The Train Derails In Boston by Jessica McHugh is a ghost story, more accurately about a house so stuffed to the gills with bad karma and horny ghosts, well, maybe not the whole house but definitely the basement and the mahjong box. It's about a family so far gone down dysfunction road there may be no way to turn around and get back on the highway. It's about revenge and sex and alcoholism and sex and self-loathing and sex and doubt and disorders and sex. And most of all, it is brilliant. Yeah, that's my super short review for it. I dare not risk spoiling anything but detailing more. But I have more for you....keep reading:
I was fortunate enough to get the lovely Ms McHugh to volley some questions with me. Below you'll see how that turned out.
JB: Before I read The Train Derails In Boston, I was only familiar with your work via The Green Kangaroos, and while those two books are wholly differing creatures, there are a lot of similarities. You seem to have a thing for protagonists(?) who are flawed. heinously flawed and fairly unlikeable or redeemable. In both of these they are self-absorbed and self-loathing and while they love their families in one way, they'd also slit their throats in a minute. Is there a reason you seem to enjoy rendering such characters?
JM: The simple reason is that I find those characters the most fun to write and read. I like good people who make bad decisions, and I like bad people who try to make good decisions but end up in the gutter anyway. I like stories in which (to quote Swimming With Sharks) everyone lies, good guys lose, and love does not conquer all. I also enjoy the challenge of creating characters people love to hate. After learning all the ways Perry Samson has screwed over his family, you feel like he deserves punishment, but you also want him to wise up, get clean, and appreciate his family.
That's the hope you have with addicts like Perry and Becca. No matter how many times they lie or steal or deliberately hurt you, no matter how many times you say you're done with their bullshit and "maybe they'd be better off dead," it's never enough to make you mean it. While my brother Eric isn't nearly as bad as Perry, his decades as a heroin addict taught me a lot I never wanted to learn. I didn't want to learn what it's like to love and hate someone in equal measure. I didn't want to learn how his manipulation of my natural kindness would eventually sour the kindness in me, turn it into something else, something suspicious, something shameful. I didn't want to learn how easy it was for me to write him off as a brother and then to forgive him because I saw a glint of hope, only to be cut down again. These are all lovely lessons for a writer, not so much for a human being. That's why despite the gore in TGK and TTDIB, the real horror lies inside the characters, somewhere between kindness and shame.
JB: The husband in this book, believes he is a writer. He proves this by stating it endlessly and frequenting "writers" sites and speaking in writery tongues. His wife treats this with indifference or sometimes a razored tongue and temper. Is this a personal exposure, in that as a writer do you often feel treated as he is treated? We can all admit that it is a thankless field a lot of the time. And even when you get a golden goblet for something, you can damn well bet some people are lining up to fill that thing with piss.
JM: I haven't been quiet about my frustration with writers who don't write, and Peter Malone somehow turned into the manifestation of that. He's the kind of dude who would compose numerous blogs about being a writer even though the blogs are the only things he's written. The kind of dude who says "I'm writing a novel" but hasn't typed word one. He was a non-starter before he met Becca, but meeting her was the beginning of his downfall. He should've never bought her a drink. He should've never married her. Peter Malone annoys me as a character, but he's the only one in the book I wish I could give a big hug and an apology.
JB: Your work runs the gamut from neo-hallucinogenic noir to devilishly over-the-top erotic (damn near porno)horror to young adult. Is one hat more comfortable than the other?
JM: I'm most comfortable writing speculative fiction. I enjoy YA and the Darla Decker Diaries for sure, but there are times when I just want to throw in a unicorn or witch or cannibalistic fuckfest. Okay, maybe not the last one until the college years, but you know what I mean. After five books in that series, it's getting to the point when I want to toss an apocalypse at Shiloh Farms and make Darla a rogue warrior with telekinesis. But if we're looking under the spec-fic umbrella, I'd rather write horror than anything else. I believe horror is the common element in most stories, however, so I'm always looking for new ways to stretch the definitions of the genre.
JB: I know a few of your influences, but could you lay it out for the fans and not-stalkers who some of those that lit the path for you are/were?
