Latinx Heritage in Horror: Interview with John C. Mannone
John C. Mannone has poems in Windhover, North Dakota Quarterly, Poetry South, Baltimore Review, and others. He won the SFPA Dwarf Stars Award (2020), was awarded an HWA Scholarship (2017) and a Jean Ritchie Fellowship (2017) in Appalachian literature, and served as celebrity judge for the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (2018). His full-length collections are Disabled Monsters (Linnet’s Wings Press, 2015), Flux Lines (Linnet’s Wings Press, 2022), Sacred Flute (Iris Press, 2023), and Song of the Mountains (Middle Creek Publishing, 2023). He edits poetry for Abyss & Apex and other journals. He’s a college professor of physics & chemistry, who just accepted a more challenging assignment to teach mathematics to high schoolers in a Knox County magnet academy in Tennessee.
What inspired you to start writing?
I suppose it was always in me. My mother had an artist’s heart. She rendered magnificent color pencil drawings of animals (I remember the frog—it looked so real that it appeared to be 3-dimensional and seemed to be resting on the page!), she wrote poems in her recipe books—she was a fabulous cook (I consider food another form of poetry)—and, though not a musician, she appreciated opera and classical music. I believe I inherited from her a propensity to be an artist, which in my case is a literary artist.
My first recollection of consciously doing creative writing was for an assignment Sister Anita gave me in seventh grade. I wrote a very descriptive essay on clouds. But there must’ve been something else—perhaps superhero comic books, science in general via the Hardy Boys, and science fiction on TV and in books, like Dell’s annual sci-fi digest in the late fifties and sixties—because when I went to high school, I was given a Kuder career interests assessment. It’s not an aptitude test, but one that predicts the profession one would likely aspire to. I remember the five predictions. The top of the list was a medical doctor (I desired to become a pediatric surgeon from 8th grade, all through high school, to the first year and a half of college, when I discovered chemistry… and physics. Holy cow! I found my true love was in those sciences!) The other careers that the Kuder predicted were, in no specific order: nuclear scientist, a teacher, writer, and an electrical engineer. It is remarkable how accurate it was, and I was fortunate to have the necessary aptitude. My advanced degrees are in chemistry and physics, and I have studied electrical engineering and achieved a PhD, short of a dissertation defense. I love to teach, whether it’s science, math, or poetry. I’ve been writing seriously since May 2004. And it started in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror arena.
I didn’t completely answer the question, but I know it was more than genealogy. Part of the reason clearly goes back to November, 1997. That’s when my faith was first challenged, and then affirmed. Having turned toward Christianity, I felt compelled to write much more personal notes on holiday cards, birthday wishes, condolences, etc.; in fact, this might have been the genesis of my poetic writing… it wasn’t Hallmark, but it was from the heart.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
I suppose it was for the same reason I like to watch horror movies. Why is it that many of us like to be scared, while at the same time we are afraid of things outside the movie? Escapism doesn’t offer a satisfactory explanation for me (as perhaps pure genre fiction might, as some claim it does.) I’m not a psychologist, so I’m guessing here. Perhaps, we endure the scare in a movie or novel, even embrace it, because there is a hope or even an expectation in that forum of suspended disbelief that good will triumph over evil. It’s the monster, giant shark, demon, tragedy, dystopia, etc. that arguably symbolizes our personal fears with those monstrous things. Speculative horror may be a metaphor for our fears. That’s what I think. And I have more phobias than I care to mention. (Phobias stand firm against logic and require professional experts to slay or “exorcise.”)
Do you make a conscious effort to include LatinX characters and themes in your writing, and if so, what do you want to portray?
I know that poetry can act as the social conscience for a group of people. And, occasionally, I’ll use that platform to make a controversial statement that is political, religious, environmental, and cultural. I don’t avoid discussing race and immigration issues—it’s never a simple, one-sided argument; there’s a complex mix of law and humanity, and the ironies they both embrace. Volatile topics! I shy away from words that would incite riot, but rather encourage civil conversations. Generally, I do not have an agenda except in the more general sense that embraces the human condition. And, as a Latino, I love to write about, and celebrate, the rich cultural differences.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
I think I might have implied this in an earlier response. Horrors in our personal lives can at least be faced, and defeated (with help.) Creative writing is one way of facing them, acknowledging them instead of running from or even denying them.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
First, I want to explain how I think of horror. There’s the horror genre, where, for example, books and movies are created simply to scare the shit out of you: gore-filled slashers, demon possessions, malevolent entities, etc. In contra-distinction to that, there is horror on many more levels that can appear as the mood or tone of the work (not unlike humor, which also has many shades beyond the silly, beyond the ha-ha,) which can apply to all genres, including literary. I’m not talking just about dark, but the whole gamut up to and including horrific content. In these applications, horror does much more than scare. It might force the audience to self-reflection. This is the kind of horror I like to read and write. So, in this context I believe horror has improved. So, yes, we now see more psychological horror, reality horror, and what I might call “Night Gallery” horror. (But in the “scare-only” type, the tropes remain the same, though the special effects have improved.)
