The Cemetery Dance Interview: The Homegrown Horror of Elizabeth Massie

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Elizabeth Massie
Elizabeth Massie

Elizabeth Massie is a modern master of horror, thrillers, and all things spooky, not to mention just about every other genre known to mankind. With her new collection of short stories, Madame Cruller’s Couch and Other Dark and Bizarre Tales, she reminds fans how a forty-year career is still improving. Yes, she’s won a pair of Stoker Awards, one for Best First Novel (Sineater) and Novella (Stephen), but she’s always gone beyond the expected, spinning her tales with a homegrown voice. She’s an eighth-generation Virginian and has incorporated an Appalachian flavor to many of her stories. While many of her tales hail from the Shenandoah region, she is familiar with many an era and local folklore. Novels such as Hell Gate and her Young Founders series, not to mention her new historical The Great Chicago Fire display her love for the the past.

Yet it is her success of the Ameri-Scares series, which focuses on folklore horror from a different state in every book, that shows the breadth of her love for dark tales for all ages. Optioned by Warner Bros, the series embraced fascinating stories while educating young readers.
When she was a little kid in Waynesboro, she wanted to be either a writer, actress, or horse when she grew up. The last two didn’t pan out (although she did perform in a variety of local theater shows back in the day and she could cut loose with a fine whinny), but the first finally came true. She juggled teaching middle school life science during the day and typing (no computers for her until the mid-1990s) books and stories at night for nine years before taking the scary plunge into full time writing.
Now Beth juggles writing and life with her wonderful husband, illustrator Cortney Skinner (she tried juggling him, too, but…), in their country home in Augusta County. She’s had more than 30 novels and collections published as well as countless short stories in anthologies and magazines and is constantly bombarded by ideas for new tales. She and Cortney like to place and find geocaches, spend time at Starbucks, and drive around, seeking roads they’ve never traveled before. Beth is fascinated by abandoned amusement parks, hospitals, and houses and always keeps an eye out.

(Interview conducted by Dave Simms)

cover of Madame Cruller's CouchCEMETERY DANCE: Madam Cruller’s Couch is your newest collection and it might just be your best. Do you have any favorites in the bunch? 

ELIZABETH MASSIE: Thanks so much for the good words, Dave! As to the stories in Madame Cruller’s Couch and Other Dark and Bizarre Tales, I must say it’s hard to name a favorite child. Once you do, the others stare at you with those cold, furious eyes and you aren’t sure it’s safe to go to sleep. So, I will say they all are, which is why I included them in the collection. (There ya go! Is it safe now?)

But to pin down several, I’ll admit I had a great deal of fun with the title story, “Madame Cruller’s Couch.” The idea came quite a few years ago when Cortney, Barb, and I were driving north to Necon (that marvelous horror convention) one summer. In Rhode Island, we passed a psychic’s studio that was abandoned and had fallen into disrepair. The sign was still there but the place was a mess. I said, “I wonder what kinds of energy might have been absorbed into that psychic’s furniture over time?” And the seed for the story was planted.

Another that I particularly like is “Lucky and Poop Tail,” which is pure fantasy/creepy with animal heroes and a very satisfying conclusion. “Just Two Good Old Boys” freaks me out especially because of the history of human experiments on which the story is based. But one that sticks with me most is the novella, “Eating Cancer.” The idea still haunts the shit out of me. The way people can be mentally twisted to terrifying ends is all too real and all too current. 

cover of SineaterSineater, which won the Bram Stoker Award, resonates with many readers. I hear there’s something in the works that relates to this. True? 

True! I’m currently working on a sequel (novella) to Sineater, called Sineater: Wages (that’s the working title; it might change.) It takes place 20 years after Sineater ends. The main character is Henson Darrow, a second cousin to Joel Barker, who ended up as the sineater at the conclusion of the original novel. Without giving anything away, Henson — a nineteen-year-old college student — encounters terror and dreadful societal expectations back home in the Appalachian community of Beacon Cove when he feels obligated to return following a phone call from his brother. The novella should be available later this year. 

Your first published story is nearly 40 years old. What have you learned in this long and glorious career of dark, weird fiction?

Ah, “Whittler,” my very first published story. Got a whole $2 for that one, from Dave Silva of The Horror Show magazine. (Wait, did you say almost 40 years ago? Holy moley!) Over all this time, one thing I’ve learned is that to have a career as a writer, it’s best to write what you want to read — horror? historical? Westerns? romance? mysteries? — because that will be your best work. You’ll put your heart into it. Of course, try all kinds if you feel so moved, and I’ve definitely done that, though I tend to return to horror for the most part…my first literary love. And if you can make a big name while writing your choice of fiction, great! But that doesn’t happen often. So, be willing to expand your repertoire if need be. I don’t mean dump horror for romance; I mean don’t doggedly write only zombie apocalypse if that’s become overdone — if you can write good zombie apocalypse fiction, you could likely write other horror fiction well.

I’ve also learned that making a living as a writer is a swinging bridge…sometimes things are going great but then can swing in the other direction and you’re holding on for dear life. You can’t let yourself get seasick. Make friends with other horror writers; they’re all over the place such as social media and conventions. And I’ve learned that these days, small press publishers are a dime a dozen and writers need to investigate any potential market before submitting. Oh, and don’t pay to get published. That’s a big no-no.

My personal favorite novel is Wire Mesh Mothers.  Do you have one that resonates more than all the others with you?

