This Skin Was Once Mine by Eric LaRocca
Titan Books (April 2, 2024)
Ever since his debut publication, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke (now in a second edition with bonus stories), Eric LaRocca has been blazing a trail of broken souls and butchered hearts with each new release he unleashes. After a series of highly acclaimed novellas, LaRocca published his first full length novel, Everything the Darkness Eats, with Titan Books. Clearly a match made in horror, Titan is getting set to publish LaRocca’s newest collection of four riveting novellas in This Skin Was Once Mine and Other Disturbances.
I cornered the author long enough to discuss his latest publication, the importance of being an aggressor to his readers, along with digging into what has caused the floor beneath him to be ripped out plus more!
(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)
CEMETERY DANCE: Although This Skin Was Once Mine comes after your debut novel, Everything the Darkness Eats, when did you actually write the stories for the collection?
ERIC LAROCCA: I wrote the stories collected in This Skin Was Once Mine over a two-year period. I believe I wrote the first draft of the first story in the collection in late 2021 or early 2022. The final story we added to the book (“Prickle”) I wrote relatively recently. Sometime in 2023, if I recall correctly. Everything the Darkness Eats was written back in January 2021, so these stories are definitely newer and fresher.
Were there any other stories you considered for this collection that we might eventually see elsewhere?
Actually, the process in which we determined which stories would go into this particular collection was quite seamless. I knew I wanted the collection to contain four lengthy novelettes/novellas. Surprisingly enough, there weren’t any additional stories that we thought might be included. I’m very practical when it comes to crafting collections of my fiction. I tend to think in simple terms and want to make certain that I’m publishing the very best versions of the stories I create. I also believe a fiction collection should never overstay its welcome. Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of collections that include 20-plus stories. I prefer a more organized and precise table of contents.
What can you tell us about how these four stories connected to each other and the process of putting them together with their underlying themes of relationships, and how relationships both good and bad can have such a profound impact on a person’s existence?
I suppose it’s no secret that most of my fiction deals with the brutal nature of humanity. Moreover, the cruelty of human beings and how we tend to pick apart the weak, the marginalized. Humans are inherently cruel, vengeful creatures. I often struggle to see goodness and fairness when I consider humanity as a whole. The truth is — I’m quite fearful of my fellow man.
I knew I wanted to publish another collection of dark fiction and I know for certain that I wanted to explore the ways in which human relationships can become poisonous and polluted. I think the stories contained in this collection share a lot of universal truths. Even if someone isn’t necessarily interested in “extreme horror,” they can certainly appreciate the message that I’m trying to convey with each tale. At least, I hope so anyway…
How personal were these stories for you? What experiences might you have pulled from in order to capture the emotional aspects so poignantly?
“Seedling” was the most intimate story that I wrote for this collection. For those who know me offline, they know that I’m very attached to my mother. She’s incredibly supportive of my career and often reads the first drafts of my work. If I look back on the fiction I’ve published, I don’t believe I’ve written a story about a character processing the inevitable demise of their mother. I’ve written extensively about “daddy issues” (read We Can Never Leave This Place) but I think I’ve carefully avoided dissecting my feelings about the inevitability of a mother’s mortality. So, it was emotionally challenging to write that particular story. Reflecting on the piece, I’m very pleased with how it turned out and I believe it’s one of the most powerful stories in the collection because it’s so emotionally raw.
The first two stories have a strong common thread about one’s father; in particular, a father who may at one time have been there but has long since been understood or overly connected with. How much of these stories were from your own life?
I suppose that harkens back to my comment about “writing extensively about daddy issues.” I’m very fortunate that I have a very loving and supportive father. But there are certainly elements of our relationship as father and son that are complicated and difficult to properly articulate. I think all authors embellish and exaggerate what they know from their personal lives. Of course, I’m lucky in the sense that my father has always been there for me. But there are moments when I consider the alternative — what if he wasn’t so supportive? What if our relationship was a little more volatile? I usually draw from that wellspring when I’m crafting the more complicated father/child relationships in my work.
I imagine it would be impossible to write the kinds of stories you write with so much conviction without also hurting and struggling right along with your characters. Along with the major entertainment factor of your tales, did they also happen to hold any sort of catharsis or deeper understanding for your own misgivings when it comes to your relationship with yourself and those closest to you?
Oh, certainly. I’ve learned quite a bit about myself through the process of writing fiction. For instance, there’s a story collected in Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes called “You’ll Find it’s Like That All Over.” I hold onto that story in my heart quite a bit because it really showed me how much of a people-pleaser I tend to be. Writing that story was very eye-opening in the sense that it allowed me to understand how I’ll ignore my own misgivings for the sake of politeness or courtesy. The art of writing horror fiction is intensely cathartic because it often feels like an exorcism — a purging of all the bad, the crude. I think that’s why so many people enjoy consuming horror media as well. People often ask me if I struggle with experiencing nightmares. I rarely do. So many of my anxieties, my worries are left on the page that by the time I must go to sleep, my imagination is desolate.
Which of these four stories took the biggest toll on you to write, and why?
Well, I’ve already mentioned that “Seedling” was fairly challenging to write because of my own relationship with my mother. If pressed, I would say that “All the Parts of You That Won’t Easily Burn” was another equally difficult piece to write because of subject matter. I’m intensely fearful of inadvertently cutting myself with glass. Without going into spoiler territory, some of the scenes in that particular novella made me so squeamish while I was writing.
