Rebecca Rowland is an award-winning, best-selling editor of seven anthologies, including her 2023 release American Cannibal, which includes twenty short stories from the top writers in in horror fiction today and includes a provocative forward by Wrath James White. An English teacher by day, Rebecca has also written several critical essays, speculative fiction and book reviews which regularly appear in various print and online venues for your education and enjoyment. On top of that, she also manages the small, independent publishing house, Maenad Press.
After meeting her in person at the 2023 Scares That Care Author Con II, I can attest that Rebecca is one of the kindest, most giving and down to Earth people one could meet. But don’t let that fool you as she also has the power to gather the most frightening individuals in one place to do her bidding by ensuring you’re kept up well past your bedtime with the most horrific, resonating visions you can dare to imagine.
Below is a conversation with Rebecca, who dissects American Cannibal. Sit back and enjoy as we discuss the fascination our society has with flesh-eaters, what it takes to produce such an anthology, and everything else you could want to know about being trapped in a book with such a formidable list of nightmare weavers compiled for your terrifying pleasure.
(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)
CEMETERY DANCE: I’d love to know what your process was for putting this anthology together. Was it by invite only? Was it an open submission? How did it come about?
REBECCA ROWLAND: The majority of my anthologies — well, no, I’m going to say about half of the anthologies that I’ve curated have been open call. This is the third one that was invite only. The way that it came to fruition, and I feel shame admitting this to people, but it was the Author Con — not this past one, obviously, but the one before. It was after hours. I was sitting around with two of my friends, two writers I’m closest to in this business, Holly Ray Garcia and Douglas Ford. We were, I’m gonna say slightly intoxicated, but it could’ve been more than that. We were spit-balling ideas for anthologies because I had just come off of Generation X, where both of them had stories in that anthology. Then there was the invite, the Anne Rice tribute anthology, Dancing In the Shadows. They were both in that. So we’re just talking like, “Ah, what are we gonna do next?” And blah, blah, blah. And one of them mentioned, “Let’s do cannibalism.” I’m like, “Cannibalism? What?!” We were just sort of goofing off, and then the more we talked about it, the more I thought, What a really cool idea this would be, especially because I found I’ve really enjoyed historical fiction over the last couple of years. It wasn’t something I enjoyed previously, not within the horror sub-genre, but there had been a couple of stories that had come through in previous anthologies that had that quality to them I really enjoyed. I thought, Wow! This would be so neat to be able to take historical fiction and horror and mash them together. And pow! That’s how it came to be.
Right there at Author Con, I tried to ask a few people that I knew would be perfect for the collection. What I really wanted more than anything was a complete range of styles. In the past, the anthologies I’ve done have been very genre specific. There’s a psychological fiction one, there’s a queer fiction one. This, because it was more thematic than genre specific, I was worried initially it would only attract splatter writers, and I didn’t want that. I enjoy splatter. I enjoy reading splatter, but it’s not the primary genre I look at and so I wanted a real range. There were a handful of authors that were right there at Author Con I was able to ask, and then I went home and contacted a few more on social media or by email and said, “This is what I’m doing.” A lot of these authors had never worked with me before, and they took a chance. I’m extremely grateful for that.
That’s what really nails this one for me, too, is I find with some anthologies where you’ve got the very specific theme, it can very much seem redundant after a while.
You even have one story that — Sorry, spoiler alert! — you don’t actually see the cannibalism within the story; it’s simply nuanced and it works so well.
I found every story approaches the cannibalism thing so well. I mean you know it’s about cannibalism but it still ends up being part of a plot twist you don’t see coming.
Some of the authors have told me having it be this cannibalism theme forced them to push themselves because they couldn’t use cannibalism as a twist at the end. Going in, you know there’s gonna be cannibalism.
They had to instead think, “Well, how am I going to interpret this differently, writing the way that I write?” And so we have some erotica horror, some psychological, some splatter, some comedic, some feminist. There’s something for everyone in there. And I can say that with complete honesty. If you’re a horror fiction lover, you’re gonna find something in there. You just are.
