To step into the world of Carmen Maria Machado is to find the floor trembling at your feet; the world shifts on its axis, shaping itself into something new, uncanny, and intoxicatingly unrecognisable, such is the elemental power of her writing. Her collection of short stories, Her Body and Other Parties, was published in 2017 to universal acclaim, followed by her memoir of queer intimate partner violence in 2019, In the Dream House; and thus, her innovative, genre-smashing, gravity defying works have irreversibly changed the landscape of contemporary literature as we know it. Machado counts the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Jodie Comer and Emily Ratajkowski as committed fans and most ardently of all, yours truly. It was a genuine pleasure and privilege to have the opportunity to speak with her and discuss her work, her creative procedures and her inspirations. As we touch on some of her newer publications, we talk queer horror, the importance of language, and the ancient power of fear that lives within us all; read on, if you dare…
I’d like to begin by congratulating you; you’re an author selected in The Center for Fiction’s ‘200 Books That Shaped 200 Years of Literature’, with your 2017 collection of short stories, Her Body and Other Parties. You’re deservedly sitting alongside the likes of Woolf, Le Guin and García Márquez in this list - how does it feel seeing your eclectic body of work go from cult classics to canonical?
Oh that’s such a big idea! [laughs] I feel like this question of canon, like ‘what is canon?’, and what does it mean for a book to exist, in some ways, it’s so hard to say because I feel like for most writers the final word on their contributions is established after their death? In some ways there’s an unknowable quality to it, where I’m alive now but assuming we’re all here in one hundred years time and don’t destroy ourselves as a species, the final word on whether my work lasts or endures in the way we think about canon, that’s going to happen outside of my lifetime, and I feel like you have to become comfortable with that idea? You simply will never know, you don’t really fully understand the scope of your own practice or impact or influence, and you kind of can’t. In a way it’s kind of freeing, cause I feel like I would just get stuck and sort of spiral down a hole of ‘what does it all mean’?! [laughs]. 
Before discussing some of your previous work, I’d like to chat a bit about some of your more recent publications; firstly, that included in A24’s new horror inspired cookbook Horror Caviar. Your essay, ‘Horror and the Refrigerator: Nine Theses’, is a masterly surgery on the most uncanny of appliances, part film theory, part horror narrative. Why propose nine different theses? Is there something inherently multifaceted, fragmentary or liminal about the nature of the horrific?
I’m not sure it’s even about fragmentation and horror, though that could be part of it, but for me, list making itself is sort of a queer form, or a form that’s queered? To me a list is a fluid and liminal form. Umberto Eco wrote about this idea. There are practical lists that feel contained, like a grocery list, then there’s poetical lists; the way we think about list making, there’s something really interesting to me about that as a form, it’s a form that I use a lot, it’s a form I’ve returned to over and over. And for this essay in particular, I had been asked if I wanted to contribute to this book, talking about horror film and food, and so I was meditating on this idea, trying to zoom in on something in particular, because food is a broad subject. And I was watching Jennifer’s Body, which is a movie that I adore and I’ve seen many many times, I might have been even making my spouse watch it, I was rewatching it over covid and I was thinking about that scene with the fridge, when Jennifer’s in front of the fridge and eating from the fridge and vomiting in front of the fridge, and I was like, huh… interesting, the fridge. So I pitched this idea and I began hunting down every single [example of] refrigerators in other movies, but there is also a sub-sub genre of fridge horror specifically? Which I thought was very interesting. In a way it makes sense, and I sat down and was thinking about what are the shared ideas that are connecting all these films, what is it about the fridge in particular? It’s a portal, and also a coffin, it's a thing that exists temporally, it slips through time, you have an apartment that has a fridge that lasts and lasts and lasts, it also slows down time inside of it. There’s all these weird qualities to it. I feel like that’s usually how I write, I think about an idea or a concept or a form, and then begin to zero in on the thing as I’m moving towards it. The actual idea of having a bunch of things to talk about came last, it was more like, ‘oh that’s interesting,’ or ‘that’s a thing I could write about probably,’ and then I just did it! Which is how I do most of my assignments, just me being like ‘hmmm,’ or ‘I don’t know, maybe?’ [laughs]
I was reading the essay in the kitchen and giving my fridge the side eye…
Waiting for it to blow! [laughs] I have an American friend who lives in Berlin, and she said ‘when you live in Berlin, when you rent a flat or an apartment, it doesn’t come with a fridge’, you have to buy your own kitchen stuff? I was like, what?! In a way that makes sense, if the fridge is a haunted entity that persists through time, I guess the Germans have figured it out: just bring your own fridge! Which I think is very funny…
Oh my goodness, completely… and staying on the theme, another unsettling tale we’ve been treated to recently is to be found in the published anthology collection, When Things Get Dark: Stories Inspired By Shirley Jackson. The tale in question is called A Hundred Miles and a Mile - how did you go about constructing a story in relation to Jackson; did you have to apply different technical devices or decisions, as opposed to some of your other writing?
Sure, this is actually the second story I’ve written that is directly [inspired by] Shirley, I think a lot of my work is overall encompassed by Shirley Jackson. There’s two stories, there’s this one and there’s one that came out in a magazine called Tin House, (it’ll be in my next book, it hasn’t been collected yet) called Blur, which came out in Tin House four or five years ago. The thing about Blur is that it’s based on, or in conversation with, a Shirley Jackson story called The Tooth. It’s great, it’s in The Lottery and Other Stories, her first collection, and it’s honestly my favourite in the collection, it’s a really good collection but that story’s my favourite. And it’s about a woman who is living in Upstate New York and she has an abscessed tooth, and her husband is putting her on a bus, loaded down with painkillers, to go to New York City to have the tooth extracted. She’s on this bus, super fucked up, kind of hallucinating, dreaming, high from the meds, in pain and there’s this man in a blue suit who keeps appearing to her and talking to her… so I wrote this short story called Blur. I wear glasses, without my glasses I literally can’t see anything, and I’ve always had this anxiety growing up about like… you know that scene in The Mummy where the guy loses his glasses? It was very traumatic for me as a child, the thought of not having one’s glasses is very scary. So I wrote this story. I was at a rest stop one day, I was driving somewhere really far, and I stopped to go to the bathroom, and I took my glasses off for a second to wash my face or something, and I thought, wouldn’t it be so terrible if my glasses just disappeared? I would be totally stuck here, I would be trapped here; which is kind of how my brain works, like what if this terrible thing happened… oh that’s a good idea for a story! [laughs] So I had this idea of what would happen if I lost my glasses, and then I had this idea of writing a short story. Then I was thinking of it and connected these two ideas; so it’s about a woman that goes to a rest stop, she’s on her way to visit, as it turns out, a pretty shitty girlfriend; she stops at a rest stop, she takes her glasses off to wash her face and loses her glasses and then this man appears, and is speaking to her and convincing her to walk with him down the highway. So that’s sort of the premise of the story. So anyway, it’s very explicit, if you read the two, you’d see that the two stories were talking to each other.
So this story was interesting, the one in the Shirley Jackson anthology, A Hundred Miles and a Mile, it’s another piece of a Shirley Jackson work that really echoes with me, which is this very famous scene in [The Haunting of] Hill House, where’s she’s at the Inn and the little girl won’t drink the milk because it doesn’t come in her ‘cup of stars’; it’s such a transcendently beautiful idea, and I kept thinking about what would happen if that little girl grew up, and had this faint, vague memory of this woman communing with her. Which she wouldn’t actually remember, Eleanor isn’t talking to her, they’re just having this shared understanding. I just like the idea of it breaking someone apart, the idea that this person gave them this instruction and they are trying to hold on to it, and trying to pass it on but not fully understanding it themselves. And connecting it in the case of this story, with a historically gay character; the character of that story [Eleanor] is queer, but it’s also not quite talked about in the way we talk about it now, so I guess you could call it fan fiction technically speaking! It is directly engaging with the story on that level. Again this is how I write, I get these notions or ideas, and I’m like ‘hmmm, I guess I’ll try that!’
Is there anything in particular about Shirley Jackson as an individual, or her life, that you find inspiring or instructive yourself?
