[Interview] 'Transtygian' Author Evelynn Ashburn Discusses Debut Horror Anthology
We sat down with author Evelynn Ashburn to talk about her debut collection of horror stories years in the making and the launch of Ashes Burn Productions, a publishing studio dedicated to ethical and independent book publishing.
Evelynn Ashburn is a do-it-yourself inspired Pacific Northwest based author and musician with an affirmed love of all things horror including Lovecraftian horror and Mary Shelley. Her debut anthology, Transtygian deals with an array of issues from a modern perspective and each story explores Ashburn's own personal fears and anxieties. The anthology takes place in a world where the mundane blends seamlessly with the stygian and includes three stories told from three different perspectives, each exploring multiple aspects of the dark realities that we all live in every day.
A person lives isolated from the world and slaves away in a thankless job. A woman is intent on cutting all ties with her family. An author endures an uncaring healthcare system.
Ashburn shared that she was "excited, and also frightened, to share something so intimate" and that she'd learned a lot about herself in the writing process. The genre horror within Transtygian ranges from body to psychological horror, with Lovecraftian horror being one of her biggest influences. At the end of most Lovecraftian stories the protagonist is permanently changed by their experiences and not for the better. Ashburn hopes that after reading the collection, readers will think about Avie, Loren, and themselves with wistful empathy.
At seventy-five pages, Transtygian is a short afternoon read exploring the themes of poverty, inadequate (privatized) healthcare and horrors like evil slugs, cannibalistic orgies and general depravity. You can read a free preview of the first story in the collection Ritual in the Woods online. The anthology includes three tales:
Ritual in the Woods is a story about a woman, Avie, who flies to Virginia to cut all ties with her abusive family. This was Ashburn's first story and she wrote the entire first draft the morning after the particularly disturbing dream. The story is inspired heavily by the work of HP Lovecraft.
More than Flesh follows an unnamed and nondescript character as they go through a regular day in the life of an American. This story is inspired by the frustration that many people feel when they work hard and get nowhere. It outlines a distorted version of the American dream and will leave you disgusted, confused, and enthralled.
Wounds that Fix Themselves is the story that Ashburn is most proud of. It's a body horror story about a woman, Loren, who wakes up one day with a concerning medical issue and follows the experience of having biological problems that go unresolved.
Slay Away: How did you discover your love of horror?
Ashburn: When I was a kid, I remember I wanted to watch a horror movie. I remember seeing them specifically at a gas station in Germany and I was like, "Oh. That looks like a cool thing," and so I asked my Dad if we could watch a horror movie and we watched Dawn of the Dead (2004). That movie scared the heck out of me. I remember just feeling like this desperate isolation that movie conveys through the whole thing. When you watch those movies for the first time they have such a profound effect and so I watched that and then I watched Alien (1979). Those two films, that feeling I got watching Dawn of the Dead and the creature design of the xenomorph in Alien. Those two things came together and I feel like that created the foundation of what I would later build on as my love for horror.
Slay Away: What experience most shaped your love of horror once you'd discovered the genre?
Ashburn: I think honestly my disconnect from films that aren't horror. I think a lot of horror fans, myself included feel like we see ourselves in horror, but I have trouble seeing myself. Horror just feels familiar. It feels like a place where I'm allowed to be, I can just exist. That is why I love horror so much, because it's the one genre where I and this sounds weird, but it's the one genre where I truly feel comfortable because I know what I'm in for. It's going to be scary. There's going to be blood, gore and monsters. Maybe some psychological stuff that's very disturbing, but those are all things that I'm comforted by. I'm very familiar with those things and it feels good to exercise that familiarity sometimes.
Slay Away: When you watch a horror film and you feel like you see yourself in horror, can you remember that first experience feeling like?
Ashburn: I think I didn't for the longest time. I exclusively watched horror movies and I hadn't really branched out into other genres until recently, like now I'll watch horror and sci-fi. Which I find to be two sides of the same coin. It was very tough for me to get into other genres and it wasn't until I realized that I was so in my comfort zone in horror that I tried to branch out. I think that the negative things that happen to us in our lives, a lot of the time, have a much more profound effect on us individually than the positive things that happen in our lives.
I was watching horror through those tough times in my life. It is very hard to watch a happy movie in those tough times. There's a quote at the beginning of my story, Ritual in the Woods which can be found in the e-book version. It says "I prefer to have nightmares because waking up from a good dream makes living that much more difficult" or something like that and I feel like that is the contrast between horror and non-horror. The non-horror, I think, is a lot scarier than the horror is.
Slay Away: What's your favorite film, book and/or character in horror?
Ashburn: My favorite film is definitely Halloween (1978). I love how low-budget and do-it-yourself that film is. I mean even if you look at Michael Myers, he's just in a jumpsuit and a mask, you know and the mask is beautifully crafted, but it's just white paint on a William Shatner mask. It's not simple in the way that it ended up, but the concept was simple. My favorite character is obviously going to be Laurie Strode, because she's just like the original final girl in so many ways and Jamie Lee Curtis, I think, is just a phenomenal actress. I think that she's pretty cool. Halloween is probably one of the things in horror that stands out most and then Frankenstein is my favorite book.
Speaking of seeing yourself in horror, I like the part in Frankenstein where the monster gives a long monologue about the experience of living and learning how to live. I feel like anybody out there who is part of a marginalized community can in a lot of ways identify with the monster because the monster is so harshly marginalized by society. For some people, that's your whole experience. It definitely colors your view of the world and I've had that experience myself, so I think that novel was a formative moment of seeing myself in horror.
