As the grandson of a master storyteller, I guess I’ve always been a fan of the macabre. Whenever my family would get together for the holidays or even just a comida, my brother, cousin and I begged my grandma to tell us again about the black dog that haunted her father back in Honduras, or her battle with a demonic entity in her second apartment on Kedzie.
We believed those stories wholeheartedly, never imagining for a second that adults would lie so matter-of-factly about such things.
I remember watching the inaugural ‘Treehouse of Horror,’ the first Simpsons Halloween special where James Earl Jones recites an adapted version of ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe — a role he was born for. Though not even a tween yet, I recognized Poe as a dark genius, and years later I would recite the poem in full for my high school creative writing class from memory. To this day I read ‘The Raven’ at least once a year as part of my Halloween tradition, which also includes re-readings of Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ along with the usual assortment of ghost flicks.
Still, hearing the term “macabre literature” brings to mind pages filled with dangling eyeballs, rotting corpses stuffed in trunks, severed heads and little else. The prejudice has a lot to do with what is considered genre writing, much which is criticized for being mass-produced at the expense of literary quality.
But when I received a copy of Loteria, a book inspired by the famous Latino card game, complete with a bloody arrow piercing an anatomical heart on the front cover, I was understandably intrigued.
The author, Cynthia (cina) Pelayo, is a Chicago writer and poet who describes herself as harboring “a special curiosity for superstition, folklore, legend and myth.” She’s a Poe fan, too — if flying out to Baltimore in January to visit Poe’s grave on his birthday can be minimized to the word “fan.”
But in her early writing days, she quickly learned that her penchant for ectoplasm placed her on the fringe among her peers.
“I felt banished to the basement as the secretive red-headed step child,” Pelayo expressed in a 2012 interview. “So, what did I do in response to all of these emotions, feeling unwanted and underappreciated? I wrote. I wrote a lot.”
A graduate of Columbia College’s journalism program, with an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pelayo now runs Burial Day Books where she publishes works of “supernatural horror” from writers with similar interests, some even darker than hers. The boutique press also publishes a yearly anthology, the Gothic Blue Book.
Her short stories have appeared in a number of publications, and her first book Santa Muerte (Post Mortem Press) has just been nominated for an International Latino Book Award in the Young Adult Fiction category.
The following interview is the result of a conversation spanning several emails.
First off, congratulations on your 2012 novel Santa Muerte being nominated this year for an International Latino Book Award in the young adult fiction category.
I’m honored and excited for a few reasons. First, famous Latino writers such as Isabel Allende and even the first Puerto Rican Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor are up for awards — Allende for best fiction and Sotomayor for her biography — and being nominated by the same organization as them is wonderful.
I’m also excited because this nomination goes beyond genre. I wasn’t just nominated for being a good genre writer. I was nominated in an overall fiction category, and so, I was nominated for being a good writer. I will always work hard at my writing, and I believe there is always room to learn and grow as a writer. But this nomination really pleases me because I’ve been recognized by my peers in the fiction writing community.
My novel follows high school student Ariana Molina. One day her father Reynaldo Molina, who is the lead investigator targeting criminal organizations in Mexico, arrives unexpectedly on her doorstep. After her father is involved in a car accident that leaves one person dead, her visions of a veiled skeletal figure increase. While struggling with gruesome ghosts on the one hand and suspected gang members that have moved in across the street on the other, she becomes the target of a drug cartel and of Santa Muerte, the Mexican folk saint of death.
How were you first introduced into the world of the macabre and Latin American folklore?
I was influenced by the traditional horror, mystery and Gothic icons, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Emily Bronte, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving and Charles Dickens.
For those of us unfamiliar with the genre, who are some of its masters (Latin American or otherwise)?
It wasn’t until I started college, when I heard Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias,” that my own reality shifted and I began to explore masters of Latin American writing, and not just those who wrote horror or magical realism. I read the work of Latin American poets, journalists and those in theater. I felt that their work added a new dimension, a layer of intense emotion that I had been searching for. The work I explored by Latin American and Spanish writers is beautiful, but it can be tragically so, and I feel that is what life is in a sense, an existence where beauty and tragedy exist together.
