Author David Massengill on the Joys of Writing Macabre Fiction

Snapper S. Ploen

Take a glimpse into the scattered confessions of a female serial killer etched into bathroom walls or written on old mirrors. Discover the horrifying contents of an old bucket that makes a certain neighbor’s garden grow so well. Trace the fragmented parts of a diary describing a German boy’s transition into a werewolf…


These enticing stories of darkness and intrigue are pulled from the shadows by the mind of prolific Seattle writer, David Massengill. His recently published collection of short stories, Fragments of a Journal Salvaged from a Charred House in Germany, 1816 and other stories (Anvil Fiction), spins a series of foreboding tales that infect the imagination with both dread and unique descriptive nuances.


Massengill was kindly enough to sit down for an interview with Highbrow Magazine to talk about his recent publication and his thoughts on writing in the exciting new world of digital books.


Highbrow  Magazine: Your book is a macabre collection of short stories taking place in random various times and places. What were your reasons for wanting to write for this genre (the gothic/horror short story thriller)? Did you start out writing something else and your style evolved to fit this category?


DM:  I’ve been writing short stories for over a decade, but I’ve tended to stick to realistic literary fiction concerned with ideas or relationships.  My literary fiction was often dark, but I rarely included supernatural elements.  I also used to have a rule that I’d never kill a character because that was too “easy” for making a point or ending a story.  I’ve always been a fan of horror films (Psycho, The Haunting, and The Blair Witch Project are some of my favorites), but I hadn’t read much horror fiction since I was a teenager.  About five years ago, I discovered the ghost stories of M.R. James, and I was stunned by their craft and creepiness.  I then devoured various works by 19th-century writers of gothic fiction (Sheridan LeFanu, Arthur Machen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Ambrose Bierce, etc.), and I knew I wanted to learn how to write gothic/horror stories.  I quickly forgot that rule about not killing my characters.    


Can you describe for our readers the process and evolution of how this book came to be? Not only from a creative stand point but the business aspect (finding your publisher, Anvil Fiction, being published through Kindle) as well?


DM:  When I began writing gothic/horror fiction, I didn’t have a plan to compile a collection.  I just wanted to learn the craft and see if I could publish a few stories.  I would “screen” the stories by sharing them with the talented members of my writers group.  I relied on the members’ feedback to edit the stories and decide which to submit to literary magazines.  I was fortunate in finding many magazines that wanted my work. Burial Day Books, MicroHorror, The New Flesh, and Pulp Metal Magazine were especially kind by publishing me more than once.  After my stories appeared in a number of publications, I decided to build a collection.


While I was shopping the manuscript around, I discovered that the brilliant minds behind the Nevada online literary magazine Danse Macabre had begun publishing books for Kindle.  (Anvil Fiction is their fiction publishing arm.  They also release poetry via Stonesthrow Poetry.)  One of my stories had appeared in Danse Macabre, so I decided to submit the collection.  That submission led to the publication of my first full-length book.


Some of my favorite stories in the book were those told in fragments (such as the one from where the book’s title is derived). What was it about this storytelling format made you decide to present them in that fashion?


DM:  I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with story structures and forms.  One of the advantages of writing short stories is that you can experiment without taxing the reader’s interest.  A reader will probably be less likely to stick with an entire novel made up of fragmented or stream-of-consciousness sentences.  What I love about fragmentary writing is that the reader must rely on his/her imagination to fill in the gaps.  Gaps are also necessary for effectively scaring a reader.  What will frighten a reader the most is in his/her own head, not what you put on the page.  One of my fragmented stories, “Writings Found in Jenny Staven’s Apartment,” appeared in FragLit, a now-defunct literary magazine that only published fragmentary writing.



Can you talk a little bit about how the dawn of the e-book technology has helped or hindered (or perhaps both) your career as a writer?


