Laura Benedict is a suspense writer whose latest novel, Bliss House, was called “eerie, seductive, and suspenseful.” Benedict is also the author of Devil’s Oven, a modern Frankenstein tale, and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts and Isabella Moon. Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, PANK, and numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads and Slices of Flesh. She originated and edited the Surreal South Anthology of Short Fiction Series with her husband, Pinckney Benedict, and edited Feeding Kate, a charity anthology, for their press, Gallowstree Press. A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Laura grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and claims both as hometowns. She currently lives with her family in the southern wilds of a Midwestern state.
In this interview, Benedict discusses writing fiction that disrupts the social constructs we take for granted, not knowing her endings as she writes, and imagining everyday encounters as criminal acts.
To read Benedict’s story, “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” and an exercise on writing seemingly illogical characters, click here.
This story is amazingly creepy, even when it’s about very real things. For instance, this is my favorite passage in the story:
Fact: Wolf spiders–the females are the ones you’ll see–look furry, but that’s not fur on their backs. It’s their young. Hundreds of them. Mama carries them around with her as she explores her territory.
I love this passage because it shocks me into seeing something familiar for the first time. Or, to quote the essayist Amy Leach, the passage creates “a place whose dimensions make nonsense of your heretofore extraordinary spatial intelligence.” It takes a special eye to notice such details and transform them into lines of fiction. Many people look at spiders and are creeped out, but you’ve created an entirely new creepiness. Is this a skill that comes naturally to you, or have you trained your eye and imagination to see other dimensions of common things?
What a lovely thought. I’m so glad you like that passage. I find that fact about wolf spiders strangely—I don’t know—metaphorical. The passage may contain a lot of energy because I discovered a bizarre kind of empathy for female wolf spiders, even though I fear them with my whole being. What practical and efficient parents they are, yes? How odd it is to feel a connection with an arachnid. Of course I’m anthropomorphizing like mad.
A creepy story about spiders feels almost like cheating to me because I’m able to count heavily on the reader’s own sense of dread. From a craft standpoint, I liked the idea of having the woman recount facts in a straightforward manner, almost as if she’s educating both herself and the reader with useful details about her new world and interests.
Skill or training? That’s always a good question. Once I found my material I realized that I had to be able to immerse the reader in whatever world I wanted them to experience down to the last detail. That did take a lot of practice. Every sentence has to move the story forward in some way, or at least be integral to the scene. And if you break the mood, break the scene with something that doesn’t fit, you risk losing the reader for the rest of the story. I reached this place in my work by giving myself permission to not accept what I saw around me at face value, to pretend, to suppose—to stretch those confines beyond the point that was generally acceptable. It’s good to be a little off. You have to be willing to cross that line. Transgress. You have to walk on the other side just enough to be able to confidently tell your reader what another reality might be like.
On a craft level, you actually tell the reader the irrational act that will occur in advance of it actually happening on the page. Early on, the narrator says,
“I fled my cheerful, shiny family for the Bug Man. Fit, grinning children with summer tans, good teeth, and stunning green eyes the color of new grass. Relentlessly healthy children. Blonde, enviable children. They greet each day with terrifying vigor: water guns and war games, barefoot races and soccer tournaments. Robert and I have raised them in the light. They attack the world, ready to rule it.”
On one hand, I can imagine someone arguing that you’ve given away the story. On the other hand, the passage raises as many questions as it answers: Why does she give up her family? Who is the Bug Man? Why does she describe nice things in such an ugly way? I’m curious how you approach a paragraph like this. How do you know when such a paragraph is necessary and when it actually will give away the story?
A horror story can be, but is not necessarily, a mystery story. To me, the most interesting part of “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” is not that she ends up leaving her family for a creepy exterminator. It’s how she gets there, the way she changes along the way, what she’s willing to accept and lose. If I hadn’t put that paragraph in the beginning, it would’ve felt too much like an “aha!” story. And I hope my fiction is more interesting than that. I want the stakes to be higher for the reader, and the journey to the end to be worth his time. If I’ve already told the reader that she leaves her family for the exterminator, then he should expect something even stranger by the end.
I confess that I didn’t know until I was writing the last few pages that the story was going to end the way it did. I had no idea what was in the box or what would show up to feed on its contents until she was in the Bug Man’s bedroom. It was a surprise I very much liked, and I hope the reader likes it, too.
