Elizabeth Massie is a two-time Bram Stoker Award-winning and Scribe Award-winning author of novels, short fiction, media-tie ins, and nonfiction. Her novels and collections include Sineater, Hell Gate, Desper Hollow, Wire Mesh Mothers, Homeplace, Afraid, Naked on the Edge, Dark Shadows: Dreams of the Dark (co-authored with Mark Rainey), Versailles, The Tudors: King Takes Queen, The Tudors: Thy Will Be Done, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Power of Persuasion, and
many more. She is also the creator of the Ameri- Scares series of spooky novels for middle grade readers which is currently in development for television by Warner Horizon (Warner Brothers) with Margot Robbie’s company, LuckyChap, signed on to produce. She is a ninth generation Virginian who lives in the Shenandoah Valley with her illustrator husband, Cortney Skinner. Until her updated website launches, she can be reached through Facebook, Twitter, Crossroad Press, or through e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following is an interview I had the pleasure of doing with Elizabeth Massie. We had a great conversation about the elements of her life that influenced her to become the successful writer she is today. I hope you enjoy reading it!
SV Elizabeth, thank you kindly for doing this interview. You have an impressive record as an author, boasting not only many titles but also two Bram Stoker awards as well as a Scribe award. What inspired you to write horror, and what were some of your strongest influences in that regard?
EM Horror has fascinated me since I was very young. Back “in the day” my parents allowed me and my sisters to watch the first run of The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and Way Out. They also let us watch Shock Theater on Saturday afternoons, a show that featured the classic Universal Monster films such as Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and Dracula.
Now to be totally honest, I was easily scared as a kid. The poster from the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane traumatized me for weeks. The trailer for The Head stole many hours of sleep away as I lay in bed and hoped there wasn’t a decapitated head on my nightstand, waiting to talk to me. Yet, like I said, I was fascinated by horror. And I think the reason was this…most of the horror I watched on TV had a strong element of compassion or sympathy for the characters. I mean, who couldn’t help but feel sorry for Larry Talbot as he cried, “Somebody help me!” Or for Frankenstein when he is chained and tormented? Or for the astronaut on Twilight Zone who was condemned to solitary confinement on a planet distant from Earth? And when, at 10, I read the novel, Psycho, I was horrified but also felt bad for Norman because he was so lonely and so messed up.
In a nutshell, then, my inspiration to write horror wasn’t just the shock, rush, and the oh-my-God of it all, but the deep, gut level human reaction to terrible situations and how characters dealt (or didn’t deal) with them. Most of the horror fiction I write attempts to balance that, as well.
SV Yes, I’ve noticed that in your novel, Desper Hollow, especially with Jenkie Mustard. Though she’s a villain, so to speak, she’s very well fleshed out and the way she reacts to the situation she finds herself in is very believable, and very human. I’ve met people like her in my life, and though she’s a monster in her own way, one can’t help but feel sorry for her. Speaking of the Mustard clan, where did you get the inspiration for Granny Mustard, if I may be so bold?
EM I live in the valley in rural, western Virginia, very near the mountains in which the novel of Desper Hollow is set. We have some curious names in this region. Years ago, a little diner across from my high school – The Do-nut Dinette – was owned and managed by the Mustard family. Some called the elderly matron of the family “Granny.” How could I not use that name for a future character? The personality of Granny Mustard, however, is a combination of a number of old women I’ve known over the years. One, in particular, was my great-grandmother Black, a loud, crotchety old gal who never laughed and never plucked her hairy chin. We didn’t visit her and Granddaddy Black very often, but times spent at their strange little shadow-filled house in the woods were memorable, to be sure.
SV I bet they were. Are there any stories from there you wouldn’t mind sharing?
EM Here is what I remember about my great-grandparents, Samuel and Lottie Black. Their property (a wooden house with a low-ceilinged attic on 40 some acres of sloping, mostly tree-covered land) had been in the Black family since the late-1700s. The family farmed and raised some cattle. Likely they also moonshined, though no one in the family would swear to it. They were also slave owners until the early 1800s. Ned, Roger, and Fanny were a few of the people my family enslaved, with their names included as property in Black family wills. Heartbreaking.
