Illustration by Indi Maverick

People Behaving Badly

Carmen Maria Machado and Kelly Link on fairy tales and horror

Carmen Maria Machado: I was just rereading White Cat, Black Dog last night and this morning and was thinking a lot about the nested narration, the story within the story within the story, these almost pocket universes. What is it that draws you toward that structure?

Kelly Link: It feels very true of real-life connections. We’re storytelling creatures. Gossip is a story we tell people about the rhythms of our day in narrative structures. So the primary story that we live is embroidered with all of these other stories—in fact, they are a way of thinking about the larger situation that we’re engaged in.

In terms of using it as a literary conceit, I think I became aware of it as a structure with Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which I love, and with Isak Dinesen, again, who has that very formal, but at the same time, very conversational feel of people telling stories to each other, who are themselves in a story. It’s also present in all of the horror stories that are framed as a bar conversation in which the frame story is the skeleton, the clothes hanger.

CMM: You mean a club story, that structure?

KL: Yeah. A club story, which I love because it’s possible to vary the depth. The frame story can be huge and the stories inside can be little, tiny pieces; or the frame story could be hardly there at all, just an invitation to me, an acknowledgment that a story is occurring. You’re invited into this atmosphere in which storytelling is a natural and entertaining thing to happen, in the same way that it is, I think, in life, when you’re hanging out with friends and somebody begins to relate a story about something that happened to them or something that happened to a friend.

CMM: I have this one story about an ex-boyfriend of mine. My friend Tony, whenever we’re with any new people, he’ll be like, “Tell the one about your boyfriend with the pineapple rings.” I’m always like, “Okay, all right, so I was dating this guy . . .” It’s such a pleasure to just be like, “Okay, yep. Got it. Time to tell My Story about that One Time.”

KL: They’re the closest things to magic tricks that people have. I can’t do magic, but I can produce a story if other people are like, “Tell that story again.” I’m extending an invitation to delight. I don’t want the story to feel like you have gotten an email from your doctor, a piece of necessary information that you should have. I want it to feel like: here’s a party and you are invited.

CMM: It is a trust-establishing exercise. It’s almost a career-long project, trying to establish yourself as trustworthy. Where you’re that artist who, even if people don’t get it at first, they will follow you, because you’ve established that their pleasure is your concern.

The work that I return to over and over again is work where there is this sense of pleasurable inevitability. Like, I couldn’t have told you how this person figured out how to do this, but now that I’ve read it . . . I feel this way about Shirley Jackson. I always remember the first time experiencing the cup of stars scene in The Haunting of Hill House. Obviously there’s so many moments in that book that had that feeling of inevitability, and that feeling of entering into a scene that has its own logic and beauty. But during that scene, I remember feeling like she’s taking such pleasure in what she’s doing. Then I read work that doesn’t have that at all, and even if it’s technically very good, there’s no room for me.

I think about this with secondary world fantasy, a genre I read a ton of as a kid but rarely do as an adult. And yet I loved and devoured A Stranger in Olondria [by Sofia Samatar]. There’s something about the sensibility or spirit or soul of that book—I guess it’s the author—that feels so important to me that the fact that it’s not my normal genre doesn’t really matter.

KL: It’s a question of voice. I will follow writers into genres that are not the things that I love most, because of their voice. I trust they will tell me something necessary or pleasurable or both, no matter the form that they’re working in. Writers eventually become their own genre when they produce enough work.

CMM: Is that about quantity of books or quantity of projects? Or is it about a length of time?

KL: I think it’s about their interests and preoccupations, the things that, no matter what the book is, you recognize when you see them. The hallmarks, maybe. Genres are defined by the patterns you find in them. For the writers I love, there are patterns apparent in their work, whether it’s a stylistic approach or just motifs or tangible artifacts that pop up over and over again, no matter what the container is like.

CMM: This is reminding me of the first thing of yours I ever read. It wasn’t even fiction; it was that piece you wrote for io9 about writing your obsessions. I remember reading it and listing them and putting them in one place and thinking: What are you obsessed with? What are the pleasures, the narrative pleasures, that you love? How do you return to those over and over?

One of my favorite things is reading a bunch of work by the same writer and seeing repeating patterns of images or stories or even language tics, where you’re like, Right, that’s so-and-so. They either had seen this one image and it’s just coming up over and over because it’s in their brain for some reason, or they’re trying to work through something, or they’re thinking about it, or it’s just there. You’re tracking the obsession through the work.