JM: Roald Dahl has been a lifelong influence. I've been a fan since I was little and spent way too much time trying to move objects with my mind like Matilda Wormwood. After seeing a production of "Lamb to the Slaughter" in middle school, I got into his short stories as well. They had the twisty darkness I'd grown to love about the Twilight Zone while retaining the signature humor I loved so in his children's books. I bought and devoured every short story collection I could find, and once those were spent, I thought it was time to try my hand at writing my own stories. I don't flatter myself to think my abilities match Dahl's, but I doubt I'd be half the writer I am today if not for Roald Dahl.
I would be remiss not to mention Stephen King as well, who I began reading in fifth grade. A lot of my friends kids suffered for that, I'm afraid, as I would bring Pet Semetery and Carrie to school and read the most graphic (and to me, hilarious) descriptions aloud at the lunch table. Sorry, kids.
Bret Easton Ellis has also been a big influence on me, as has Anne Rice, Mary Higgins Clark, and Peter S. Beagle. I actually worked on Peter's The Last Unicorn tour a few years ago, and I told him about my plans for "The Train Derails in Boston" over drinks. Except for my husband, he was the only one who knew the big twist in the book, and he fervently encouraged me to move forward on it. It was one of the most thrilling days of my life.
JB: You've worked with many notable publishers in the small press: Post Mortem Press, Perpetual Motion Machine Press, Apokrypha Press. Do you have aspirations to go "big house" one day? What is your view on the pros and cons of big versus small in regard to press?
JM: While I certainly have nothing against the big houses and would be grateful to work with one, as I am with any kind, hardworking company, I don't see myself scrambling from my families anytime soon. That's what a great small press is. Eric and Stephanie Beebe of Post Mortem taught me that and show it time and time again in their production of qualities products as well as their care for the people creating them. They bust their asses, traveling to conventions and festivals, and do everything in their power to keep their authors happy and productive. Like a family, we support and encourage each other's successes, knowing that when one of us does well we all do well. Likewise, I've been a fan and friend of Raw Dog Screaming Press since I met John Edward Lawson and Jennifer Barnes at an indie lit festival years ago, and they've treated me like family ever since--even though I wasn't one of their authors (yet). There was no reason for that except kindness, and when you find people like that, you hold on tight and never let go.
Of course I aspire to work with other publishers I admire like Fungasm and Crystal Lake, but I have a feeling if you hear about Jessica McHugh going big, it'll be more about my beer and burger consumption than a book contract.
JB: I completely agree with what you replied here, and I can also confirm those thoughts about the Beebes and Post Mortem, I was lucky enough to have them handle my debut novella and they have been nothing but supportive and kind . The others you mentioned are all wonderful presses that put out great books. Another great small press is Apokrypha Press, run by Jacob Haddon. They do Lamplight magazine, which is just amazing. I know you recently released a kaiju novella through Apokrypha Press, Home Birth, besides that or if you want to talk on that some...then could you tell us what we can hope for from you in the coming year.
JM: Home Birth was a blast to write, partly because a few of the characters appear in the book I'm planning to write later this year, A Motherfucking Heist Novel. It's going to be an insane sci-fi (perhaps bizarro) romp. Darla Decker Breaks the Case will be out from Evolved Publishing this year, as well as my RDSP dystopian novel Nightly Owl, Fatal Raven. If all goes well, Hares in the Hedgerow will also be released by Post Mortem Press in 2017, which I'm extremely excited about. I never intended to write a sequel to Rabbits in the Garden, but once an idea popped into my head it was impossible to erase. I still have lots of work to do, but I'm very proud of the story.
I'm also working on a YA horror novella called Who Died in the House Next Door, and a bunch of wacky short stories I'm hoping to give a lovely home. So I'm just a tad busy, but that's how I likes it!
JB: Sounds like I'm going to need to make a bit of room on my bookshelf. I want to thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and I hope all these things you hinted or spoke up come through with little or no delay. Thanks again.
JM: Thank you so much, John! :)
CHERRYWOOD LODGE IS HAUNTED, AND THANK FUCK FOR ITS GHOSTS . . . Rebecca Malone has problems. Not just the alcohol. Not just her husband's inane attempts at writing a bestselling novel, their teenage daughter's promiscuity, or her certifiable mother. Not even her lover, who wants to take her husband's place in Cherrywood Lodge, the famous estate she now calls home. Her biggest issues start the moment she discovers a chest of ancient mahjong tiles in the basement of her new house, causing her life to spin out of control with hallucinations, sexual deviances, and grisly murders. Is the mahjong game haunted? Or are Rebecca's problems part of a different game, started before she was born?
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