Does the description of her family sound ugly? I have the sense that she sees her family and her daily life in bright, hyperchromatic colors. She’s passionate, but overwhelmed with the reality of it all. Life with the Bug Man is strange, but laconic and muted. It’s like an opposite universe. In his world, she’s fecund but passive. By engaging in the very bold action of abandoning her family, she sinks—finally, fatally—into a kind of inaction.
You’ve written that you’re paranoid and tend to imagine every possible crime that might happen to you or others. Given that, I’m curious about the genesis of “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.” Yes, it’s sort of a Rosemary’s Baby tale about a woman sleeping with a monster. But it’s also a story about a woman who, for no good reason, gives up a happy marriage and family in order to have an affair with an unattractive stranger. I’ve heard other writers say that the key to fiction is letting your characters say yes when the real-life you would run the other direction. Given your paranoia, I’m curious if you are re-imagining all of your everyday encounters, not just the potentially criminal ones.
“I’ve heard other writers say that the key to fiction is letting your characters say yes when the real-life you would run the other direction.” What an interesting quote. Now that I think about it, it does ring rather true for me.
This story did grow out of an encounter with a real exterminator—a man I found a little smarmy and not at all attractive. Our house is surrounded by woods, and when we bought it eight years ago it was badly infested with both spiders and mice (we caught 24 mice in the first 6 weeks!). The battle may never be won with the spiders, but we’re down to a couple of mice per year. When the exterminator came out to give us a price on bombing the house for spiders, he terrified me with his horror stories about other houses. I already knew about the way wolf spiders carry their young on their backs, but he shared that he has a female wolf spider in his house that lives in a closet. His girlfriend doesn’t like it, but he said that the spider is allowed to stay because it has lived there longer then she has. That’s an un-inventable detail. Honestly, I couldn’t make that up.
I’m able to envision just about every adult encounter as a potentially criminal event. Some events—like the visit from the exterminator—feed almost immediately into the part of my brain that processes stories. Usually those events concern my or my family’s physical safety (or lack thereof), or are things I’m already worried about.
One of the traits of horror/gothic fiction and weird tales is that characters often act on impulses that are monstrous—i.e. they cannot be explained rationally. This goes pretty far back, at least to Poe and Lovecraft. Why, after all, does Poe’s Montresor really bury Fortunato alive? And Lovecraft’s Chthulhu stories are almost entirely about normal people suddenly going insane. This is true of your story as well. There isn’t a rational reason for the narrator to sleep with the Bug Man. It’s an act that can have only bad consequences, yet she does it anyway. I’m curious what draws you to this kind of story. Is there something about irrational acts that particularly draws your imagination–and also is particularly suited to horror fiction?
We all live inside a fairly narrow social construct with many, many rules. And those rules don’t have a lot of room for obsessions or strange desires. Our contemporary culture has broken down a lot of the rules/walls, and the notions about what is strange or alien or unacceptable have changed quite a bit. But the constraints are still only a little bit wider and rely heavily on convention. With the exception of the clinically insane, we all crowd around a stable, identifiable center.
So we exist in a constant state of tension. The majority of people are able to handle the tension between their desires and their tribes’ demands for conformity with relative ease: Their desires are either easily satisfied, they’re too busy fulfilling their basic survival needs, or they have found some trade-off that makes the relative sublimation of those desires acceptable. But sometimes the tension is too great and they either suffocate or feel compelled—often quite suddenly it seems to them—to give themselves over fully to their desires, and damn the consequences.
Yes, there is a line that characters in horror and surreal fiction transgress that leads them into places that seem insane to other people. The woman in the story cannot help but sleep with the Bug Man and become his concubine. She no longer recognizes the validity of the choice in front of her: stay with her loving, charming family, or follow her desire for the bug man (no matter how bizarre it seems to us—or even to her) to its unknown consequence. She only understands that this is what she must do. Does she understand why? No, not really. There is, no doubt, something in her psyche that has led her to this place, but is it my responsibility as a writer to lay out the reasons behind her actions for the reader? I don’t think so. If I’ve done my job, the reader has enough information come to her own satisfactory conclusion about why the woman has acted as she has—but she’ll also realize that the reasons are completely irrelevant. That’s part of the horror of the story.
As to my attraction to irrational acts—honestly, I’m rarely satisfied with reality as it’s presented to me every day. Perhaps that sounds strange or greedy or ungrateful. But irrationality and speculation make things a hell of a lot more interesting.
Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.