How do you feel the LatinX community has been represented thus far in the genre, and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
I don’t know. Cultural pride is something to celebrate, but as an editor, I judge a poem on its merit and not on the cultural background, gender, race, etc., of the poet, so the responsibility falls on the poet or writer to be represented in a particular venue, genre, etc.
Who are some of your favorite LatinX characters in horror?
Unfortunately, I don’t write or read much long fiction to offer an answer.
Who are some LatinX horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
I don’t know about LatinX horror authors, in particular, but perhaps the imaginative writings of Steven King translated into Spanish, the suspense techniques of Alfred Hitchcock, the foreshadowing in the cinematography of Ridley Scott in Aliens, and the fluidness of Pablo Neruda’s poems can collectively help Spanish horror writers shine como la luz del sol.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Just like I did with science and creative writing—science provided me with a plethora of fresh metaphor, and human-involved topics—so, too, with the Latinx culture: fuel your stories and poems with unique foods (a language many understand regardless of country), fascinating mythologies either redacted or as a source of inspiration, and language—that extra bit of the world you represent (viz. scientific lingo working inside the text). We can use our language (of course, Spanish, but there are others in Latinx geographies,) its sounds and idioms, inside an English (or others for some international markets) framework. I love reading and writing bilingual poems.
And to the LatinX writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
In addition to what I suggested above, there are several things to consider, whether you’re writing poetry or prose, regardless in what languages you write. I’ve distilled it to an acronym: LLIMS. Be sure your writing possesses these fundamental elements. They’ll work together to deliver that emotional impact we hear about, that élan making it irresistible:
LL is language, with literary depth, diction, phrasing, and syntax (grammar and punctuation)
I is imagery—all of sensory imagery, not just visual imagery
M is the music of words, the internal sounds resonating, the rhythm, and the pacing (always read out loud because the eye will deceive, change, full in, but the ears cannot lie)
S is the structure, which serves the content, not the other way around
All of these together serve the theme, the plot, etc.
My multicultural heritage is complex and beautiful. My name betrays only my Sicilian genes, but my toddler years are all Latino! I was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, where I spent the first three years, and then spent another year or so in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I have fond memories of both (but most especially in Uruguay… despite what doctors might say about how limited our memory is under the age of 3).
I have written many bilingual poems (Spanish and English), and exclusively Spanish poems (often in English too,) as well as English poems in predominantly Spanish journals. Though most of my horror work is in English, I do bridge the gap with Spanish, too.
With respect to horror poems: As poetry editor for several speculative journals (Abyss & Apex and Silver Blade, currently,) I have accepted poems in Spanish, checking the quality of the translation myself. However, I have not written much horror in Spanish. A truly horrific one comes to mind about nuclear winter and that title in Spanish is “Invierno Nuclear” (Antología cartonera y digital de poesía de ciencia ficción). See below.
Finally, I am well-aware of some translation challenges (in Spanish, Greek, and Hebrew,) as discussed in my white paper (Aug 2015): “A Casual Discussion on the Challenges of Poetry in Translation,” especially for speculative poetry:
The sky, metastasized sulfur-yellow,
hangs over the ravaged land—stumps,
the only thing left of trees. A pregnant cow
gives birth to a mooncalf, monstrous
and deformed like the two-billed ducks
or the three-eyed frogs that stumble
more than hop, as if drunk on the after-air.
The lake, crusted with yellowcake,
hides the smallmouth bass
whose inside-out gills fan the murk;
fishing lines, long-abandoned
by those whose ashen skeletons
pile on the pebbly shore,
with their skulls bashed in—no doubt
the assailants stalked them
for food. There’s a dearth of it still.
I built an underground cabin—
same board and batten design
my great grandfather used for his.
I hunt in the dawn before the sun
awakens them; I gather special herbs
that don’t absorb the strontium-90
—I dig feverishly with two hands,
the third holds a gun, cocked and ready.
El cielo, metastasizado azufre-amarillo,
cuelga sobre la tierra devastada—tocónes,
lo único que queda de los árboles. Una vaca embarazada
da a luz a un calvaluna, monstruoso
y deforme como los patos con dos picos
o las ranas de tres ojos que tropiezan
más que salto, como si borracho en el aire gastado
El lago, con costra de urania (torta-amarilla),
esconde la perca americana
cuyas branquias de adentro-hacia-afuera abanican el agua oscura;
líneas de pesca, abandonados
por aquellos cuyos esqueletos de ceniza (pálido de polvo)
amontonan en la orilla de guijarros,
con sus cráneos golpeados—sin duda
los asaltantes los acosaron
para comer. Todavía, hay una escasez de la misma.
Construí una cabina subterránea,
la misma diseño de tablero y listón
mi bisabuelo usó para él.
Cazo en el amanecer antes del sol
los despierta; recolecto hierbas especiales
que no absorben el estroncio-90
— yo cavo febrilmente con dos manos,
la tercera sostiene un arma, amartillada y lista.