Eric LaRocca is an American author who burst onto the horror scene with his debut publication, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke. The novella quickly went viral and forced many a reader to give pause and find out for themselves if all the hype was for real. Not only was the hype well earned, but in subsequent publications (We Can Never Leave This Place, The Trees Grew Because I Bled There, You’ve Lost A Lot Of Blood, They Were Here Before Us) LaRocca proves he is hardly a one-bolt-strike of polarizing lightning. The man writes as if possessed by a storm of collected maladies rendered by the universal subconscious of our darkest fears and twisted perceptions. What LaRocca does with the source of our lamentations is nothing short of brilliant. His artistic muse easily transcends the very label which defines genre and offers instead a peeled-back look at our bare selves in a world where showcasing what’s truly inside is often controversial at best, feared and shamed or downright hated at worst, whilst compassion and understanding become virtues most discarded.
With a bravado that is both rare and refreshing, LaRocca writes from the heart even as it bleeds everything he has to offer until we’re moved to think in uncomfortable ways because the author understands discomfort is necessary for forward motion, for progress.
I was lucky enough to sit down with LaRocca and dive into the makings of what makes him tick, what makes his work so damn infectious and, perhaps most importantly, what’s next in line to stir our mind and heart.
(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)
CEMETERY DANCE: Eric, like a lot of your readers, I first heard of you through your viral book sensation, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke. I feel most folks want to be a viral sensation, but what does it mean when you have a book that’s a viral sensation? I mean, other than infecting people with the nightmares you write about, what is a viral sensation when it comes to books?
ERIC LAROCCA: Well, I think that term really was coined by the marketing department at Titan, which is putting out the book you’re talking about, Things That Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, but it’s also being packaged with two other stories. So, the book is called Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes. To answer your question, I think of books like Bird Box that was a cultural phenomenon, like with the movie, like any sort of media that has that kind of quality that just goes in, it kind of seeps into other communities and reaches as far as it possibly can. With Things Have Gotten Worse, there were so many people who were reading the book who weren’t necessarily in the niche horror market that it was written for, and that really surprised me because I would have people telling me, “You know, I saw your book on this random app. I saw your book being reviewed by this person that has no affiliation with the horror genre.”
It was really quite strange when that happened because Things Have Gotten Worse was really kind of a niche project. It was published through Weirdpunk Books, which is a very small micro-press based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and they publish a lot of religious, dark, gritty, transgressive fiction. I think the reason why Things Have Gotten Worse broke out the way it did was maybe a couple of things. It obviously was seen by the right people at the right time, so that people could have access to it and read it and formulate their own opinions, but I really do think the cover art was a big selling point. I think people were already familiar with Tim Jacobson, who did the cover art for the original edition of Things Have Gotten Worse. I think that cover art really drew people in. I also think the title really drew people in. Moreover, the fact that the book was promoted as this nostalgic look at the interactions between two women in the early 2000s. I think nostalgia is really big. It was really big in 2020, 2021, so I feel like all of those elements combined and made the perfect storm of a book and a book release.
I think those are really the key ingredients as to why the book became such a viral hit with people. That said, not everybody loved the book, and that’s totally fine. Imagine if we all liked the same things, our world would be so boring.
People have very fixed opinions of the book, and a lot of those opinions helped the book go viral even more because a lot of people were saying, “Oh, it’s trauma porn. Oh, it’s fetishization of queer women.” And those reviewers that reviewed the book and condemned it, in a way actually helped promote the book even more. I suspect they weren’t trying to help promote the book, but in reality, negative reviews do help a book’s success quite a bit, when you have reviews that are saying, “This is disgusting. This is horrible. This shouldn’t be read.”
I’ll never forget, the first one-star review I got was for Things Have Gotten Worse because it was essentially my debut novella with a press. I had released some material independently just through myself, but Things Have Gotten Worse, for all intents and purposes, was my debut with a legitimate independent publisher. I remember the review said, “There are no words for how disgusting this book is.” I was like “That’s a rave review,” you know.
A hundred percent.
That’s a review that will sell books. You’ll get people… I mean obviously when I first got the review I was a little bummed because I was like, “Ah, shoot.” One star doesn’t feel great. But then when I looked at it and analyzed it and really saw, you know, really gave it some good thought, I was like “Oh, this review will actually help me quite a bit.”
That’s the blurb: The most disgusting book you’ve ever read.
