Interviews

The Difference Between Terror And Horror

An interview with Jac Jemc about her new book, "False Bingo."

Jac Jemc, author of the story collection False Bingo from MCD x FSG, was a writer from the start. She told her third-grade teacher her goal was to write a one-hundred page story; a goal she’s now surpassed many times over. While Jemc is most known for her speculative and horror work, due in part to her haunted house novel The Grip of It, she notes that much of her work in this vein is more “terrifying” than “horrifying.” However, Jemc’s work defies being neatly categorized, spanning novels and short stories, the paranormal and the mundane.

In Jemc’s latest work, False Bingo, this wide-ranging ability is on full display. “Maulawiyah” is a deeply nuanced story, featuring a woman on a wellness retreat who’s hesitant to fully commit to the experience. “Get Back” is a short and vicious tale of revenge. “Pastoral” explores the complex relationships of an adult actress. “Half Dollar” has two girls pulling a not-so-harmless prank.

Jemc met me over coffee one rainy Friday evening, and we discussed the difference between terror and horror, the range and depth of her work, the importance of believing women, and much more.

Ian Battaglia

The Grip of It was almost presented as your debut, but certainly you have work before that. I know you’re also working on a historical novel now. Do you feel like you’re just writing eclectically as always or do you feel like False Bingo is like a change in pace for you?

Jac Jemc

I don’t think so, no. I think I’ve just got to write what I want to write and what interests me, what my obsessions are. And so I think there’s overlap in the different projects that I’m working on, but something that I do think about is that maybe that would be frustrating for some readers; like readers who really did like haunted house books and were like, (This would be so lovely if someone was thinking this way. I don’t know that they are!) “Oh, I want to read Jemc’s next haunted house book” or something, and it’s like, “Well, I’m not going to do it again.”

Ian Battaglia

You said what you wanted to say about it.

Jac Jemc

Yeah. In the thing that I’m working on now, the historical fiction: one of the aspects of it is like some questions around consensus reality for one character, and thinking about some of his neuroses takes material form in these castles that he’s having built out of his imagination. So there are overlaps but it’s less of a haunting and more of a kind of character study, of certain personality traits.

Ian Battaglia

This collection is sort of being billed as a collection of horror stories. Do you think that’s fitting?

Jac Jemc

I think it is apt for some of the stories in a very clear way. I think a lot of the same gestures do map to even the stories where that line is less clear. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Somebody recently asked me, “Why there aren’t more female horror writers?” And I said, well, I think it’s actually that there’s lots and lots of females who are writing what horrifies them but isn’t necessarily monsters. It’s the stuff that’s in the real world, right? Things that they’re dealing with everyday. And so it gets shelved somewhere else. Or like it gets written off to like some sort of hysteria or paranoia thing. You know, it becomes more like a psychological thriller rather than horror. But there’s so much in psychological thrillers that I think maybe maps better to the female experience of that fear.

Ian Battaglia

It feels like this sort of issue we’re talking about is also related to the difficulty in genre as a descriptor, or the divide between genre and literary fiction. That discussion has become a lot more prevalent lately. Do you feel like those are useful categories, or like something for a bookstore?

Jac Jemc

They can be useful depending on how they’re used. Categories can be useful for attracting new readers for particular works, whereas the overall work of a writer, maybe those categories aren’t the most useful, depending on what they’re trying to do. If I’m writing a historical fiction book and someone who normally reads a lot of historical fiction is like, “Oh, well I’ve heard a lot about this person, which of her books should I read?” I get the natural one to refer them to would be like the next thing that I’m working on, you know? But I think when it gets less useful is assuming that like the existence of one thing determines what will come back.

Ian Battaglia

It sort of feels like it’s unevenly applied on writers who have been classified more on the genre side rather than the literary side. I think we’re sort of up butting up against them now, especially with writers like Ursula Le Guin and Ted Chang who write stories that kind of toe this line. It’s often on the genre writer to step out of this in a way. When Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Buried Giant, critics and readers were talking about “Is this fantasy?” or whatnot, but he’s seen as more of a literary writer. And so it feels like he almost has more leeway with that.

Jac Jemc

He’s such a good example. have you read his book, The Unconsoled?

Ian Battaglia

That’s one of the ones I haven’t.

Jac Jemc

It’s so good. I love it. It’s the only one I’ve read.

Ian Battaglia

Really?

Jac Jemc

Yes! (laughs) It’s totally surreal. It’s totally speculative. This guy is wandering around a city, and the city is changing around him, while he’s wandering around it. He turns a corner and he’s not where he should be, he’s somewhere else, you know? It’s so beautiful, but it’s the way he does it that’s so artful and so dreamy. I haven’t read The Buried Giant, but from what I’ve heard about it, it sounds like that’s him being a little bit more explicit about that, whereas you can hide it a little bit behind like, “Oh, is the character mentally going through this or is this actually happening to them?”

Ian Battaglia

But should you have to hide it?

Jac Jemc

No, I don’t think so. But I get the urge to hide it… Well, maybe it’s fun to play with that line, right? Maybe it’s fun to like pose those questions like, “Is something speculative actually happening or is it something that has an explanation in what we consider the real world?” I think maybe it’s just a different approach to say, “Well then what if we just set up totally different rules for a new world?” And then we ask, “What questions about humanity can we force into the light because of this new place?”

Ian Battaglia

It seems like you’re, you’re sort of toeing that line, especially with a handful of the stories here. In “Don’t Let’s,” we never see the boo hag; it’s ambiguous whether or not what’s happening to her is a physical thing or a psychological thing. Is that an intentional part of your work? Do you like to toe the line with that?

