The expansion of smaller publishers has given authors a voice and platform to cultivate tales from all walks life. Whether it sits in the realm of the unknown, rides the roads around the world or makes its way through history, talented authors harness their craft leaving a mark on readers of all generations and styles. FUNGASM PRESS is a mutating and transforming publisher which orbits the bizarre minds of horror, the strange and unique. Danger Slater is one of those minds of the bizarre creating stories that reflect the madness and macabre of love, loss and coming of age. His latest book offers another dark path for the YA crowd with PUPPET SKIN. This tale focusing on a young girl named Hannah who is facing the tie of her life the innocence of youth fades away to the wooden exterior of adulthood. We grabbed Danger Slater between working on his next connecting nightmare to talk PUPPET SKIN, dancing, body horror and the frightening time that is being an adult here on the HORROR NEWS NETWORK.
Jay Kay: FUNGASM PRESS madman in control John Skipp calls PUPPET SKIN a bizarro, young adult book or YA book. Do you agree with that and was that your intent to craft a story for that very influential and impact age of development originally?
Danger Slater: Yes and no. Since the main character is a teenager and the plot centers around ‘growing up’ it is very much a book that we felt teenagers would be able to identify with. But I wasn’t always comfortable with that YA label. It’s not the kind of writer I considered myself be (and I still don’t) and I always figured the book would connect more with adult readers, whom have already gone through the ‘growing up’ process. Keep in mind, I am using parentheses when saying the term ‘growing up’ because in PUPPET SKIN, growing up means undergoing a horrific and painful full-body transformation from a human being into puppet. So even though we’re attempting to target and pull in a younger demographic -which most bizarro books don’t do- it was still very important for me not to pull my punches when it came to the story itself, so the weirdness and horror are all in there in spades. While this book could be appropriate for people in the 14-15-16-year-old age range (in the way something like Catcher in the Rye would be appropriate) I think it’ll leave an impact in adults just as much, if not, more than your average teenager.
JK: PUPPET SKIN follows the lead character Hannah who is about to enter the next stage of her life and possible final stage. She is a complex and familiar character to many at that age. Where did she come from and what went into the thinking of her family and social groups?
DS: When I was writing the book, I hit a wall early on. My main character is a teenage girl. I am not a teenage girl. I never was. So I worried about making a character that different from myself relatable. I messaged my friend Jessica McHugh (a horror writer herself, as well as the author of a YA book series) and asked her how to channel inner teenage so I can make this Hannah character believable. Her answers was simple and obvious, and I think I just needed someone who know what they’re doing to say it to me: she said, Hannah is just like everyone else. No matter who we are, we all have things we want. Things that scare us. Hidden goals. Hidden fears. We were all kids ourselves, looking at the adult world like it was this giant, alien thing. I thought back to my own teenage years, I looked at my life now and the things that still confound and frighten me, and I just poured it all that insecurity directly into her. I figure if I, an almost middle-aged man, can find an access point into Hannah, that route should be pretty universal for everyone.
JK: The theme of safety on many levels is a huge part of the story. Can you talk about exploring safety in such arenas as the home, school, therapy, in society and growing up for Hannah? Why is the idea of safety so scary and builds tension so well?
DS: It’s not that the idea of safety is scary, it’s the notion that that safety may be (and almost always is) false, coupled with the “I-know-whats-best-for-you” mindset you receive from people in power. Those things never go away, no matter how old you get. If not your parents, it’s your boss/spouse/children/society/self. The expectation is almost always more terrifying than the execution. In the real world, more often than not, thoughts are the things that keep people from doing things or accomplishing things or realizing their full potential. Fear is mostly just thoughts to begin with. That whole “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” bit. But buying into this aloof and undefined notion of ‘safety’ is our easy way of trying to quell that fear. Safety is an excuse to stay inside. Of course, the world is confusing and cruel and bigger than just your house, and sometimes even the best excuses aren’t going to help you. That’s where real horror begins.
