by Timothy Pike
When you think of horror stories, your first thought might not be of poetry and humor. Yet award-winning author (and podcast host) Jennifer Anne Gordon has made a name for herself with her poetic take on the horror genre, and isn’t afraid to sprinkle some comedy into her writing.
“I tend to write in a very lyrical and poetic style, but the subject matter leans towards the dark side for sure,” Jennifer told me in a previous interview. “I like to think of my writing as the love child of Anne Sexton and Shirley Jackson.”
Her newest book, The Japanese Box, is a collection of short stories—and a long poem—that showcases Jennifer’s unique writing style and ability to influence our emotions on a deep level, in large part by tuning in to her own.
I asked Jennifer some questions about The Japanese Box and what inspired her stories:
You describe your upcoming release, The Japanese Box, as a “Collection of short stories contemplating horror, grief, and trauma.” What emotions and reactions do you hope to stir up in readers?
This is a great question. The collection itself deals with a lot of shared themes. The big one is identity, and also grief. I address these in varying ways in the collection. So what I am hoping is that there is something here for everyone. I know personally that I deal with heavy emotions in a lot of ways. One big way is through humor.
So my story “Simulacrum” is a very dark comedy, but at its heart, it’s also about someone without a real sense of self—and it also might be a serial killer origin story.
My story “The Japanese Box” started as a personal essay in a grief-writing class, and was later expanded in a memoir class before turning into a “horror story.” In truth, this is my most personal work to date, and it leans more into speculative memoir. What I hope people get from this is memories of growing up, of coming of age, of being a messy twenty-something. I think and hope that this story, while dark, has a sense of innocence and beauty to it. I hope people feel nostalgic and unsettled.
“Lithium Moon” is a “werewolf” story, but also a story of loss and mental illness, so I hope people have empathy.
In short, I want people to be unsettled and scared, but also to feel kinship if they can with some of these broken characters.
I think and hope that “The Japanese Box,” while dark, has a sense of innocence and beauty to it.
How did you come up with these stories?
As I mentioned before, “The Japanese Box” (the story and heart of the book) started as an essay about one night of my childhood. I didn’t know at the time that it would turn into more. That story is both a love letter to the grief of losing my father and also a contemplation of a small-family dynamic—and how that affected me through my life and eventually through a fictionalized version of my life. I am not haunted by a missing reflection—that part is fiction—but a lot of the rest is real.
The other stories, and the one long poem, were all started as a way to confront difficult emotions through a lens of fiction. Sometimes writing about loss or trauma needs to be fictionalized, and in the case of “Simulacrum,” sometimes memories of college and being a mess of a person need to be treated with sarcasm, violence, and comedy.
What part or scene was the hardest to write? How about the most fun?
“Simulacrum” is dark and polarizing and funny and strange. The characters are not likable, but somehow people like them. This story was the most fun to write. I got to lean in to a part of me that I don’t often explore. My work as a whole tends to be emotional and very personal. With “Simulacrum,” I was able to write a story that was on the surface lacking emotion. This freed me up to be a little ridiculous.
The hardest to write—probably—was “The Lithium Moon,” as there are heavy themes here (trigger warning, there is a miscarriage). But the hardest part for me was the blurring of reality and emotion when someone with a mental illness cannot take their medication for medical reasons. I think of this story a little like a fever dream. It’s beautiful, but difficult.
Did any of your stories change significantly from first draft to last?
Not really. The main difference was my intention with stories from the first to last draft. With “The Japanese Box,” the first draft was memoir and the final draft was a horror story, but the heart of it was always the same whether there were ghosts and phantom objects in a box or whether it was a story about my dad, my mom, and me.
Have you had any eerie experiences in real life?
I live in a haunted house. It’s not scary haunted, but the woman who designed it still “lives” there. She was a photographer and poet, and her former creative space (a tower room) is my space now. I feel honored to be there.
That being said, she is restless sometimes, mostly when my husband and I are struggling creatively. This is when we hear her pacing, a lot. I talk to her, she settles down, but is always felt. Living with a ghost is a beautiful thing.
I also lived in a house with my father’s ghost for a while. There was a phantom bell he would ring all night when he knew I needed him. I used that for inspiration for parts of my novel Pretty/Ugly.
Also, once I went to an abandoned executioner’s house underneath old town Prague. That was eerie, but I am saving that story for another time.
What movie scared you to death as a kid?
I still have an intense, visceral fear of the scene in Salem’s Lot where the little boy is floating outside his friend’s window at night. When I see even a photo of that now, I get scared.
Other things that scared me as a kid that I realize are not scary now: The Coneheads, Doctor Who (from the seventies), the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal, the Sleestak from Land of the Lost, and the thought of shrinking. This became a legitimate fear after seeing The Incredible Shrinking Man on a “Creature Double Feature” when I was about seven.
Was writing this book any easier or harder than your others?
I think because I wrote all these pieces separately over a few years, it never felt hard. That being said, because of the personal nature of a few of these pieces, the release of the book out into the world feels scary. Bad reviews happen, and that is fine, but this book is so much a part of who I am that I know I have to prepare myself for that.
When you finish a book, how do you celebrate?
My first book I celebrated with a tattoo, and my second I celebrated by going on a picnic (there was a picnic in the book). When Pretty/Ugly came out, I had a release party and drank the cocktail that was part of the book.
I am not sure what I will do for The Japanese Box. Maybe I will nap. Maybe I will hide. Or maybe … another tattoo?
Jennifer Anne Gordon is an award-winning author and host of the popular Vox Vomitus podcast. Her latest novel, Pretty/Ugly, won the Helicon Award for Best Horror for 2022, the Kindle Award for Best Novel of the Year (Reader’s Choice), as well as the Gold Medal from Literary Titan. Jennifer is a member of Mystery Writers of America, the Horror Writers Association (where she serves on a jury for the Stoker Awards) and is the agents and editors chair of the New England Crime Bake Committee.
Jennifer’s upcoming collection, The Japanese Box: Tales of Grief and Horror, will be published in August 2023 (Last Waltz Publishing).She is also a featured essayist in Let Grief Speak by Diane Zinna (Columbia University Press, 2024).
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