Exploring the Strange and Unusual with Loren Rhoads
Morbid Curiosity ran annually for ten years and retains a cult following. As its editor, Loren Rhoads used her interest in strangeness to sift out interesting and macabre nonfiction stories. After closing down the mag in 2006, Loren worked on her own articles and stories and continued to work with The Paramental Appreciation Society which she helped to form.
I figured the process of creating the newly released Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues might have unearthed some interesting reflections, so I took the opportunity to catch up with her.
How did Morbid Curiosity get started? Is there a particular story
behind its conception you would like to share?
When I first moved to San Francisco in 1988, my husband Mason Jones and I attended a slide show put on by Vale and AJ of
RE/Search. Afterward, they asked for volunteers to help with their new book. Mason volunteered us. This was just before the book Modern Primitives came out. We went out to dinner in Chinatown to discuss how we could help them. At their typography office on the way back to their apartment, AJ showed us some photos she was laying out for the book: genitals with jewelry, a bisected penis. I was pretty much straight off the farm and had never seen anything like that before. Morbid Curiosity was conceived at that point. It took a couple of small nonfiction books (Lend The Eye A Terrible Aspect and Deaths Garden: Relationships With Cemeteries) before I worked up to doing a yearly magazine.
What sort of challenges tend to face an underground publication?
The worst is distribution. Magazine distribution often plays out like a Ponzi scheme, where they begin the process to pay you for the first issue three months after the second comes out. In my case, since Morbid Curiosity was an annual, I could request payment 15 months after an issue came out. Often I had to invoice repeatedly, so that it might take up to two years to get paid, if the distributor didnt go out of business in the meantime. When Tower Records went down, they owed me for three issues. Its no good publishing if you cant get it into the hands of readers.
What drove the decision to end Morbid Curiosity after ten annual issues?
In addition to the distribution woes, I was pretty much burnt out. It took most of a year for me to put each issue together, because I solicited submissions, read them all, edited them, assigned illustrators, researched and wrote the sidebars, sought advertisers, did the design and layout, worked with the printer, set up the release events, and filled all the mail orders. My husband Mason handled photoshopping the illustrations and Claudius Reich proofread, but I did everything else. After 10 years, I really wanted to do some of my own writing.
You wrote enthusiastically about Green-Wood Cemetery. Is this a personal favourite or is there one you enjoy more?
I wrote a monthly cemetery travel column for Gothic.Net for more than four years, so Ive visited a lot of graveyards. My favourite will probably always be Highgate Cemetery in London, because its so beautifully overgrown and had real vampire hunters roaming it in the 1970s. Its the star of Audrey Niffeneggers new book, Her Fearful Symmetry. Probably the most beautiful cemetery Ive ever seen was Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, although Swan Point in Providence, Rhode Island is a close second. One spring my husband and I did a cemetery tour of New England. It was heavenly.
Is there a particular tomb or grave which stands out as most stunning
or beautiful to you?
For those of us who havent kept updated on our own, how are things
going with The Paramental Appreciation Society? Is there another
chapbook on the way?
Weve had a shift in members. Lilah Wild left us and two more authors have joined: Seth Lindberg, Claudius Reich, and me. All of us are working on novels now, so theres no immediate plan for another chapbook. Which is a shame, because Im very pleased with how the first one turned out. Claudius story Fragments of a Barbary Coast received an Honorable Mention in the Years Best Fantasy and Horror.
What do you think makes urban settings such effective stages for dark fantasy?
In my case, its wish fulfillment. I wish things were
more magical and strange than they are.
Michael Moorcock once remarked that dystopian fiction can be very
optimistic, if the writer believes that by issuing a warning the nasty
things described might be avoided. What attitude/approach do you
prefer to take when writing dystopian science fiction? Is there an
underlying philosophy you would like to share?
My fiction has gotten much less dystopian of late. I put that down to having moved away from Michigan and spending less time in LA. Even if my stories arent set where Im living, their settings are very much influenced by my physical surroundings. Now I live in a big old haunted house in San Francisco, which is pretty much a universe to itself. Of late Ive been much less concerned with death on a societal scale and much more with how a single person contends with the death of someone she loves.
What sort of process brought about the most recent release, Morbid
Curiosity Cures the Blues? What helped you decide to make that happen?
The earliest issues of the magazine sold out years ago, but I was continually getting letters from people begging me to reprint them. I couldnt do that, since Id only had one-time rights to publish the stories and many of the contributors moved or otherwise became inaccessible.
There were stories in the earliest issues that I was immensely proud to have published. It seemed a shame that they were effectively unavailable to readers (see above: the purpose of
publishing is to the share with readers). So I sat down and read all
the magazines back to back, making a list of the stories that still
blew me away. It was hard to whittle that down to the size of a
reasonable book. I wrote a book proposal, outlining the contents and
contributors and everything I could do to try to sell the book after
it was published.
I got really lucky from that point on. The agent I sent it to had an assistant who wanted to start representing her own
clients. Morbid Curiosity Cures The Blues was book #2 for her. She wanted to make a big splash, so she got the proposal to a lot of the big New York publishers. It sold at auction in June 2008. When Scribner finally saw the manuscript in September last year, they let
me have all the stories Id asked for, even the pieces on assisting a suicide, making snuff films, and necrophilia.
Then Scribner decided they wanted to design the book to
look like the magazine, which meant putting it into columns, then
adding artwork and sidebars from the original publication. Im
extremely pleased with how things turned out.
When considering which stories to add to this most recent release, you might have come across attributes that make some nonfiction stories better reads than others. The subject matter means a ton, sure, but do you have any advice for nonfiction writers about how to present that subject matter effectively?
Well, how you present your story depends a lot on where you intend to publish it. Morbid Curiosity magazine published
first-person confessional essays, which meant that the story you were telling had to happen to you. It meant that I couldnt publish a lot of wonderful nonfiction articles, but I felt like there were other venues for those things.
I was looking for short memoirs which would use all the
tools of fiction. I wanted to see realistic dialog, description,
rising action, tension: all those good things you learned in creative
writing class. Hardest of all for some people was to give a sense of
the first-person narrator, to characterize the I telling the story.
I wanted to feel that I really knew the author, solely from what she
chose to say about herself in her story. Its harder than it looks.
In the end, I was blessed to have worked on Morbid
Curiosity for so many years. I learned an immense amount and met
wonderfully inspiring people. Now Im getting the opportunity to
travel around and tell complete strangers about these amazing, true
stories. I cant believe my luck.