Today is the second part of a two-part interview I’ve conducted with horror writer and poet Sara Tantlinger, the first being about writing and publishing at The Horror Tree, a site that focuses on being a horror author’s resource. Additionally, I had this interview scheduled and ready to post today as part of my #HookonWiHM series for the 10th anniversary of Women in Horror Month, but I had to come back to edit my interview to offer my congratulations to Sara as it was announced this weekend she secured a Bram Stoker Award nomination for best poetry collection for The Devil’s Dreamland, which we will be discussing below!
I was beyond excited to read The Devil’s Dreamland, which I devoured with a carnal interest I am almost ashamed to admit. It’s a marvelous collection. Most readers know I have a bachelor’s degree in history and LOVE it, as well as am obsessed with learning about true crime and serial killers, so this collection was right up my alley. I’ve always been intrigued with H.H. Holmes, who after coming to Chicago, changed his given name to take on the Holmes, I’ve heard, as a homage to Sherlock Holmes (the fictional detective named by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his famous stories). But I’m more interested in the psychology of how people turn out to be serial liars, thieves, and murderers, especially when they come from so-called religious households or if there was speculation of abuse.
I’m thrilled to talk to Sara about her interest in H.H. Holmes, her research, her writing – particularly in poetry form, and so much more. I think this will appeal to a wide range of readers I have coming to my site – history or true crime enthusiasts, horror fanatics, and those who write or read poetry. I hope you ALL enjoy it as much as I did!!
Hi Sara, and welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I am so glad to have you here with us. It’s snowy and freezing in both our neck of the woods these days. Shall we have some coffee to start? How do you take yours? And I’ll just pull out some warm cinnamon rolls from the oven. It will just be a minute while I frost them.
Sara: Hi Erin! Thank you so much for having me. Mm, cinnamon rolls are one of my favorites! I’ll throw a dash of vanilla creamer in my coffee and be all set.
Erin: Now that I sound very much like a 1950s housewife, it’s the time I pull out the knife and stab the cinnamon roll…just kidding. But we are here to discuss your newest poetry collection today, The Devil’s Dreamland, and your work in horror. It’s Women in Horror Month so what better time for this all to come together.
Sara: Ha! A lot of my baking ends up with someone, I mean, something getting stabbed. I love Women in Horror Month – it’s so fun to highlight what these amazing ladies in horror are up to. I’m thrilled to be here talking about The Devil’s Dreamland and more!
Erin: I agree. Let’s get started. I’m anxious to hear about the notorious serial killer H.H. Holmes and your desire to write about him for your new poetry collection, which released late last year. What motivated you?
Sara: Well, I really wanted to do something different than my first poetry collection. I watched a documentary on H.H. Holmes, ended up going to a haunted house that was Holmes-themed, and found myself wondering more about the madman after reading Devil in the White City, so it felt like the universe kept giving me signs to write this collection.
Erin: Just who was H.H. Holmes? How did you go about researching his life and times before you started writing the collection? What interesting things did you come across?
Sara: H.H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett, and he was an expert conman and liar. Thus, pinning down who exactly he was is nearly impossible. The accounts of his life conflict, even the memoir he wrote in prison is saturated in idyllic lies. The research was fascinating though. I am now the owner of an ungodly number of books about H.H. Holmes, so my library looks pretty sinister right now. I read just about everything that mentioned Holmes, but even after publishing the collection I learned of MORE research out there involving him.
In addition to historical texts and more fictionalized versions of Holmes, I researched newspapers from his time period, read his own writing (a prison memoir and confession), and even found some records of the court hearings and testimonies that occurred before he was executed.
It was all interesting to me, but I think one of the things that fascinated me the most was that he left his “wives” (there were three, but only one of the marriages was legal) alive. He murdered mistresses and other women, but his three wives and two children, he let alone. He let them live.
Erin: Wow – I didn’t know he was a polygamist, and yes, that is peculiar that his murderous endeavors didn’t carry over with this wives as well!
Of course, writing poetry is very different than writing a book, something most people might think you’d do when researching a serial killer’s life. Why did you choose poetry? Was it difficult to condense into poetry? What was your process in telling your story with your poetry?
Sara: There are a ton of books out there on H.H. Holmes, but I did not see any other poetry collections in existence about the man, so I thought it’d be interesting to try something different. Even when I first had the idea, I knew it’d be my next poetry collection.
There was some difficultly condensing all that I wanted to include down into poems because I probably could have added another 100 poems to the batch about everything Holmes did or tried to do, but I wanted to keep some mystery. Otherwise, poetry allowed me to serve up these jagged slivers of tales because poetry demands that each word counts. Every rhythm, line, image, and more must be sharpened down into what needs to be there without an excess, otherwise the poem loses its ability to puncture wound itself into your mind and fester.
From there, my process became telling a cohesive narrative through the poems and different viewpoints included. I wanted the story to make sense, and I wanted the reader to think about each piece, but at the same time some enigma needed to be kept because that is who Holmes was, a mystery never meant to be completely solved.
Erin: What was the intent you had in mind for readers to walk away with once reading The Devil’s Dreamland? What did you walk away with after writing it?
