Q: Your anthology, CORPSE BLOSSOMS: VOLUME I, primarily deals with "real-life" horror, rather than the supernatural or monsters. Why did you choose to go that route? How did you get that title?
RJ: We started this project with the barest notion of what we wanted: well written stories that frightened without drawing too deeply or frequently from the well of traditional horror tropes. Early in the reading process, we weren't exactly sure what a CORPSE BLOSSOMS story was, aside from the fact that we'd know one when we read one. Along the way, stories emerged from the slush, setting the tone and acting as guide posts: this is the kind of story you want.
Sadly, not all of those made it into the book. At the end, quite honestly, we had enough material for two volumes-fifty or so stories that needed to be whittled down to twenty-four. It wasn't easy, and I miss many of those stories. I've seen a few of them pop up here and there, and I'm sure they'll all find homes eventually.
Julia: We like supernatural stories. We like monster stories. However, requesting submissions that focus on those threats can sometimes detract from the development of human relationships and conflicts and the drama of human choices, which are what make any story emotional and moving-accessible. Real. Some contributors followed this to a T, and those stories are great. Just bang-up, ass-kicking grittiness and hardcore heartache.
Tom Piccirilli's "An Average Insanity, A Common Agony" is a down-to-earth slice of a very disappointing life and a desperate leap at redemption. Gary A. Braunbeck's "Need" is a very calm, very clever, and very heart-wrenching series of snapshots that piece together to depict the painful reality of a mother's choice. Parents have more control than anybody. They have absolute power to form an entire life, an explosion of delicate potential, in their weary, mortal hands. Every day they decide to hold onto that life, or simply, for whatever reason... let it fall. This is explored both in Brian Freeman's "Running Rain" and Scott Nicholson's "The Weight of Silence".
The stories we chose boil down to humanity's most crushing decisions. "The Man in the Corner", by Eric Shapiro, begins: "The simplicity of your choice is alarming: either you pay your check and exit the café or you slaughter the man in the corner."
On the other hand, some of the stories in CORPSE BLOSSOMS have monsters or ghosts playing backup, but the real terrors are always human. This is a result we didn't expect or request, and it's just terrific. The anthology overall is an examination of the human monster and the ghosts of the human psyche. In a few stories, individual choices have the potential for global impact. In Patricia Russo's chilling "Feed Them", a woman weighs maintaining a relationship with her son against exterminating a mysterious infestation. In Steven E. Wedel's funny and disturbing "The God of Discord", a man sacrifices everything to thwart the actions of an ancient evil that nobody else can perceive. Again, choices.
Q: How did you go about soliciting authors? Was there a "wish list" of contributors you wanted, or was it fairly wide-spread? I know Pic's & Braunbeck's work tends to be a little surreal...
RJ: We sent out a handful of invitations to authors that we knew we wanted, but mostly we just sat back and watched the stories roll in. Offering 8-10 cents per word has a way of generating submissions. Five or six of the tales in CORPSE BLOSSOMS were by invite, the rest were plucked from the slush.
As for the title, I was working on getting a portfolio of artwork together for CEMETERY DANCE. I'd sent them two pieces; they'd liked them, and wanted to see more. I did some thumbnail sketches and brainstorming, but never got around to doing any of the paintings. This probably had something to do with the arrival of our son and the job I was working at the time.
Anyway, one of the pieces was going to be titled CORPSE BLOSSOMS. Obviously, it was going to depict a desiccated corpse entangles in thorns and roses. Not the most original imagery, but the name lingered.
Julia: When RJ mentioned this to me, my science-kid brain piped up: "Ah, yes, the corpse blossom!" and I told him about the jungle flower that's two feet wide and smells like rotting meat to attract flies for propagation. Naturally, this doesn't have any relevance to the book or the design, which features a hibiscus, but I'm the type of person who finds lame facts interesting.
I love the multiple interpretations the title can yield. I like to think of each story as one of many blossoms produced from a corpse's decay, as one facet of death's cycle, one manifestation that is beautiful, enchanting, and just maybe... toxic. That's the other side. Perhaps the corpse blossom is the petal your wife has been grinding up into your Wheaties ever since the life insurance got renewed. Perhaps it's that lump you found, the first budding sign of your journey to corpsehood. It's anything, it's everything, it's a poetry major's wet dream.
