The Horror Club chats with Bram Stoker Award winning poet and author, Sara Tantlinger, about horror, why we like to be scared, writing poetry, her work, including her recently Stoker nominated collection, Cradleland of Parasites, what it’s like to co-author a book and edit an anthology and much more.
BIO: Sara Tantlinger is the author of the Bram Stoker Award-winning The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes, and the Stoker-nominated works To Be Devoured, Cradleland of Parasites, and Not All Monsters. Along with being a mentor for the HWA Mentorship Program, she is also a co-organizer for the HWA Pittsburgh Chapter. She embraces all things macabre and can be found lurking in graveyards or on Twitter.
Hi Sara, thanks for chatting with me. Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
Thanks so much for having me! For those who don’t know me, my name is Sara and I write horror poetry and prose. I’m from Pennsylvania where I spend a lot of time seeking out new trails and parks to explore, which is also a great way to gather story fodder. Before lockdown last March, I went to Centralia (which inspired the setting in the Silent Hill film) and walked along the infamous Graffiti Highway.
What drew you to the horror genre?
It’s hard to pinpoint a specific thing because I feel like I’ve always been drawn to the genre in different ways through music, film, and of course books. I love being immersed in the beautiful macabre; when I started writing more seriously in college, horror became the most organic path to follow with what I was writing and hoping to publish.
Why do you think it is such a popular genre among readers and writers?
The universal emotion of horror is something we can all relate to. Literature has always reflected society, both past and present, so combining that with horror elements allows us to hold a mirror up to society, but inspect it in really warped ways that show us the darkest truths — it’s a fascinating thing to behold, and horror fiction allows us to peer into that twisted mirror in a safe spot from our couches at home, but the ideas still linger in our minds long after the book is closed or the movie ends. Horror makes us think, makes us wonder the what ifs of life, and maybe those dreadful questions and fears actually inspire us to keep living life as much as we can.
Horror is meant to scare us in all different kinds of ways. Why do you think people enjoy being scared?
I think it’s all about being scared while still feeling safe. The demon from the movie or the ghost from the book can’t reach out and hurt you, but you still get that adrenaline rush when consuming media that taps into your personal fears. Something I really missed last year that didn’t happen because of the pandemic was going to haunted houses and mazes with my friends. We’ve been to some seriously sketchy places too, which is probably what makes it a little scarier than a nice, safe haunted tour where the actors can’t touch you. Something about going to these questionable places, but still feeling secure with a group of friends, lets you experience both the dread of, “what if this abandoned place collapses on us?” and the dark-humored relief of “well, at least we’ll die together.”
What scares you?
So many things — writing horror has definitely made me able to see the potential for fear in everything, but climate change and the destruction of the planet is probably one of the bigger fears I have. I love nature so much, and long after humans are gone and have ruined everything, I hope nature prevails in taking back her planet.
What was the first horror book that you read?
I can’t quite remember, but I was a huge R.L. Stine fan when I was really young, so probably one of the Goosebumps books ended up being my initial gateway into the world of reading horror.
You write in several different areas, from flash fiction to poetry to short stories. You have a wide range. Do you prefer one over the other, or do they all get equal love?
I have love for them all! Poetry often comes the most naturally and brings me so much cathartic release, but my goal this year is to really focus on prose. Good short stories can be such a challenge because it’s easy to fall into tropes or do things that have been done to death, so I’m really looking forward to pushing myself to think outside the box and get more prose written in 2021.
You have three collections of poetry released. What interests you about poetry?
Poetry is incredibly challenging because you have to tell a story in a limited number of lines, and I do love a good challenge. Anybody can write a poem, but writing a strong poem that completely immerses the reader in a scene, that conveys all the senses while showing you a way to think about something that you never thought of before, that all takes a lot of time to learn. Dark poems deliver bite-sized horror in beautiful and horrifying ways — what’s not to love there?
Writing poetry can be hard. Writing horror and dark poetry can be harder. How do you draw inspiration?
I find inspiration everywhere, especially in nature. There are so many beautiful, strange plants, insects, trees, and more all around the world. I love thinking about the contrast of something beautiful and deadly; it’s a perfect balance for poetry. Otherwise, horror poetry is such a strong outlet for life experiences — it’s a place where you can tap into the dark things you don’t want to say aloud, but you can express them in the lines of a poem wrapped around gorgeous words that truly bleed.
How do you find the balance between writing a poem that ‘scans’ properly while at the same time making sure it scares the reader?
I usually write poetry for myself, so honestly I’m not often thinking, “will this scare my reader?” so much as, “does this piece tell the story I want it to?” Very often the story I want to tell through poetry ends up being dark and strange, and I kind of leave it to the reader to interpret. I want my poetry to feel accessible, but at the same time I make sure to listen to how the words sound aloud, if it flows, if lines need changed or moved around and so on. The awesome thing about poetry is that it can mean one thing to me and something entirely different to a reader — that gray area of meaning and analysis is so interesting, and also quite beautiful.
