New Voices in Horror with Vaughn A. Jackson

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Joe Sullivan: My favorite part of these interviews is learning about what horror or dark SF/F media inspired writers in childhood and stuck with them through the beginning of their writing career. What scary books, movies, TV shows spoke to you as a kid?

Vaughn A. Jackson: This is a funny question for me, because I wasn’t really into horror movies as a kid. I was easily terrified and honestly, a horror movie would leave me incapable of sleeping properly for a while. I distinctly remember refusing to sleep in my bed after watching the wasp’s nest come back to life in The Shining mini-series. And that may or may not have influenced a lifelong fear of anything that flies and stings. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining also left me deeply unsettled after my first viewing, and it took a while for me to rewatch it.

Most of the scary movies I did watch growing up were my dad’s idea (usually when mom wasn’t home to get on him for traumatizing me), so there are fond memories around watching them. John Carpenter’s The Thing and the Alien series (by which I mean the first two, and sometimes the third one) are perhaps the two that stick with me the most and are, to this day, some of my favorite movies, not just horror movies. I think I can also put the original Gojira up here as well. It fits that science fiction horror vibe and is also one of my favorite movies, though it didn’t end up that way until later because as a kid black and white movies were not my thing.

While I wasn’t big on watching horror, I did read a fair bit of it. Somehow books scared me less. Again, my dad would hand me books and go “This is good, you might like it”, and next thing I know, I’m however many pages deep in Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew developing a fear of toy monkeys with cymbals, and strange creatures lurking in the mist, and space elevators to the moon, because it’s longer than you think!

Looking back, there was a lot of Stephen King in my childhood. My dad was a fan, and now, so am I.

Speaking of strange creatures, I did read a fair amount of Lovecraft growing up as well. I’m not sure how I discovered him, but I remember that Cthulhu was a popular meme at the time, so that may have been a guiding factor. I loved how he blended horror and science fiction (like the three of my favorite movies I mentioned), plus giant monsters, so I burned through a lot of his stuff, as well as people like Brian Lumley who continued on the cosmic horror tradition.

There are probably other things I can point to here: Dracula, of course, a fair amount of Edgar Allen Poe, the classic Universal monster movies, Neverwhere, any and every kaiju movie, Akira, Vampire Hunter D, and so on. But I could go on for a while, and think I’ve probably written enough!

What inspired you to submit your first stories to professional markets?

I always wanted to be a published author, starting way back when I would take printer paper and staple it together and write stories about me and my friends with superpowers, or the adventures of my favorite Pokemon. I wanted to write, and I enjoyed it, so I’ve always had the passion, I guess. The big hurdle was the confidence portion.

With Touched by Shadows, I finished the initial draft and basically sat on it, while moving on to other projects. I had so many ideas I wanted to write so I could finally be a published author! It wasn’t until I had finished my second manuscript Up from the Deep, that my girlfriend looked me dead in the face while having one of my conversations about being a published author and said, basically, “You know you have to submit something for that to happen, right?”

Right. I did know that, but I was stalling because I was terrified to share what I had written with the wider world, despite my beta readers saying that it was good. I just assumed all three of them were lying to me. But I finally sat down, and edited the manuscript (I believe I was told I wasn’t allowed to write anything new until I finished the edits, so that was a big impetus as well) and looked for places to submit it. There were a couple looking for marginalized voices and some that were just open for submission. I think I sent it four or five places in total, all while steeling myself for the inevitable “No.” I mean, how could the kid who was scared of not-quite-dead bees write a decent horror story?

I got mostly “No” responses, which hurt, at least one place didn’t respond at all, and then I got a  “Yes” from JournalStone.

I think that is what gave me the confidence to write and submit my short story to Off Limits Press’ anthology, honestly. The booster shot of “oh okay, maybe we can do this”.

Now I don’t really have a problem submitting things. I just had to do it once.

Though, rejections still sting a bit, and I much prefer the acceptances.

Severed Press released your novel Up From the Deep this year and I’ve read your story “The Thing At the Top of the Mountain” in the Far From Home anthology from Off Limits Press. Your next novel Touched by Shadows is set to release this month from JournalStone, and I’ve read the synopsis that speaks of an eyeless shadow being. What is it about monster stories that interests you as a storyteller?

Ishiro Honda, director of Gojira, once said, “Monsters are tragic beings; they are born too tall, too strong, too heavy, they are not evil by choice. That is their tragedy.”

That quote has always stuck with me. It’s a big theme that I run with in Up from the Deep. I actually had the quote as the first page of the manuscript throughout the entire writing process. I mean, people used to be so afraid of bears they wouldn’t say the word for fear that it would bring a bear down on their heads like some kind of demon. I think we can all agree that a bear isn’t evil, but still, when one is cutting a swath through you and your group of hunters, it sure as hell probably feels like it is.

I guess you could say that I like monsters because they are a dark mirror into our own world. They represent horrors and concepts that might be too abstract or overwhelming to understand otherwise. Godzilla as a metaphor for the effects of the atomic bomb. Vampires as, perhaps, a way to understand the rampant tuberculosis in the Victorian era. Jason and Mrs. Vorhees as a cautionary tale to watch the swimming kids and not run off to have sex while you’re supposed to be a responsible camp counciler. Even demons point at the idea of human sin.

And the “eyeless shadow being” in Touched by Shadows does the same. I’ll leave it to readers to figure out what it represents.

Their tragedy is that they are always there to reflect our evils. That’s what makes them monsters. Us.

On a lighter note, it’s also a plus that monsters are one of those places in fiction like magic, or new worlds where you can just let the imagination run wild. As someone who finds endless excitement in seeing the designs (or lack thereof) for monsters in the movies and books I consume, being able to do that myself is always a joy. From the simple to the “yes, I can definitely fit more crab-claws on this thing”, it’s always a whole lot of fun!

Do you have any other novels or novellas in the works? If so, can you tell us anything about those stories?

Well, I just finished a short sword and sorcery novel in the vein of Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone or Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. A bit of romance, a bit of grimdark, some magic, some horror, good versus evil, the works. No cursed swords though.

I hope to have that edited and out for submission some time next year.

I am also about a third of the way done with a sequel for Up from the Deep, which will continue the “monster of the week” format found in shows like Ultraman. I leaned a bit more into the horror aspect with this one, so that was fun. This one should be in the appropriate hands early next year as I intend to finish it up throughout December and January.

Last, but not least, I participated in #PitDark recently, and sent out a Civil War-era vampire western to a few interested agents. Think Vampire Hunter D meets Django: Unchained. Fingers crossed I hear back from them!

Aside from these, I’ll just see where the ideas lead!

Vaughn A. Jackson is a writer of speculative fiction, predominantly horror and giant monster fiction, and is a member of the Horror Writers Association. He is the author of both Touched by Shadows and Up from the Deep. His short story “The Thing at the Top of the Mountain” can be found in Far From Home: An Anthology of Adventure Horror. 

Vaughn lives near Baltimore with his girlfriend and two grumpy gremlins who disguise themselves as the cutest kittens in the world. His dog, Constantine, has demanded that she be included here as well. He often wonders why whatever he writes always turns out at least somewhat scary, but doesn’t believe in questioning things that work. 

You can find Vaughn on Twitter via @blaximillion and on Instagram via @blaximillion_author.

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