsympathetic character, even when compared to the frightening beings that show up later in the story. Do you think readers enjoy reading about the “jerk protagonist” in horror stories more so than other genres, in the hope that he or she might meet some kind of grisly comeuppance in the end? I remember enjoying many Stephen King short stories exactly for this reason . . .

Fracassi: Yeah, Howard is a jerk, for sure. But the idea was not to make him a jerk so the readers rooted against him, but more because I wanted to explore a character who was truly selfish, egotistical and borderline sociopathic. I could just as easily have made him a gracious, loving husband, and I think the overall affect of the story would still work just as well, perhaps even better than it did, but that just wasn’t a character I was interested in writing about. Who wants nice?

Deck: Your other recent novelette is ALTAR, the tale of a day at the pool gone horribly wrong. Did you have any difficulty writing from the point of view of the children in the story? Did you draw at all from your own childhood experience — fears, desires, etc.?

horror author altarFracassi: ALTAR is very much a glimpse of my childhood, albeit through a distorted lens. That said, I wrote the characters and setting of ALTAR in such a way as to set up a sense of nostalgia for anyone who ever visited a pool with their family, whether it was thirty years ago or three years ago. Everyone’s had that feeling of a warm Saturday afternoon in the car with family, smelling the sunscreen lotion and sticking to the leather of the seats, eager to hit the cool water… of course, in my version, hitting the water is the worst idea there is.

Deck: Why do you think we’re continually drawn to stories of horrible, monstrous, even inexplicable things just beyond the veil of the normal world? What are we getting out of it?

Fracassi: Entertainment. Pure and simple. To me, my stories are roller coasters and haunted houses, they’re places for you to ride and be thrilled, to walk through and be terrified. The only difference is that when you get off my ride, I want you taking a piece of the ride with you, embedded under your skin, in your brain, to emerge again when you’re sleeping or when you least expect it. My rides have teeth.

Deck: Do you face any challenges or misconceptions from the general reading audience when writing in the horror genre? Do you try to target readers who already “get” the genre?

Fracassi: I’m not really experienced enough or have had my work distributed widely enough to answer that question. My stuff is so niche right now, and my sales so targeted, that I haven’t had to deal with my work being categorized or shunned or pigeon-holed. That said, I write horror and write it proudly. Perhaps, you could say, I write old-school horror with a flare of the new weird. And there’s enough of an audience who will read a book by that definition that I’m not really concerned about not finding enough readers.

Deck: I attended a small-group discussion at Readercon with Ellen Datlow (editor of many short-story anthologies). One of the people in the group asserted that horror “doesn’t work” in full-length book format, which Datlow agreed with. Given that your most recent works are novelette-length horror (shorter than a novel), do you agree with that statement? Did you ever envision MOTHER or ALTAR as longer stories?

Fracassi: I agree and I disagree, depending on the story. Novelettes are wonderful for most horror stories because horror stories tend to be situational. Something very bad happens, somebody has to deal with that very bad experience, and then it’s over. In traditional novels, you’re world-building, you’re creating something that will take time to fully tell, time to fully experience as a reader.

That said, there are horror stories that need to be novel-length to properly tell.

horror author cujoHere are two easy examples from Stephen King: The Shining needs to be a novel. He needed to build the mythology of the Overlook, develop the relationships between the characters, embed the backstory so the horror makes more sense and has ties to who these people are. This, in turn, makes it all the more terrifying. Okay, now take Cujo, which is a novel that would have been a million times better as a novella. Cujo is a 50-page story stretched to 300 pages of worthless side-stories that do nothing to enhance what’s happening in the real story, which is the dog and what he’s doing to the folks who get in his way.

So, again, it comes down to the story. MOTHER and ALTAR are novelettes and I would never want them to be re-imagined as anything else. I think the story fits the page-length. I am, however, working on a novel right now, called A CHILD ALONE WITH STRANGERS, that needs to be a novel. There’s world-building that needs to happen, background information that needs to be relayed, relationships that need to be developed, so when the shit hits the fan, the way these characters interact, the decisions they make, can be understood and appreciated by the reader.

Deck: What’s next for you? I see that you’re teasing a book called Don’t Let Them Get You Down.

Fracassi: Right, again, I’ll be re-releasing my literary trilogy as self-published, print-on-demand books. I have a few stories coming out later in 2016 that have already been sold – two anthologies and a standalone chapbook.