Yeah, exactly. That is a blurb. Then there were all these other reviewers who came out and said the book was trauma porn and fetishization and all of these things. And those reviews really made people interested and were like, “Oh, I really want to read this now.” So, to get back to answering your question. A viral sensation, a viral hit with a book, I think it’s any sort of book which is able to reach the furthest it can outside of it’s intended readership. Things Have Gotten Worse was written for a specific market, a specific readership, a niche, splatterpunk, transgressive fiction market. Those were the people I had in mind when I was writing the book, and then for it to blow up the way it did and move out into all of these different little niche communities in the reading community, I mean, that was just unbelievable to me. But it was also incredibly terrifying because to be mentioned and to be such a big hit with readers and to be talked about so much, it is kind of frightening. Going viral is really frightening, and it opens you up for a lot of abuse unfortunately, a lot of incorrect assessments of you, your character, your being, who you are.
Right. How can anyone prepare for such a thing?
That’s just what comes with it. I hope I’m not making this all sound like super negative because it wasn’t all negative. That book opened so many doors for me, and I met some incredible, incredible people through that book, people who read the book and then reached out to me and said, “I’m such a fan of your work.” And a lot of projects I have coming out over the next couple of years are because of that book and the connections that I was able to make because of its success.
Yeah, talk about kicking the door down straight out of the gates. I think that definitely goes to show you’ve got a very healthy outlook on who you are, what your writing’s about, how you intended to effect people by this, and that’s great that you’re not letting the naysayers get you down at all, obviously.’
Totally. I said this yesterday on Twitter, because right now we’re in the process of promoting another novella that’s come out called They Were Here Before Us, and it’s going to be released through Bad Hand Books. A lot of early readers have expressed some — I guess concerns would be the only way I can describe it, saying to the editor that I’ve been working with, Doug Murano, who is a Bram Stoker award-winning editor, “This book is going to upset a lot of people.” A lot of people are going to be very, very upset by this book, and he stands by it. He stands by me. But I said to him over Twitter, I said, “You know, the worst kind of reaction to any piece of art is indifference or apathy.”
If you consume any kind of media, any book, film, whatever, and your thought at the end of it was, “Well, it was alright. I guess it was fine.” You don’t really have an opinion of it. That to me, that’s a failure. That would be a failure for me as an artist, if I left you feeling indifferent to whatever you just read. I had failed in my capacity to tell a story that shook you and made you think and maybe disgusted you, maybe just made you feel something. That’s what I try to do with any of my work.
So, I would rather be hated than just be somebody that people are indifferent about. You know what I mean? And I kind of have come to terms with the fact that I think my work for the rest of my life is going to be very polarizing with people, and that’s totally fine because all of the great writers and great filmmakers that I absolutely love, they’re polarizing people themselves. I’m thinking of people like Peter Greenaway and Lars von Trier. Writers like Jack Ketchum. I mean he was beloved in horror, but there are people that still struggle with his works and the things that he wrote about. I think really dynamic and interesting art is polarizing. That’s where I see myself existing as an artist.
I mean God forbid you’re the kind of person who could drive by a horrific accident and just think, “Meh.” It’s just another day. As much as you hate being behind the rubberneckers, at the same time that’s the sort of thing which probably should get a reaction out of you. Maybe after you drive by a horrific accident, you know, go home, hug your family, be grateful they’re there. Have the talk with your kids about don’t drink and drive, or pay attention to what’s around you. I mean fatal car crashes are horrible things, but they can have the capacity to affect people in a positive way as well.
I think the same could be said for a lot of, like what you said, transgressive horror books which are really upsetting to people, but good! Let’s get a reaction out of you. Let’s talk about this. Why does it upset you? What can you do to create a world in which you don’t have to have these real-life atrocities occur around you?
Right, exactly. Any excellent book will make you react in some way, and that’s what I try to do when I write. I’m not trying to write, oh, what’s the sickest thing I can think of I can write? I’m telling a story. I’m trying to tell a story with real, palpable, human characters who will make you react and reflect on your own life and your own morals and your own views.
The first book of yours I read was We’ve Never Left This Place. Where did this story come from? Did you wake up one day and see giant spiders in a flooded out apartment with a dead body laying on a bed in a nursery, and think hey, that would be a good story to tell? What was the starting point for you for this book?
This book had really a very unique journey that a lot of my other books have had. I went to Emerson College as a screen writing major for my graduate program, and I was there for two years. The program was a two-year conservatory program, and I had to write a full-length screenplay as part of my second-year curriculum. I was looking around, trying to gain inspiration. I knew I wanted to write something about grief and how we process grief and losing a loved one. I knew I wanted to discuss those things, and I started doing research, and I came across this really fascinating article. I forget what country it was specifically, but it was a group of people, like a small society of people, that whenever they would lose a loved one in their village, they would amputate a finger or a part of a limb, and it would be a physical representation of the loss they had experienced when they lost their loved one. It would be like a permanent reminder of the loss.