Who are the people you enjoy reading?
Some of the Latin American and Spanish authors I enjoy reading include Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda and Paulo Coelho. Many people know that I adore Edgar Allan Poe, but if I had to select a Latin American author as my favorite, it would be Borges.
Your book Loteria features a story for each card in the Lotería deck, a pretty ingenious idea for a collection. What did you find most difficult about putting together such a book?
The most difficult part of putting the collection together was finding the myths, legends and folklore to apply to each card. Then, a difficult period came when deciding which myth, legend and folklore to apply to each card. I wasn’t just writing short stories, I was telling our history, our superstitions, and I was curating that against a powerful and iconic device, the Loteria game cards. It was very important for me to treat each card and story with care and respect. These were stories that I had researched online, in actual books (remember the library?), and informal interviews with family, friends and strangers. I sat down with a lot of people and asked them simply, “What were the scary stories your parents or grandparents told you?” We all know who the Cucuy is, but there are so many different types of boogeymen in our cultures. Throughout Latin America there are ghosts, fairies, gnomes (yes, there are), vampires, werewolves and…most troubling of all…human beings that have committed atrocious crimes.
Which story is your favorite?
I spent two years writing Loteria. It was my thesis at the School of the Art Institute’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing program. It was a very personal project for me, and I spent so much time with each card. The card that is my favorite is La Muerte. The story behind that card deals with the folk story that there is a vampire who was entombed by locals beneath the Panteón de Belén cemetery in Guadalajara, Mexico. I rewrote the story probably once a month for two years because I felt the heaviness of both characters and I wanted to tell their story right.
Of the 54 in the deck, which card gave you the most trouble?
The most difficult card, and the one I wrote last, was El Corazón. This card deals with the abandoned Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works in Chile. It’s reported that the former workers, many of whom are buried nearby, walk the mines at night.
Walk us through your writing process. When and where do you write? How does a story go from first word to full story?
I write every day, whether it’s a sentence or 50 pages. I can’t write in the morning, and I envy people that do. I can’t outline, and, again, I envy people that do. I also can’t write at coffee shops, because I get lost people watching. I have to write at home and at night. I suppose that works well since I do write mystery and horror and the night, even in a modern age, still seems so mysterious and frightening to many of us. Before I had my son, I needed the house to be completely silent in order to write. Now, I’ve been training myself to learn to write with noise and distractions in the background, which has been my biggest challenge this year.
I write from beginning to end. The most important part for me is just getting the story down on the page. I then go through multiple drafts, cleaning and refining the story. I do this for everything I write — poems, short stories and novels.
Tell us about Burial Day Books and how it began. What kind of writers and works are you looking to publish?
My preference in horror has always been in what can’t be seen. We all have underlining fears, and I feel that good, traditional suspense devices can accomplish fear without the gore. When I began searching for places to submit my work, I found limited sources that championed traditional, classical horror elements. So, I created Burial Day Books. Burial Day Books is a response to my frustrations encountering limited platforms with which to submit work. I wanted to create a space for new and emerging horror writers to submit their work.
Writing is a very personal exercise, and so I look at each submission as a piece of art work that someone created, and I handle their text and that writer with respect at all times. My goal with Burial Day Books has always been to serve the writer and those seeking wonderful, traditional mystery, horror and suspense to read.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I’m working on the sequel to Santa Muerte. There is also a poetry collection coming soon, and I’m currently reading submissions for Burial Day Books’ fourth anthology, Gothic Blue Book 4.
Cynthia (cina) Pelayo is the owner of Burial Day Books. Her first novel, Santa Muerte (Post Mortem Press, 2012) was recently nominated for an International Latino Book Award in the Young Adult Fiction category. Pelayo’s short stories have appeared in The Horror Zine, Danse Macabre, MicroHorror, Seedpod Publishing, Static Movement, Flashes in the Dark, among other publications. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Gozamos, Time Out, Extra Bilingual News, Venus Zine, FNews and Atlas Obscura. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and her son.
[Photo: Gerardo Pelayo]