Q: In the book's foreword, you tell the readers to read the stories in order, rather than skip around. Why?
RJ: Obviously, you don't HAVE to read them in order. Most people won't. But we put a great deal of thought into arranging them-perhaps too much thought.
Julia: We spent a lot of time banging our heads against the wall coming up with a perfect lineup and it seemed odd to let the order be a crapshoot. So we continued banging our heads against the wall to determine a perfect arrangement-not by theme, mind you, which has led some to conclude that the flow is "helter-skelter", but rather by tone and scale. We personally like the alternation of real to spooky to bizarre to real, because the reader never knows what to expect from the next piece.
RJ: Some people have gotten our intention, some haven't. Mounting tension was our goal-raising the stakes steadily, moving toward madness, through it, and, at last, into apocalypse.
With a few amusing stops along the way, to keep you from opening your wrists.
Q: There is also an illustration that goes with each story. Are these all done by the same or different artist(s)?
Julia: We kept as much of the work in-house (by which we mean in-our-apartment) as possible. I did each of the spot illustrations using charcoal pencils. RJ did the cover art, and a beautiful job of it, I'd say. Haunting.
RJ: I played with various cover designs, some digitally created, some hand-drawn and digitally altered. I eventually dusted off the corpse-in-flowers idea and threw something together-not the original idea, which was to have been a detailed acrylic painting, but a quick and dirty ink-on-watercolor-paper piece, which I then digitally colored.
The response to that cover was varied: Matt at Shocklines liked it, Gary Braunbeck emailed me, begging me not to use it, and Nick Mamatas pointed out that it looked like a Dover Thrift Edition, which is certainly true. At some point early in the game, I had said that there'd be no skulls anywhere on or in the book. Apparently I went a little crazy for a few days, or was possessed by the same design-challenged spirit who has in the past defaced paperback editions of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and BORDERLANDS...
Q: Not to slight any of the contributors, but what is your personal favorite story in the anthology?
Julia: For me, that's gotten harder and harder to distinguish over the months, because I can't imagine these stories separated or appearing anywhere else than beside their brothers and sisters. I've seen layers to stories that didn't appear to me on my first read. If I were to be consistent I would say "Victrola's Way to Pay" by Athena Workman, a dusty little Faustian tale that has been a darling underdog of mine from the beginning. If I were to totally reassess things now... I honestly don't know. Braunbeck's "Need" is the only one that still gets an emotional rise out of me. Being so familiar with it only makes it the more potent.
RJ: When I think of the CORPSE BLOSSOMS experience, three stories-"The Smell of Fear", "The Last Few Curls of Gut Rope", and "Empathy"-immediately come to mind. Obviously, I think they're all fantastic, and don't feel comfortable picking favorites, but I do feel closer to some than others.
I don't know how many times I've read Bev Vincent's "The Smell of Fear". It was the very first submission we received, but we didn't accept it until the very end of the selections process. At the end of the day, following a handful of revisions, we had three very distinct versions of that story-each quite good and worthy of publication.
I'm also fond of Steve Vernon's "The Last Few Curls of Gut Rope," another that was around from very early on. It wasn't a tone setter-that honor goes to Tom Piccirilli's story-and some have said that it's wholly out of place. I don't think it is. It follows Braunbeck's devastating piece for a reason.
Kealan Patrick Burke's "Empathy" almost didn't happen. Following our invitation, Kealan wrote "Grand Guignol", a tale, he told me, based on the most horrible thing he'd ever seen. As it turned out, the most horrible thing he'd ever seen was also the most horrible thing I'd ever seen. The result was a story that chilled me.
Unfortunately, we really didn't like the manner in which Kealan brought things to a close. Rejecting "Grand Guignol" was painful, chiefly because I, a first-time editor with absolutely no credentials or credibility, found myself in the position of rejecting the tale in one of two ways:
"Sorry, it's not a fit. Please try us again." Or...
Telling him why it didn't work, and how it could be better.
Happily, I chose the latter. Nervously, I should say. Because I didn't know Kealan, I had no idea how he'd react to my suggestions or criticisms. He reacted by thanking me for being honest, and then overhauling "Grand Guignol" into "Empathy," the novelette (it's over 9000 words long!) that in many ways serves as the HEART of CORPSE BLOSSOMS. Half of our tales are about real-life horror, the other about the supernatural. "Empathy" is the bloody point at which those themes meet.
