Happy release day to the first horror novella from Tenebrous Press! One Hand to Hold, One Hand to Carve is surreal journey of identity and trying to live in a society when one is missing half a body. There’s co-dependence, body horror, and a deep look into what singularity as a person means.
Join me in celebrating this release with this interview with the author, M. Shaw. It features some shop talk about the craft behind the novel, the Milkshake-Ducking of the Dewey Decimal System, and their experience working with a new small press.
Carving This New Weird Body Horror Novella
Where did the idea for this strange tale of brothers come from?
The opening image of the body on the table was from life. I was never a med student, but I got to observe human cadavers being dissected on a few occasions, and the one that had been cut to show a cross section stuck with me especially vividly, which I think is pretty understandable. It was easy for me to picture Right and Left, because in a way I had already met them face to face, exposed organs and all (I mean, the man was dead, but you know). I started off with a lot of the imagery I wanted to use, and some vague ideas about themes I wanted to work with: how traumatic it would be to come back from death, to inhabit a body that was once dead, what it would mean to literally be someone’s “other half.”
So, I started a draft of what I envisioned as a short story, maybe 6,000 words or so long. Then I got served divorce papers, and suddenly I just couldn’t seem to stop writing about these guys whose existence was defined by separation. Then Clove walked in, which I hadn’t been expecting, and things got even more out of hand. Plus we were in the thick of the first COVID wave and I was clinging to my writing for dear life. This is just where I ended up.
What drew you to new weird horror?
As far as I can tell, I was born like this. I was obsessed with death as a kid. Had nightmares constantly and still do; sometimes I’ll go off prazosin, the medication I take for them, if I start having work dreams and decide I’d prefer the scary monsters. The cake at my 6th birthday party was shaped like a skeleton. I first developed PTSD symptoms when I was 10, but wouldn’t be diagnosed until I was almost 30, so I had a good couple decades of my mind ripping itself apart over and over with no idea why it was happening. New weird horror is just what the world has always looked like.
Did you do any research? If so, what are some of the weirdest things you learned?
The most research-intensive scene was the interlude written in the voice of the imaginary twin, using his mental filing system. A lot of the codes and classifications he uses are ones that have been retired by actual libraries. I really wasn’t expecting the Dewey Decimal System to get Milkshake Ducked, but it very much did. Older versions of the system, from what I learned, canonized quack pseudoscience, West-Eurocentric understanding of history, all kinds of gross shit. I came away thinking, here’s a great case study in how allegedly impartial, numerical systems that aren’t necessarily meant to have a political agenda are still colored by the biases and prejudices of the people who created them.
And those biases affect our social dynamics in ways we often don’t pick up on. Something as seemingly benign as how the books are shelved at the library can still be doing its part to advance eugenics and racism if it’s left unexamined. But I really liked the idea of taking those “forbidden” classifications out of context and making them an Easter egg in a horror novella. Like upcycling, kinda. Reworking the deeply problematic detritus of this system and using it as a way to explore and explain things like codependency in a way that I hope is much more useful and more appealing.
What was your favorite scene or moment to write?
I love writing scenes that explore how people react when confronted with the impossible. Like Clove says, it’s something that happens to all of us sooner or later, and we rarely respond in the ways we might expect. A lot of the later scenes with Left were fun to write, in that respect. I enjoyed exploring what he’s willing to rationalize, to ignore, to hold onto for support even when it clearly isn’t providing that support.
That said, I’m also a sucker for setting description, as anyone who has sat in a workshop with me will testify. Describing the cottage was my comfort food.
Throughout the writing process, are there any scenes that changed? Which ones stayed the same?
Early drafts leaned more heavily of the idea of lateralized brain function. As in, the idea that the “right brain” is the creative side and the “left brain” is the logical side. There’s some remnants of that in the finished book, like Right’s reliance on imaginary places and people to process his desires, but the more I worked, the clearer it became that it just wasn’t doing anything as a storytelling device. The brothers needed to feel more dynamic, less like caricatures. Plus, from my understanding, that whole right brain/left brain concept isn’t even a real thing, at least not the way it gets used in pop culture. It has more to do with sensory processing. Cutting those elements and letting the characters be their own kind of shitshow without a pop-psych personality quiz telling them how to do it made them work much better, individually and together.
What I never let myself change were any of the times a character awakens from a nightmare when it hadn’t been clear that they were dreaming. I got a fair amount of feedback from folks who read and critiqued earlier drafts, that those scenes were disorienting or felt like a cheap trick being played on the reader. Which, yes. They are definitely those things, and most conventional writing advice will tell you that “and then he woke up” is a twist that should never be used, and I think that’s fair. I did it anyway. I have no excuse. I liked those scenes and I didn’t want to change them, and I’m a Taurus, which I’m told means I’m stubborn, so.
Is One Hand to Hold, One Hand to Carve your first novella?
The first one I’ve written consensually, yes. I, uh… well, here’s something weird, my abuser who I dated off and on for almost 7 years used to make me write erotic Samurai Jack fanfiction. Constantly. I’m pretty sure some of those got up to novella length. Really put me off fanfic for a while there. And sex. My health and my grades were suffering under the demand for, you know what, I’m done talking about this.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to do something with a secondary world setting, which I’ve never tried before and I’m floored that there are fantasy authors who invent these other worlds all the time. There is just… so… so much to figure out, at least if you want to build something vivid enough that it doesn’t feel like the entire planet is maybe the size of, like, the British Isles plus a few of the places Brits go on holiday. I keep looking back at Ursula LeGuin’s work and her worlds feel so incredibly vast, and that’s really the feeling I want.
I know it’s an extremely high bar to aim for, but what is the point of a fantasy world, if not to help readers imagine how huge and wild and mysterious life could be? I want to do that for people, even if it means I’m the one staring at my notebook wondering if this fictional country has separation of church and state, and how the answer to that affects a bunch of characters who don’t even live there
What was working with Matt and Alex at Tenebrous Press like?
I’m still getting used to having people be at least as excited about my work as I am. I was shopping One Hand to Hold, One Hand to Carve around a few places when they reached out, and I admittedly wasn’t sure if I’d want to sign it over to an indie press that’s only a few years old. But I also run an indie press that’s only a few years old myself, so I didn’t want to make myself a hypocrite either. Then we had a chat over Zoom, and it became clear pretty quick that Tenebrous would be a good home for this weird li’l novella. Matt and Alex both were terribly enthusiastic about the manuscript, and I could tell they’d been reading it closely. What can I say, I gravitate toward people who look at the weird stuff I do and see it for the human elements underneath the batshit. When deciding who you’re going to make art with, stuff like that is key.
Which books are you looking forward to reading, be it new releases or otherwise?
I’ve probably told everyone I know how excited I am for The Memory Librarian, Janelle Monae’s short story collection, especially given the other authors who worked on it. I’m weirdly proud of the fact that it’s coming out the same month as my book. I believe we’re also getting Gash Atlas, Jessica Lawson’s new poetry collection in April. What a month! My own imprint, Trouble Department, published her debut collection Rot Contracts in 2020 and believe me, her work has got teeth. I also would like to finally read House of Leaves, but I’m not going to buy a copy. It seems like the kind of book that should only arrive by nefarious means. Walking into Tattered Cover and buying it with my debit card would feel wrong, like in a socks-with-flipflops way.
M. Shaw is a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop (class of 2019) and an organizer of the Denver Mercury Poetry Slam. They live in Arvada, Colorado. Whatever you’re reading, they probably wrote it in an empty art museum after midnight.