JK: PUPPET SKIN has very much a “body horror” theme to it. Such examples of it include the transition at graduation, the process to become wood, and the virus that strikes the adults among other examples. What influenced you to write this type of horror for coming of age story?
DS: just love body horror. I always have. Gore too, which I think is the logical extension of that. Cronenberg and Troma, early Peter Jackson, Frank Henenlotter, Full Moon. I was a child of the 80s; THIS was the kind of horror that I grew up with. Although I tone down some of the splatter (compared to my last novel, at least) a bit for PUPPET SKIN, I focus all that instead on the body horror aspects. It seemed a natural fit. When you’re growing up, your body undergoes pretty dramatic changes itself. I have always been fascinated (and in a way, frightened) of my own body. And still am. What is this bump? This ache? Why is my nose stuffed and where does that mucus come from? To me, body horror is akin to becoming cognizant of your own humanity, and at no time is it brought into more focus than when your body is literally and rapidly changing, like in your teenage years.
JK: One very connecting aspect of Hannah’s struggle is the constant fight to give up on her dreams versus being her own woman and not following the status quo of growing up. How personal was this struggle for you and where did your life meet overall influence from those you observe and research?
DS: Oh, man. This is the essence of being an artist. Especially when you come from a pretty average, lower-to-middle class background. Because money (and the pursuit of money) is such an vital part of being an adult, the focus from when your young – from before you even really grasp the concept of money – is you need as much of it as possible. The reality of pursuing the arts is that it takes incredible amounts of time and commitment to hone your skills and create something. And even then, 99 times out of 100, the financial gain is not proportionate to the effort put in. So of course this is the struggle that Hannah faces. It’s the struggle I faced. The struggle everyone faces. Even to this day, the struggle persists. And I think: I can pull the plug on this writing thing if I wanted, couldn’t I? I could get a job and make (at least enough) money to not have to live such a chaotic and unstable life. But I don’t do that. Why? Well, at the point, I’m not really qualified to do anything else, BUT MORE THAN THAT, it’s because this is who I am. Because I WANTED this life. My struggle today is the same as it was when I was a teenager, the same as Hannah’s, the same, I suspect, as yours (yes YOU, Jay, and YOU TOO, the person reading this) – we all want to do something important, something enduring, something TRUE. That’s the optimal word. Truth. I don’t need to “research” it, as you put forth in your original question, as I need to just be aware of it, meditate on it, digest it, and give it back to you. Because I’m living it. We all are.
JK: There are some terrifying scenes involving feed tubes coming down from the sky kidnapping and transforming key figures in Hannah’s life right in front of her. The horror of change whether in personality, social status, physically, emotionally or mentally at any age can affect our development going forward. Can you talk about that theme and building this story knowing that characters like Jordan, Bettie, Hanna’s mother and her teachers all change and perhaps turn on her? Did you have flashbacks or trouble writing any of these character betrayals?
DS: People change a lot slower than the characters undergoing their puppet transformations in the book. My high school friends and I, we all aged at the same rate. A lot of times I feel separate from them – from everyone really – like I’m the only real person and they all following some kind of script. It’s like, I can see people around me change (mature, some would say) and yet I still feel like this confused little kid. Of course, I’m not inside their heads, and I’m sure they might share the same sentiment about themselves and the world when looking at me. This isn’t a betrayal on their part or mine. I don’t know what it is, or if I have the ability to really discern and define it.
JK: The written detail in this bizarre world of decay, estrangement, darkness and dictatorship is bleak and hopeless through most of the story. Tools like humor, light and hope are few and far between, was it always planned to have this world of Hannah’s stay in dread, shadow, rot and obedience? What was the thinking in writing the detail and description?