I completely agree. And it sounds so cliché like it’s the million-dollar marketing statement, but there really is with all the different styles, like you mentioned. And what a wonderful way, too, to find your new favorite authors. For the folks who already have an overwhelming TBR pile, this thing’s gonna tip it over because every author I hadn’t read before who’s in here, I now wanna read their stuff.
I wish I could take credit for this turning out as good as it did, but I gotta be honest. A lot of it is just luck. Ninety percent of it is these authors and their talent and the fact they brought it. None of them phoned it in. All of them gave me these absolutely gorgeous, amazing stories, and there isn’t a weak link in there. I’m very grateful.
Yeah, me too. Rebecca, considering a lot of these authors were folks you knew, were there any surprises as far as what you expected them to bring to the proverbial table of cannibalism where maybe you thought, “Holy crap! I didn’t see that coming from this person?”
Yes! I do have to say probably a good half of these writers I didn’t know whatsoever before approaching them to join.
I mean I knew of their work but I didn’t know them personally, so the fact they took a chance on me, it really does mean a lot to me. But I was familiar with all of their work and, for the most part, they all brought their individual styles they’re known for. So, fans of feminist horror, they’re going to get it with Gwendolyn Kiste. They’ve seen it in her previous work; they’re gonna see it again here. Same thing with Elizabeth Massey. Ronald Malfi brings the psychological horror as does Daniel Braun. That’s what they’re known for and that’s what they bring. But there is one author that really surprised me and that would be Jeffrey Ford.
Jeffrey Ford is a master of the speculative fantasy, sort of straddling that fantasy, horror, sci-fi realm, and so I automatically expected I would get something super speculative, and he wrote this piece that is so awesome and it’s so unlike anything I’d read by him before. Obviously he can write everything, but it’s not necessarily what he’s known for. So he wrote this piece that takes place during the gas crisis of the 1970s that follows a serial killer. The ‘70s with the number of serial killers seemed to explode in America, and so that’s what he was tackling in the spirit of BTK and all these other big name serial killers who surfaced at the time. That’s what his piece is about, it’s about this serial killer named Victor and his reign of terror and how he ends up getting caught. It really surprised me in the best way, but it’s fantastic. It’s fantastic the way it is.
Agreed. Honestly, I don’t get a chance to review as many collections and anthologies as I would like sometimes. so I was equally appreciative you trusted me with this book to review it, to cover it, to have this conversation with you here. So very grateful for all of that. I’m always curious, though, did you have a process for what order you put them in? Was it a matter of creating a crime scene on the floor kind of thing? How did that all work?
I do have a method which I traditionally use for anthology ordering, but then the first ones came in and I read them, edited them, put them aside. As they started to file in, just for my own sanity, to get a feel for what we had in the collection I was putting them in a grid chronologically myself, not necessarily how they came in. I was just like, Okay, no. I’m getting this one from the 1980s, and I’m gonna save a spot here, and this one’s going to be during the Civil War and it’s gonna be here and I’ll save this spot. But as they came in and I was putting them next to one another, I realized the flow was working really well chronologically. By the time I had about half of the stories, I decided I’m gonna go chronologically with this, and it worked, especially looking at the sub-genres. There are a couple that are side-by-side which are similar in feel but for the most part they’re very, very different. You’re gonna get one that’s a little splattery and then the next one’s gonna be quieter, which I like. And I also like mixing up the point of views. I don’t like putting a ton of first person point of views next to one another, and it worked out that way that it wasn’t repetitive. It just worked. I mean the puzzle pieces all came together very smoothly.
I found I certainly never really got a chance to get settled. It felt like this constant roller coaster of going up and down with these awesome stories Speaking of the order of things, regarding the forward, I refer to him in my review (in Rue Morgue) as the maître d’ of this collection where you’ve got none other than Wrath friggin’ James White leading the charge. If anybody knows anything about Wrath, this is his cup of tea, or rather, his bite of steak. Was it always Wrath you had in mind for the forward? I can only imagine Wrath would’ve been chomping at the bit to do this when you asked him to.
