For our twenty-first entry of Beneath the Needle, we're joined by author Russell Dorn, who writes horror for both children and adults. We discuss Lunching Underwater, Russell's icky and unsettling Short Fiction feature included in The Needle Drops... Volume One, before exploring mental health in horror, the differences developing tales for younger audiences, app development and more.
Russell Dorn is the author of both adult and children’s horror stories. By day, Russell works in a library helping patrons discover a love of reading, and encouraging those brave enough to read a book from his favourite genre: horror. By night, he works on finalizing a collection of unnerving horror stories for adults and a horror-comedy story collection for younger readers, hoping to spread that feeling of tense exhilaration he felt flipping the pages of Goosebumps books growing up. Influenced by his degree in psychology from the University of Nevada, Reno, the adult-horror collection, A Head for Haunting, aims to incorporate different aspects of mental health. Russell’s adult horror work has appeared in numerous online and print publications, including Third Flatiron's Infinite Lives, Unnerving Magazine issue 11, Dark Dossier, and Horror Bites, as well as the horror anthologies Exquisite Aberrations, This Book is Cursed, and Asterisk Anthology: Volume 2.
He is also the author of several young adult horror and children’s picture books, including Skeleton in the Closet, his homage to Alvin Schwartz whose Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark introduced him to horror as a kid, as well as Feast for the Beast, Kitchen Witch, and the interactive novel No Proper Thief. He is the co-creator of Felipe Femur, a free children's website and book series about a warm-hearted skeleton and his ironic monster friends. The website, www.felipefemur.com, features free games, stories, comics, craft ideas, recipes, and more. With his twin brother, he’s had fun developing several mobile apps, including Rock, Paper, Wizards, Present Danger, Scary Stories for Kids, and Dr. Sweet Tooth under the name ZebraFox Games.
So, Russell - Lunching Underwater is a fantastically gruesome piece that utilises both themes of body horror and psychology within its narrative, deploying unforgettable imagery throughout its running time. Can you share a little detail on its origins? Do you often explore such themes in your adult fiction?
Two things inspired Lunching Underwater: a memento mori and a personal experience I had years back when I found myself without health insurance.
I inherited a framed print of Charles Allan Gilbert’s drawing All is Vanity from my grandfather. The memento mori started my thinking about vanity and horror and by extension body horror. A second element of inspiration came when I’d noticed an irregular mole on my body one day and couldn’t remember if it was always there or if it had recently developed. Long story short, the growth ended up being a small scab, but the fear in thinking it was skin cancer got my mind churning and what came out of it was my tale of body horror, fish, and unemployed revenge.
Body horror makes readers confront their vanity. That’s what I think is so uncomfortable about it—its violation of the human body. Lose a leg, disfigure the face with acid, decay while alive from a previously unknown STI or alien life form, or alter the body in some other horrible, irreversible way and it affects how the victim is able to approach socializing. How we’re perceived is of the utmost importance to the majority of people. There’s an obsession with beauty in society, which is deeply rooted in the survival of our genes. Through evolution, peacocks developed massive plumes of feathers to attract a mate and pass those beautiful genes on; humans aren’t so different even if their plumage isn’t so literal.
Cosmetics, hair products, plastic surgery, gym routines, diets, Tik Tok filters, and Photoshop are all used in an attempt to cultivate further beauty and garner the praise and idolization that comes along with it. Body horror often deprives the victim of this attractiveness to some degree, thus increasing the difficulty in obtaining what we want from others. Rob the body of its eyes, ears, or skin, and the suffering has gone even further to the point of removing one or more of the senses we use to navigate the world, making living in general more difficult. Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun is a great example of how horrible this could be.
Body horror reminds us of our own fragility and is a subgenre I typically don’t write in and only occasionally read. There are plenty of great body horror stories out there to enjoy (well, not enjoy, but squirm through and cringe at), but I have too many sympathy pains to consume too much of what the subgenre has to offer. Though I do enjoy a good splatterpunk story. While many horror stories have elements of gore, including ones I write, Lunching Underwater remains my only conscious effort to write body horror. I used as many intrinsically gross words and as much nasty imagery as I could while keeping the plot moving. Usually I lean more towards psychological and literary horror, so this story was a fun and gross change of pace.
What’s your favourite R.L. Stine story from your childhood and why?