Slay Away: What would you say your role is within the Horror Community?
Ashburn: I can tell you what I would like my role to be. I'll say right now that I'm the person that always tries to get people to watch horror movies to the chagrin of my friends, but I would like to be somebody who uses horror to fill in the gaps. There's so much horror in the world and the same horror stories have been told so many times. I like horror that pushes the envelope in a specific way and telling stories that haven't really been told. Like the film His House that recently came out. I really liked that film because it's a story that had not really been told.
It's a story about immigration and being in a country that isn't your own and the terror that comes from that experience and there's a supernatural element but that part of the film is less important than the real story. Which is terrifying. So, I love horror stories that fill in the gaps; that are sort of left aside by mainstream horror where everything is very similar. I would love to be somebody who writes stories that you never thought you would read. Like when I see a movie or read a story or something and I'm like, "I never thought that I would be seeing this or I never thought I'd see somebody write this down." I'd like to be somebody who makes that kind of stuff; the unexpected.
Slay Away: Do you have a favorite LGBTQIA+ or female storyteller, writer or filmmaker you feel personally influenced by?
Ashburn: I'll have to bring Frankenstein and Mary Shelly back into the conversation. She is a great author. It's silly when I think about it because it was written hundreds of years ago, but I think the legacy of the novel as both queer horror and feminist horror is something that is really profound in my life. Any time I talk about books, it's like I have to stay away from talking about it because I love it so much. It's queer horror obviously becase the monster is a great allegory for queerness.
The monster is good queer representation. Anyone who has been shamed or put down because of their queer identity knows exactly what it's like to feel like "a monster" by society. Mary Shelley even had to publish the novel under a more masculine name for anyone to take it seriously until many years later when it had become a famed novel. She's incredible and inspirational. Everytime I think about Frankenstein and Mary Shelley, I just want to go and create something.
Slay Away: Who are your favorite horror authors and what authors do you believe have most influenced you in your writing?
Ashburn: I think Dean Koontz had a huge influence on my writing style. Not so much the content of his books, but the way he shapes the narrative and how he works with short chapters. I know, I sound so mainstream, but some of Stephen King's writing is really incredible too. The Shining, for example, is a book that really emphasizes that the metaphor sometimes is the scariest part about something. So, that was also a big influence on me.
I find that I draw inspiration and I write horror stories based on my own experiences. Like I'll have a terrible dream and think, "Oh this is going to torment me, so I can either wait for my therapy appointment on Wednesday or I can get on top of this and write it down." So, that is how a lot of my story ideas begin. So, I draw a lot of inspiration from my own struggles and experiences. I really like subverting things that I don't like about horror. For example, the fact that Trans people or genderqueer people are often the main villian or a bad person in these films, even still today. We need to subvert that in some interesting way to force people to think about it because, kids who are figuring out what the heck they feel comfortable wearing don't need to be vilified. I don't think that's a very controversial opinion to have.
Slay Away: Do you identify with any specific fictional characters in horror?
Ashburn: I don't know. I think I see myself in a lot of different characters, but the idea of the "final girl" is something that I've always identified with. I think a lot of people see the final girl as sort of a misogynist thing where it's like, we watch horror movies because we like seeing bad things happen to women. There's a lot of people who think that way. I see it as the polar opposite. I enjoy watching women overcome overwhelming challenges and kick butt. Like Ripley in Alien. She's so strong. She's stronger than everybody else on the Nostromo.
I've always liked watching monsters versus people in films. So, I'd say that if I had to choose a character to identify with, it might be the Xenomorph.
Slay Away: What's something you'd like to see next in horror?
Ashburn: I would like to see horror that actually makes people think about stuff that's really important, that inspires some new ideas and starts conversations about modern day issues. I feel like so many horror films retread the same ground and I just want to see horror update with the times. Social and societal commentary in horror is a good thing.
Slay Away: Tell us about your publishing studio Ashes Burn Production?
Ashburn: I'm very passionate about environmental justice, social justice of all kinds and labor rights across the globe. I intend to incorporate them into Ashes Burn Productions. In our world, there are huge corporations who take the money they make from sales on their sites, and fund pain and suffering all across the globe. I don't want to contribute to that in any way, so I started a brand new publishing studio dedicated to ethical book publishing. To keep in line with my code of ethics, I've realized that I'm going to have to do most of this myself, at least in the beginning.
Generally, I think greed and capitalism have created a minefield of production and we need to seize the means of that production to elevate and provide for one another. That may sound radical to some of you, but I think we can all agree that publishing a good book and ensuring the labor is all consensual is a good thing. That's my goal.
Slay Away: What other projects are you working on right now?
Ashburn: I'm working on two things right now, a currently untitled novel about a woman who struggles with alcoholism. The quick synopsis is that she struggles with alcoholism and then moves into a house which may or may not be haunted. I promise there's some new ideas in there. That novel is done and I'm just in edits at the moment. The new work I'm writing is a lovecraftian and noir mystery novel. It's about a detective who goes to investigate a family's disappearance in a town. It's my response to the queer phobia that comes in horror media like Silence of the Lambs and Sleepaway Camp. It's my subversion of that stereotype and I don't want to say anything else but I'm excited about it, but it takes place on the West coast in a port town. I'm excited to finish it, but it's been a struggle to write it so far.