I mean, he’s so busy, and I am a huge fan of Succulent Prey.
Oh, I know, right?
It is extreme horror and it’s so smart. It was one of those books I think I may have even read it in one sitting, and it’s not a short book.
No, it isn’t
It’s so creepy, and for anyone who hasn’t read Succulent Prey, it follows the serial killer who does the most depraved things to his victims and yet Wrath writes it in a way where you are almost on his side for a while.
Yeah, very sympathetic.
Very sympathetic! And you really have to be a gifted writer to be able to pull that off. I approached him and — I mean he’s just juggling a thousand things, and it was probably right around the time that KillerCon was going on, so he already has all these things in the air, but he agreed to do it and wrote this fantastic overview of cannibalism in literature. but also the human condition and why we are so fascinated and yet so repelled by the concept of cannibalism, and why it works so well as a horror trope.
Why do you think that cannibalism works as such a fantastic trope in horror?
I think of a friend of mine who is a huge, huge horror fan. She reads everything, watches every horror movie that comes out, but she has made clear to me she’s not a fan of realistic horror, of serial killers, any of that sort of sub-genre, and her reasoning is “that can really happen.” If you watch something, you know, zombies, vampires, the bogeyman, and any of these things, you can shut off the TV or close the book and rationally you can say, “Well, this isn’t happening. No one is in my closet waiting to, I don’t know, stick out tentacles or whatever. That’s not happening.” But your neighbor could be a serial killer ready to abduct you. You can’t rationalize that away necessarily. And I think cannibalism is one of these horrors where humans become like a speculative monster because with a serial killer, you’re like, “Well, you can dissect them psychologically.” (With) cannibalism, you cross a line where you’re not coming back from and you really do become this kind of monstrous entity I don’t think can be really rationalized. That’s why I think cannibalism is so frightening and so repelling, but also the fact that it’s happened.
I think there are three types of cannibalism in literature, or even just in history. There’s cannibalism for necessity. We have things like the plane crash in Chile, you know, with the soccer players. They have to do it. They have to do it to survive. It is what it is. It’s not a monstrous act. It’s an act of sheer survival.
Right. It’s more of a horrible do or die situation.
They’re not killing each other. They’re eating the dead. Then there is this other extreme, of the killers who are doing it as a fetish who are deriving this kind of pleasure from it. But then there’s sort of this middle ground where you wonder maybe it started as a survival tactic but now it becomes a sense of pleasure, and I think a lot of the stories that are in American Cannibal go into that middle ground, and I think that’s a really frightening place because it’s not the monsters that are doing it purely out of this evil pretense, and it’s not just Oh I’m doing it because I have to do it but I’m not gonna do it if I don’t have to. It’s now, Well, you know what? I kinda like it, and I can blend in with everyone else, but I’m also kind of doing this really horrific thing. I think a lot of the literature that’s coming out with cannibalism lately, things like Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, it very much straddles that, you know, because we have the Oregon Trail and yet if you read The Hunger, you know there is also this aspect of this monstrosity going on at the same time.
Yeah, and it’s really interesting, definitely. It’s almost where, I guess, folks would take to that and then suddenly we become the other people because for them it’s almost normalized. I think there’s even some cultures that are still existing today which are still very much in that mind space. Well, I don’t know if you’d call it a mind space or even a lifestyle so much as it’s a part of their culture, some of the various tribes. They probably haven’t seen a civilized person, and never will in most cases. And certainly, with The Dahmer Files that were on Netflix a little while back, if you’ve seen it…
I have, yeah.
All of a sudden you have this person where he seems somewhat sympathetic as they do the flashbacks, but then he also realizes that he is a monster and there’s just no reason for it. I think that was probably the most horrific aspect of that particular show, how the horror occurs beyond reason.
That show in particular did bother me because it made him so sympathetic. I was really glad for the one episode where it focuses on one of his victims, and it humanizes (him) and it brings us back to…
Knowing we don’t like this guy.