The Choose the Scare series of Goosebumps were always great given the fun multiple endings, but my favorite has to be the more straight forward Deep Trouble, which is one of the earliest of the Goosebumps series. You might remember the hammerhead shark on the cover. The ocean always terrified me. It still does. There are so many deadly things just near the surface. And even more in the black depths. Big and small. I had a panic attack as a kid when trying to snorkel at a coral reef off of Florida. I feared I was going to drown or get attacked by barracudas. Though I consider myself a decent swimmer, even today I grow tense and breathless when I can’t touch the bottom. And since more than 70% of Earth’s surface is covered in water, it’s obviously a common setting for horror. Sharks, sea monsters, massive waves, storms, pirates, freezing temperatures, sea snakes—there are endless scary things about the ocean and I think that’s what made Deep Trouble stick with me and why it remains my favorite. Violent gnomes, evil puppets, giant praying mantises, and other R.L Stine villains are formidable, but the ocean and its inhabitants scare me the most, both because of the creatures we know about and those still hiding in the depths.
With A Head for Haunting, you focus on mental health within a horror collection -- is there a particular story or two you’d like to highlight to our readers? What’s a great example of another piece of horror media that you think tackles the topic well?
A Head for Haunting deals with mental health issues using the theme of tarot cards. Each of my stories takes inspiration from the most negative aspects of each of the Major Arcana cards. There are twenty-two Major Arcana cards, thus twenty-two stories in total. The Fool, The Tower, Wheel of Fortune, etc. My story Long Stretches—first published in Third Flatiron’s Tales of Longevity—is my ode to the Star card. The negative aspect of this card is despair, or lack of faith, and my story deals with isolation of space and an astronaut’s neurosis: in his case, the irrational worry about his limbs stretching into noodles due to the lack of gravity. Another story in my collection, one that’s more of a straight forward ghost tale, is called The Scent of Daisies. The story deals with Alzheimer’s in addition to a haunting and is my offering for the Hermit tarot card. People feel more isolated than ever with Covid-19 shut downs, remote work, and cell phones and computers reducing the frequency of in-person meet ups, and I think that is particularly true of older adults who have remained at home rather than moving into a retirement community, and even more so for those who have lost their partner. On top of that, many suffer from dementia. To feel like a stranger in your own skin because your memory is failing is something I imagine being a most horrific type of isolation.
As far as other psychological horror stories go, I’ve always been a huge fan of Shirley Jackson, particularly her novels Hangsaman and The Haunting of Hill House. The Netflix adaptation of the latter was good, though far removed from the source material, which I think handles the topics of mental health and unreliable narrators perfectly. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is another story that deals with the topic well. Examples of more modern pieces of fiction are The Drowning Kind by Jennifer McMahon and The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, which deals with ritualistic thinking. Both The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty and the more recently written A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay pit the idea of supernatural possession and more grounded psychological causes against each other quite effectively. They leave you questioning the true source of the possession and I love that.
"Long story short, the growth ended up being a small scab, but the fear in thinking it was skin cancer got my mind churning and what came out of it was my tale of body horror, fish, and unemployed revenge."
When tackling both adult horror as well as your prowess in developing material for children, how do you approach each differently? What elements of horror do you think impacted you as a kid, and why is it important that future generations also experience this?
When I was growing up in the 1990s, it seemed like horror was mainstream in kid’s content. There were the Goosebumps books and Alvin Schwartz’ trilogy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark—the ones with the creepy black-and-white drawing by Stephen Gammell.
Both Schwartz’ works and the Stories for Stormy Nights series inspired my own children’s horror collection, Skeleton in the Closet and other Scary Stories, because they really stuck with me. They were that scary. Both provided stories that haunted youthful imaginations. Even more tame books of the time like the Emily Eyefinger and clay animation were kind of creepy; not just A Nightmare Before Christmas and The Adventures of Mark Twain, in which that was likely the aim, but also TV commercials like the singing Sun-Maid raisins and the Gushers fruit heads (though that may have been the 3D animation).
I remember baking rubber bugs in my Creepy Crawlers Bugmaker oven and the slime oozing off the head of my HasbroMonster Face. Beetlejuice, GhostBusters, Addams Family, and Tales from the Crypt all got an animated TV series. Then there was Aaahh! Real Monsters, Courage the Cowardly Dog; the live action Goosebumps show and Are you Afraid of the Dark?, as well as So Weird and Eerie Indiana. Each of these shows and books had both horror elements and humour. Watching these shows again today, I find my jaw dropping at some of the things they got away with. From my viewing and reading of modern children’s media, it all seems quite a bit tamer. Random humor is in—creepy not so much.
The publisher of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark even reprinted the series with new, less scary illustrations. Hard to say if that is for the best. I’m not an expert. It’s just more reserved than the heaping serving of horror my generation got growing up. I feel all that horror as a kid made me more cautious as horror is often a lesson in avoidance. There are a lot of horrible things and people in this world, so I believe horror is important in teaching caution.
