WIHM 2022: An Interview With Jessica McHugh

The Horror Tree Presents… An Interview With Jessica McHugh!

Jessica McHugh is a novelist, poet, and internationally-produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-five books published in thirteen years, including her bizarro romp, “The Green Kangaroos,” her YA series, “The Darla Decker Diaries,” and her Bram Stoker Award-Nominated blackout poetry collection, “A Complex Accident of Life.” For more info about publications and blackout poetry commissions, please visit McHughniverse.com.

  1. What does it mean to be a woman in horror?

I’ve been consuming and creating horror for so much of my life, being a woman in horror is the most natural thing in the world to me. I hardly even think about it until someone says something stupid about women in horror. When I started out, I had no idea it was a radical notion. Sure, people made weird faces when I said I wrote horror, but I figured that’s how they reacted to all horror writers. It wasn’t until I was in the business for a few years that I learned how big an issue it really was, especially for young women just starting out. Teaching an after-school creative writing workshop for a few years clued me in to how lots of adults treat young girls who are interested in darker genres. Most of my students were preteen girls who experimented in all kinds of genres without pause, but they always asked my permission before writing horror. Even then, they were scared to ask because they assumed I’d say no, or worse, I’d say yes and judge them the entire way. It was a disturbing pattern for girls, while boys rarely showed an ounce of trepidation about tackling gruesome topics. So at the start of each trimester, I made sure to tell my students they were free to write whatever genre they wanted, even if it might disturb their parents and other teachers. That allowed them to open up, but also to relax and have fun writing, not feeling like I was going to yell at them for venturing into gory territory. To me, horror art is one of the best ways to express the inexpressible, and I feel like it’s especially important to have those tools during the madness of adolescence.

Sorry, that was a lot! TLDR: For me, being a woman in horror means embracing every facet of your authentic self without permission or apology.

  1. Who are some women who’ve influenced your career and how have they done so?

Anne Rice, may she rest in peace, was a big influence on me when I started writing my own novels at 19 years old—the authenticity of her voice entranced me. As did her love for the written word, which sparkles elegantly in her prose. Madeleine L’Engle was a big one too, as was Mary Shelley. But even though she’s not technically viewed more as a mystery writer than a horror writer Mary Higgins Clark was the one author my mom and I both loved. She dug the mystery, I dug the chilling scenarios. When I was a kid, I had chronic bronchitis that kept me out of school for days at a time, so I did a lot of reading, and I devoured Mary Higgins Clark’s work. I think I read my favorite, “Loves Music, Loves to Dance,” a hundred times in middle school.

And of course, my mom influenced my career! She has always supported my creative endeavors, and she was the only person to read my first novels before I submitted them for publication.

  1. From your perspective, what does the future look like for women in horror?

It will only get bolder and brighter as it becomes more inclusive. It’s crazy to me that women of color and LGBTQIA writers are still prone to gatekeeping, because those are the stories we need most. This whole idea of “I only care about the quality of the writing, not the gender/ race of the writer” is so dumb because while gender/race/sexuality don’t have any bearing on the quality of writing, the more experiences and perspectives tied to an author, the richer, more unique, and often more interesting their stories are. The more people we allow to have a voice, the better for all of us readers.

  1. How has the horror community impacted you personally and professionally?

I’ve met some of the nicest people because of my career in horror. For the most part, the cons I’ve attended have been horror-centric and populated by lovely folks who want nothing more than to share their interests with others. I suppose my relationships with these people have opened doors for me professionally, but my main goal is to connect with artists like me and bathe in the bloody inspirado. The joy and camaraderie they give me as a person and an artist is priceless.

  1. In your opinion, what are some strengths of the horror community?

I think most of the horror community are intelligent, welcoming, and progressive people. There are factions that cling to the old beliefs that stories using slurs and sexual assault are the only way to shock and terrify, but I think the majority of us are moving in the right direction. Also, horror people are some of the funniest and kindest people in the whole world. I’ve had some of the most introspective, therapeutic, and hilarious conversations with my gory story friendos.

  1. What would you like to see more of from the horror community?

Like I said, I think we’re on our way to becoming more diverse, but there’s still a lot of work to do. It’s especially difficult for women of color to get published and even harder to get recognition. And I think that’s especially true if their work challenges the status quo. I swear there are some readers who start a book by a POC, LGBTQIA, and/ female-identifying author looking for things to hate, and also for ways to assign deviant behavior to the author because of certain characters they create, even though that’s not typically something that happens to straight white cis male writers. In the future, I hope to see more female-identifying authors intentionally pissing off those kinds of folks.