So they would amputate their fingers, you mean? Or the fingers of the loved one?
Of themselves. Yeah. Of themselves. And I thought, Wow, that’s so fascinating. And that’s right up my alley, because I love that kind of literal representation of something that’s more figurative. You know what I mean? Cronenberg does a lot of stuff like that.
Yeah, that’s true.
He’s one of my favorites. So, I did some research about this particular village, this group, that was amputating parts of their body whenever a person in their village passed away, and I thought it was really interesting. That’s where the seed of the story began. I developed it from there. I set it in this war-torn country, and I knew I wanted to focus on a young girl who was around fifteen or sixteen. The journey took me from there, but I wrote it as a screenplay first and I workshopped it in class and changed some elements, added a few more beats to the arcs, certain character arcs.
After Emerson, after I graduated, I was like, oh, okay, so I can either go to L.A. and pursue a career in screen writing, or I can stay on the East Coast and try to kind of make that work, but work on other projects too. At the time, my fiction writing was really taking off. I was working a lot more on fiction, and I had met my boyfriend who lived in Boston, and I was like I don’t really want to go to L.A. So I just decided I’m going to stay in Boston and see what I can do, how I can achieve my dreams here in Boston by not going to L.A. A year passed and then I wrote the first draft of those scripts, like 2019, 2018? And then when my fiction writing started getting acceptances to magazines, literary journals, and then eventually Weird Punk. I was like, ah, I should adapt this screenplay as a novella, you know, as a piece of fiction.
I started working on it, and it pretty much follows the same sort of trajectory that the original screenplay followed. The great thing about fiction is you can editorialize more, and you can fill in the gaps, and you can describe how people feel. You can’t really do that in screenwriting, you know. It’s all visual.
Exactly. A lot more narrative, and you can explore people’s inner dialogues a lot better.
Right. So, I felt like I had a good framework of the story because I have the screenplay to work from. But then I could really play with the relationship between Mara and her mother, and Mara’s mother’s hatred for Mara, and go into more depth with certain character beats I wanted to explore more. Essentially, it was a very quick writing process, adapting the screenplay to the novella form. Maybe a couple of weeks, not even.
Are they pretty similar?
They’re very similar, yeah. They’re very, very similar in that they follow the same story. The original draft of the screenplay didn’t include — I guess we’re going to go into spoiler territory, if that’s okay?
Yeah, absolutely. So if anybody doesn’t want to get spoilers, now’s your chance to go get a coffee, go pee, go outside, or scroll to the next question.
Alright, so now that we’re in spoiler territory, the original draft of the screenplay didn’t include the giant talking vermin.
Yeah, I wrote them as circus performers, as extravagant characters coming into this house, and I remember workshopping it and my professor was like, “This story is interesting but it needs another layer to it. It needs something that gives it more of an umph.” It’s hard to receive that note because you’re like, what the hell can I add to it already?
I can imagine.
Right. But it changed me organically. I don’t even remember how the idea came to me, but I decided one day, what if they’re all animals? What if they’re all vermin? And I pitched it to the professor, and he was like, “Oh, I love that. I love that.” That’s when I locked it in, and I was like this is the story I’m telling. I knew I wanted to keep it for the novella because I think it works. I think it works beautifully.
Oh, a hundred percent.
Yeah, the way Mara processes her grief and her inability to cope with what’s going on around her, it makes total sense her trauma would force her to see home intruders as otherworldly, like talking vermin. You know what I mean?
I think I do. She’s been so traumatized, it’s almost like she’s trying to put securities wherever she can. Whether or not it’s from her own delusions or whatnot. Those delusions create such powerful images. I’m glad that you gave that confession, that spoiler, because, honestly, I thought that was one of the strongest aspects of this book.
I kept wondering is this really a giant spider? Or is there a supernatural element to it? Is this really what’s going on? Is Mara crazy? What else is being described that isn’t quite as it seems? And I’m sold. I’m all in. I’m all in on this one because I have to be. I’m constantly trying to interpret situations and read between the lines in case there’s anything else I should be picking up on.
I hope people will go back and reread the book after reading the ending and knowing the reveal. I hope they’ll go back and experience the book again with knowing what they know and seeing the gradual build up of everything. So, yeah. Maybe I shouldn’t have confessed that, but I just want to be honest with readers, and let them know that the writing journey, it’s not a perfect journey. Sometimes to get from A to B you have to go to H and then back to D, and then forward a little. There’s no perfect writing journey.