So, all that said, when I approach my children’s stories I aim to write happy, positive tales, skinned in a creepy theme. My Felipe Femur series is all about monsters, but they’re only monsters on the outside. For example, there’s Gummy the toothless werewolf, who is a big softy and Sunny the vampire who loves the sun and positive beach vibes. With my middle-grade fiction, I begin to incorporate actual horror themes in the writing: loss, despair, gross bugs, and monsters with bite. Typically, I keep the characters in the stories at the intended reader’s age, so the setting is often school, home, or summer camp, and the situations are ones readers would be familiar with such as visiting the dentist, the library, trick-or-treating, and taking a bath. Then with my adult horror, I write about more mature and complex relationships and situations, like marriage, spousal loss, co-worker challenges, grief, mental health issues, blood, and death.
You also develop mobile apps and videogames at ZebraFox Games -- is this a space you think horror needs to explore more frequently? Are horror videogames a worthwhile venture for horror creatives that allow you to approach fiction a little differently?
My brother and I used to do quite a bit in app development. We’ve dedicated our time to other ventures recently, but we’d once hoped to harness the success of Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga. We met with some success, but nothing great enough to retire on, unfortunately. The real horror of our app creating venture was seeing our hard work buried by countless new daily apps uploaded by other developers. Everybody wanted a piece of that pie.
As to the question of horror with apps, I do think it should be explored in every form of media, apps included. One form I think works quite successfully as a venue for horror is apps for virtual reality headsets like the Oculus. These apps really allow players to immerse themselves in the horror with surround vision and sound, with the added element of them being in control of their fate to a degree. I’ve done some work writing and coding a choose-your-own-adventure app. While my offerings weren’t horror, I do see great potential in this being a more robust and accessible successor to the choose-your-own-adventure books. And R.L. Stine showed just how fun those can be when exploring horror.
Different forms of media utilize types of horror more or less effectively. Horror movies, games, and haunted houses exploit jump scares with great success. Flinching is a survival reaction and the sudden threat triggers a shot of adrenaline. To be successful in inciting horror, I think books have to rely more on dread than sudden shocks. While an immersive VR horror game or a loud horror movie can easily elicit a jump out of the viewer with a ghost’s sudden appearance or a monster leaping at the screen, the text of a book provides a sort of barrier to prevent that. Written horror can deliver surprises, of course, but text isn’t going to jump off the page and trigger a flinch. Building dread and provoking the reader’s sense of empathy can have them questioning, in fear, “Could that happen to me?” This question is often something they carry with them long after finishing the story. Can I really be possessed? Can a flesh eating disease be in those sneeze droplets? Will I really die soon after watching some obscure VHS?
“Could that happen to me?” This question is often something they carry with them long after finishing the story. Can I really be possessed? Can a flesh eating disease be in those sneeze droplets? Will I really die soon after watching some obscure VHS?"
Horror cinema is another passion of yours, and you recently discussed the best of the horror-comedy genre in a blog post. Across 2020 and 2021, what are some indie horror flicks you’ve enjoyed?
I’ll admit I haven’t watched as many movies as I usually do, and with Covid-19 affecting Hollywood, there haven’t been quite as many movies of late so some of these may not be considered indie flicks. Still, I have seen a few great horror-comedy movies.
Jakob’s Wife embraces it’s campiness to create a fun vampire film. Color out of Space had some great body horror scenes, as did Psycho Goreman, which reminded me of the Power Ranger mixed with a GWAR concert. Slaxx offered a silly but frightening and unique movie monster, as well as a bit of social commentary. Freaky with Vince Vaughn was a fun horror take on the Freaky Friday story. And though technically The Mortuary Collection was a 2019 movie, it was released late in the year, and I think it had some hilariously horrific imagery and meaningful stories, so it’s worth a mention.
What upcoming project of yours are you most excited to debut? Is there anything specific you’d like to highlight to our readers?
All that the Beast Consumes is my full length novel that I’m excited in simply having written. I know werewolves are overdone, but I think my novel provides a fresh take on the genre and is really less about the monster and more about the damage it does to the lives of those connected to those killed. I hope to have it and my short horror story collection, A Head for Haunting, published in the not so distant future. Beyond that, I’ve started work on a middle-grade horror collection, which will be a follow up to my Skeleton in the Closet collection, and focus on the theme of family vacations.
In three words or less - what can our readers expect from Lunching Underwater?
Gross, Fishy, Comeuppance.
Thank you, Russell -- it’s been a fantastic opportunity to learn a little more about you and your fiction here Beneath the Needle. Lunching Underwater will be served in The Needle Drops… Volume One this October.
Thank you for the great questions and opportunity to be a part of such a wonderful anthology.