DS: This wasn’t intentional. Most of my other books have elements of humor woven throughout. Even my last book I WILL ROT WITHOUT YOU, which was about a man rotting apart (in the strangest and most grotesque ways I could think of) in his apartment after his girlfriend leaves him, had a playfulness about it that is absent from PUPPET SKIN. I don’t know why this book turned out the tone it did. I guess the process kinda helps inform the story in the same way the story can affect the process. Aside from the conceit of the book being somewhat silly at a glance, this world, this character, this story didn’t seem to want to let the light in. At least, not in any cheap way. There is light in this book. There is hope. But it has to be earned, by the characters and the readers. It’s what makes the journey worth it.
JK: One of the few times that seems hopeful is Hannah’s dancing early in the book. Why include that unique love for her knowing that it maybe hopeless overall in the storytelling? What was your “dancing” as a young adult that got you through those times?
DS: This is an easy one! It was writing, of course! I had always wanted to be a writer (if not of novels, then of movies, or comics, or TV shows, or whatever.) It was pretty much the only thing I excelled at that I also happened to like. But having that kind of focus was a double-edged sword. I didn’t really care about school because, overwhelmingly, it had nothing to do with creative writing. My grades were bad. Which made my home life bad. My mother would punish me for getting F’s by grounding me. I was grounded A LOT. But I’m a stubborn asshole, so getting punished didn’t push me into getting better grades, but rather, all I did was dig my heels in deeper into this thing. When you get bad grades and you’re getting punished all the time, you start to think you’re this fuckup. And what do fuckups do but FUCK UP, so my grades got worse, I got less and less interested in school, and I got more and more belligerent to anyone who tried to tell me anything or stand in my way. And this went on for years, right? I was an angry young man. Until one day I woke up this adult, and I looked around and realized no one was getting on my case anymore. I got some crap job because I didn’t care about jobs or college or any of that and I lived in shitty apartments in ghettos because that’s what I could afford. But goddamn, I was enmeshed in this writing thing. It was flowing through my veins. I would read all day. Write all night. I kept this up until it start to actually work. Until the writing got good. And people started to notice. I had NO IDEA when I was a punk kid cursing out my teachers and reading books I stole from the library that any of this might actually amount to anything. I mean, I’m still poor as shit. But I wrote a few books. I’d call that a win.
JK: The inner monologues are so honest and connecting. They help Hannah through the struggles of family, friends, society and growing up? Did you craft those monologues as part of the pre-writing or did they develop as you wrote PUPPET SKIN?
DS: I don’t do any pre-writing. I usually come up with a beginning and an ending. Maybe one or two ‘big’ scenes in the middle I want to get to. And then I just sit down and see what happens. My first chapter or two usually goes through 20+ rewrites. It’s ridiculous how many times I’ll write that first chapter. Thing is, I won’t go on with the rest of the book until those first few chapters are perfect. That’s because I’m using those rewrites to really dig into the character, find their voice, figure out what makes them tick. The worst thing would be to get to the last page and realize I hadn’t figured out or connected with my protagonist yet. So as I rewrite those first few pages over and over and over and over, it really sets the tone for everything that comes after. Once I had that for PUPPET SKIN, the rest came out almost effortlessly. I’d sit down and it was like the words were already there. I knew the character and I knew her world, inside and out.
JK: How has it been working with FUNGASM PRESS? How much did their experience, perspective and knowledge help in the edit as well the final copy? What’s next for you?
DS: I love my Fungasm team. John Skipp is a wellspring of information, energy, wisdom, talent, and stories. He really seems to get what I do, which makes the editing process a completely natural one. In fact, with PUPPET SKIN we didn’t edit much. Every scene I wrote stayed in the book. And my girlfriend Lisa LeStrange, and Rose O’Keefe from Eraserhead Press, have both really been instrumental in helping shape the book and bring it to life. As a team, we function like fingers on the same hand. As for what’s next, MORE BOOKS, MAN! I’m 13k into the next novel I intend to submit to FUNGASM when I’m done, and about 10k into another novel I am co-writing with one of my Bizarro brothers. And that’s not to speak of the half dozen or so other books I got cooking up in the back of my head. Unless I die tomorrow, you people are going to be suffering my stories for years to come.