DM:  Electronic publishing has only helped my writing.  The majority of my published stories have appeared in online literary magazines.  You reach a lot more readers through electronic publishing, as the writing usually remains accessible even if the literary magazine or publisher goes out of business or becomes inactive.  If only print literary magazines had published my stories, readers would have difficulty finding past issues.  And if a small, print-only press had published my story collection, the book would most likely be available for a year or so before going out of print.


The entire publishing industry is in a state of dramatic transition right now, and I think people are justifiably nervous. appears to be gaining much power with its publishing opportunities, and the traditional “gatekeepers” that have determined what the country reads seem to be losing theirs.  These gatekeepers would be the big New York publishing houses and the mega chain bookstores.  Who knows how this transition will turn out, but the shift appears to be positive for small presses that offer electronic books and certain self-published authors.  An example is D.J. Molles, who has self-published a series of post-apocalyptic, zombie-esque novels.  His Amazon rankings and reviews are formidable, and no publisher or literary agent is profiting from his success. 



Some of your stories take place in very diverse places and you do an excellent job setting the tone and the atmosphere. Aside from those taken from distant times, is it safe to say you’ve been to most of the locales described in the book at one time or another, or did you write these stories while actually visiting such places?


DM: I think I’ve been to all the places where these stories are set with the exception of the Caribbean.  That being said, I’ve always resented the “write what you know” motto emphasized by creative writing instructors.  I believe writers should write what they want to know, and not just what they know.  If you’re interested in what you’re writing, your fiction will greatly benefit from that interest.  If you need to know more details about a certain location or time period, you’ve got Google.  But most importantly you’ve got your imagination.


If there was one story in the book that you could turn into a film treatment and bring to life on the big screen which one would it be? Assume you have control of director and casting as well. Who would you like to embody those roles for the film version?


DM: I think someone could turn this book into a series of short films (like a horror version of Paris Je T’aime).  If I had to pick one story for a film treatment, I’d choose “Ghost Ball,” my tale about a widowed housewife who’s responsible for the spirit of her dead husband entering her stepson’s body.  Todd Haynes would direct and Julianne Moore would play the housewife.  Those two paired up for the excellent Safe (1995), which is essentially an eco horror film.


Do you have any advice for other writers hoping to be published professionally?


DM:  If you’re writing fiction solely to be published or make money, I recommend you think about other, more practical ways of achieving those goals.  You’ll have a better chance at publishing if you write nonfiction, and you’ll make more money at countless jobs. 


If you’re writing fiction because something deep inside you won’t let you quit, keep on going.  Come up with a schedule, whether that’s writing a little nearly every day or writing a lot every weekend.  Become friends with rejection.  Trust that your writing will improve with time.  Know that the best part of writing is the process.  And then relish it when someone publishes or pays for your work. 


Do you have any other books or publishing projects in the works that you'd like to share in the near future? If so, could you talk about them in general (I know a good magician never gives up his secrets, so you can be abstract)?


DM: I’m polishing a supernatural thriller about forest ghosts in the Washington State Cascades.  I’m hoping to find a publisher for that novel soon.  I’m also working on a series of horror stories involving killer insects.  Literary magazines will be publishing some of these tales in 2013.  The redbugs are coming!


David Massengill is the author of Fragments of a Journal Salvaged from a Charred House in Germany, 1816 and other stories (Anvil Fiction). His short works of literary and horror fiction have appeared in dozens of literary journals, including Eclectica Magazine, Word Riot, The Raven Chronicles, Danse Macabre, Pulp Metal Magazine, Yellow Mama, and 3 A.M. Magazine, among others. He has also contributed stories to the horror anthologies Gothic Blue Book: The Revenge Edition (Burial Day Books), Long Live the New Flesh: Year Two (The New Flesh), and State of Horror: California (Rymfire Books).  He has received grants for his fiction from both Seattle’s Artist Trust organization and Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs.  His website is


Author Bio:

Snapper Ploen is a contributing writer and photographer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photo on main page: Edmundyeo (Flickr, Creative Commons).

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