There was a small family cemetery in the back corner of the wooded acreage, with 15 or so tombstones – some quite old. One particular member, William, died young and mysteriously in the 1840s. My mother told me that William had beaten the young child of an enslaved woman (the cook) and so she had in turn poisoned William. As punishment, the woman and her child were sold down to the turpentine forests of Georgia. I remember the cemetery and how broken and vine-covered it was. Like no one really cared anymore. It was thrilling and scary, both, walking through all those dead family members and wondering what they looked like under the ground.
There was also an old well in the front yard of the house. It was nothing more than a hole in the ground with a wooden board as a cover. We kids were warned to stay away, so of course we took turns daring each other to peek in. It was dark as night, full of bugs, and smelled bad.
My great-grandparents, as rustic and crusty as they were, had their own sense of decorum. We never hugged them. We only shook their hands. Most of the time they sat silently in chairs in the shadowy corners of the front room, waiting to be waited on. Needless to say, the old folks creeped me the hell out but also impressed me and gave me some wonderful fodder for future stories.
SV Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth. That sounds like the perfect atmosphere and inspiration for a future horror writer. Now earlier, you mentioned the novel, Psycho, and its effect on you. There’s a story I read when I was 9 or 10 titled The Calamander Chest. I’ve read many stories and books since then, but that particular short story, with its image of the locked chest and a finger poking out of it, scratching at the wood, left a definite impression on me. To this day, the tale stands in my mind as just about the scariest story I’ve read. Is there a story, or perhaps an image from a story, that’s like that for you?
EM Back to Psycho. I read it when I was ten. My parents didn’t know I was reading it. I’d heard about it and checked it out of the library, then hid it in my room. At that young age, I know I missed a lot of the more subtle aspects of the story, but I caught most of it. Yet even as descriptive as much of it was, there was one line in the novel that hit me in the gut. It was such a short, matter of fact sentence, with not even an adjective to spice it up. Norman was cleaning up the body of the woman that Mother had killed. The line says, simply, “The head was the worst.” This gave me nightmares. Not sure it was the scariest thing I ever read, but it ranks up there.
SV I bet. That’s simple yet very effective. Less can definitely be more. Now, you’ve mentioned some of the horror stories and movies you enjoyed when you were a child. What books and movies do you enjoy reading and watching today?
EM Today, I read across the board, and the same goes for movies. As to horror, I’m currently reading 100 Fathoms Below, by Steven Kent and Nicholas Kaufmann. My recent reads include Dean Koontz’s Innocence and Stephen King’s Revival. But recently I’ve also read If the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss (a mainstream novel set in Appalachia) and the historical western novel House of the Rising Sun by James Lee Burke. Recent movies I’ve gone to see include It 2 and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Years ago, I would stick pretty much to just horror but that’s changed. To me, a good story is a good story, regardless of genre. And I’m more picky about the horror I read and watch now, too. Gore for gore’s sake and gross for gross’s sake don’t make it. Jump scares and loud music don’t make it. I mean, c’mon, dude! (NOTE: I call females and males “dudes,” so relax, peeps.) Give me a solid story with characters I either care for or find truly fascinating and THEN put them through Hell.
SV Elizabeth, thank you very much for doing this interview with me. It’s been an honor. I have to say, I really enjoyed reading Desper Hollow and I look forward to reading more of your stories. As a final question, what can I and all the rest of your fans look forward to reading in the future?
EM A big focus of mine at the moment is my Ameri-Scares series of novels for middle grade readers. There are 9 books out so far, and I’m working on number 10. Each novel is set in a different state in the Union and is based on an actual folktale, legend, or historic event from that state. I’m lucky that Mark Rainey has joined me in this venture, with the goal of getting novels written for all 50 states. What’s exciting is that Warner Horizon (Warner Brothers) has teamed up with Margot Robbie’s production company, LuckyChap, to develop Ameri-Scares into a television series. I don’t know the time frame on these things, but I’ll certainly keep folks informed. As to fiction for adults, I have horror tales coming out this fall in several anthologies. They include my stories, Terror From the Briny Depths, in Dark Tides (charity anthology edited by John Questore), Those Who Would Be Terrified in Midnight in the Graveyard (Silver Shamrock Publishing, edited by Kenneth Cain), and It’s In the Cards in Porcupine Boy and Other Stories (Crossroad Press, edited by Christopher Jones.) I’m working on a new adult historical horror novel as well – The House at Wyndham Strand – and hope to have it done by the first of next year. Thanks for the interview and for the good words, Steve. It’s been fun!