Her life obviously ended so early… the thing about Shirley, having read everything about her, I feel so strongly about things that are on the periphery of her. Like I don’t think we talk about her enough as a fat woman, there’s a lot of discussion about her being very unhappily married, her husband was a real piece of shit, as husbands can be. I’m so interested in Hill House, in particular for being so queer; Theodora and Eleanor, the dynamic between them is so gay, it’s so obviously gay, and I’m not saying that Shirley Jackson was queer because I don’t know that she was, but it’s so interesting to me that we have this fat horror writer who wrote about queer women in the fifites, and I so rarely find that language attached to her? I do have a lot of affection for her and wish I could have met her.
In the famous Jackson tale, The Haunting of Hill House, we read; ‘To learn what we fear is to learn who we are. Horror defies our boundaries and illuminates our souls.’ What boundaries (horrific or otherwise) are you committed to defying in your work? Or, what to illuminate?
This is what makes horror so interesting to me, there is so much that you can trace and track by our anxieties and our fears, like historically. Thinking about horror or what we would call horror as a unit of measurement, where were we societally, where were individual people personally, what does it say about what scares us. And this is what I feel makes horror such a valuable genre. I get questions all the time like, ‘the world is so horrible. why would you even write or watch horror, why would you bring that into you or put it out in the world in this horrifying time,’ I don’t agree with that, I get it, but I’m also really interested in what it mean to push our own boundaries, and to have our internal temperatures changed by something profound, or something unnerving. You get down to the nitty gritty of what makes people people. Fear is the oldest emotion, it’s so profound and it connects us to the most ancient part of our brains, the most ancient part of what makes a human human, it seems like a silly thing to ignore, artistically speaking? Like, what else can tell us about what we are? There are other things certainly, but it feels really critical in that way. I think everyone has their own limits, but learning how to push your own boundaries, learning how to be uncomfortable; like being uncomfortable can be so productive, I feel like the most productive moments of my life have been through profound discomfort, and I think that anything that’s a part of that process feels extremely important and invaluable to me.
The queer body and experience is something assuredly, refreshingly presented in your work. The notion of ‘queerness’ is veined throughout the history of horror fiction, but more often it’s manifested as a ‘fear of the queer’ rather than having queer identities at the focalized centre of horrifying narratives. How, as queer people, do you think we specifically engage (or even, ought to engage) with horror, in reading, writing, or even literary research into these queered canons?
On one hand, because horror is so intrinsically linked with things like disgust and discomfort, you obviously have a legacy of homophobia in horror, and also racism, if you think about Lovecraft. Lovecraft was really afraid of everybody who wasn’t white, and it doesn’t excuse it, you can literally see it in everything he does, and it’s fucked up, but that’s the fear and that’s the disgust, again this is a way of tracking history. Obviously these fucked up modes of being reflected through horror, you can trace it throughout the entire history of the genre. On the other hand, there’s something really transgressive about it, almost leaning into disgust, and something unmeasurable or unimaginable or incomprehensible overtaking you? Which, when you think about queerness historically, that’s what you’re describing, this thing that we didn’t even have a language for. Especially with queer women; with men, we understood ‘sodomy’ and these ideas of ‘male gay depravity’, quote on quote. With women, which I talk about in the memoir [In the Dream House] we didn’t know that women could have orgasms, they would be like, ‘there is no penis, so there can’t be orgasms, so lesbians aren’t real.’ We couldn’t even fathom or comprehend this idea. So there is this quality of the unknown, a sort of Lovecraftian bigness to it, and it just feels queer by nature, this thing that is impossible to understand or comprehend. In that way, horror feels really gay.
I mean, the first vampire novel, Carmilla, was written by I’m assuming a straight Irish man, right, presumably? And yet, it’s so gay! I’m reading this book like, who wrote this? I feel like there’s something really interesting about the fact that happened in the eighteenth century; how specific, what does it mean, what is being tapped into? For me, it’s not even thinking in terms of politics or is it problematic or not problematic, which I feel like is such a top level of art, like it is or it isn’t. But I’m way more into the fact that a straight white man in eighteen-whatever-the-fuck wrote the first ever novel about lesbianism and described orgasms? That is super fucking interesting, way more intersting than any kind of political piece of it. And so, I think for me, this idea of queer desire as being ephemeral, and being eternal or existing even when we can’t identify it or give language to it, that is so specific, and that feels really important. Because horror is so interested in these things that are ephemeral and hard to describe, and exist back to the most ancient of our impulses and instincts, it syncs so beautifully with this idea of queer desire. And so, for me, these things feel inextricably linked, you can’t untie them, problematic or not problematic. It feels really important to think about it in these terms, as almost like, queer desire as a historical fact, and horror as something that’s happening into the historical fact.