Exactly. There are a lot of people who have sketchy childhoods and come from broken homes, and they don’t do these kinds of things.
So, let’s look at what he did what, what he did to this lasting hole that he left in a lot of families’ lives.
That’s what I like about American Cannibal is that some of these stories may draw you in with a sympathetic character, but then you end of paying for that sympathy.
Regarding the several anthologies you’ve done, what do you feel it is about them that attracts readers in a way that perhaps a single story or even a magazine with a few stories in it doesn’t quite do? And, what do you love so much about doing the anthologies that keeps you doing them over the years?
It’s the variety and as someone that does – I’ve taken a hiatus from book reviewing for a while, but when I was reviewing, I would always I would say, “Give me the short story collections, or the anthologies.” And the reason being is because I know there is that variety, and if it’s done well, maybe if one story doesn’t speak to me, the next one is going to is going to be my preference. And it also means just because one story isn’t something that is my cup of tea doesn’t mean that it isn’t someone else’s, and so that’s what I really like about anthologies and short fiction collections is that there is something for everyone if they’re done correctly. It’s what I gravitate to as a reader to be perfectly honest. Some of my favorite writers out there like Joyce Carol Oates, her long stuff is fine and I do enjoy it, but I’ll always choose her short fiction first because that’s what I enjoy.
And to flip things around a little bit, I understand you also have a collection coming out in the next little while, correct?
I am, yeah.
White Trash and Recycled Nightmares?
It’s true. White Trash and Recycled Nightmares comes out October 10th from Dead Sky Publishing, and I am super excited about this because it’s been a few years in the making, and I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the pieces. It’s about eighty percent previously published but a lot of the anthologies that these pieces have been in, they are long gone. They’re out on the market somewhere, I’m sure, but it’s been quite a few years, so I’m thrilled. I can’t wait to see it come out in October.
I can’t wait to see it either. What can you tell us about it? Is there a specific theme running through it?
The reason why it has the title it has is because for a while the way I was coming up with story ideas was I developed a sort of sense of, well, sleeplessness, I guess. As soon as I turned forty, all of a sudden my ability to sleep through the night, fall asleep, sleep well in general, completely evaporated no matter what.
So that’s a thing then? I thought was just me. Apparently that’s a thing.
I guess. I guess it’s just old age is what it is. (laughs) I went to the doctor and everything because I gotta tell ya, I was the kind of kid that, you know, when I was little, it would be bedtime and I was excited. I’m like, “Yeah! See you later.” I’m not like that kid that was fighting my parents.
Me too. It’s like great, I’ll go read a book and get a couple chapters in and this is perfect.
Listen to the late-night horror radio.
Absolutely, it was like the best time of the day. Yeah, that went poof gone after I turned 40, and so I would wake up in the middle of the night multiple times — still do — but I would keep my phone next to the bed open to Notepad. And I also started having these very vivid dreams and sometimes they would be nightmares or nightmarish, and as soon as I woke up I got into the habit of writing down everything I could remember. Sometimes it would make sense and sometimes it was weirdness, just images here and there, but I put down everything I could possibly gather and then it would go away for a while. I would set it aside and then months later revisit the notes and try to make something of it. So, most of the stories in this collection are just that; they’re recycled nightmares.
Oh, that’s so cool.
Yeah, they’re pieces that God only knows where they’re coming from, somewhere in my subconscious apparently. They’re everything from speculative pieces to psychological to feminist to quiet to… very different from my previous collection that was all realistic, psychological horror. But I’m excited about it. I’m excited. I hope people like it.
Me too. I love the premise of it because of course when I first saw the title, I’m thinking flashbacks like I used to live in a trailer park back in the day so that was what I was thinking, but this is so much cooler. It’s a nightmare journal of yours and that’s pretty awesome. The stories in this collection, would you call them very personal or are you just a surprised as we’re going to be when we read them?