Your poetry collection, The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes, obviously drew inspiration from the life of H.H. Holmes. What intrigued you about him and why did you think he would be a good basis for a poetry collection?
I’ve talked about this a lot before, so I’ll try to keep it shorter here, but Holmes was such a mystery. The “facts” about him are so loosely based on questionable evidence, and even his own prison journals were constructed with idyllic lies. Something based in such a sketchy mess of information was just rich with the opportunity to write about him and make it entirely my own. Plus, not many women have written about Holmes, and I certainly didn’t see any poetry collections about him, so I seized that opportunity to construct his narrative in the best way I knew how to.
Did you find yourself having any restrictions due to the fact you were writing about a historical figure and dealing with facts rather than fiction?
Not really. I never marketed the book as “true crime” and made sure to mention in my introduction that the book drew heavily from research, but at the end of the day it was a work of fiction. I wanted to make the pieces feel as real and accurate as possible to build up that dread, but since his suspected murders occurred so long ago, I did still have that freedom to twist the story into what I wanted it to be.
It won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Poetry Collection. How did that feel?
That was such a surreal and amazing moment. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it, and I’m just so proud of that book. It feels really great to have that pride because so often I don’t let myself embrace how hard I work, but having that Stoker on my shelf certainly helps! Plus, I was surrounded by so many incredible friends that night that it would have been a great banquet no matter what happened.
Your novella, To Be Devoured, was also nominated in for a Bram Stoker Award. How did it feel to be nominated in two different categories?
I never expected my first little novella to go on and be nominated for a Stoker, especially alongside such amazing finalists. When I say it was an honor to be nominated, I truly mean that. It felt (and still feels) amazing that I can be recognized for my poetry and my prose among my peers — not that an award nomination is necessary for that at all, but it’s something I am immensely proud of.
Your latest collection, Cradleland of Parasites, has been nominated in the Best Poetry Collection for this year’s Bram Stoker Awards. Can you tell me a bit about that collection?
Yes! I started working on Cradleland of Parasites in 2019 and was researching the Bubonic Plague since that’s the main focus of the collection. And then 2020 happened. I was pretty deep into the book when we went on lockdown, but I did end up finishing a few of the final pieces amidst Covid-19, so I think that influence can certainly be seen in the last section of the book. It’s been very strange promoting a collection about the Black Death during all of this, to say the least.
You seem to enjoy drawing from history or real-life scenarios. Why do you think we can draw from it for works of fiction?
I moderated a panel on historical horror at the 2019 StokerCon, and I so wish that conversation was recorded and posted somewhere because the incredible panelists had such fantastic, insightful answers on how they draw from history. The panelists included Lisa Morton, Kathleen Kaufman, Lisa Kroger, Alma Katsu, and Kevin Wetmore Jr., so I highly recommend checking out their work to see how each writer has used historical fiction in their work.
The past is a constant source of inspiration, and when combined with horror, we have so many options for what directions we want to take the story in. We can keep it more on the accurate side and retell stories from history, or we can draw from smaller pieces and rewrite the event entirely. Whether keeping that inspiration realistic or choosing to take it in a more supernatural or fantastical direction, the possibilities are endless. We’re constantly learning lessons from our past, and I think it’s incredibly valuable to continue doing that.
You have also co-authored a book. Can you tell me a bit about that, and the process of writing the book?
Working with Matt Corley on The Devil’s City was so much fun, and Matt made it really easy to collaborate with because he’s so organized and just a super nice person. The book centers around victims of H.H. Holmes trying to escape his Murder Castle, and ties in with Matt’s RPG Horror in the Windy City. We talked a lot and really broke down what was going to happen with the characters in the book, and then we each took our respective characters and wrote our own chapters, but offered feedback and advice on each other’s work along the way. I think that process worked great for us both — if you’re going to collaborate with something, clear communication is so important!
You edited an anthology too. How different was working on that to working on your own work?
Editing Not All Monsters was an incredible learning experience. First of all, sending out rejections to your friends and peers who you admire the heck out of is absolutely worse than receiving rejections yourself, at least in my opinion. It’s a little heartbreaking, and even though most people are professionals and understand, it still just sucks having to send those rejections out.
Otherwise, having that opportunity to read the submitted work was truly inspiring. I saw stories from all over the world, from writers I’m familiar with and writers who were new names to me; and since Not All Monsters was an anthology by women in horror, it was invigorating to see just how many women out there from all different places are passionately writing horror.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I am! I’m having a lot of fun working on a novella that involves some seaside horror, so I’ve been losing myself to that world a lot lately. There are definitely a few other irons in the fire, so to speak, and hopefully I can share more good news throughout the year as things get set in motion!
Purchase Cradleland of Parasites here: