Talk about yourself—Who are you? Where are you located?
My name is Preston Fassel and I’m a horror author and journalist who’s been writing in the genre now for eight years. I started out doing reissues for Rue Morgue magazine and ended up working for them for four years doing reviews, interviews, featured articles and web content. In the meantime I also worked as the assistant editor of Cinedump.com and contributed some freelance articles to Screem Magazine. Eventually I left Rue Morgue to go work for Fangoria as a staff writer, a position I held for two years; I’m currently the Managing Editor of The Daily Grindhouse, a website dedicated to exploitation cinema and underground pop culture. Oh, and somewhere in there, I published a novel!
What are you currently writing and what inspired it?
My new book is The Despicable Fantasies of Quentin Sergenov, which is my love letter both to John Waters and the pop culture of the 80s, 90s, and early 00s that I came of age on. It’s about a gay pro wrestler who’s outed at the height of the 1990s wrestling boom, gets blacklisted, and ends up transformed into a dinosaur by a cabal of mad scientists. Then he gets away and decides to try and reintegrate into society with disastrous results.
It started out as a very dark joke between my brother and I; we’d grown up in a very conservative town in the 90s and 00s and knew some very, very homophobic guys we went to school with, who’d freak out at even the idea of being seen as “gay.” Guys who wouldn’t even hug one another because that was “gay,” but they’d sit around for hours watching pro-wrestling; and my brother and I were on a walk one night and one of us was like, “these guys we know, they’d lose their minds if they found out that any of the wrestlers they were watching was really gay.” And I started telling this story, about this wrestler who gets outed, and I just started throwing all the things I love into the mix- dinosaurs and sci-fi and cheap horror tropes, and as I made it more and more absurd my brother was progressively cracking up, and he’d tell me to push it further and further, and by the time we got home Quentin was born.
You can find Preston’s newest release here
What genre do you write?
Horror, although I try also to fuse it with some more literary trappings. I’m not one of these guys who says “Oh, I write fiction, it just happens to contain horror elements;” I guess I’m the opposite, I write horror, but it contains more literary elements. For example my first book, Our Lady of the Inferno, obviously owes a lot to Dante, and it doesn’t just include a quote from The Inferno as its epigraph but the book uses the same narrative structure, and there are narrative allusions throughout to elements from Purgatio and Paradiso as well. I also like to use post-modern formative playfulness in my writing; Quentin alternates chapters between the past and present, with the past chapters written in the past tense and the present chapters in the present tense. I really love horror writing but a lot of times, to use an analogy from Stephen King, it can kind of feel like ice skating—it’s all right there on the surface. The academic nerd and lit minor in me likes to weave deeper meaning and try to elevate narrative. And this is why I feel such an affinity for Diane Chambers.
Have you been published/are you working towards being published?
I was published a handful of times in my college’s literary journal. My very first published piece of fiction was a short story that ran in 20/20 Magazine, an optical trade publication for which I serve as a contributing editor; while I was still getting my foot in the door of genre writing I worked as an optician and optometric assistant for an optometry practice outside of Houston, and during that time got hired by 20/20, and when their 40th anniversary was coming up, our editor in chief wanted to do something special to commemorate it and knew I was an aspiring fiction writer, so he asked me to contribute a short story on the theme of eyewear and its role in our lives. It was called, unimaginatively, “Hindsight” and it’s floating around the web somewhere. I’m still proud of it.
My first published novel was Our Lady of the Inferno, which was picked up in December 2016 by an independent press based out of Georgia called Fear Front; and they just as quickly went out of business. In the interim, though, it came to the attention of the owners of the then-most-recent iteration of Fangoria magazine, which wanted to have a literary imprint in addition to the mag, and they bought the rights and gave it a full release. That won the 2019 Independent Publisher’s Book Award for Horror. The problem I’m facing moving forward, though, is that I had a very unusual path to publication and got where I am without an agent; and now I’ve reached the point in my career where I’d really like and could really use an agent, and I’ve got a book in print and awards for it, but, I can’t get a meeting to save my life.
What author inspires you the most?
That’s tough. It’s the cliché answer but, of course Stephen King; his book On Writing is one of the best things an aspiring writer can read, not necessarily for the advice he gives but for inspiration—how he started out as a teacher, living in a trailer, writing in his washroom, and ended up where he is. And how he overcame the adversity that he did to get to where he is today. I’ve been open on social media with the fact that I spent most of 2019 drinking very heavily and when I was making the decision to get help one of the things I did was think about the people I found inspirational who had made a similar decision, and going back and looking at On Writing was a big factor in my deciding to get help.
I also find Virginia Woolf incredibly inspiring for her dedication to giving her characters these deep, rich, full lives that—even if they’re not on the page—you can get these intimations of, and these ideas of who these people are beyond archetypes or cutouts. From a raw writing perspective, the two authors who were most inspirational to my development as a writer are E.L. Doctorow and Michael Cunningham; Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate and Cunningham’s The Hours showed me what a book could really be in terms of narrative voice and execution, and my own writing style sits somewhere on a venn diagram between the two.