KL: The writer Liz Hand has this recurring image of a god that comes to her, which is a boy in a tree, a Dionysian figure looking down at you, which is terrifying and—

CMM: Did you ever see the horror movie that got made over COVID that was all on Zoom? I fucking love that movie.

You’re in your pond swimming around and suddenly,
this lure comes down with a word on it.

KL: Host! I really identified with Teddy, the guy who’s gone for most of it and then shows up and is like, “Hey, guys, what’s going on?”

CMM: I watched a feature about how they made the movie and it included how they had done an actual séance. They did one with a woman who was like, “I’m a medium; I can do this over Zoom.” So a lot of the stuff from the film itself is taken from this actual thing they did over Zoom.

KL: I would like to watch that. I did know they did their own effects, and I was really impressed by that versatility, how well everything worked.

CMM: It almost seems like footage from the film, but then you realize it’s actually footage from their séance they did.

KL: I feel like part of a horror movie is always identifying the moment where you would not have done the thing that the people are doing and therefore feeling protected.

CMM: Right. Smug. You’re like, “Oh, I wouldn’t do that.”

KL: For me, it was the séance.

CMM: Did you ever see, I can’t remember which one it was because there were eight movies with this exact premise, but there was a Facebook horror movie, I think it was called Unfriended or Friend Request or it had some title like that. There were a bunch of them and most of them were bad, but there was one that was really good. I’ll have to figure out which one it was that I actually liked. The thing that was really interesting about it was, apparently, they shot it all simultaneously. They were all in a big house together, but allegedly, they’re all separate, and so they’re all in each room in the house, all in real time.

KL: That sounds great.

CMM: At some point when I was working on In the Dream House, I was so fucked up and I would just watch horror movies until I fell asleep, every single night. One night, I was remembering that I had seen a trailer for a horror movie called Truth or Dare and I remembered that the trailer had people smiling way too big, the faces were distorted. I found the movie and I started watching it and about forty minutes in, I was like, Wait, no one smiled in that weird way.

I was very confused, because the whole thing with that trailer was that their faces were really weird. And then I looked it up and apparently there was a different horror movie also called Truth or Dare that was released the same year as the other Truth or Dare, so I finished watching the one that I was watching and then I watched the other one.

I just love a concept. It was just like, Truth or Dare, horror movie, got it.

KL: I finally watched The Invitation, which was very, very interesting.

CMM: I remember being extremely unsettled by that movie. Some horror is so experiential, and every so often there will be one that makes me genuinely upset and I have to talk to somebody about it. It’s not always horror movies. I also felt this way about Promising Young Woman, which I watched alone in my office. I got up after the movie; I had to talk to somebody, but everybody in my household was busy, everybody was on a call. I was like, I need someone to talk to. Somebody get off your call, because I’m very upset right now and I need to come down from this experience.

KL: I don’t understand why it feels pleasurable to be jarred in that way, to have that bump or that dislocation, but I really crave it.

CMM: I get asked this question a lot: “Why do you do it? The world is full of horrible things. Why on Earth would you write or consume something that is more horrible?” And I don’t know. I guess I think of it as the pleasure of being unmoored by something that you also are ultimately safe with because it’s not real. Like, being on a roller coaster or something; you’re experiencing this extremely terrifying thing, but it’s ultimately pleasurable because it’s a safe execution of a terrifying feeling.

I was so anxious as a child. I still obviously am a super anxious adult, but I was even more anxious as a child, just vibrating with fear, afraid of everything. I was developing hypochondria, but I would be reading The Hot Zone. I knew what my fear was, but I would lean into it instead of pulling away from it.

KL: I had a virtual event last night with Mariana Enríquez and her translator, Megan McDowell, for Our Share of Night, and that question came up again, as it always does. And she was like, “I hate that question. I realize it’s a stupid question, and yet I feel like the answers that people give are almost always really interesting.”
She said that she’s drawn to write horror because in real life, things that are horrible or horrifying are very normalized, and we are often processing them in a torrent. You look at something horrible on Twitter or somewhere else, but it’s surrounded by other kinds of information, and so you don’t have the space to have the intensity of feeling that we should have when something horrifying or traumatic happens. Supernatural horror is a technique for restoring the right kind of emotion to the horrifying things that people do or that are done to people. You’re reestablishing that a terrifying thing is, in fact, terrifying. That a horrible thing is horrifying. That trauma has actual weight. You’re giving space for the person reading to have the actual emotional response that is appropriate to the thing that just happened.

