Finding That Fevered Dream State: An Interview With Laura Eppinger, Author of Loving Monsters

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(mac)ro(mic) readers will remember One Day in the Life of a Haunted Minimalist House by Laura Eppinger: an excellent, different kind of haunted house story that we ran back in July. This piece and six other flashes appear in Eppinger’s chapbook Loving Monsters, available now and published by Alternating Current Press.

Editor-in-Chief Nick Olson recently spoke with Eppinger about her work.

There’s this wonderful weaving of the normal and the supernatural in Loving Monsters, with tableaus of everyday life set against stories that deal with vampires, werewolves, the Jersey Devil, and more. What was it like putting these pieces together?

Weaving the supernatural in with the everyday feels like a natural way of storytelling to me, and I’m thinking more and more about why. Certainly one reason is a lifetime of education in Catholic schools. For example we began every day of 5th grade with a random saint card picked out of a box and our teacher reading about their gruesome martyrdom, miracles, and divine interventions. I know a lot about saints being killed with arrows and boiling oil. I also learned that their sainthood was canonized because they performed miracles while alive, such as levitating or demonstrating bilocation—being in two places at once. I learned these things during the school day, where I also took classes like Science and Math. We were taught: Science can be proven. Religion is a mystery we accept on faith.

And yet, in modern Catholic theology it is acceptable to believe (and most commonly taught, at least in the U.S) that the Bible is full of symbolism that does not need to be taken literally. So if I ever learned how to “deep read,” I learned by hunting for symbols and historic as well as cultural contexts in the Bible. Water means eternal life, and so on.

The summer before I started high school, I found a copy of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis at my parents’ house and read it unsupervised. I was disturbed but I couldn’t put it down. It also made me comfortable with the idea of humans writing in the voices of supernatural beings. Of course this had to prove some moral point in the end. But sure, demons write letters reporting their progress on corrupting human souls. Makes sense to me!

At another point in high school, I chose the short story “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez for independent reading. I read it and distinctly remember wondering, What is HAPPENING to me? I wasn’t given the definition of “magical realism,” context, or any guidance from an adult or teacher. I don’t even think I had to write a book report. I just read it and felt like I was dreaming or had a fever. Why was I so haunted by this story that could be real but certainly wasn’t real? 

And so to answer your question, it was like that: finding that fevered dream state where the supernatural is totally plausible, and also knowing each story needed some kind of engine to keep a reader turning each page.

Were these stories written with an eventual collection in mind, or did they all come together somewhere along the way?

A little bit of both! Most of the last 15 years I’ve been writing in completely haphazard ways—I’m writing about whatever I’m obsessed with at the moment. But I think given enough time, every writer will see the themes they keep returning to from different angles.

In May 2020 I realized I had written a whole lot about monsters. I gave myself a few challenges: It’s time to write about the Jersey Devil, or, You can write a ghost story! I landed on the title of LOVING MONSTERS and made that the target. I ended up writing five new flashes for this collection between May and December of 2020. Two of the other stories had been written in previous years.

You do a great job here of setting the monstrous nature of toxic relationships against more mythical monstrosities. What was it like balancing those elements?

Thank you! A friend just called me “The Bard of Bad Relationships,” and I admit I have spent a lot of time working through some rough experiences in therapy and also struggling to capture the experiences in writing.

I keep searching for a better answer, but truly, when I experience bad behavior from someone (or see something horrible on social media), my first instinct is to connect the behavior with something supernatural, some dark force. I guess it lets the person doing the bad thing off the hook, since they are clearly possessed by a demon with an anti-mask agenda or whatever.

A supernatural explanation just seems natural to me. I am sure there are dozens of reasons for this but here is what I’ve arrived at: When I was 10 years old, a dear relative was re-reading Fahrenheit 451 and challenged everyone at the family dinner table: If all books disappeared and you had to spend the rest of your life memorizing, then reciting, just one book, what would it be? The adults in the room were saying things like the Bible or the collected works of Shakespeare. Without hesitating, I responded, “Monster Blood III by R.L. Stine.” Perhaps that was legally binding somehow? I have to tell spooky stories? I suppose I have to accept that I am the CryptKeeper.

Some of these stories tackle the pandemic directly, with an especially potent piece that handles the ugliness of conspiracy theories and weaponized disinformation. Can you speak a little to the process of handling/fictionalizing this moment while living through it?

During the summer of 2020 I lived in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia, across the street from the Eastern State Penitentiary. This building “haunts” the whole area, and taking the self-guided tour reminded me that the cruelest adversaries we’ll ever have as humans are OTHER HUMANS. Even ones with good intentions! The penitentiary was built to give every imprisoned person a single room and 23 hours a day of solitude. Its architects believed this quiet time would inspire imprisoned persons to pray and align themselves with the Christian god. What a cruel practice⁠—pandemic lockdown showed us how isolation hurts humans! And of course, when these folks were released back into society, none of the social ills had been cured. Many folks served multiple sentences at Eastern State Penitentiary. Solitary confinement did not “cure” them of course.

Every day I looked at Eastern State Penitentiary and remembered that society turns us into monsters⁠—or views us as monsters unjustly. People were imprisoned for being poor and hungry enough to steal food. People were imprisoned for being queer. Formerly enslaved persons sometimes served sentences at Eastern State, which is as understandable as it is tragic, since a racist society barred them from accessing life’s necessities.