What books are your favorite and what would you recommend for others?
My favorite book is Billy Bathgate, which is a sort of twisted, 1930s-era retelling of Huckleberry Finn with Huck as a protégé to a wanted bootlegger. It came out in the 1980s and its this very fun and very dark deconstruction of the whole “greed is good” ethos of the era as focalized through this mafia tale that very quickly goes to Hell. Even though it’s very much a book of the 80s it’s timeless in that it’s a gangster story and it has a very engaging narrator, who’s by turn absolutely clueless as to his situation and very hyper aware of what exactly he’s doing to crime the rungs of the criminal underworld. It’s also one of the filthiest, most violent books I’ve read but it’s written so well you don’t notice.
I also very much enjoy John le Carre, particularly his earlier, more I’ll say white-collar books. He’s a spy writer who focuses on the mundane bureaucracy of spywork during the cold war; imagine The Office if instead of selling paper they were running spies in Russia but you rarely got to see the actual spywork and it was all about the corporate shenanigans and backroom deals the guys at the top are making. He had an intuitive understanding of human nature and, particularly in his Karla Trilogy—Tinker Tailor, The Honorable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People—anyone who reads those is going to recognize their own workplace and their own coworkers. I’d recommend Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy both as an introduction to his work and to anyone as a great piece of postwar literature and a great treatise on the human condition.
Other favorites include James Elroy’s The Black Dahlia (one of the best crime/horror novels ever written and one of the best books of the 20th century period), Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, the complete short stories of Flannery O’Connor, Danielewski’s House of Leaves (my favorite horror novel), and Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero (the 80s book).
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
You never know who’s reading your work, and you never know the impact it’s going to have. Don’t be afraid to publish with a smaller publisher or outlet because you’re afraid of visibility. I once published a biography of the British scream queen Vanessa Howard in Screem magazine, which has a nice circulation but nothing like Fangoria or Rue Morgue, where I’d originally shopped it. My idea was it would find its audience and like twenty people would read and enjoy it and that would be it. And a few months after it ran I was contacted by a gentleman in England who’d not only read it but who turned out to be a huge fan of her work, and who wanted to host a screening of some of her movies at Oakley Court, the historic manor house used as Frank’s Castle in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is now a hotel. He asked me if I’d like to be the sort of Vanessa Howard expert-in-residence, and he ended up flying me to England and putting me up in a hotel for a few days to attend this event. So this article I didn’t anticipate having a big impact in a smaller quarterly journal got me a free trip to England. You never know who’s out there and who’s reading your stuff.
What is your perfect setting for writing?
The green leather chair I used to own in the downstairs of my old townhouse in Houston. It was in a sketchy area and someone jumped our porch to steal a folding chair, but, there was something perfect about that downstairs and that chair that was just perfect. I wrote a huge chunk of my first novel there.
As perverse as it’s going to sound, the right bathroom can be perfect for excellent writing, if there’s nice space on the floor, the insulation is good and the exhaust fan is loud and soothing. I also wrote huge chunks of my first book sitting on the bathroom floor with the fan running, drowning out any noise and really letting me get into a zone. There was an AC vent right above so it was always cool and a little window where you could see the moon at night.
Are you a pantser or a plotter?
This was a new term for me, so, thank you for introducing me to it! It turns out I’m a pantser. I’ve never worked with a full outline before. I always let intuition and my characters guide me. I start all my stories with an ending in mind but then I have to figure out how to get there and I find out along with my characters. And even then, the endings can sometimes twist and change; I always knew where Our Lady was going to end, and that it was going to be this fight between these two women, but, I wasn’t 100% sure from jump if either would survive. When I started writing Our Lady, my main character, Ginny, was much less developed in my mind, and much more animalistic—street-smart, cunning, but also impulsive and driven by instinct more than anything else. And as I wrote her I found her becoming smarter and more articulate and thoughtful than I’d originally thought, and I began to see that she had greater depths than I’d originally imagined or anticipated.
The only time I’ve used something like an outline was in structuring Our Lady. The book alternates between the POV of Ginny and her nemesis, Nicolette, who is a serial killer. And Ginny’s POV grew to become this very rich, lush, empathetic, lovely world, versus Nicolette’s, which is very cold and nihilistic and prone to intrusion by hallucinations and paranoia. Originally I tried to alternate writing them in order but it was becoming too hard to switch off between those mindsets and their accompanying writing styles. I had to go somewhere very dark to write Nicollete and it was hard to come back to the beauty and life of Ginny after that. And too, I literally wrote them differently—Ginny’s POV has lots of compound sentences, complex sentences and compound-complex sentences and she has a lot of wordplay and allusions whereas I wrote Nicolette very plain and basic, using as many simple sentences as possible to create this estranging effect. So eventually what I did was about ¼ through the book, I just started writing Ginny’s scenes, and then I’d drop in a placeholder like [NICOLETTE HAS A PHONE CALL WITH HER BOSS, MEETS HIM AT THE JUNK YARD]. And then I wrote the book all the way up to Ginny and Nicolette’s confrontation, and then went back and wrote all of Nicolette’s scenes back-to-back. That’s the closest I’ve ever really come to outlining anything.