I’m also close to a large deal for another novella, a collection (my first) and a novel for 2017. Hopefully I’ll be making that announcement very, very soon.

Deck: We all know the big names in horror and dark fantasy — do you have any recommendations of books by current writers in the genre who may not (yet) be well known?

Fracassi: Because I know so many writers and because there are so many wonderful books and I don’t want to leave anyone out, let me answer your question by saying first and foremost, everyone should be reading the work of Laird Barron. All of it. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a fan of Ralph Robert Moore, who has a few novels and a couple collections available. I recommend starting with GHOSTERS. Other writers you can check out are Christopher Slatsky (Alectryomancer), Michael Wehunt (Greener Pastures), S.P. Miskowski (Knock Knock), T.E. Grau (The Nameless Dark), anything by Ronald Malfi, Paul Tremblay, Adam Nevill of course, or John Langan. That should get you started.

Deck: What do you love to do in your spare time that has nothing to do with dark fiction?

Fracassi: Nothing. Not a damned thing. If I’m not writing, I’m reading. If I’m not reading, I’m watching something scary to inspire new ideas or a new way of seeing an old trope or whatever. That’s one of the great things about discovering that you’re a horror writer – you never want to be anything else.

You can connect with Philip Fracassi through Facebook, on Twitter, and at his website, www.pfracassi.com.

Three reasons to rank life over art

art versus lifeStephen King’s memoir-slash-writer’s-companion On Writing came out when I was in college. Just as I was deciding that yes, I would actually devote my incredibly expensive degree to something called “Creative Writing & Literature.” The timing couldn’t have been better for my favorite author to become my mentor.

I learned a lot from On Writing, principles that I’d carry with me through the next fifteen years or so as a writer. Write every day — don’t wait for the “muse” to show up. Cut everything you don’t need out of your stories, especially the dull stuff. The road to hell is paved with adverbs. And if your beta readers are all quibbling with different parts of your story, feel free to ignore anything they don’t agree on.

There was one lesson in the book, though, that I wasn’t ready to understand. That I, in fact, dismissed out of hand. King said:

“Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

Art versus life: fight!

At that time, as a twenty-year-old with big ambitions for breaking into the world of books, I couldn’t disagree more with King’s statement. I would, in fact, build my life explicitly as a support system for art. I would get a crappy apartment with my best writing buddy Benjamin, find a crappy job to keep the lights on and the breakfast cereals stocked, and live for writing. 

So it went. After graduation, the plan went into motion. Every day, riding first the Metro train and then the bus back to my little redoubt on the eighteenth floor of the high-rise in Silver Spring, I knew the day would really begin when I sat down in front of that ugly old Bondi Blue iMac and started typing.

Because, you know, the only way to succeed — in a brutal field like book publishing — is to throw everything into it, right? To bend one’s fiber of being into the shape of a manuscript?

At the age of thirty-six, with an increased Wisdom score (largely due to my capable therapist), I think I finally understand where this idea goes astray. And why making art a support system for life, as Uncle Stevie urged all those years ago, is the way to go after all.

Here are the three reasons why making life into a support system for art will fail you in the end:

1. Success is out of your hands.
art versus life
The wheel of beer, Redbones, Somerville, Mass. If only Fortune were always this kind.

If you work as hard as you can at your art, that will set the stage for your success. But it doesn’t guarantee a damn thing. The blind, dumb beast known as Chance may just decide to shamble across that stage and wreck everything you’ve built.

Because you know what? Audiences are fickle. Tastes are subjective. Somebody better at bullshitting, with an uncle in the business, may claim the spotlight you were chasing. The director might be sleeping with your audition competition. You might break an ankle right before the big recital.

We should do everything we possibly we can to position ourselves for success. But that last mile doesn’t belong to us. We may fail for reasons we’ll never understand. If you’ve staked your happiness and self-worth on artistic success, you may never actually be happy. Which brings us to the next point . . .

2. The goalposts are always moving.

art versus lifeWhat does “success” mean to you?

For me, back in the early 2000s, success meant getting a book published with one of the big boys. So that was the goal I chased, over and over again. Never quite reaching it. Partly because, in retrospect, the novels I was working on still had significant room for improvement. But primarily because most of my query letters never even made it to the people they were intended for. 99% of unsolicited agent or editor queries tend to disappear into gigantic, teetering stacks of paper poked at by overwhelmed interns in the lonely towers of the City. (See point 1.)