Sara: I wanted to create a poetry collection that appealed to both regular readers of poetry and those who may be more skeptical. I wrote the collection in a more narrative style, going through Holmes’ life and including different viewpoints from his accomplice, victims, and others.
After writing it, I walked away with pride, which is something I don’t always allow myself to do. Writers, don’t constantly chastise yourself and your hard work! That’s something I am still working on, but with Holmes, I just put so much into that book that I finally let myself feel the sweet sense of accomplishment as it ended.
I also walked away with the Devil whispering sweet, bloody nothings into my head, but, that’s a different story…
Erin: Ha! Many reviewers felt you were able to mix the morbid, grotesque, and horror with the beauty of your words quite nicely, leaving them satisfied with the collection by the end, when you’d think, mostly they’d be unnerved. What drives people to want to read about the macabre, and within writing, what does a writer need to do to soften it “just enough.”
Sara: Hmm, that’s a good question. Personally speaking, I love the macabre because it’s like this grotesque mirror reflecting our most morbid curiosities back at us, inviting us to reach inside ourselves and pull out that darkness to share with others. Bonding with those who share that fascination makes our weirdness feel more “socially acceptable,” but also allows us to build a really cool, twisted community.
I don’t usually try to soften my work because I like working with raw, gritty ideas and images. That said, I have personal boundaries with certain things I would never write about – things I just do not see a need to write about, or to read about, but of course that’s all personal preference. Otherwise, I definitely encourage writers, women especially, to push boundaries and write the stories they really want to, even if that means some people are going to hate it.
Erin: What was something that shocked or surprised you in your research or something you didn’t end up including (or both)?
Sara: I was mostly surprised at how H.H. Holmes was able to get away with the fraud he did for so long. It worked in the 1800s, but what he did would never work today. He really thought everything through in terms of his cons, seductions, murders, and the construction of the Murder Castle. I think that is partly what intrigued me so much about him, how he was able to escape punishments and debts by using his words. Talk about the power that words can hold…
Erin: Do you enjoy reading or watching TV or movies about serial killers? If so, what other things did you find interesting? (I am obsessed with watching and reading about true crime!)
Sara: I am definitely infused with some sick curiosities when it comes to learning about serial killers or other strange murders (I binged Making a Murderer way too quickly). I think it’s this morbid vicariousness that allows us to peek into the darkest parts of humanity without bloodying our own hands or souls. The Zodiac killer is another one I continue to be fascinated by – it’s hard to describe why we want to know these gruesome crimes and facts. Maybe we feel like we’re part of the mystery and are amateur sleuths helping to solve something.
Erin: Now that you explored mixing historical true crime with horror poetry, do you think you might try one again? Why or why not?
Sara: I don’t think I would want to do something too similar to the Holmes collection, so if there’s other inspiration I come across and I mix those genres again, I’d go for it. In the meantime, however, I really want to try new things and challenge myself in other ways.
Erin: Earlier in 2017 you also released Love for Slaughter, which is perfect to bring up since February is also the month of love. You slashed and slayed and bit and bled in this one and people loved every minute of it. Can you tell me your thoughts behind it and what went into it? You’re such a nice person, where does all that dark passion come from?
Sara: Love For Slaughter was inspired by this idea that something as beautiful as love can actually be really vicious and bloody. I researched the idea of Folie à Deux (madness shared by two), and read stories about couples doing terrible things to each other, all these crimes of passion, so to speak. I always love playing around with something pure and asking myself how I can slash it up into gory, ghastly bits. I think my interest in dark passion stems from a love of dark literature like Wuthering Heights and The Awakening, or even The Picture of Dorian Gray – they show these darker parts of love and what it can do to an individual who loses parts of themselves for the sake of love, or for the sake of a perceived love. There is something universal about heartbreak, so I wanted to bring that out in my poetry in all the most twisted ways.
Erin: I love those books too! What is it about people, do you think, that they appreciate the dark corners of horror, love, and life? What makes them feed on your imagery and words?
Sara: Sometimes reading horror feels like you’re getting away with something. There’s a thrill lurking in those depraved corners, inviting all of us to imagine the worst parts of humanity without committing the acts ourselves. To me, it feels natural to feed off that black spark of forbidden excitement, and that’s one of the reasons I write horror.
On the other side of that, horror is a place of cathartic writing. There are stories where we can share our phobias, grief, heartache, and more with each other. Being able to write about these aspects and provide human connection through tales of horror is a really special thing.
Erin: How do you feel about the state of women who write in horror? Is it improving, what needs improved, thoughts on how to improve readership and support of women?
Sara: Women are doing amazing things right now, and always, in the horror genre. I do feel like publishers, editors, and so forth are doing better to use their positions to seek out more diversity in the market, but nothing is perfect yet. There are still battles to be fought, and I have no doubt women will keep prevailing through these obstacles. The most important thing we can do is support each other, recognize our allies, do better to support minorities and women of color in horror, and continue to create the work we truly want to be creating and sharing.
Erin: Who are some of your female influences in prose or poetry and why?
