Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: It’s clear “The Curse” was meant to be left ambiguous, which makes for a fascinating ending. We are not sure if Jay is crazy or if the curse is real. Can you tell us a little about your decision to leave the curse undefined? What do you think the nature of the curse is?
Sam Rebelein: Well, the original idea came from this very cliche-looking trailer for a movie about a cursed box or something that came out a few years ago. One of the characters in the trailer says something along the lines of, “There’s something evil in that house.” Of course, the protagonist lands pretty quickly on the cursed box, but I was intrigued by the idea of it not being obvious. Of someone knowing there was just “something evil” around, but not exactly knowing what. What if you just lived with that knowledge? Spooky. And all the best horror is ambiguous.
So the curse was ambiguous from the get-go. But I always thought it was some kind of collective family energy. I think Jay realizes near the end, along with the reader, that there is no curse, just some psychic inheritance. We all have those from our families. That’s what really sets off the spiral. He spirals into not knowing how all these inherited bits of his life and personality are really affecting him.
So who knows what Mom was talking about? Whatever it is, I don’t think it ends up actually being related to Jay’s experience. If anything, it’s that book Jay’s holding. What is that book? Why was it in his pocket? Where did it come from?
RR: In this piece, a big portion of Jay’s life is hand-me-down from his family, from the mirror to the vanity that it inspires. How do you see Jay’s obsession with material possessions affecting his character?
SR: It’s funny, I always saw Jay as unobservant and passive. There’s evidence that he’s been dealing with depression for a long while, and that’s definitely partially a product of his inability to be his own person. Maybe that’s his curse– he suddenly becomes observant and starts acting on all these things, then he can’t stop… But as an unobservant, passive person, Jay has simply acquired all these items over his life. They’re things he didn’t need to go out of his way for (gifts, hand-me-downs, old junk). So I don’t know if he really is obsessed with material possessions, but he’s certainly accumulated more material than he might have if family wasn’t involved. I think that triggers him, too. He suddenly realizes he is not an individual, but an accumulation of all these family traits and histories, and that’s symbolized by all these possessions closing in around him.
RR: When writing “The Curse,” how did you approach the genre? How did you resist known tropes, and how did you use its flexibility to experiment with the narrative?
SR: I always tend to get the story out in the first draft, which is when I allow myself to have fun and fall into tropes and whatnot. Then I spend some time thinking about where I am. Where the story’s coming from. What’s the subtext there that I’m actually trying to say, or, better yet, what’s the subtext that’s forcing its way out of me through this story? What anxiety is demanding to be expressed? With “The Curse,” I wrote out the idea, then realized what it was actually about, and began moving things around to make that make sense.
I think that’s how I play with the genre. I like to see the way I engage with cliche stories, then analyze that. It makes it easy and fun to play with known tropes, too, because you always want some cliche thing to stay in there as a baseline. That’s an important signal to start with, then immediately leave behind. “I know the cliches,” you tell the reader, “but now we’re going somewhere else.”
RR: What inspires you to write stories that explore the “spooky genre” of horror? What draws you to this genre?
SR: Oh, man. I don’t know! I’ve been trying to figure that out for years. I always give people different answers, so here, I’ll say… I’ll say it’s a lack of control. That always freaks me out. Certain horror never really gets to me. For instance, I have a hard time getting into Lovecraft because his monsters seem to tell us we don’t have control over the universe, which I never felt like I did anyway. But riding the subway is scary because you can’t control that. When you’re driving, you can say, “I’ll be there in ten minutes.” But the R train isn’t so clear cut. It’s nice to use writing as a catharsis for some of those anxieties.
Also, I feel drawn to the ways certain people interact with losing control. Some of my characters unravel, like Jay, while others own their fear, and even become a part of it (I’m a big fan of Priya Sharma). That’s very inspiring– characters who become one with their fears.
RR: Is this piece part of a larger collection? What other projects are you currently working on?
SR: You know, I had originally planned “The Curse” as part of one collection I just finished, which has a very specific framework and atmosphere, but it just didn’t quite fit. So I ended up bumping it to this new collection I’m working on, but that one’s still in very early stages, so who knows. I don’t have much to say about it other than I know what the soundtrack is (I always have a soundtrack for any piece I write)!
But almost all these stories so far share the same universe. For instance, that collection I just finished–I’ve been pitching it as a kind of Twilight Zone written by Brian Evenson. All the stories are set in the same fictional county, which (allegedly) has been cursed since a mysterious familicide committed nearly a century ago. They’re all woven through this letter from a woman to her brother after their mother kills herself. Some of the stories are funny, some sad, some have creatures… I’m starting to shop it around now, so fingers crossed!
Sam Rebelein’s work in Issue 7.1: