Brian Rosten: Dip Your Toe into Horror with The Maul

Brian Rosten: Dip Your Toe into Horror with The Maul

By Angelique Fawns


As a child, I loved to be scared. I read Stephen King under the covers after stealing it from my mother’s bedside table. Tales from the Crypt was my favorite television show. Learning to love and appreciate horror is an acquired taste. How does one drive our young folk safely into the world of horror these days? Brian Rosten has created a magazine to do just that. 

AF: How did your day job as a science teacher influence your choice to create The Maul?


BR: My job was and is a huge-driving force behind this project. It actually started when I was a reading interventionist. I had one class period every morning in which I’d work on reading comprehension with a small group. Every year, without exception, I’d ask them what they liked to read and they would all say “horror.” Then, I would ask them what horror books they enjoyed and they could neither name nor even describe any. I eventually concluded horror for middle-schoolers is inordinately rare. It began to bug me, and one day I realized I could help solve the problem and simultaneously scratch my itch of taking on unnecessarily complicated projects by starting a magazine. To my delight and astonishment, I found during our first submission window that people have been writing middle-school-level horror stories for a really long time; it just doesn’t get published that much.


When I read stories, I think of specific kids I teach. I picture them reading the story, in real time as I’m reading it, and think: Would Jimmy (made-up name) understand this? Would Susan care about this character? Would Gerald find this too horrible to process?


I reject a lot of stories because I don’t think my actual students would keep reading if I put the story in front of them. (I rejected a lot of stories last submission window whose premises were about things like wine-tasting and adults getting over a divorce. Kids cannot relate to those things easily).


AF: Creating horror for younger readers can be like walking a tightrope? How do you find the balance?


BR: I really try not to be formulaic about it. A few examples: First, I noticed in our Issue Zero, after I and my winnowing team had chosen our set of stories, they all had contemporary settings. I had subconsciously done this, and it made sense to me in hindsight. I worry that a “high fantasy” setting can alienate young readers. However, I will absolutely publish a high fantasy horror story at some point in The Maul’s tenure, because our mission is to expose readers to genre introductions. But most of our stuff will probably end up being urban fantasy, because that’s accessible. Second, I put in our submission guidelines that we want stories with a healthy lexicon. But I absolutely have annexed submissions with purple prose, and stories whose authors are either only conversing with the most verbose compatriots ever assembled, or are just showing off. So yes, it’s all a tightrope. The thing I want authors to know is that I am always reading the submissions from two vantage points – that of a thirteen(ish)-year-old, and that of someone trying to teach a thirteen-year-old what good writing looks like. I’m pretty picky, because young readers deserve to learn to love reading by reading the best the literary world has to offer.


AF: You’ve published a novel called “Pete vs the City of Chicago” and are also a published short story writer. Which is your preference to create and why?


BR: Definitely short fiction. The reason is because I hate cleaning and tidying. When you edit a short story, you have some loose ends to clean, and possibly have to re-draft. But that’s nothing compared to the untangling that comes with an entire novel. “Pete” is a touch over forty-thousand words. I don’t know that I have the organizational skills to rework all the different storylines and chronologies of something longer than that. I have a full-time job, two kids, a marriage, friends…you get the idea. But I have the free time to write something short and pithy and then clean it up over the course of a week. It’s fun and allows me to get the weird stuff out of my brain. 


AF: How do you find time to balance your love for writing with your day job and busy family life?


BR: I wake up at 5 am every weekday, because I’m an insane person. The house is quiet, and I’ve trained the dog to sit on the other side of the couch and leave me the hell alone. To me, life has few better things to offer than a hot cup of coffee and a blank page, so I really cherish that time. That is, on the mornings that my daughter doesn’t wake up early because she lost her stuffed elephant under the covers.


AF: If you could give some advice to writers to increase their chances of acceptance to The Maul, what would it be? (beyond read the ezine)


BR: There are two things that force me to stop reading stories faster than anything else: misogyny and bad dialogue.