I encourage everyone to learn more about the philosophy of corrections that informed the construction of this nearly-200-year-old prison building, and its overall history. (Also, Al Capone was imprisoned there!)

So while I was living in the shadow of the Eastern State Penitentiary (literally), I was locked down working from home and absolutely binging on podcasts: ones about folklore (like “Lore” with Aaron Mahnke), history (like “Noble Blood” by Dana Schwartz), and hard news or current events (everything by Vox, or “The Daily” by the New York Times).

When I think about writing many of the pieces in this chapbook, I think of all these different ideas and inputs in my brain, and then throwing them all in a blender. LOVING MONSTERS is the smoothie my brain made out of all of this. Yummy.

There’s such a freshness to these depictions of well-known monsters and mythical creatures. Did it feel important to take these constructs in a different direction?

Thank you for saying that! Whenever I write anything, I try to avoid stereotypes or perpetuating harmful representations. (But I do imbibe society’s messages, so I am certain I make mistakes in this often.)

As I was writing each story, the monsters were characters who felt real. I can think about and talk about the monsters as constructs of course! But I didn’t want to feel any distance or indifference toward them, though it is disturbing to speak for monsters. (In “Five Issues That Didn’t Get Resolved After We Turn Into Vampires,” I wrote a vampire reflecting on eating the hearts of children. Sitting here now, I consider that very dark!)

I guess I wanted to be as respectful as possible in portraying these monsters … just in case they are real and would seek revenge on me for publishing a hatchet job!

What was your decision-making process like for which creatures to cover in these stories? Or was it more about following your interest/inspiration with them?

I wasn’t deliberate at all in choosing which monsters to write about. So I did struggle when it was time to decide what to include in a manuscript to submit to presses. (I am most comfortable writing vampires and have far too many stories about them!)

I admire writers who are more intentional with what they write. Throughout 2017 I tried and failed to place a chapbook of fiction with a theme of women’s erasure from science, so there is this era of my writing that is all about the Manhattan Project and physicists. I think sometimes a writer’s phase or obsession CAN present itself in a way that leads to a salable themed manuscript. Other times it’s a muse blowing a raspberry and taunting, “I made you read three biographies of Einstein, you nerd!” (Maybe that’s just me.)

Were there any monsters that were left on the cutting room floor?

So many! I had originally conceived of this as being a much longer collection involving short stories as well as flash. I wanted to shoehorn all kinds of things in there: a short story I had published in 2012 about an unnamed spirit of lost objects, or some fiction about bad relationships with magical realism elements but no clear “monster.” And, even though there are two vampires in this collection, I’ve written about this particular monster even more (like here:

I do wish I had a witch in here. I love witches!

Do you have a favorite monster/cryptid?

Vampires were placed in my path at such a key time in my life—it’ll always be vamps.

When I was 17 my dad encouraged me to read “Dracula” because he said it was the most frightening book on earth. He was so right! The epistolary form worked so well for me; even more than the convoluted plot, the idea that these events were happening live and the characters were all in imminent danger kept me flipping pages.

My high school love got me reading Anne Rice and Christopher Pike. I have to say, that first heartbreak made me see the vampires Lestat and Louis in a whole new light.

Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?

There may have been earlier stories but I do recall using my grandparents’ first PC with word processing software to write and print out something called, “The Evil Head.” In this story, a marble bust of Mozart taunts two children and no matter what they do, it won’t break. Like I said, I’m the CryptKeeper.

It feels like you can really go anywhere you want from here. What’s next for you? Do you have a new project in the works?

I’d like to make some pretty big pivots, actually.

In trying to be more deliberate, I am officially saying: I am writing a longer essay collection, specifically about the time in my life between the end of high school and the end of undergrad four years later. I felt a lot of worlds colliding and learned a whole lot about myself during that era.

That said, the last things I’ve actually written have been fiction about haunted houses, ha! I saw Carmen Maria Machado read (virtually) this summer; she read “Eight Bites” (exquisite as always) and then referenced this Jo Walsh piece in Tor about haunted houses. ( A gothic needs a girl and a house. That really got its hooks in me. So I’ve been trying to write about homeownership, and living in a suburb that is frankly whiter and more affluent than anywhere I have ever lived. It feels uncanny and spooky, at least to me.

I do have to say, this fiction project has been failing so far. I’m either too close to it, or a gothic tale isn’t my way in. (I want to read others who write their way into this though, please!)

While I think as writers we need to talk more openly and honestly about the times we suck and fail … I don’t want to close this interview here!

At this current moment, the way I feel I am expressing myself best is in needlework.

Sometimes words on a page just fail (me, at least). In the last year I took on an embroidery and photography project called Have a Petty Party. Most recently, this image I created in that series was the cover of the literary magazine Beyond Words: 

And I have been cross-stitching something like four hours a day (many days, not all) to cope with my Delta Variant Anxiety. I’m working on this project I call The Denim Tarot, creating wall-hanging, larger-than-life tapestries styled like tarot cards, but taking imagery that keeps popping up in my own life and placing them in the Major Arcana. This may take me years to finish but I am inching toward an interactive art exhibit where visitors walk from “card” to “card” and are encouraged to piece together a story or answer to a query based on how they interact with or interpret the symbols. 

As I said, it’s a pivot. Textiles and especially stitching are the best ways I can express ideas or tell stories at the moment. But please poke me about finishing a collection of essays.

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