By Peter Welmerink
Snaking through history--from the early-1900s cannibal axe-murderer of "Blood and Feathers," to the monster hunting on the 1943 Pacific front in "Year of the Wolf," through the files of J. Edgar Hoover for an "Interview with 'Oscar,'" and into "The Broom Closet Where Everything Dies" for a finale in the year 2050--Peritoneum winds up your guts to assault your brain. Hallucinatory experiences redefine nightmare in "Patrick's Luck" and "The Eternal Recurrence of Suburban Abortion." Strange visions of colors and insects spill through the basements of hospitals and houses, especially the basement that provides the title for "TR4B," which causes visitors to suffer from "Door Poison." Settings, characters, and details recur not only in these tales but throughout Peritoneum, connecting all its stories in oblique but organic ways. Freud, borrowing from Virgil, promised to unlock dreams not by bending higher powers but by moving infernal regions. Welcome to a vivisection. Come dream with the insides.
Peritoneum is the second collection of my short horror stories. It’s new as of May 2016, but Seventh Star Press published it alongside a new edition of my first collection, Leaping at Thorns, in May 2016 as well. Since the new edition of Leaping has three previously uncollected stories, since I was working on the new edition at the same time as Peritoneum, and since the two books share some characters and other features, I end up discussing them together in my “Five Things.”
1. Traumatizing readers is risky business.
The first section of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—with Jonathan Harker in Dracula’s castle—is by far the scariest section of the book. The opening sequences of great horror films—think about Drew Barrymore biting it in Scream—put viewers on notice, saying, “Oh yeah, this movie goes there.”
With the principle of the Shock Start in mind, I arranged Leaping at Thorns and Peritoneum so that the story most likely to cause the biggest trouble comes first. In Leaping, it’s “Charlie Mirren and His Mother,” which is about cannibalism and a mother-son relationship, and in Peritoneum, it’s “Prologue: The Family Pet,” which is about a boy whose older brother tortures him via their pet dog. These stories still bother me when I read them. They’re vicious. They go there, and there is a place most people are afraid to visit.
To start with a bang, or at least a solid hook, is advice-for-writers that is darned nigh unquestionable, but something that happened with Leaping is making me pretty paranoid about both the re-release and the new book. With Leaping’s first release, all of “Charlie Mirren” ended up as the free preview on Amazon. Not only did that make public the story I most want to keep out of the hands of kids (it’s 18+ or a reason!), but it also risked letting readers get shocked without having anymore pages to turn. In a movie with a Shock Start, the viewer just sits there, and the rest unfolds. When readers have to make the physical effort of turning pages—or worse, actually buying the book—while in a state of shock, horror, and repulsion, will they?
Reviews of Leaping’s first edition suggest that at least reviewers enjoyed the horror of “Charlie Mirren” and kept going. Will the same happen when reviewers and other readers react to horrors of “Family Pet” and Peritoneum? Will readers be traumatized enough to get the story but not so traumatized that they stop reading? With my extremely horrific Shock Starts, I’ve learned that one of the biggest fears I’m creating rests with me. I’m afraid all the hard work I did to be shocking will end up toasting my readership!
2.The short story, as a kind of writing, is changing.
As I put together Peritoneum, I kept reading articles and social media posts about the changing shape of fiction, not just the usual dire predictions about the death of literature (which people have been heralding for about a century), but about how new reading styles are much more accommodating of shorter forms, the kind of writing people can digest in single sittings (the ride to work on the train—a short story) or other relatively brief periods (the plane ride or weekend getaway—a novella). A lot of the writing from big presses designed to meet the demand for quick consumption, i.e. the “big” short stories and novellas, seem to me to be as formulaic as a lot of television, designed to be enjoyed thoughtlessly and forgotten because it follows a pattern of character and plot development that is familiar to everyone.
I like some formulaic TV, and I like some formulaic writing, but as a creator, I don’t find the mass production of predictable and disposable work very attractive. I am, however, excited
Paranoia is all about making connections, real and fictional, and I write about a lot about paranoia. With new emphasis on smaller, connected forms of writing, we may be coming upon a proliferation of new fictional connections, a scenario ripe for my kind of horror!
3. Those rights have probably already reverted.
The first edition of Leaping contained nothing but previously unpublished work, but for the second edition and for Peritoneum, I wanted to use a few stories I’d placed elsewhere, so
4. Working directly with a cover artist rocks.
Aaron Drown Design (http://www.aarondrowndesign.com/) did the covers for the new Leaping, for Peritoneum, and for Reel Dark, a book I co-edited with Pamela Turner. I’ve had a range of experiences with cover art. For my first book, I didn’t see anything related to the cover until friends told me it was up on Amazon. For another book, the publisher showed me and the co-editor a series of options their designers had come up with, and we got to rank them. Most of my books have involved buying images from artists or photos from archives and then cooperating with the publisher on design. Aaron Drown took a look at some suggestions and mock-ups and went to work, creating all-original art, and the results are, I think, gorgeous (if you’re like me and can think of Peritoneum’s depiction of fortressed viscera as gorgeous!). Although Aaron gets the most credit, the work was collaborative enough to make the vision feel shared… although far more beautiful than I imagined!
5. The small press is a big workshop.
Peritoneum is horrific and nasty stuff, traumatizing, which is its own kind of reward for horror fans, but also bizarre fun that gets downright silly at times—you can’t take an army of supernatural lizards invading Louisville’s popular 4th Street Live nightspot too seriously, after all. Putting together such a risky, weird book, in the category of what some people are calling “transgressive fiction,” isn’t an experiment that a lot of publishers could stomach. Seventh Star Press gave me a long leash to do what I wanted with this book. As a result, I felt free to craft what I wanted to craft, to do things that I know some people won’t like.
While SSP is emblematic of what I’m talking about, it’s true of other smaller presses, too: they’re where freedom and creativity are right now. Looking at the tables at big writing conventions, I see offerings from big and small houses side by side, and the big houses all seem to be offering the latest work from or inspired by an artist or character or monster who’s been around for a very long time. Don’t get me wrong—new ideas do land in big houses, and big houses’ distribution and marketing are super. Big the big kids lack the courage of their musculature. They take their cues from the wee folk.
So if you’re with a small press, maybe you’re in Renaissance Italy. Maybe you’re at the forefront of reinventing the short story or the novella, or of finding e-book hybrids of novels and comics, or something else. Build a partnership. Try something new. Create!
L. Andrew Cooper scribbles horror fiction: the novels Burning the Middle Ground and Descending Lines as well as collections of experimental short stories Leaping at Thorns and Peritoneum. He also co-edited and contributed to the anthology of grown-up fairy tales Imagination Reimagined and the new anthology Reel Dark: Twisted Projections on the Flickering Page, set to become the first of a series about the dark, dangerous pleasures of the cinema. His study of film, Dario Argento, examines the maestro’s movies from the 70s to the present. Cooper’s other works on horror include his non-fiction study Gothic Realities as well as his co-edited textbook Monsters, which span from eighteenth-century Gothic through Universal’s classic films, and he has in recent years published essays on Cabin in the Woods and A Serbian Film. His B.A. is from Harvard, his Ph.D. from Princeton.
Find his work at www.amazon.com/author/landrewcooper.
Additional links: www.landrewcooper.com, www.facebook.com/landrewcooper