Q: When is the book going to be released and how can people order it?
RJ: The trade hardcover, limited to 500 copies, is available now, and can be purchased at several places online, such as Shocklines and Clarkesworld Books, or you can buy it directly from us at www.creepinghemlock.com. People are raving about the book and its production values. This, of course, was our plan-to create a book so beautiful that folks would actually go stark raving bonkers. In that regard, we're kind of like Sutter Kane.
Julia: The signed and lettered editions should be going to press by the end of March. The signed edition will be hitting the market sooner, and will be just awesome. It has mint-green, red-ink signature sheets. It's going to be slipcased, bound in red faux leather with a green foil stamp and will have an all-new dustjacket design that reflects some of the sights to be seen in Southeastern Louisiana of late. The lettered edition will be bound in genuine leather and placed in a custom wood-and-leather traycase. It will be a true work of art for the ultimate connoisseur of fine dark fiction.
Q: Ironically, you two had to go through a lot of real-life horror in regard to having to leave your place in New Orleans, because of the flood... tell the readers a bit about that experience...
Julia: RJ had to kill a man in the Superdome for a back-washy bottle of Mountain Dew.
RJ: Actually, it was a Barq's Red Cream Soda. And it was a twelve-year-old girl. And I ate her.
Julia: Really, other than some iffy traffic, we were never put in mortal danger.
RJ: We crept along I-10 West for nineteen hours. Ten or so hours into the journey, during a rare spell of light traffic, I began to nod off behind the wheel. Everyone else was asleep, so I cranked up Metallica's... AND JUSTICE FOR ALL to eleven. Oddly, this didn't wake anyone. And it didn't keep me from nodding off while going 65 on a long stretch of elevated highway over the Louisiana marsh. So when my lovely wife speaks of not being put in mortal danger, it's only because she slept through that part.
Julia: It's terrible, even criminal, what some people have gone through. But for us, the entire experience has been little more than a major inconvenience. Two months after evacuating for Katrina, and several weeks after resettling in Sulphur and then evacuating for Rita, we came home to find a soggy carpet and mold crawling up the walls in our New Orleans rental. We had to throw away almost everything and locate an apartment (CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP) deep in the heart of Texas. We're getting back on our feet alright, thanks to the generosity of friends, strangers, and the Gub'mint. We survived just fine, but now we're dealing with the destruction. Right now we're in a FEMA trailer in New Orleans taking care of salvaging and trashing RJ's mother's house. It's quite depressing. We won't accept any more cash donations, but we're thinking of starting a Prozac fund.
RJ: We'd just settled into our rental when Katrina hit. As a result, all my geekie goodies were still at my mother's house. Surprisingly, I lost very little, considering the fact that the ceilings had crashed down throughout most of the house. Roughly half of my book collection went bye-bye, but the more valuable pieces are fine, if somewhat stinky. It did hurt, though, tossing out half my hardback King collection, and I've kept my thoroughly ruined copy of Braunbeck's IN THE MIDNIGHT MUSEUM around, simply because the guy on the cover looks like I've felt for the past five months.
Q: What are your upcoming projects?
RJ: CORPSE BLOSSOMS almost featured a twenty-fifth story co-written by one of the biggest names in horror. Rejecting it was perhaps the most difficult decision we had to make during the story selection phase, but we had to: it simply didn't fit.
So we're publishing this story as the first volume in a chapbook series titled UNTO DUST... TALES OF THE APOCALYPSE. We've already lined up two monsters in the industry for books two and three. One of them is a BLOSSOMS author, one isn't. We're not ready to say more. Not because it's a great secret, but because we have no firm release date yet. When we announce details on Volume 1 in this series, it will already be on hand and ready to ship. Expect it this year.
Later, there will be a very lavishly-produced limited hardback of an excellent novel that's currently available in mass market paperback. Again, we won't be dropping many details until it's ready for your shelf. This will be a late '06/early '07 release, and it's going to knock your socks off.
All that and a novella series, which will launch with a new one from Tom Piccirilli.
And if CORPSE BLOSSOMS does well, there's always Volume II.