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Stephen Graham Jones: ‘If I don’t get scared then I’m not playing with the right kind of fire’

Night of the Mannequins is a novella by Stephen Graham Jones published by Tor.com that explores the vengeful aftermath of a prank and a mannequin’s role within a group of friends. Here, I speak to Jones about the new book.

Marisa Mercurio: What concept did you come to first in Night of the Mannequins – the mannequin itself or a prank gone wrong?

Stephen Graham Jones: The seed of Mannequins is that I wanted to write a short slasher, but a different kind. I didn’t know any more that were like this. When you’re writing a slasher, they always start with a prank, crime, or trespass to open the cycle of injustice, so I knew I needed a prank.

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MM: Mannequins aren’t rare in horror, but they’re also not a staple of the genre. What made you choose this figure? What do you find uniquely unsettling about them?

SGJ: Everyone cites the uncanny valley. It gets to people. I also wanted something out of place in that giant creek bed. A mannequin would be disconcerting. If you see a mannequin in a creek bed, you automatically think, “How did that thing get there?” You’re already constructing its backstory in your head.

MM:Mannequins is a slasher, but a lot of the horror in this book comes from Sawyer rationalising himself as a hero. There’s a backdrop of superhero films and the use of masks. How does heroism or justice play into the slasher genre here?

SGJ: At conventions I’m often on panels talking about villains or killers. Somebody always says, “Remember, the villain is the hero of his own story.” I wanted to explore that, but more than just to say the bad guy is the hero; what’s it like to actually step into those shoes?

MM: Our empathy for Sawyer is certainly a major part of what makes the novella so successful. He has such genuine love for his friends.

SGJ: When you read horror or watch a movie, you know it’s going to have a body count. So you go in with calluses; you’re kind of inured against these deaths. To me, one glaring omission in most slashers is that you hardly see any funerals, which is to say that once people get hit with the machete it’s like a video game – they’re gone. That’s why there’s a funeral in Night of the Mannequins, because I wanted to let the reader feel that these are real people dying.

MM: The description of the “Band-Aid colored face” repeats a few times and, I think, offers a lot of room for its implications with regards to heroism. Was that description deliberate?

SGJ: It’s just as simple as whenever I put a Band-Aid on it says it’s flesh coloured, but it’s not my flesh colour. And that’s the world Sawyer lives in too. He’s Native. His best friend, Manny, is kind of a fake white guy. It was fun to play with.

MM: What about a novella appeals to you as opposed to a full-length novel or short story?

SGJ: It’s perfect. It’s got a spine and can go on a shelf, but you can still write it in under a week. It’s nice to get in and out. A novella feels like a feature film, whereas a novel feels like a season of television.

MM: Mannequins comes on the heels your novel The Only Good Indians. A common thread between the two is revenge, though handled very differently. What was your approach to revenge in Mannequins?

SGJ: Slashers are about revenge, so any slasher you write is going to have that as part of its build. As for justice, the initial prank or crime opens that cycle and then years later it chews up the people who were guilty. After I wrote the first part of The Only Good Indians I had to take a break. During that break I wrote Mannequins and then I came back and wrote the rest of the novel. I’m always looking for how I can complicate things. The more you twist and complicate the genre the more it reveals itself. We can come at slashers in a lot of different ways and it won’t fall down. It’s not so much that I saw a hole in the genre as that I saw a glimmer of possibility.

MM: You’re a prolific horror author. Is there any area of the genre you’d like to explore more in your writing?

SGJ: I keep thinking I’m going to write a possession novel and I keep not doing it because they terrify me so fundamentally.

MM: Do you get scared when writing your own work?

SGJ: Oh, yeah. If I don’t get scared then I’m not playing with the right kind of fire. I don’t understand how other horror writers can look at it mechanically, or just with craft eyes, and not get scared. If I’m not scared, then the story isn’t working.

MM:There’s been a lot of talk about horror this year, given the heightened horror of the world we’re all living in. Have you found the genre to be a space to work through reality, as writer or reader?

SGJ: For me it’s no different, but I can understand the impulse towards horror lately. I think that engaging in a horror story processes us through from beginning to end. It’s terrible going through the middle part because people are fighting, or dying, and going through all kinds of terrible stuff, but you do get to the end. By an audience latching onto horror, they’re able to experience that beginning and end. That assures them that the horror they’re currently in will also have an end. It’s comforting.

Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones is published by Tor.com

Buy the book: bookshop.org (US).


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