You’ve also taught horror focused literature courses at Penn State University, among many others; is it easy to teach people how to be frightening? Do we all have that kind of potentiality within us, in a way?
I think that’s a really good question. One of the first assignments I give in any kind of horror class is I make students write a hundred fears, they have to articulate a hundred of their own fears. Which is a very large number of things, that makes you go beyond spiders or whatever, and go into stuff that’s way more intense, and I’m always so surprised and interested in what they have to say. In a way you’re getting at something essential about what makes you you; it’s many things, but one of them is the things that keep you up at night, or the weird thoughts that pass through your brain really quickly, like that is what makes you exactly the person you are, nobody else. People are not made to look at that directly, you don’t just walk into a math class and somebody asks, ‘what are you most afraid of?’, you know what I mean? It’s a really specific prompt, I have to be really conscious when I’m giving this prompt, and I tell my students they can redact things if they don’t want to write it down, or give me a version that’s redacted, if there’s stuff they don’t want me to see. Because it’s not really for me, it’s for them, it’s about saying, let's start to access what’s underneath here, and for some students that comes more naturally than others. I think some students are more tapped into that, and I think some students are like, holy shit, what do you want me to do? I think that in a lot of the classes there is a mode of discomfort, because you are reading things that are debased and stressful, and tapping into the uncanny or the abject, you’re hitting these notes that are going to create all kinds of responses in people. Which is a big responsibility as a teacher, it’s always very intense. But I think it’s really important, I think that it’s actually a really good assignment, and I think we would be healthier as a species if we just took inventory of the things that really stressed us out, but being really honest about it. That is a very specific thing, but it also again feels incredibly important. I read a lot of horror, and I can tell when I’ve read horror by somebody who’s never really looked at themselves very closely, it’s super obvious and it’s really interesting to me. The horror I really respond to is where this person has taken stock of themselves, when that happens I find that really intoxicating, like that’s the shit I want to see, I want to see your absolute worst fears.
There are artists of many disciplines who tend to refuse the explicit label of ‘queer’ as a creative individual; they prefer to be engaged with as, for example, simply ‘artist’ rather than ‘openly queer artist’, so-and-so. What are your thoughts on this, as an artist who embodies queerness within their work? Do you think there is something distinct about the way queer artists are described in cultural vocabulary, a treatment escaped by our heterosexual counterparts?
It’s such a good question, I don’t even know if I have a good or settled answer because it’s a thing I think about a lot… On one hand, obviously there is a quality where certain groups of people like to be writers or artists or whatever, and then everybody else is a modifying catch, and obviously that’s problematic. On one hand I don’t want to be put into little sub slots of categories, like I’m in a group that’s smaller or much more niche. On the other hand, things like my queerness, the fact that I’m a woman, the fact that I’m Latina, those are really important to me, and they’re important to me as the person that I am and the artist that I am, you can’t really untie those things from each other. I want to acknowledge it and be like, it’s not insignificant that I’m queer, that is not an accident, you can’t untie my work from my identity. On the other hand, it’s not the most important thing about me, or my work, right? I mention this quote in my memoir by Linda Geraci, ‘If you want to be my friend, you must do two things. First, forget I am a lesbian. And second, never forget I am a lesbian.’ That’s the dual nature: I am queer and that is very important, and it’s not the only or most important thing about me, and you have to understand it as a star in the constellation that is me, and both those things can be true at once. I think we struggle to understand that, people struggle to articulate that, that it’s ‘both/and’.
You’ve memorably described yourself as a ‘form vampire’, and throughout your writing you’ve utilised such a diverse range of creative principles, both in fiction and non-fiction. What other kinds of forms or systems of narrative are you interested in, or might like to explore (or get your fangs into, should I say) potentially in your future writing?