  1. What draws you to writing dark fiction?

Descriptions. I love playing with and molding words into lyrical gore. Horror utilizes sensory words and phrases more than other genre, though erotica might be on an even keel, and I absolutely love crafting a book that worships that fact. It’s also what I love to read, so I’m constantly inspired by the works of my peers.

  1. What are some differences between composing poetry and composing prose?

These days I tend to write more blackout poetry than any other form of poetry, so it’s a different animal than writing something from scratch. But the biggest difference for me is character creation. In novels and short stories, I have as much time as I want to build up the character or message I want to communicate, but with blackout poetry, I only have a few words to convey everything. My experience writing flash fiction, especially my 55-word stories in Carrion Blue 555’s “Questions and Cancers” anthology, definitely helped me bridge that gap, though. The gratification is also a big difference. When I make a blackout poem, I get the instant satisfaction of finding the words, then I get the satisfaction of doing the creative blacking out portion, and if it gets published, that’s yet another bit of joy! Fiction takes a lot longer to hit those highs, but damn, writing “The End” on something does feel incredible.

  1. Finalizing four books in a month? What is that like (and will you ever do it again)?

It was a maddening, exhausting experience that I hope I never have to do again. Not that I did it successfully this time; I’m still in auditory revision stage of a few of the books. It was an unintentional and unfortunate occurrence after a year of grief prevented me from being able to write. Once I was finally able to work again, it just so happened that all of my deadlines fell on the same day. Luckily, I work with some amazing people who’ve been incredibly understanding and allowed me more time so I wouldn’t go *completely* insane.

  1. When and how did you know you wanted to become an author of dark fiction?

I’ve been writing horror since 4th grade and often said I wanted to be an author, but it really hit me when I was 19 years old, working at a mall perfume kiosk, reading Anne Rice and short stories by HP Lovecraft and Roald Dahl. I wrote oodles of dark fiction during that time, as well as my first novel. 20 years later, I’m still in love with this genre and all its fascinating aspects.

  1. What is an aspect of women in horror that is often overlooked?

That we’re all different kinds of women with different styles and stories, and we’re rarely as easy to pigeon-hole or figure out as some people would think. Just because a woman enjoys consuming and producing horror doesn’t mean she needs to look goth or have a BDSM Only Fans or slasher movie tattoos. I, a lifelong horror reader and writer, was insulted by a group of attendees at a horror convention a few years ago because I was wearing a lacy blue dress and they believed I didn’t belong there. I’m an eclectic individual, as so many artists are, and I embrace any style that brings me delight on any given day. Life’s hard enough and too damn short to force myself to fit into a box built for someone else.

  1. If you had to describe your style of writing, what would it be?

A poetic bludgeon. Sometimes you’ll go “aww.” Sometimes you’ll go “oww.”

  1. What do you tap into while writing?

Things a lot of people would perceive as ugly, I think, especially from a woman’s POV. One of the coolest things about horror is it allows us to explore and give voice to so many thoughts and feelings we’re afraid to share in our daily lives, maybe even ever. So I celebrate that in my work. I also tap into a lot of grief and feelings associated with complicated family relationships. I don’t shy away from my wounds. I muck around inside them.

  1. What advice would you have for young women looking into starting a career in the horror industry?

Write for you. Don’t worry about whether you’re writing the right thing for the right people. People are going to judge you no matter how great you are. They’ll judge you without even reading your work. The only way to figure out your voice is to write whatever you want, however you want. It’ll be scary as hell, but it’ll also be magical.

  1. What is next for Jessica McHugh?

This year, Ghoulish Books (the new horror imprint from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing) is releasing my previously published madhouse horror novel, “Rabbits in the Garden,” followed by its long-awaited cult horror sequel, “Hares in the Hedgerow.” I also have a few poems due for publication soon (which I can’t share quite yet!), a craft essay in Raw Dog Screaming Press’s forthcoming “Writing Poetry in the Dark,” edited by the incomparable Stephanie Wytovich, and I’m starting work on a new horror blackout poetry collection inspired by “Little Women” in a few months.

You can find out more about Jessica and her work at the following links!

Strange Nests: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09BBKQZSH
A Complex Accident of Life:https://apokrupha.com/product/a-complex-accident-of-life/
Ghoulish Books Lineup & Subscription: https://perpetualpublishing.com/product/ghoulish-membership-subscription-2022/
IG / Twitter / Tiktok: @theJessMcHugh


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