CMM: That speaks to me as a person who intellectualizes her feelings and often is very bad at experiencing them. It’s a defense mechanism, obviously, a way of keeping yourself safe. Analyze it or put it in a framework, and it’s not going to be as scary. I’ve had therapists tell me, “Sometimes, you have to just experience a feeling; you have to let it run through you.” So that makes a lot of sense to me, that getting to have an authentic emotional experience is necessary for one’s mental health.

KL: I watched the remake of Suspiria and I found that very moving—there is a transcendent ecstasy to the horror at the end, this ritual space in which the horror attains a sense of wonder. I don’t know if the movie’s good or bad, but I was very interested in it. The movement toward that kind of energy, that kind of holy unholiness—I get it. It actually has a point to it that I can’t describe, but I feel it. It did something for me that I want horror to do, to describe the indescribable or to gesture, at least, at it.

CMM: The thing about prose is that you can articulate a thing that would be impossible to visually describe. Something indescribable can happen on the page, where if you were like, How would you represent this visually?, you would not want to show it or you wouldn’t be able to show it because it’s something that’s completely indescribable.

KL: There are ways, whether it’s through language or the style of reportage, of achieving that effect. Kathryn Davis does that for me. A book like Hell moves you into these moments of intensity of feeling and dread. You’re overwhelmed by an almost visual thing that she’s doing with language or sound.

CMM: Have you seen Skinamarink?

KL: Not yet.

CMM: My friend Bennett was telling me it’s very experiential; you just have to be in the images and the experience of it. It’s not meant to have a clear-cut plot. To me, that can be such an exciting sensory experience, where you’re just in someone’s consciousness. It just feels true like something you saw in a dream. There’s this quality of the uncanny that’s so profound that it can overwhelm any desire for a plot that makes sense or characters that feel well defined or whatever.

KL: The interesting thing to me about any kind of narrative or art form is, again, that invitation. Sometimes the invitation is not there. I totally get that with fiction, it’s not a one-admits-all pass. Not everyone is going to love Skinamarink. I think about this with my own work. It is upsetting to have bad reviews on Goodreads, but I look at them and think, My book was not for this person at this moment, and I totally get that. I am extending an invitation, but there’s no shame in finding out that you were not the person. It can be a little sad sometimes when you feel that something was made for you, as the person experiencing it, where you’re like, I didn’t get it. But it’s not the end of the world when somebody doesn’t connect with something that you’ve done, or when I don’t find my way into someone else’s work.

The thing about prose is that you can articulate
a thing that would be impossible to visually describe.

CMM: I think I knew from the beginning that you have to write for yourself, but my whole career has been an education in how little you actually understand who your audience will be and the people that will and will not bounce off your work or take it in.

KL: The first invitation that you extend is the invitation to yourself. This came up last night: somebody in the audience asked, “How do you create an opening that engages a reader?” When I start a short story, I am trying to find an opening that will get me into the story to find that path, get myself through that door.

CMM: The first time I read White Cat, Black Dog, I missed that you had the actual fairy tales underneath the titles and I was just experiencing the stories as they were. But then I reread knowing that these are all fairy tales, and I started to look up the ones I didn’t know and was reading the synopses and thinking just about the process of adaptation and what it means to think of one story as an adaptation of another story.

In my first book, I had this story, “Eight Bites,” which I had initially written for an anthology that was meant to be fairy-tale retellings. I had asked to do “The Little Mermaid.” I had this idea about writing about the fat body and thinking about mermaids and transformation. So it began as this adaptation and if you look really closely, you can see features from it or little details or this idea or this concept that I was pulling from the original story, but the editor was like, “It feels too far removed from ‘The Little Mermaid.’” I liked the story I’d written, so I pulled it from the anthology and left it as is.

So I guess I wanted to ask you how you think about adaptation and your relationship with the source material. Because I don’t know if you necessarily go from reading the story to being like, I’m going to adapt that. I know it’s not that linear.

KL: I did not know that I was working on a collection’s worth of short stories when I started these. I had written “The Lady and the Fox” and “The White Cat’s Divorce” and I thought I could approach the next grouping of short stories that I write thinking about fairy tales. I loved Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s fairy-tale anthologies. I loved some of the fairy-tale retelling novels that Terri was editing. I really loved Daniel Lavery’s book The Merry Spinster. That has a much more unified voice or approach, but the stories feel very particular to his point of view. The old-fashioned voice and then a particular sensibility—that combination was extraordinarily appealing.

A bunch of people at Random House read the book and maybe half of them passed over the subtitles and the parentheses, which I think is kind of great. The fairy tales are in plain sight, but they are also hidden in a way that I hope that the fairy tales themselves are. It’s like the folktale “Stone Soup.” The fairy tales were the stones when I was organizing the story and when I was thinking about pieces or visual moments that I wanted to have in the story.

