An Interview with Preston Fassel, author of Our Lady of the Inferno
by John Palisano
This september, with the re-launch of Fangoria also come the launch of their new line of fiction titles. I had a chance to interview Preston about the story behind Our Lady of the Inferno.
“Fassel is definitely a writer to watch.” – Jack Ketchum, author of The Girl Next Door
Spring, 1983. Sally Ride is about to go into space. Flashdance is a cultural phenomenon. And in Times Square, two very deadly women are on a collision course with destiny– and each other.
At twenty-one, Ginny Kurva is already legendary on 42nd Street. To the pimp for whom she works, she’s the perfect weapon– a martial artist capable of taking down men twice her size. To the girls in her stable, she’s mother, teacher, and protector. To the little sister she cares for, she’s a hero. Yet Ginny’s bravado and icy confidence hides a mind at the breaking point, her sanity slowly slipping away as both her addictions and the sins of her past catch up with her…
At thirty-seven, Nicolette Aster is the most respected woman at the Staten Island landfill. Quiet and competent, she’s admired by the secretaries and trusted by her supervisors. Yet those around her have no idea how Nicolette spends her nights– when the hateful madness she keeps repressed by day finally emerges, and she turns the dump into her own personal hunting ground to engage in a nightmarish bloodsport…
In the spring of 1983, neither knows the other exists. By the time Summer rolls around, one of them will be dead.
Ginny is a strong character on so many levels. She’s not perfect. There’s a lot of grey area there. She also feels genuine. How did she come do be?
Ginny had a pretty complex path to becoming the character she is in the book. I’d originally envisioned it as a short story, and so I hadn’t planned on developing either her or Nicolette that much. It as going to be archetypical New Yawk tough girl versus psycho serial killer. There wasn’t going to be much psychological depth to the story, and the thrust of it was going to be more in the madness of what was happening than in the depth or complexity of the characters. And then, when I was writing Ginny’s very first conversation with her pimp, the Colonel, something interesting happened… You hear some authors talk about their characters writing themselves, or authors “discovering” things about their characters, and it sounds insane, but there’s a great truth to that. And writing Ginny—who I’d always envisioned as this black-bobbed, Siouxsie-Sioux looking woman—I suddenly found her speaking in German to the Colonel. And it felt right, and it was right, and the rest of that scene just flowed organically. And so I had to ask myself now, “Well, why is a 21-year-old streetwalker working in the worst part of New York at the height of its depravity fluent in German? Why is she so loquacious and articulate?” And after that conversation, she’s walking back upstairs to her room, and she’s thinking about a red bed canopy in the motel, and I wanted her to compare it to something and the first thing to come to mind was a nebula. So now she’s also got a working knowledge of celestial phenomenon. And again—why? So I joke that, in the time it took Ginny to walk up a few flights of stairs, she gained about twenty IQ points. And by the time she opened that door to her room—and the little sister I’d never intended as part of the story greets her– I’d figured out this whole background for her, and what had led her to this place.
Even with that background in mind, though, it was important that Ginny not be this “hooker with a heart of gold” that we’ve seen countless times before. A pair of phrases you hear a lot lately in horror are “breaks conventions” and “subverts expectations,” and it seems a lot of the times you hear that in relation to a piece of media, a book or a movie or a TV show, that they’re not really subverting anything or breaking anything, or, if they are, they’re not doing it to any end. They’re just doing something slightly unexpected, not really that exciting, but it’s not to any end. It’s not saying anything or accomplishing anything. And I wanted to legitimately do something different, and say something in the process, to challenge the reader’s preconceptions about certain things and make them ask questions of themselves, why they have certain expectations or hold certain beliefs. And with Ginny, part of that challenge was always, “How fine a line can she walk between being sympathetic and being loathsome? Can I have her do x, y, and z and still have the reader on her side?” Because so often in film and literature, creators are only willing to take their antiheroes so far, they’re only willing to let them be so bad and then they pull back at the last minute to make sure there aren’t too many chinks in the armor. And to me, that’s robbing these characters of their humanity. It’s allowing them to be artificially flawed—only flawed enough to be exciting, but not so flawed that it makes the reader or viewer uncomfortable. I wanted to make the reader a little uncomfortable. People’s mistakes don’t always have tidy justifications behind them; and if there are justifications, a lot of the time, they’re selfish and self-serving and not instantly forgivable. So you’re going to see Ginny do some pretty awful things, and even though you can see from her point of view why she’s doing these things, it doesn’t always justify them.
All that being said, though, I got about ¼ of the way through the book with Ginny being even less sympathetic than she is in the finished text. And there’s a scene where she convinces someone to help her do something untowards, and the way she originally went about that was far darker and less forgivable than what I finally settled on. It became a sort of point of no return for the character where, if she were to do this, you just couldn’t sympathize with her anymore. There was no going back. And by that point I’d kinda been seduced by the character. In spite of my initial conception of her, she’d grown more beautiful and complex and compelling than I’d ever imagined, and in a weird sort of way she seduced me the way that I imagine Walter White seduced Vince Gilligan and the writers of Breaking Bad. So I couldn’t have her do this; not only did I not want the character to be irredeemable, it didn’t seem true to the character. There were limits to how far she was willing to go, after all. And so I went back and I made a few tweaks here and there to that first fourth of the book to make her actions consistent with who I realized she was. And I really hope that readers have that same conflicted reaction to her.
I truly felt transported back to the gritty, anything-is-possible New York City of the early 1980s. Do you have firsthand knowledge of that era? Why was it important?
It’s really cool to hear you say that, because more than one person has complimented me on bringing the New York of 1983 to life. I’ve had people who lived in Manhattan in the 1980s, or who visited 42nd Street during that time, tell me that I really captured what it looked and felt like to be there. And I was never there. I’ve never even been to New York City. I was born in Houston in 1985, two years after the book ends and when the whole grindhouse subculture was crumbling, and I spent my childhood and adolescence between St. Louis and Oklahoma before moving back to Houston at 19. I fell in love with 42nd Street and grindhouse culture in high school, after renting all these cult films from Hollywood Video, which, for a chain store in rural Oklahoma, had an incongruously big selection of really seedy, dark, obscure grindhouse movies. After I saw Poor Pretty Eddy, was left wondering “what the hell did I just watch?” And a Google search told me that a book called Sleazoid Exress by Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford had almost an entire chapter on the film, so I bought it, and Sleazoid was my introduction to grindhouse, what it meant, where it came from, and I jut fell in love with it. The idea of this kingdom of the damned partially built around movie theaters and film watching and filmmaking was endlessly fascinating to me, and I devoured everything about it I could get my hands on.
So what you’re reading in Our Lady is the result of very painstaking research. Throughout it all, Sleazoid was my grindhouse bible, but I also read Anthony Bianco’s Ghosts of 42nd Street, and I used CityData.com and a few other forums to talk to people who’d really lived there during the period and ask them questions. Historical accuracy is very important to me in a piece of historic fiction, even if I’m going to blatantly ignore the truth for artistic purposes. For example, it rains a few times during Our Lady, which was important to me for atmospheric purposes, but as part of researching the book I looked up the weather reports for the week the story takes place and it didn’t really rain during that week. But that was a conscious decision. Then on the other hand, there are parts of Our Lady that are extremely true to life. The Staten Island Land Fill, where Nicolette works, is just the Fresh Kills Landfill—I changed the name because I thought people who didn’t know about the landfill would think the name was ridiculous, especially considering what I have happened there. But all the statistics that Nicolette lists during her tour, and the way I describe the geography of the landfill, and the problem they have with feral dogs and birds is all historically accurate. Similarly, the hotel where Ginny and her sister live is the Times Square Motor Hotel, which at the time was the deteriorating flophouse I depict it as; and the theater where Ginny hangs out is the Roxy Theater, which really did convert itself into a four-screen multiplex showing old films on VHS projectors in the mid-80s.
Can you tell us about how the book came to be published as the inaugural fiction book from the newly reborn Fangoria?