No, not at all. I mean I’ve heard of authors writing the complete end of a story, and then they’ll write everything else to try to lead up to that point.
For them, the exercise is, “Okay, how do I get there? I already know how it’s going to end.” Which I think is kind of boring, but to each their own.
Yeah. I mean, whatever works for you.
Now, I guess the next natural question, Eric, considering you’ve got a screenplay for this bad boy sitting in your desk somewhere, hopefully not collecting too many spiders and vermin, is what kind of plans might be up your sleeve to bring any of your work to the screen?
I don’t know how much I’m allowed to talk about it, but for Things Have Gotten Worse, I definitely talked about it on Twitter a little bit. We are trying to move forward with a film adaptation of that book, and things are lining up. We’re getting closer and closer every day to making a deal and getting it greenlit and getting it into production, but that is the major thing that I’m working on right now as far as film adaptation. I do have the script for We Can Never Really Leave This Place. It’s on my hard drive on my computer. So, I would love to eventually pitch it to a studio or any interested party. I have a manager whose like my film/tv representation, and I don’t think I’ve let him read it yet because we’ve been so focused on getting Things Have Gotten Worse off the ground, but I think once we get that out of the way, and we get that going in the right direction, I think we might talk about something like this being done because I would love to see this on the screen. I would love to see it as a kind of claymation animated film.
Oh, that would be cool, because then you can have the giant spiders and the giant talking cockroaches and the snakes.
Yeah, I’d like to see it like Coraline. I’d love to see it like that.
You know the movie MAD GOD that came out? Claymation is back. I guess it’s more of a stop motion, but still.
Right. I’m totally game for that. That’s probably my biggest aspiration right now is to get a movie made in animation, like claymation.
I think that would be pretty fantastic. I’d love to see something like that, too, and it’s nice as well because you can have the same setting for most of the scenes since the story unfolds in the same place, in their apartment.
Right, exactly. Even if you did it like a full production which wasn’t animated, it would still, well, you know, the CGI for the animals might be a little much, but I feel like it wouldn’t be that expensive of a film to produce. But I don’t know. I’ll have to let my manager deal with that.
Are you far enough along where they’re talking about directors and potential people they can put in there, or is it more a matter of this is feasible, how do we get the financing for this, and the initial stages?
So, I’m just going to tell you that we do have a director. The director has signed onto the project.
And we’re working together on finalizing what we want to send to other production companies. So, a director has signed on. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say who it is, but yeah, we do have a director, and we’re on a really tight deadline now with getting it out in front of people. So, I’m excited. I feel really good about it, and the script is… I say it’s better than the book because I feel like I’ve added so much more character, and I’ve filled in so many blanks which were left in the original novella. I feel really proud about this screenplay even if it doesn’t get made in the end. I feel like I really delivered some quality work here.
You’ve got a couple more things coming up. I know you’ve got a collection of short stories that I think you’ve announced. Then you’ve got another novella that’s coming out in what? October, I believe.
Yup. Late October. That’s through Bad Hand Books. It’s called, They Were Here Before Us. But prior to that, in September, I have Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes coming out through Titan Books, and that’s the original novella Things Have Gotten Worse and then two other novellas packaged with it, and these novellas have—
Will it be a different cover?
Yes, a different cover. These novellas have never been published before, so they’re brand new material for people to enjoy. And then I have a little bit of a break, which is good. After those stacked book releases, and then in March 2023, I’ve got The Trees Grew Because I Bled There collected stories, which is a collection of short stories that was originally published in 2021, and it went out of print and now it’s being re-published through Titan books.
I don’t want to release too much content and then have people struggling to keep up with reading my material, so once 2022 is over and we hit 2023 and 2024, I think you’ll see a much more methodical and staggered approach to my releases. There’s definitely a reason behind it, is what I’m trying to say.
For me, I know the first novel I put out into the world may not be a big hit like Thing’s Have Gotten Worse was, but it’s going to be the book that people are like, “Oh, yeah, that was Eric’s first novel. That was his debut novel.” I knew that I wanted a press that I was going to be able to really have not only a professional publishing relationship with but a personal connection with, you know what I mean? And I found that with Clash immediately, and they are the best people to work with. They’ve edited the book. They’ve really raised the bar with editing this book, and we’ve had such high standards. The book went through two different editors. It’s been like the equivalent of editing a book with a big four publisher, but just at a small publisher.
That’s incredible. That’s a lot of dedication on their part. I mean, obviously it’s a business, but it’s a business that they’re passionate about too, it seems like, which I’m happy to hear.
