July 2nd sees the publication of Madison McSweeney’s Short Sharp Shocks! The Forest Dreams With Teeth (Book 69 in the series) – currently available for pre-sales with a cover by Adrian Baldwin. Prior to publication Dean and Madison sat down and talked about it.
DEMAIN PUBLISHING: Welcome to DEMAIN Madison, hope you’re doing well…so, let’s talk your background and whether that has had any influence on you as a writer.
MADISON MCSWEENEY: Hello! I grew up in the suburbs of Ottawa, Ontario; Ottawa’s the capital city of Canada, so by nature it’s a place where drama and absurdity go hand-in-hand. My family had eclectic interests – my parents were involved in everything from politics to carnivals, so they always knew interesting people and had a lot of wild stories. They were also big movie and music buffs, so I was raised on classic rock and cult movies. I think my fascination with offbeat characters and everyday surrealism comes from that.
I found myself drawn to the macabre very early on. I wrote a fairly awful poltergeist novel when I was about eleven, then spent my teen years writing angsty poems and attempting to write angsty dystopian sci-fi novels. Plus lots of pulpy horror stories.
I was a student journalist in high school and university, mostly covering the local arts and culture scene, and I learned a lot about the craft of writing through that (I also developed an unhealthy aversion to any paragraph more than three lines long). My first fiction publication was a fantasy detective story called ‘Daydream Noir’ that appeared in the 2015 Fiction Issue of The Fulcrum, the University of Ottawa’s campus paper.
DP: Wow, that’s really interesting – your parents sound very interesting people and quite inspiring. What was your first introduction then into the horror genre?
MM: I actually can’t remember not being a horror fan. I grew up with the Goosebumps books and cartoons like Tales from the Cryptkeeper, Scooby Doo, and Courage the Cowardly Dog (which is still terrifying even as an adult), as well as urban legend-related shows like Mystery Hunters. I was also really into the Chucky series as an eight-year-old (still am), and my mom got me into Tim Burton at a pretty young age. To be honest, though, it probably all started with The Wizard of Oz.
DP: Yeah, that’s bleedin’ scary isn’t it. I’ve always had a soft spot for Chucky too! Okay, so your SSS!
MM: ‘The Forest Dreams With Teeth’ begins around a bonfire of heavy metal records and horror movies. A high school student has been mysteriously murdered, and desperate parents are lashing out at the usual scapegoats. When a teenage metalhead gets caught up in the hysteria, he discovers that the town’s madness is being used to feed an ancient evil.
Essentially, it’s an occult horror story that subverts the narrative of moral panics. The plot was influenced by folk horror (particularly The Wicker Man and The Ritual) and old-school weird fiction; I was reading a lot of Robert E. Howard at the time and I liked the idea of a suburban outcast as a sword-and-sorcery hero, reluctantly thrust into a world of black magic.
DP: Very cool influences there too – so in writing ‘The Forest Dreams With Teeth’ did you have to do much research?
MM: Not for this story in particular, but I’ve done a lot of research into moral panics over the years, particularly the so-called “satanic panic” in the 1980s and 1990s.
I first became interested in the topic as a high school student, after learning about the PMRC’s campaign to censor any music they deemed “obscene.” Later on, I was haunted by the West Memphis Three and McMartin Preschool cases, particularly the innocent people who lost years of their lives to false accusations. If you study those stories, you’ll find that the real “villains” are often self-proclaimed experts who manipulated vulnerable people into providing false confessions and convinced juries to believe absurd conspiracy theories. That’s why the villain in ‘The Forest Dreams With Teeth’ is a therapist – he’s someone who should know better, but he’s weaponizing hysteria for his own ends.
For anyone interested in learning more, I would recommend Sam Dunn’s documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Frank Zappa’s The Real Frank Zappa Book, the Paradise Lost and West of Memphis documentaries, Damien Echols’ autobiography Life After Death, and the HBO movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial.
DD: I’ll check those documentaries out asap as they sound really interesting. What is Madison McSweeney’s biggest creative success to date?
MM: My debut novella is coming out from Filthy Loot in the near future, so that’s exciting.
DD: It is! And the best of luck to you. Tell me about your influences.