Wire Mesh Mothers, for those who don’t know, is a frightening road trip that begins when an elementary teacher kidnaps a student to save her, but is in turn kidnapped by a dangerous, troubled teen. It’s one of my favorites, too. As to one that resonates in particular, though, I’d say Sineater. It’s my first; a lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into its creation. It’s set in a region of the Appalachian Mountains not all that far from where I was born, grew up, and continue to live. It explores societal traditions that are bizarre, rare, and utterly fascinating to me. I’d tried to imagine what it was like living in such a society, and how it would have affected every aspect of my life — how I view the world, what I think I should and shouldn’t do, what I would fear and what I would embrace. I still love Sineater’s main character, Joel Barker, and have often wondered for years what might have happened to him. 

You’re known mostly for your career in horror yet you’re incredibly prolific in several genres. Can you give a rundown of your writings outside the darkness?

cover of HomegrownI do tend to spread my writing wings a bit when I feel so inspired. I’ve written historical fiction (The Young Founders series of novels, The Great Chicago Fire: A Love Story), mainstream fiction (Homegrown), poetry/meditations (Night Benedictions), and tons of history, science, and language arts articles, passages, poems, and skits for numerous national educational publishers. I love researching articles and especially enjoy writing poetry. I have three ghoulish and rather humorous poems included in the newest print edition of The Horror Zine, July 2022. Check ‘em out!

You’ve lived through some glorious — and dim — moments in the world of horror. Where do you see the genre today?

There are so many more writers these days than in the past due to tons of small presses and the ease of self-publishing, and I can’t keep up. It’s sad that there are so few big publishers now that are willing to take on solid, terrifying horror novels. In fact, there are so few big publishers now. Some of the smaller presses have made big names for themselves and that’s helped rescue the genre in some ways. Thanks, you guys! However, many small press novels won’t be shelved in bookstores…and there are fewer bookstores, as we all know. As much as people hate Amazon, at the moment it’s certainly one place to find all kinds of horror fiction. As to what preferred topics or specific categories within the horror genre are currently popular, I can’t say, because if I do, the very next day those preferences will change. 

“Abed” is by far your most disturbing tale that I’ve read. And… it was adapted to film, which was equally disturbing. Are there any stories, or moments, that you have trouble revisiting? 

With “Abed,” I had challenged myself to really rip the lid off with that one, make it as disturbing as possible, and was thrilled that John Skipp and Craig Spector agreed (Skipp read it on a plane and said it made him woozy. Now, that’s a compliment!). Yet while there are stories that still chill me to the bone, such as “Abed” (now available as an individual story from Crossroad Press), “Stephen” (a Stoker-winning novelette in Borderlands 1), “Keeping the Peace” (in Crossroad Press’ Freedom of Screech), “Dee in the Dark” (from Madame Cruller’s Couch and Other Dark and Bizarre Tales), and others, there aren’t any I have trouble revisiting. I know what’s happening before I go in and am fairly well prepared.

Ameri-Scares is an amazing series for kids that’s scary and educational. Can you update the CD readers on this series and its future?

I remember, as a kid aged 10 or so, loving scary stories that didn’t horrify me but gave me chills and challenged me to think or see things in a new way. As a former public middle school teacher, I thought it would be great fun to create a series I would have eagerly read when I was young, but also thought I’d add a bit of educational/social studies value (shhh, don’t tell the kids!) Ameri-Scares was born. Each novel is set in a different state in the Union and each is based on or inspired by an actual legend, folktale, or historic event from that state. I’ve gotten a kick out of researching the various legends and stories of history in various states — I’m getting some educational value out of this, too. So far, there are 13 novels in the series. Mark Rainey has picked up the torch and is helping me move the series forward. Kids and school librarians are saying wonderful things about these books. Yay!

The horror community is like none other. Why is this, in your opinion? I’m thinking cons, especially one that might be up north.

I think most people in the horror community are sensitive souls; we write about people in terrifying situations, people who may be troubled or confused, people who are outcasts or misunderstood, people who are lost or out of their element or fragile — and these people face some of the most horrifying situations anyone can imagine. In order to write about these characters well, to flesh them out and make them accessible to readers, I truly believe we have to care…at least to a degree. And true caring can’t be faked. Most horror writers…or I should say the best ones…are genuinely caring people. It’s awesome to gather with them when possible. My favorite horror folks gather at my favorite horror convention, Necon, which is held in July. 

Can you recommend any newer (or lesser known) writers that are current favorites of yours?

I’m not sure she’s lesser-known, but Paula Ashe is a favorite that I’d definitely recommend. Seriously, her works deliver a solid punch! Don’t miss it! I’d also suggest people check out Todd Keisling — he has an excellent line up of super-creepy books already but he’s newer to the biz than many. 

What’s next for Elizabeth Massie?

Besides the Sineater sequel, I’m working on a novel called Freezer Burn and researching the Texas Ameri-Scares novel (based in a haunted theater in San Antonio….oooh!). I have several new short stories coming out, including one titled “Give to Me Your Leather” in The Drive-In: Multiplex, which is a tribute to Joe R. Lansdale’s The Drive-In. This limited, signed edition will be up for preorder this summer and it has a fantastic line up!

Thanks for the chat, Dave!

David Simms lives in Virginia. He works as a psychology/English teacher, counselor, music therapist, ghost tour guide, and book reviewer.  When free time permits, he moonlights in the Slushpile band on lead guitar after co-founding the Killer Thriller Band with F. Paul Wilson, Heather Graham, and David Morrell, which has played across America to promote literacy and questionable musicianship. 
He sold his first short story twenty years ago and has published a few dozen since then in various genres. His first novel, Dark Muse, was released in 2013 (Melange Books) and was re-released in 2020 as a middle grade novel that celebrates the music in schools as well as children with disabilities. Fear the Reaper (Crossroad Press) was the first novel about the American eugenics program which directly influenced Hitler, one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history that isn’t found in history text books.

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