Totally. And we’ve worked with a bunch of different cover artists and we’re still not where we want to be with the cover. We’re working with a new designer right now, and fingers crossed that we get the cover we’re looking for. They’ve put so much time and energy and love into this book that even if it flops, I know so much love went into this book and so much care that any negative outcome is going to be overshadowed by the fact it was such a pleasurable experience to work on this novel with them.
Going back then to the book that I came to know your writing through, We Can Never Leave This Place, there’s two questions I wanted to ask you. You did mention it’s very transgressive which I definitely understand, and I have my own opinions as to why that it is, but what do you think it is that brings in folks who don’t normally read things that are that provoking and that disturbing, and what do you think it is about this story that pushes through those genres and reaches a wider range of folks who maybe aren’t quite ready for your writing as they thought they would be?
Honestly, it has to do with I think, once again, the cover art. I think that cover art draws people in, and I knew when I saw that painting, I was like, this is what I want to be the cover of this book. It was a painting I saw on Instagram from this artist who I absolutely love from Greece. The painting is called “Fever.” I was like, oh, that’s perfect for this book because the whole book is kind of like a fever dream.
A hundred percent, yeah.
I think it has to do with the artwork initially that draws people in and makes people curious, but then I think hopefully this doesn’t sound conceited for me to say, but I think the way in which I present some of this content, I feel makes it a little bit easier to digest because there is a lot of care that goes into constructing each passage, each sentence. I’m a big student of Clive Barker and his branding, and how beautifully poetic and lyrical his work is. He can write about the most vile, disgusting, just gruesome content, but it’s delivered in such a poetic and beguiling manner.
There’s beauty to it for sure.
There’s beauty to it, and I try no matter what I’m writing to capture a semblance of beauty in anything I’m working on. Anything which is really grotesque and gruesome, I try to make it complex and interesting but also make it somewhat palatable. I feel like when you deliver these kinds of gruesome scenes to people but you present it in a really poetic and lyrical way, I feel like people are not as easy to dismiss it and, you know, say, “Oh, I’m going to DNF this book I can’t get into. It’s too much for me.” I think people are really compelled by beautiful, intricate sentences, and I think it compels them to read further. And I really hope that doesn’t sound conceited or anything, but—
No, not at all. Not at all. I got the same feeling from reading you.
I’ve read so much of Barker and Michael McDowell, who is another openly gay author. His work also is in the same vein as Barker, where he just writes about very gruesome, grotesque things like the horrors of humanity, but he presents it in a really palatable and beautiful way. I would say my writing is really influenced by three writers, and it’s Clive Barker, Michael McDowell, and Tennessee Williams.
I haven’t read Tennessee.
Tennessee Williams, for those who don’t know, he was an American playwright in the ‘40s and ‘50s. He had a lot of Broadway hits like The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Night of the Iguana, Summer in Smoke. He had hit after hit, and his writing, he writes a lot of Southern Gothic, but his language is just so poetic and so decadent that it really captured me from a young age. He was one of the first writers that I was like, I want to be a writer because of reading this.
I think that’s where I draw a lot of my inspiration from is those three writers. And I’ve noticed that all three writers present really shocking things, but they do so in a really palatable, beautiful way, and I try to replicate that in my own work.
is there anything in particular you can put your finger on and say, That’s what I want people to walk away feeling or thinking about with your particular brand of work?
That’s a great question. I think it varies depending on the book. At the end of the day, I’ve realized it’s not my place at all to instill in people I want you to think about this. I want you to react this way. I want you to think of me like this, when you think of me as a writer. People will have their impressions of you. They’re entitled to their opinions of you, and all I can do is present myself in such a way that I know my truth and I know who I am as a writer and what I want to be as a writer. So, I’m just so grateful people are reading my work at the very least. That to me is a win. Anything else, any other conversations the book sparks, any controversies the book sparks, those are all the cherry on top. For me, I am grateful that people are reading the words I put down on paper. I can’t thank people enough for letting me into their mind and sharing a little bit of time with me. I think I want people more than anything to know how grateful I am they’re reading my work.
Rick Hipson is a Canadian genre journalist living in Kitchener Ontario with his partner in crime, young spawn and two cats who insist they aren’t vying for world domination. For over twenty years Rick has written for a variety of small press publications in print and online which no longer exist through, assumably, no fault of his own. He continues to share his love for dark culture entertainment through his film and book reviews, interviews and articles, which can be found through Rue Morgue Magazine, Cemetery Dance and Hell Notes.