What is your favorite written piece and if it’s published, where can one find it?
Our Lady of the Inferno! It’s currently available on Amazon as either an ebook or paperback. The paperback is technically going out of print so snag up your last copies while you can!
As an author of horror, I need to know, why do you write horror?
That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? I guess a big part of it for me is that I can do anything in horror. Do I want a serial killer who thinks they’re the minotaur or a wrestler who gets turned into a dinosaur? That’s not historical, and the former doesn’t really have any sci-fi elements, and it’s definitely not YA, and the highbrow literary snobs would look down their noses at you, but, in horror? Horror is, “why not?”
What was your first experience with horror growing up? Something had to spark your interest.
Beetlejuice. You know this is funny because my mom is a huge horror fan and when I was in high school and college I’d even sometimes take her to the show to see horror movies—we’d go every year together to see the new Saw, and I took her to see House of 1000 Corpses—but it’s my dad who’s really responsible for my getting into horror in the first place. My dad hates horror but he loved all these horror comedies that came out back in the 80s. Beetlejuice, The Monster Squad, Ghostbusters, my dad adores those movies, and he showed them to me; and, I was still a kid in the 80s, and the scene where Beetlejuice turns into a snake traumatized me. Crying, hiding under the covers traumatized. Ditto for the Library Ghost at the beginning of Ghostbusters. But the thing was, I still wanted to watch those movies anyway. I’d actively ask to see them again. Something about them kept drawing me back in even as they terrified me.
My favorite stories are about the day someone got exposed to a scary movie, do you have one?
My wife and I went to go see Sinister when it was in the theaters. We knew nothing about it going in other than it looked spooky and we were both off from work. We saw a late afternoon show, and, by the time it was over, both of us were just absolutely on edge. We had no idea what to expect but that? My wife is particularly tripped out by weird music and I’m particularly tripped out by found footage and snuff movies. This was the perfect storm. When we left the theater the sun was setting, and it was just like, oh, that’s nice. We got home right after dark and about an hour later the power went out. And stayed out. We sat in the dark for what felt like forever; I got out the rifle I used to kill snakes that’d get into the backyard. We’re sitting there in the dark and I’m holding a rifle, because, yeah, that’s going to do a whole hell of a lot of good. Our fear was just this negative feedback loop and finally we got in the car and drove like five miles to an all-night burger joint that still had power and waited for the electricity to come back on.
What is the scariest thing you’ve read or seen?
To keep this light, one night in college, I turned on the radio before I went to bed and was fiddling with the dial. I came across this station playing music like I’d never heard before. It was eerie; I was in band in school, but, I couldn’t recognize a single instrument being used. There didn’t seem to be any melody or chorus or refrain, and it just kept going on and on without ever seeming to repeat itself. No breaks, no station ID, just one eerie, endless song being played with what didn’t sound like human instruments. I got so spooked I dialed away. The next night I came across it again and grabbed my brother from his bedroom; he’s the real musician in the family and can tell you about like every genre of music that’s out there right now and if you stick an instrument in his hands he’ll figure out how to play it in ten minutes. I was like, “OK, what is this, what am I hearing?” And he got this scared, unsettled look on his face like I’d never seen before, and he said something about how it was probably Norwegian nu-metal or some other such thing. And then he just said “Turn it off.” I’d never seen him so rattled by something before. We searched local station listings but we couldn’t find anything that would’ve been on that point of the band. I was never able to find it again. I’m convinced to this day it was either a Numbers Station, or maybe some pirate station coming out of someone’s garage in Houston. Or maybe I stumbled up against something I wasn’t supposed to.
Have you written about a personal experience and turned it into a horror story?
I wrote a really fantastic long-form essay on my brother and I finding that radio station. The site I published it on went under a few years ago. I have the rights to it back; I should really re-publish it.
Favorite horror movies (books too if you haven’t stated those yet or have more horror specific)
My favorite horror movies are Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining; de Palma’s Carrie (the only Carrie); Carpenter’s The Thing; Hellraiser; Videodrome; and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (OG). Somewhere on the very complex venn diagram between all of those exists the perfect horror movie, and if you ever saw it you’d go insane or something. Either that or you’d be enjoying it and some guy with thick rimmed glasses would start heckling it from out of nowhere. Each of them achieves something very special in the way of being an excellent horror movie that I’ve never seen another do better.