With respect to tangible advice on removing misogyny and/or other potentially offensive elements from a story – I would advise ensuring a beta-reader has read your story before you submit. A lot of times this sort of thing is a blind-spot for people. Personally, I send every story I ever write to at least three people. Having someone from a different walk of life read your story will catch 90% of phrasing or story ideas that come off as offensive.


Concerning dialogue, it’s a huge issue for us because kids can sniff out bad dialogue. It’s the main reason a child will stop reading something. We simply cannot compromise bad dialogue. And I get a lot of it in the slush pile. If I can be permitted to be blunt, a lot of it is older folks trying to speak young folks’ language. Don’t do it. All generations have their own language rules. My advice to older writers would be to speak the way that sounds right to you, and consider trying to make your subject matter relatable to a younger audience as opposed to your “voice.” To all writers, I know I’ve mentioned this on Twitter but I’ll say it again, if you’re not doing at least one read-aloud in your editing process, you’re missing some low-hanging fruit to make your writing immensely better. I’m going to read it aloud twice myself when I edit it for the issue anyway, so the author giving it a once-over is a good idea.


AF: Who are your favorite authors and inspiration? Movies?


BR: Children of the Corn is easily my favorite horror story. If you count dystopias, Harrison Bergeron is a close second. I read a ton of Vonnegut (though I do not advise pandering to that preference when you submit, as I believe Vonnegut is inimitable). I consider Vonnegut, Scalzi, and Terry Pratchett to be my favorite authors. And I know I rag on the Goosebumps series on the website, but I adored those books as a child.


I also try to force myself to read at least a couple authors every year that aren’t old white guys. In that pursuit, I’ve discovered some great stuff with O’Connor, Okorafor, Cixin Liu, Elizabeth Acevedo, Z.Z. Packer (whose “Brownies” is what I consider, subjectively, to be the greatest short story ever written), Atwood, and a wonderful gem from Joseph Bruchac called “The Legend of Skeleton Man.”


I have horrible taste in film, so I won’t list any movies, but I will say I appreciate the revolution in kid’s movies we’ve been blessed with in the last decade, as I currently watch a lot of Disney Plus with my three-year-olds. 


AF: What sort of marketing do you use for your writing and magazine? What has been the most successful?


BR: So far we’ve made the most money from our physical copies of Issue Zero, available on Amazon. I plan to make that available for every issue, and would welcome feedback to make that experience worthwhile for all those lovely people who order from us. We have a few Patreon subscribers, who get access to special content. Twitter is still the best way to build a brand, but we’re hoping to get some things going on Youtube and Discord in the next year. Our mailing list is growing, so I suppose I should tell them something soon. 


Also, getting weird stuff in the slush pile is great fodder for complaining on Twitter, which gets me more followers. So keep sending me your Taco Bell Quarterly rejection pieces. I will literally eat it up. 


As for my own writing, I find word of mouth is the most lasting form of marketing for books, so if you’re reading this and you’re a novelist, hang in there, and don’t give up, it takes a long-ass time to build up a reputation. Take it from me, who has just started the process. Or don’t take it from me, as I do not have an agent.


AF: What is in the future for Brian Rosten and The Maul?


BR: Right now, The Maul is financed mostly through copywriting jobs I get through Fiverr and other platforms. Eventually, within the next couple of years, we need more subscribers and/or magazine purchases to keep going. If you’ve read this far, consider buzzing us to a friend you know with a kid who’d like to read more horror. I promise if you get our magazine into the hands of a teenager, it will get them hooked on the genre. As the kids would say, “bet.”


My personal future looks bright, because I’m surrounded by amazing people, including my family, coworkers at school, slush readers, and loyal early fans of the mag. Being a part of so many positive and supportive communities is the highlight of my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything the Monkey’s Paw has to offer. 


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