Though relatively new to the dark side of the literary barbwire, Mer Whinery has steadily been building a body of work that effectively trades in the haunted balladry of existence in the rural South and the bloodily thunderous passages of pulp cinema and fiction. The author’s debut collection was the source of our review earlier this week. Whinery took the time to hunker down with the folks at the Omnibus to discuss late-nite monster shows, the challenges of pigeonholing, and the realities of hard living.
• Thanks for joining us, Mer. How’ve you been lately?
Thank you for asking me, and I’m peachy.
• To get us started, I was interested in asking you what some of your formative artistic experiences were, the ones that geared you towards an interest in writing and writing in the horror genre specifically.
I probably tell a different story every time I am asked this, so I’ll go with this one. My gateway drug into the realm of horror, and writing in general, came in the form of a show on late night Tulsa TV called “The Channel 8 Plenty Scary Movie.” This was back in the mid-1970s, and it was a program mainly showing horror films existing in the public domain. Basically a lot of glorious crapfests from William Castle, Corman, etc. One night, as I was spending the night at my grammy’s house, I was watching the show and it was a double feature of CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS and GARGOYLES. It was a really windy autumn night, and my grammy’s house was in the middle of the country. Very isolated and spooky. That night, I don’t know why, planted the seed. I was probably around six or seven. Another night a showing of THE HAUNTED PALACE introduced me to E.A. Poe. I came across a big, young adult illustrated best-of Poe at a school book fair a year or so later. That really put the hook in me then. I started seeking out horror comics like Eerie and Creepy. I have always said I have been as much influenced by visual mediums as literary resources. Robert E. Howard was another major player in my education in horror. Definitely my favorite of the weird fiction crowd.
• Your Facebook author’s page refers to your fiction as “rural gothic,” and an entry from your blog goes on to explain this phrase at further length, distinguishing it from the camps of “Southern gothic” and “hillbilly horror” by citing your inherent fascination with the more melancholic aspects of Oklahoman life. Do you find that the sadness and tragedy, the dilapidation and hidden crimes, enhances the horrific effect in your stories, and do you tend to respond strongly to this in the works of others?
Of course it does. Southeastern Oklahoma, where I come from, is a region drowning in poverty. Was when I was a kid and still is. Growing up I didn’t have a lot. I wasn’t dirt poor but it was hard enough to put the jumping Jesus fear of losing basic things into me. My people are a long line of hard scrabble folks. Men who work and play hard, hunt and do what they can to survive. Women who pray in the morning and drug themselves in the evening. Damn, damn good people, but hard as nails. In their faces are etched the remnants of a haunted bloodline. A lot of secrets and things that should probably stay that way. But in that melancholy is a strange, undeniable beauty. I think the mixture of all of that lends an air of gravity to my work. An emotional, folksy depth not normally given to the hillbilly horror genre, such as that is.
• Do you feel that the characters and lives you encapsulate in your stories are generally unspoken for or misrepresented in the genre?
Sure. I tend to gravitate toward the undesirables. The unloved and abused. Definitely more of a kissing cousin to Southern Gothic than hillbilly horror. I seriously hate the tag of hillbilly horror, and I fear I will get lumped into it as it is more comfortable to market what I do as that. Hillbilly Horror, to me, is like some sort of big, absurd cartoon given life and legs. It tends to turn an entire culture of complex, intelligent folks into a caricature represented by toothless cretins and inbred mutants. Nothing wrong with that I suppose. I don’t know. I’ve always felt it tends to be lazy and unimaginative for the most part. Although it has yielded a few gems.
• You appear to have a large attraction to religious iconography, particularly the oppressiveness or the distortion of it, the reality of Hell and demons, etc. Do you feel that this was engendered by your upbringing? Why do you think it remains such a vital part of your creative makeup?
Probably. I was brought up in the Church of Christ, which is a branch of the faith characterized by a lot of screaming, pulpit pounding, and an unhealthy obsession with frying in Hell. The Resurrection and the Reward. It’s fairly joyless. Inclusive. At least that was my experience growing up. I think I probably draw on my negativity from those memories, and it shows up in my work. But I don’t go into anything with an agenda. It’s all subliminal insertion, I think.
• Thus far all of your work has been published by the small press. How have you found that working relationship? Do you think it offers certain creative freedoms that a larger publishing house might be hesitant to take a risk on?
Mostly, more than anything, it’s been a good way to meet people. Connect. Much easier than self-publishing for a person like me. I’m very introverted, and I find it hard to put myself out there. This made a lot of things possible, opened doors for me and what not, that doing it on my own couldn’t. Nobody’s ever told me what to do. Helpful criticisms, but no firm cuts. I know that can change when moving on to a bigger press. My hope is that I can ride with the smaller presses into a more lucrative career. I want to become successful and take people with me.
• There’s a local legend that the spirits of the children who died when the Ferris wheel caught fire at the abandoned fairgrounds will grant you the means of completing one of your ultimate dream projects if you spend the night in the uppermost cart. What do you ask them for?
I ask that one of them possess me and allow me to experience what happened, starting with what they were doing that day, leading up to the accident. I want to know them. Really know them. That way when they burn up I will be able to understand their pain and transfer it into my work. I want to be haunted by them.
• What are some of the things that you feel you’ve learned since you’ve started writing?
Learn when NOT to write. Take a hard cut and roll with it. Take criticism without getting my britches in a bunch.
• Since the Red Hand Theater has been closed due to “renovations,” you’re forced to settle in with a dinner-and-movie combination at home. What are your go-to choices?
Something spicy, complimented with a double shot of Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS. I might trade THE INNNOCENTS for A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, however. That’s a double bill the Red Hand would have shown honestly, if the projectionist was drunk enough and the spirits riled up.
• How do you best like to occupy yourself when you’re not writing? Have any hobbies?
Between family time, work, and doing this thing I really don’t do much else. I go outside and play in the woods every once in a while. Play some video games. Nothing too wild, really.
• Since this is a site geared towards short fiction, are there any particular tales or collections that you would recommend to our readers?
Any…any…anything by Robert E. Howard. Most of his stuff comes in the form of “Best-Of” anthologies. His horror and action fiction are without peer in my humble opinion. As far as current authors I highly recommend Matt Bartlett’s work. All of it. Especially his newest, Creeping Waves. Why he’s not legendary yet baffles me. Truly.
• What works might we expect to see from you in the future?
I am currently in the middle of a weird western called Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun. It’s still set in my Little Dixie cosmos and many of the familiar settings seen in my short fiction are represented. I gotta say, it’s some pretty fun, wacky stuff. Mash up my love of Italian horror and spaghetti westerns, samurai revenge films, and my own secret sauce and you got it. Also planning on re-releasing my first two collections, The Little Dixie Horror Show and Phantasmagoria Blues into a mashed up new anthology, replete with a few new stories to put a cherry on top. New title. Cover art. The whole enchilada.
• We appreciate you stopping by the Haunted Omnibus, Mer!
I appreciate your time, and thanks for all of your support!
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.