Sara: Oh gosh there are so many! I’m going to try and limit myself here. A classic inspiration for me comes from Kate Chopin. The Awakening profoundly changed how I think about life, and from there I consumed Chopin’s writing and was so happily lost in her beautiful words. She captures this dark honesty of the female spirit in her stories, which isn’t surprising given the things she went through in life, but she fought for her independence. She inspires me all the time.
A contemporary poet whom I adore is Sierra DeMulder. Her books destroy me. She’s another brutally honest writer, using unique, vivid imagery in her poems to unabashedly address womanhood, sexuality, love, loss, and more. I admire her greatly and highly encourage anyone to watch the videos of her reading her poetry live. It gives me goosebumps every time.
Erin: What about overall influences, mentors, inspirations in reading and writing?
Sara: Some other influences and inspirations for my writing would have to include (classic) Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, Sylvia Plath, and Walt Whitman; and (contemporary) Linda Addison, Mike Arnzen, Clive Barker, Caroline Kepnes, Gillian Flynn, and Catherynne Valente.
Erin: There are a lot of women writers out there purging so many past issues on paper, instead of hiding them away. I’m glad writing can give them this platform. Why do you think women are continually the “monster collectors” and “dragon slayers” so to speak? What in their personalities allows them to write with such clarity and how do you teach young writers to channel the passion into focused work?
Sara: I think our history as women, our fight for equality and representation, all that we have endured collectively, are elements deeply rooted in our brains and very blood. The fight of our ancestors and our fights today to make our voices heard and respected is what makes us so driven to purge out the inner turmoil on paper with raw, visceral imagery and emotion. This is something unique to us that can never be manufactured. I hope young writers today continue to feed off that energy and wield it as a powerful weapon within their words and stories. I encourage them to keep telling their truths no matter who it may anger along the way because we got your back, my horror sisters.
Erin: I know that you’re editing an anthology that is filled completely with women for StrangeHouse books. Can you tell us a little about that – the idea, the process, the title, etc. When can we expect it?
Sara: Yes! The anthology is titled Not All Monsters and is being planned for a 2020 release. I can’t say too much yet (I’m also still narrowing down the stories I want), but over the next few months the final TOC will be revealed as we spotlight the individual authors who will have stories in the anthology.
But from what I’ve read, and from the stories I’ve fallen in love with, this is going to be an anthology that empowers women of horror so much through its words, and I am ecstatic about that.
Erin: What’s next for you? Will you write a novel or short story collection or stick to poetry?
Sara: Well, you may be seeing more prose from me this year if all goes to plan. Otherwise, I am planning on sticking to my current historical horror WIP about Ranavalona I of Madagascar. There will absolutely be more poetry in my future, but I’m not sure what theme I’ll focus on for the next collection. I can’t wait to find out when it hits me.
Erin: The historical horror work sounds amazing. I can’t wait to read it. Thank you so much for joining me for coffee and the chat, Sara. I know there is so much more I could ask you but you’re a busy gal! You’ll have to come back again sometime soon.
Sara: Thank you, Erin! I have enjoyed your questions and the coffee so much!
Sara Tantlinger Biography –
Sara Tantlinger resides outside of Pittsburgh on a hill in the woods. Her dark poetry collections Love for Slaughter and The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes are published with StrangeHouse books. She is a poetry editor for the Oddville Press, a graduate of Seton Hill’s MFA program, a member of the SFPA, and an active member of the HWA.
Sara’s poetry, flash fiction, and short stories can be found in several magazines and anthologies, including the HWA Poetry Showcase Vol. II and V, the Horror Zine, Unnerving, Abyss & Apex, the 2018 Rhysling Anthology, 100 Word Horrors, and the Sunlight Press. Currently, Sara is editing Not All Monsters, an anthology that will be comprised entirely of women who write speculative fiction. The anthology is set for a 2020 release with StrangeHouse Books.
She embraces all things strange and can be found lurking in graveyards or on Twitter @SaraJane524 and find out more about Sara at her website!
Sara’s Latest Collection –
The Devil’s Dreamland
H.H. Holmes committed ghastly crimes in the late 19th century. Many of which occurred within his legendary “Murder Castle” in Chicago, Illinois. He is often considered America’s first serial killer.
In her second book of poetry from Strangehouse Books, Sara Tantlinger (Love For Slaughter) takes inspiration from accounts and tales which spawned from the misdeeds of one Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes. Fact and speculation intertwine herein, just as they did during the man’s own lifetime.
There’s plenty of room in the cellar for everyone in The Devil’s Dreamland.
“…chilling poetry…” —Linda D. Addison, award-winning author of “How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend” and HWA Lifetime Achievement Award winner
“…morbidly creative and profound crime documentary…one of the best works of horror poetry I’ve read in years.” —Michael Arnzen, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Grave Markings and Play Dead
“…fascinating and absolutely riveting…powerful and vivid prose…will stay with you long after you’ve closed the book.”—Christina Sng, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of A Collection of Nightmares
And don’t forget to check out my first interview with Sara at The Horror Tree, in which we focus on writing and publishing.
For more #HookonWiHM, or women in horror, here on Oh, for the Hook of a Book!, go HERE.