Then I embarked on a crazy adventure, attracted a fair bit of media, and landed a book deal. The book based on my adventure, The Great Typo Hunt, was published by Random House (since merged with Penguin to become Random Penguin House), one of the biggest publishers in the world. Success achieved, based on the original definition I’d set for myself . . . right?

Nope. I told myself that I’d forgotten to specify to the success genie that I wished for a published novel, not just a nonfiction book. After all, The Great Typo Hunt was just a silly book about fixing signs with correction fluid and Sharpies. My life would only be complete, and worth something, if I published a book truly aligned with my heart and soul, like a science fiction or horror novel. So the goalposts got pushed back.

A few more years passed. I wrote a great story about gaming and virtual reality in the future, and struggled to get my agent to give it a shot, or other power brokers to even give the novel a look. Eventually, I just published the damn thing myself, as the e-book Player ChoiceSo there, now I was successful: I’d written a speculative fiction book that I could be proud of, and anyone in the world could read it. There was no longer anything holding me back.

Except — now I really wanted the novel to be read by lots of people, and to make tons of money and attract much praise and cause a huge clamor for my next book and do you see how poisonous this kind of thinking is? Scientists call this the hedonic treadmill: as you achieve more, your expectations rise in tandem, with no permanent increase in your level of happiness or satisfaction.

Career goals are important because you need to sustain your motivation. But they won’t give you a lasting sense of self-worth. That goes double for any career goals you’re trying to achieve through artistic means, because . . .

3. Art doesn’t love you back.

Sorry. Art is a monstrous bitch/bastard.

Because art comes from within you — whether it’s composing music, staging the perfect shot, or writing a story so honest it’s raw — it’s especially dangerous to equate it with who you are. If you are living for art, and the art you’ve just produced is a piece of shit, then your inevitable mental conclusion will be that you are a piece of shit.

Then flip the sides of the equation: that nasty little inner voice will whisper that since you are worthless, you will produce nothing of worth. And that voice would so love to be proved right.

Or how about the artist so maniacally committed to their art that they achieve success at a terrible personal cost? Wrecking relationships, neglecting children, setting dear friendships adrift because, they’ll say, “This is the most important part of me — this is who I am!

art versus life
Thomas Mann, world-class asshole.

History can provide us with many truly awful examples of this archetype. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife with a penknife. Thomas Mann skipped his son’s funeral to continue with his lecture tour (his son had committed suicide, as would three of his other children). Hemingway destroyed several marriages and two sons (see this NYT article, “Good Art, Bad People”).

And the artists themselves spin down into insanity, more often than not, because we need those relationships with other humans to stay sane. You can’t turn to a manuscript for comfort, advice, and understanding. You can’t fuck a painting. Art doesn’t love you back.

Who does? The people around you. Your friends, significant others, kids, pets, parents, extended family. These people aren’t just part of your life; they are life. But bonds with other humans are always fragile. People may not stick around if you’re chronically placing art over life (them). That’s the worst part about the “life as a support system for art” approach: it’s self-fulfilling. Sooner or later you look up, see no one left, and think: Finally I can concentrate.

Stephen King tells the story of moving his writing desk from the center of the room to the side, as a symbol of resetting his priorities. I’m attempting to incorporate gratitude exercises into my daily routine, to remember the importance of and my appreciation for the cast of non-fictional characters that make up my own life.

Because, you know, the books are important to me, but they aren’t the most important thing. It just might occasionally take a daily reminder to drill that into my thick skull.

Five noteworthy science fiction books so far in 2016

We’ve covered five horror books you should check out. Now let’s pop over to the science fiction side of the aisle. Here are five sci-fi books that have come out so far this year that people are buzzing about.

1. Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

science fiction booksThis story of an international quest for robot parts has an interesting, typically twenty-teens origin story: it started out as a self-published work that eventually caught the eye of a Big Five publisher once the book already had a movie deal. The big publishers have found a new risk-aversion strategy . . . publishing books that have already been published. In any case, it’s great to see an indie author make good here.

2. Infomocracy, by Malka Older

science fiction booksHmm, a “sci-fi thriller with election-year chills” — I am trying so damn hard here not to link to a certain other book that would also fit that description. Nobody likes a self-promoter. OK . . . I resisted. Anyway, Infomocracy sounds like an interesting take on the politics of the future. The author, making her debut, apparently graces the story with many details based on her own academic and international aid experience.

3. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, by Lois McMaster Bujold

science fiction booksListen, I’m a couple of books behind in Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, so please — no spoilers! I know I’m on dangerous ground here even to bring it up; I’m hoping to get to this latest book in the series soon enough. I just wanted to be sure that Bujold’s long-running saga is on your radar. Previous books have mixed science fiction, mystery, adventure, and romance brilliantly. I expect no less from this latest.

4. Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer

science fiction booksAnother debut author just like in items 1 and 2 on this list, Palmer has received high praise from Boing Boing for this novel (first in a series) about life in the 25th century, where religion is a banned topic and humans affiliate based on beliefs or hobbies rather than geography (this latter idea is actually the foundation of Older’s book, above). Some reviewers call this book dense and challenging as a caution to the reader.

5. The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria, by Carlos Hernandez

science fiction booksI met Hernandez in February at Boskone, where he made great contributions to, among other things, a panel on “nifty narrative tricks.” Our fourth debut author on this list gives us a short-story collection that Publishers Weekly called witty and insightful. I’m looking forward to checking Quantum Santeria out after I’ve waded through the remaining four hundred pages of Seveneves.

So, what else belongs on this list? Let me know!

Two-sentence horror stories – Vol I

Looks like I’m going to see Joe Hill speak at the Music Hall in Portsmouth tonight. Somebody gave me a free ticket. Odd coincidence, since I just featured The Fireman in my list of five noteworthy horror books this month.

In honor of Mr. Hill’s visit to our ‘umble Seacoast, I’d like to present a collection of two-sentence horror stories. These are brand new and making their world debut.

1. “Gentle Song”

two-sentence horror stories

2. “Orderly Policeman”

two-sentence horror stories

3. “Virtual Identity”

two-sentence horror stories

4. “Wayne Gretzky”

two-sentence horror stories

5. “Between the Sheets”

two-sentence horror stories

 

Well, this writing thing doesn’t take so much time after all, does it? Post your own two-sentence horror stories and let’s keep the ball rolling!

Five noteworthy horror books out this May

I’ve got my ear to the ground. To the spooky ground. So, uh, I wanted to tell you about the five most promising horror books out this month. Or, you know, the five most promising supernatural thrillers, or dark fiction books, or whatever the hell(s) we’re calling them these days.

1. The Fireman, by Joe Hill (May 17)

fireman horror booksBack in February at Boskone, I went to a reading (a pretty intimate reading, actually — got to love conventions) by Mr. Hill. He read a chapter from The Firemanand it was pretty scary stuff. Basically there’s a disease spreading around the U.S. that causes its victims to spontaneously combust. So even if you haven’t caught it yet, you don’t want to be standing too near someone who has . . .

2. Burned: The Thrice Cursed Mage, Book 3, by J.A. Cipriano (out now)

burned horror booksContinuing with our toasty theme, looks like readers are responding well to the third book in Cipriano’s urban fantasy series about a guy who hunts down demons and whose right hand seems to be on fire. You’d probably want to start with Book 1, Cursed.

3. The City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin (May 24)

city of mirrors horror booksThe City of Mirrors is Book Three of the Passage Trilogy, which people keep telling me I need to check out. So I will. I’m not going to read the description too closely for this one because of “teh spoilerz,” but Stephen King says it’s a “thrilling finale to a trilogy that will stand as one of the great achievements in American fantasy fiction.” I’m sold.

4. Sweet Lamb of Heaven, by Lydia Millet (out now)

sweet lamb of heaven horror booksThis one got a writeup in Slate, albeit under the label of “metaphysical thriller.” An Alaskan woman and her daughter are on the run from her aspiring politician husband. Holed up in a hotel in Maine (hello, nice to see you), the main character discovers the truth behind her daughter’s supernatural ability to make voices come out of the air, and then things really get weird. So yeah, Sweet Lamb of Heaven.

5. The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley (May 10)

loney horror booksRated B+ by Entertainment Weekly,  this debut novel by a British author is about a guy forced to reckon with terrible events from his past when a kid is found dead on the misty coast of Lancashire. Apparently Stephen King has already read this one and liked it too. Come to think of it, I’m sure he also read The Fireman, since his son wrote that one. You know what, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to get Uncle Stevie to blurb my book too? (Ha.)

So, what did I miss?