Oh so many. I feel like I’m always on the hunt, I also don’t want to say because I’m working on a bunch of stuff right now. A thing that I used to be embarrassed about but now I just embrace is that form and structure is so important, I can’t escape it, it is just the way I get into most things, it’s the route I take into most stories. Not all the time, but often; I’ve got a complex about it, people seem to think that writing is cheap or easy or you’re taking a short cut, but for me, it’s just the way in, it’s just the way that my brain works. I’m constantly thinking about form, when I read anything I feel like I’m just harvesting. My brain is sucking out all the marrow; what’s going on here, what’s making this thing work, structurally speaking, formally speaking, what’s happening here? I find that very intoxicating and very interesting.
Did you have a formative or early epiphany where you first realised the power of language, its weight and import, and what it could offer you as a reader or writer?
I think as a reader that idea came very early to me, I understood that some books are better than others, books could create an effect on you, the reader. And obviously as I got older, I began to put more critical language to it, formal language. There was this book that came out when I was a kid, I can’t remember the title, but it was by this American author and it was very popular; it was a children’s book called something like ‘The Big Bad Wolf Tells His Story,’ the Big Bad Wolf saying, ‘I’m innocent, I swear, here’s my account of what happened with the little pigs,’ it’s very funny and dark. And that idea of taking fairytales that existed and putting it in another’s perspective, putting it in this other voice, I remember that level of thinking about stories and language, being very obvious and very early. A lot of work I really enjoyed was metafictional and strange, and funny and dark, that was my jam. I feel like as a reader that was a very early experience. As I started writing, I went through many phases as a writer, I didn’t really alight upon anything close to what I write now until I was a semester into grad school. I could write a good sentence for a long time, but thinking about a sentence as more than something you could polish and make pretty, but a sentence as a unit of measurement of truth, you know? Prose as a mode of telling. For me the two genres in this way are commercial and literary fiction, or what I would call those things, and to me, part of that distinction is just a concern, simply a difference, of thinking about a sentence in this way, thinking about a sentence as a unit of truth, and a unit of beauty, which is very specific. Not every novel is as concerned with the sentence as that, and that’s fine, but that’s what I want to be reading, I want to be thinking about it in that way, also it’s what I want to be writing. I had a moment in school where I [realised] there is something happening here on the level of the way the sentences are written, the reality of the story is shifting, I just feel like that lesson came to me. Once I synthesised and internalised that, I think my work began to spark, I was beginning to write the stuff that felt real to me, and important and special.
Absolutely, a lot of people tend to neglect the formal technicalities of writing, in crafting a sentence or a paragraph, for more thematic concerns.
I agree, I feel it’s weirdly unpopular to say in a class, ‘these sentences could be better,’ or ‘these sentences are slack,’ ‘these sentences aren’t working.’ I had a teacher in grad school say to me, you need to sit harder on your sentences, a lot of your sentences get away from you, you need to take care of that. And she was fucking right, she was absolutely right! That’s so important, it’s literally the building block, it’s like building a building where all the bricks are fucked up - like these bricks need to be really good because they are literally the thing I’m building the building out of, like that’s the whole fucking point! You’ve got to be really rigorous, if this is the kind of fiction you want to be writing or talking about you can’t ignore it. I feel like we get so wrapped up in all these other weird ideas and forget this really basic and important thing.
Say we did a time loop with your writing in hand - how do you think a young Carmen Maria Mahcado would have reacted to reading your mature work, say, Her Body and Other Parties? Would she have been surprised? Elated? Empowered?
I think you would start with, time travel exists, also, you’re gay! [laughs] That would have been super helpful actually, just like, by the way… I don’t know, it’s funny, at seventeen and eighteen I was writing, I used to be in the literary magazine at school, and I wrote a lot of very self serious stuff about fairies putting dew on the flowers, and also people going to parties where there are barrels of ecstasy, because I did not do drugs and I did not know anything about drugs in any way shape or form. And so I was like, surely ecstasy comes in barrels, right? I wrote a lot of stories about death and magic, I had a story I wrote when I was maybe eleven or something, that I got from a pile of papers in my parents house years ago, and it was little me writing this story about a girl who has a brain tumor, and she sees an angel that has violet eyes, and sunbeams for hair, and then she dies and then the angel comes into her brain… I mean, in some ways, my interests have not changed, my interests are exactly the same, I’m just a better writer. I think in some ways my [younger] self would be like, this is great, but also, whatever, I’m on this track, I’m getting there.