Back in the winter of 2016, I initially sold the manuscript to an independent horror press based out of Georgia called Fear Front. And it went into print in December 2016 and it was in print for a few months and sold like twenty copies and then the company went over in 2017, as upstarts are wont to do. And I figured, OK, that was cool. But, while the book was in print, two cool things happened. The first was a friend of mine, Jessie Hobson, told me that they were filming a new Puppet Master movie in Dallas, where I live, and that they were looking for extras. I’d been writing for Rue Morgue Magazine for a few years at that point, but I’d never had the opportunity to do a set visit, so I figured it’d bee a cool experience. So I applied to be an extra, and I was selected, and I spent about a week at the Ambassador Hotel in Dallas, running around and meeting a lot of cool people. The first day on set, I met like fifty people, and all their names and jobs just ran together for me, but everyone was really cool and so it was a fun experience.
The other thing that happened was I was invited to host a panel about horror writing at Texas Frightmare Weekend, Texas’ premier horror convention. And the day of the panel, as I was preparing to go in and speak, I hear this voice call our, “Hey, Preston, is that you?” And it’s one of the people from the Puppet Master set. And he comes over and asks me how I’m doing and what I’m doing there; and I show him a copy of my book and explain that I’m there to host a writing panel. And he’s like, “Oh shit, you wrote a book? Can I have a copy?” And I’m like, “Sure.” And he asks me to bring it to him the next day at the Puppet Master panel. So the next day I stop by the panel, and that’s when I realize for the first time this guy is Dallas Sonnier, the CEO of Cinestate, the company who produced the movie. So I give him a copy, and he says he read about it online the night before and it sounds really interesting. And I’m thinking to myself, okay, either he’s just being polite, or this is really big.
Flash forward a few months and I get an email from Amanda Presmyk, Cinestate’s VP of production, and she asks me if I’d like to come down to the office and discuss Our Lady of the Inferno. Of course I said yes. And so I show up, and Dallas and Amanda ask me if I’d be interested in selling the film rights; and at that point Fear Front was going under, and, I actually printed out a copy of my publishing contract and brought it to the meeting and I asked, “How’d you like the publication rights, too?” And then, when Dallas seemed receptive to that, I figured why not go for the trifecta, and I said, “As long as you’re going to print the book and make the movie, why not hire me, too?” And I made a case for myself as an employee and sort of horror-guru in residence. And Dallas got this look in his eye and he sort of smiled at Amanda and he said “I think we might just have something for you.”
Flash forward another few weeks, and I’ve signed all these NDAs, which I think have to do with selling the book. And I’m in the lobby of the Texas Theater, about to go in and see Event Horizon in 35mm, and I get a phone call from Dallas. And he says, “I saw you’ve signed all the NDAs, and now I can tell you why I was interested in your book and why you might be a good fit to work with us.” And that’s when he told me that he’d bought Fangoria Magazine, that he’d be resurrecting it, that he wanted to start a Fangoria literary imprint and he wanted to use Our Lady to launch it, and that he wanted me to work for the company.
What’s next for you? Where can folks find you?
You can find me on Twitter as @PrestonFassel, and on Facebook under my name. I’ve never gotten the hang of Instagram. It scares me.
Right now I’m trying to put the finishing touches on a sort of spiritual sequel to Our Lady. It’s also set on 42nd Street, but in the 1960s and 1970s. If Our Lady is about the decline and death of grindhouse culture, then I wanted this to be about the mileu at the height of its decadence and depravity. It’s a much darker story than Our Lady, but I’m interested to see how readers will respond to it versus their reaction to Our Lady. The people who’ve read Our Lady have had a very strong positive response to Nicolette, and this story is focalized entirely through the villain, who’s just as unsympathetic, so, I’m curious to see how people react.
ABOUT PRESTON FASSEL:
Preston Fassel is a three-time Rondo Award nominated journalist and author. His work has appeared in Rue Morgue, Screem, and on Cinedump.com. He is the author of Remembering Vanessa, the first biography of English actress Vanessa Howard, printed in the Spring 2014 issue of Screem. In 2017 he joined Cinestate as story editor and staff writer for Fangoria. This is his first novel. He lives in Dallas.