MM: I’m a big fan of Clive Barker, Anne Rice, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King, as well as older writers like Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft. Outside of the horror genre, I’m really into SFF authors like William Gibson, Michael Moorcock, and the comic book writer Grant Morrison. I also read a lot of poetry.
Stylistically, I’ve been highly affected by Ray Bradbury’s poetic use of language. Authors like Neil Gaiman (particularly his and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens) emboldened me to embrace humour and playful language. Clive Barker’s philosophy – the idea that the unusual is not inherently evil – profoundly influenced my perspective on writing horror, and Stephen King’s reflections on the genre (particularly his non-fiction book Danse Macabre) were also very impactful.
In hindsight, I can trace a lot back to YA authors I read when I was younger. The Canadian humour writer Gordon Korman gave me a taste for quirky characters, and Sarah Ellis’s short stories (often assigned in high school English classes) were an early introduction to the subtly surreal, slice-of-life fantasy stories I enjoy.
DD: I’ve never really got into Neil Gaiman – I did read American Gods but that’s about it – perhaps when I get five minutes I should give him another try. What does horror mean to you?
MM: Horror to me is about celebrating the strange, championing the outsider, and pushing past the bounds of reality.
At a very basic level, the appeal of the genre is that it gives us the chance to experience things we might never encounter in real life. I’m drawn to fantasy-horror for that reason: I’m fascinated by bizarre creatures, esoteric cults, and the possibility of alternate worlds. But even the most run-of-the-mill slasher movie accomplishes that goal; I mean, how often do you see someone cut in half with a chainsaw?
DD: I like your definition for sure Madison and I’ve started to get into cults a bit – when I was a student my friend and I were ‘tapped up’ by this cult member. He started talking to us on a bus one day and we realised then he was following us and kept turning up at our house and even at our university. He eventually got the message but the whole experience must have lasted six months or so. Very very odd. Anyway – is there an upcoming book / film that you’re particularly looking forward to?
MM: I’m really looking forward to Robert Eggers’ The Northman; after The Witch and The Lighthouse, I think we can safely assume it’ll be stunning. And I have a good feeling about the upcoming Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel.
As for books, I hear Brendan Vidito has a novel coming out soon, which I’m excited to read. His short story collection Nightmares in Ecstasy blew my mind - it was like reading Books of Blood or watching Videodrome for the first time again. Of course, I’m also psyched to read whatever Clive Barker comes out with next.
Outside the horror genre, I’m looking forward to reading Patricia Lockwood’s new novel No One Is Talking About This; I love her poetry, and her autobiography Priestdaddy is one of my favourites.
DD: I remember the first time I read Clive’s [Barker] work and I don’t think I’ve ever felt the same since…is there a new writer (or director) that interests you?
MM: A lot of awesome books have come out of the indie horror scene recently!
Sam Richard’s Sabbath of the Fox Devils wormed its way into my brain and didn’t leave. Joanna Koch’s The Wingspan of Severed Hands was a thrill. (Frankly, everything Weirdpunk Books publishes has been rad; I have several on my shelf that I’m looking forward to digging into.)
Hailey Piper is very versatile and she has a knack for writing settings that come alive; I really dug Benny Rose, The Cannibal King for that reason.
I find the bizarro scene very exciting – it’s so diverse and literally anything goes. I had a lot of fun with Danger Slater’s Impossible James last year, and I recently enjoyed Madeleine Swann’s surreal flapper mystery The Vine That Ate the Starlet.
I’ll also read literally anything Grady Hendrix writes – he’s brilliant at fusing gimmicky concepts with raw, character-driven horror stories.
As for directors, Romola Garai had an incredible debut last year with her gothic/folk horror hybrid Amulet. I hope she does more horror.
DD: Ah, we know Joanna and Hailey here at DEMAIN for sure. Last one then, creatively is there anything you’d like to do that you haven’t done yet? If so – what is it?
As a politics nerd, I’m a big fan of satirical shows like The Thick of It, Yes Minister!, and the British version of House of Cards; I would love to write something like that.
I’ve also got an idea for an offbeat YA story floating around in my head, and I have a set of recurring characters who I plan to build a longer fantasy novel around.
Madison! Thanks a million for your time. All the best with your Short Sharp Shocks!
If you would like to connect with Madison direct:
Dean M. Drinkel