It’s definitely less personal than Horrors Hiding in Plain Sight, which some people would read that collection and say, “Gosh, this reminds me of so and so in your life,” and I’d be like, “No.” But I guess looking back, I’m like wow! Apparently, I’ve become my own personal Freudian therapist or something through that collection. But this? There are a few things, like I definitely always have a habit of setting all of my stories in places where I’ve lived, or I’ve spent a great deal of time in. In my twenties, I used to move every year if not multiple times in the same year to a point where people would say, “Are you wanted by the law? Is there something that we need to know?”
Witness protection, perhaps?
Yeah, it was getting a little sketchy, but I have just this whole line up of living spaces in my memory, and I travelled a lot, especially prior to the pandemic. I would travel multiple times during the year, different places, and so my favorite places often became settings for books, and so that part is very personal. Every location in the story collection are places I know very well. Other than that, I don’t know. Maybe it’s become this sort of mysterious therapy session I’ll discover later.
Maybe you’ll catch the interest of a dream — what do you call those? — a dream interpreter or something, and they could be like, alright, we need to sit down and talk about this. Either way I look forward to going on that nightmare journey with you.
Writing your own collection must be so different than editing a collection of other writer’s stories.
It is. The big difference is when you’re an editor for an anthology, you have twenty or so people depending on you. It’s not a matter of oh, I want to work on my own stuff. Certainly, you have deadlines (when working on your own stuff), and people have contracts they have to fulfil, but for the most part if you don’t do it, you’re only letting yourself down. With an anthology, if you put it aside and let other things get in the way, you are letting down other people. That’s the difficulty when choosing to edit something. Once you commit to it, you can’t let those people down.
Especially with your cannibal writers because you know what they’re capable of.
Right, exactly! (laughs) Actually, I think I have a note at the back of that anthology that I don’t think I would ever want to be alone in a room with any one of these twenty-one people during dinner time.
Definitely. You probably would be best to simply take your desert early and get out of there.
It’s been such a pleasure to learn what American Cannibal means to you and I’ve no doubt it will mean a lot to all its readers who choose to devour it.
And then thank you to Lynne Hansen for designing that cover.
Yeah, it’s just gorgeous.
And terrifying. Gorgeously terrifying, like all of her work.
Yeah, it’s great. I mean I worked for a long-term care place so reading this at lunch break, I know I got a few odd looks, but that’s okay. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about as far as the anthology goes, or anything else that we maybe haven’t touched on? Like man, why the hell doesn’t anybody ask me this question about cannibals? I need to get this worked out in therapy, but why won’t anybody talk to me about this?
Oh gosh — no. Oh, actually I do wanna say that the collection is available on audio book and the audio book narrator that did it, Mark Johannes, he’s a professional actor and this is actually the third anthology he’s narrated for me, and he does a fantastic job. He really gets into each character, and Facebook actually cancelled his account for posting about American Cannibal.
They thought it was a little too risqué. He posted about it early on and joked that he was narrating a cookbook, and I guess someone on Facebook did not find that as hilarious as I do.
They censored his account which is terrible. It’s terrible, so please give Mark Johannes some love if you see him and any of the shows that he’s on or if you catch any of the books he’s narrated. He’s just fantastic. I can’t say enough wonderful things about him.
Does he have a website that he has control over, that isn’t going to cancel him?
He is on IMDB. Mark Johannes with a ‘J’ and you can find him on Audible. Just do a search for him and all his books he’s done will pop up. He’s fantastic.
Good, so anyone that’s on Facebook that wants to get a hold of the audio version, give the bird to Facebook and go over to his website, I take it? Or Audible.com?
Yeah. Audible. Just Audible.com, and you’ll find it.
Perfect. And he does every one of the stories in this book?
He does, and he takes on different personas. You’ll just lose yourself. You’ll lose yourself in it.
Well, thank you very much again for putting together such a fantastic book. Fresh doesn’t begin to cover it. It absolutely exudes talent from Wrath James White all the way through all the way to your warning at the end of the book about being in the same room with all these freakishly fine individuals.
Thank you so much for having me on.