I can’t help but read your stories and not think that their purpose goes beyond sheer entertainment and uncomfortable shock value at having survived your meat grinder from one tale to the next. That alone is worthy of our eyeballs, but then your stories also force us to perceive social and emotionally-charged concepts as a way to help us better understand horrors that are not so far out of our reach if only we’re willing to look where you’re pointing. How important is it to you that you tell stories which stretch our way of thinking so that we take away more than just a few hours of reading enjoyment?
I think it would be a travesty (and a true waste of my talent) if I created art that didn’t force the reader to question themselves or their role in society. There’s nothing more reprehensible than art that’s been neutered or de-fanged. I understand there’s a need for comforting and “cozy” fiction, but I’m afraid I’m not interested in writing about such things. I want to be a provocateur. I want to provoke readers, to make them react with shock, dismay, disgust, whatever. I don’t want to be a devoted friend to the reader. I want to be the reader’s adversary. I want to challenge them, to disturb them, to upset them. I think it’s incredibly important to interact with fiction that pushes us outside the limits of our comfort, our “safe space.” When I pick up a book, I yearn to be destroyed. I ache to have the floor ripped out from under me and to have my day ruined because of some shocking truth the author has revealed to me about myself.
I am so grateful to you for taking this approach to your art. What books come to mind when you think of those which did pull off ripping that floor from beneath you?
Oh, that’s an excellent question. The following books immediately come to mind: Tampa by Alissa Nutting, Empty Houses by Brenda Navarro, Organ Meats by K-Ming Chang, Minor Detail by Adania Shibli. I’m sure I’m forgetting other equally impactful books. But those four titles are an excellent place to start if you’re looking for literature that will disturb you.
Obviously, full-length novels, such as with Everything The Darkness Eats, affords you the opportunity to really dive into the backstories and motivation of your characters and fully flesh out details the confined space for a short story or novella can’t provide. That said, what do you think a novella can do with its limited space that might be otherwise lost or at least not served as well, in a longer piece of fiction?
Novellas are the ultimate “instant gratification” pieces of literature. The most rewarding thing about reading a novella is how immediate and propulsive they can be. I think it comes down to immersion in the story. You can sit down with a novella and race through the chapters in a little under two hours or so. It’s a one-sitting, fully immersive experience where you’re imprisoned in the world of the story. Unfortunately, such absorption is not always possible in longer novels. You pick it up, you become engaged, but then it’s time to make dinner. You set the book down and you’re forced to return to it later. But that feeling of full immersion is not present as much. Perhaps it’s a little more difficult to achieve with a longer book, but it’s still somewhat possible depending on the skillset of the author. Regardless, I think novellas are wonderful because they are so compelling, and they usually employ such atmosphere in a short number of pages. Perhaps decent characterization might be difficult to accomplish in a shorter word count, but novellas are almost always narrative-focused as opposed to intimate and richly layered character studies.
I understand the remainder of this year is going to be a very good one for those of us wishing to get a bigger fix of your work. What can you tell us about the deal you made with Titan, what’s coming next, and what themes and boundaries we can expect to be pushed to the limit from you moving forward?
I have so many exciting projects and announcements on the horizon. I’m very excited about sharing longer novels with my readers and I certainly hope readers will join me for the journey.
Well, I can’t let that teaser go without asking if you can let us take a glimpse of what’s next up on that horizon?
I suppose I’m being a little coy on purpose. I’m afraid my publishing schedule is in flux as of right now. There are a few projects I haven’t announced yet. They will hopefully be announced soon. In the meantime, I’m really looking forward to the publication of my series of books called The Burnt Sparrow Trilogy. The first book in the series (We Are Always Tender with Our Dead) is slated for publication in Fall 2025. The trilogy is so bleak and aggressive. I certainly hope readers approach it with an open mind.
Considering the fires have been heating up somewhat as far as potentially seeing some of your work make it to the big screen, is there any news you are willing and able to share on this front?
Unfortunately, there’s not much news to share about film development at the moment. I’d love to see some of my works adapted for film, but it’s such a lengthy road to the screen. I suppose all I can do is focus on writing fiction and hope Hollywood catches on eventually.
Any parting words to prepare readers for what they are about to embark on with This Skin Was Once Mine, as well as for those who may find themselves reeling by the end of their experience with your collection?
I heartily encourage all readers to read and consider the elaborate content warning we’ve provided at the beginning of the book. Check in with yourself before reading and really question whether or not you’d like to subject yourself to this kind of upsetting material. This book is certainly not for everyone and I’m hopeful that the readers that do interact with the collected stories do so with tenderness and care.
And finally, what do you tell someone, or perhaps even yourself, who might be struggling to find themselves through a relationship which may or may not be the most stable or supportive relationship for them to be trying to grow within?
Nothing lasts forever. We’re all subject to entropy and decay. Also, (and more importantly) life’s too damn short to surround yourself with people who don’t give a shit about your well-being and happiness. Find the people in your circle who want to see you succeed and grow. I repeat: life’s too damn short.
I was once told this by a very insightful and kind therapist: “Just because you enjoy horror doesn’t mean you have to let your whole world be consumed by it.” Life doesn’t have to be horrifying. Life can certainly be distressing and arduous; however, we’re allowed to try to make ourselves as comfortable and relaxed as possible. If that means we need to end certain relationships for our welfare, then so be it.
I tend to write about the depravity of human nature and how brutality seems to be imbedded into our very culture; however, I refuse to be a victim in my personal life. I urge my readers to embolden themselves and refuse to become prey as well. There are so many opportunities for the world we live in to devour us, to annihilate our spirit. Let’s disappoint it and thrive instead.