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:
Philip 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?
Fracassi: 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.?
Fracassi: 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.
Here 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.