I didn’t necessarily always pick fairy tales that I loved, but the last story that I wrote for it was “Prince Hat Underground,” and that was my way of retelling “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” which is a favorite of mine and also a favorite of my editor’s, Caitlin McKenna.

CMM: I loved them all, obviously, but that one gave me a lot of light, and life. It was like a little container for holding all these thoughts I’ve been having.

KL: I was in a bad mental space when I wrote “Skinder’s Veil.” At that point I had not been meeting up with anybody to work and because I was nine-tenths of the way through writing a very long novel, out to sea, so to speak, I felt that I really had no sense of what a short story was made of. I wrote two-thirds of that and then sent it to Holly Black and said, “You have to tell me if this is even a story, because I can no longer tell what a story is supposed to look like.” It’s surprising to me that people like that one, because I still look at it and this question forms in my head, and I think it’s in part because I was writing about a state that I was in, finishing a large project and feeling that I did not understand my working method. I was stuck in a house like the protagonist. I badly wanted magical animals to visit me and solve my problems.

CMM: In our emails, you were talking about how short fiction is feeling very far from you. That’s the form that I associate with you so strongly, so it’s interesting to think of it not speaking to you right now.

KL: I spent so long with this novel, and the novel is structurally so at odds with the short story form that I’m still thinking about novels. I’m thinking about how to approach novels differently than I did with this first one. I would really like to write a short novel that, in all ways, is different from the novel that I’ve finished, not because I’m dissatisfied with the novel that I wrote, but because I want a very different kind of project. Having said that, I agreed to write a short story for a magazine because the theme was so appealing: the theme is Beasts or Beast, and it’s very short. I thought—well, I actually think—I can make something of that. I need some guidance. Otherwise, my choices feel so amorphous; everything seems equally possible.

CMM: A prompt is such a beautiful thing. I’ve said yes to things that I don’t have time for, but the prompt was so specific that a story immediately sprang into my mind fully formed.

KL: This is something that editors should know—or maybe they do know their power—but it really does feel like lure for a fish. You’re in your pond swimming around and suddenly, this lure comes down with a word on it. The first story that I wrote for this collection was for Stephanie Perkins, who sent out an invitation for a young adult anthology: “Write whatever you want, but it has to be a love story with a happy ending and set in winter.” That seemed great. Nobody had ever said to me, “Write something with a happy ending,” and I wondered if I could. That was very appealing.

I think I knew from the beginning that you have to write for yourself, but my whole career has been an education in how little you actually understand who your audience will be…

CMM: I’m wondering about the intuitive logic of the fairy tale, where it’s like things are not following the cause and effect that you would expect in realism. Because you do this, even when you’re not writing a fairy tale. You just do this naturally. There’s this sense of following your mind, and the characters don’t have such clear, realistic goals or movements or whatever.

KL: With my last collection, Get in Trouble, those were stories about people behaving pretty badly in ways that I found delightful and understandable. And the thing I didn’t realize until pretty recently was that fairy tales are much, much more about people who need to behave well. In fairy tales, a lot of things press in on people; they are often anxious or set upon but are really trying to do their best.

At the point where I was looking at the White Cat, Black Dog collection as a whole, I thought, These people are really trying hard and I am enormously sympathetic to them. It made me think about how much I love novels and stories about characters who are trying to do the right thing.

CMM: It’s because death could knock on their door at any moment. Literally! I’m not surprised at all.

KL: The great thing about signaling that you are working with fairy tales is the way in which elements that would not be charged in a realistic piece of fiction—unless you were doing something with language or fairy tales already—random encounters feel charged. You feel the pulse, you feel colors or the appearance of animals, these things have that pulse to them. Just by introducing the idea of the fairy tale, you are already beginning to organize the way readers are looking at the elements of the story or the patterns of behavior or the things that you’re describing. They begin to have possibility.

Kelly Link is the author of the collections White Cat, Black Dog, Get in Trouble, Pretty Monsters, Magic for Beginners, and Stranger Things Happen. She and Gavin J. Grant have coedited a number of anthologies, including multiple volumes of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and, for young adults, Monstrous Affections. She is the cofounder of Small Beer Press and Book Moon in Easthampton, Massachusetts. Her work has been widely anthologized and has been recognized with a MacArthur “Genius Grant.”

Carmen Maria Machado is the author of the memoir In the Dream House, the graphic novel The Low, Low Woods, and the collection Her Body and Other Parties, a finalist for the National Book Award.