Jac Jemc

Yeah, I do. Anytime someone asks me if I believe in ghosts, my answer is, “Well, I’ve never seen one; so I don’t believe in them.” But when other people say that they’ve experienced them, I believe them. I believe those people that say they’ve experienced that. That doesn’t mean that I believe in them myself. Both of those things can be true. Like you can trust someone else’s experience without having to make it your own reality.

Ian Battaglia

You’re not closed off to it.

Jac Jemc

Yeah. So I am interested in that line, and in that story in particular, thinking about that character and how in some ways hearing about like the boo hag is a relief for her because she can explain these anxious feelings that she’s having through this piece of folklore, rather than having to think like, “Okay, how am I gonna like work on myself so that I’m comfortable? [So that I can] feel comfortable and safe again.”

Ian Battaglia

How did False Bingo come together?

Jac Jemc

This is my second collection, and compared to the first, I started thinking about how these stories would combine or how they would look in relation to each other a lot earlier when I was writing them. I didn’t start early on writing only things that I thought would fit into the collection. But I think I started thinking, “Okay, what are the common points between these stories? Like what am I interested in? What am I actually just reexamining in different ways?” And so then when I started thinking about putting them together as a collection, it was easier for me to start thinking about, “Okay, well what do I need to balance out these stories, style wise, or the content, or the message that’s being given?” Cause I don’t want it to be like didactic or something; my hope is that it helps reframe questions rather than providing answers. But how do you play devil’s advocate to yourself?

Ian Battaglia

What do you think is the binding element to these stories?

Jac Jemc

I’ve got a laundry list of things that I was thinking about. Maybe it’s a different thing that ties any two stories together — thinking about all those lines of a web — but one is the idea of, what is a happy ending? And a question that everybody talks about at some point as a writer, but what does it mean to have conflict in a story? And what if there isn’t conflict? Do we just read conflict into a story even if we’re not trying to put it there. So that was one big idea, but then also playing with identity and deception and lying, and what we think of as being a success, but can also be interpreted as a failure. I was thinking about violence and trustworthiness related to gender. I was thinking about games, literal and figurative games, and manipulations.

Ian Battaglia

In False Bingo, a lot of the stories have a sort of subdued menace or violence. How much did you want to play with that?

Jac Jemc

I think anticipation and dread is my favorite thing. Everybody’s kind of throwing this around now, — because it’s in the Wikipedia entry for horror — but Ann Radcliffe talks about the difference between horror and terror is that terror is that is the anticipation of the thing, like the dread that’s formed while you’re imagining the worst case, and horror is experiencing the worst case. It’s like seeing the gruesome, horrifying thing. [If you’re watching a horror film], unless it’s like a super gory horror film, most of the film you spend being terrified rather than horrified. So that feeling of terror or that feeling of trying to figure out what it is that you should be afraid of… That’s anxiety too, right? I am an anxious person. I’ll admit it, I’ll go on the record and say I take anxiety medication. It’s something that I can go too far in, but it’s also something that in the right range is very pleasurable for me. And so it’s a natural tendency to recreate that in fiction. But it, you know, it’s also something that I pursue actively.

Ian Battaglia

What is the role of place in the stories here or setting, especially given how many of them are, are focused on character and psychology and things like that?

Jac Jemc

I mostly write from a perspective where someone is used to living in an urban setting. And so there are moments where like they leave that, and it may be uncomfortable for them. I’m thinking of like the story, “Don’t Let’s,” or even the story “Maulawiyah” where the woman goes into the wellness retreat. If it’s set somewhere else, it’s to highlight what it feels like to be in a place with more space and more room, rather than like in this very contained city life. If I think about place, I think about it in terms of daily living, rather than thinking, “Oh, I want to represent this place or I want to write about what it is to live in this particular city”; something like that. I don’t think about place in terms of wanting it to to uncover like a certain way of life. Ultimately I think what I’m saying is I don’t think about place a lot. It’s just what comes from my own lived experience.

Ian Battaglia

It’s interesting in both “Don’t Let’s” and “Maulawiyah,” those sort of bookending stories, where the characters have removed themselves from the situation or gone on a sort of self-imposed exile. Maybe the character in “Maulawiyah” is a bit less committed to it, a bit more removed from that. How important is that? In that, is it a sense of escape or just a reorganization of your priorities?

Jac Jemc

Well, something that could be true of both of those stories is that both of those women might think that going to a different place will change their reality and it doesn’t. So, maybe that has something to say about how I think about place than more than I thought I did. That your internal climate has more bearing than like your external surroundings.

Ian Battaglia

We’ve talked about how many of his stories deal with more psychological issues or maybe issues women face that aren’t overtly violent. I’ve seen you called a feminist writer before. What does that mean to you?

Jac Jemc

[It means] showing multifaceted women that you could invoke like the Bechdel test [on]: Are there two women talking in a scene where it’s not about a man, you know? Actually believing women, giving what they say credence, rather than discrediting it. 

Ian Battaglia

There’s the story of the woman who thinks she’s being followed by the truck. There’s certainly a way you could read that, where you think that her touch with reality is perhaps not all there, but there’s another way you could read it, in a more generous sort of way, where this is an occurrence that’s [really] happening to her. So yeah, that certainly feels on the mark to me in reading your work.

Jac Jemc

Thank you for pointing to that. Yeah. You know, like what it’s like to live in the world, where the assumption is that people are gonna go to an effort to disprove what it is you’re saying. That you’re not given the benefit of the doubt, that your experience isn’t valid until we prove it valid.

Ian Battaglia

And in that story in particular there’s sort of a sense that for her that there’s no respite. Even upon arriving [home], it’s still an anxious feeling.

Jac Jemc

Or that like she was afraid of the wrong thing. She was right to be afraid, but she wasn’t directing her fear in the right direction.

Ian Battaglia

What would you want a reader to take away from your work, in False Bingo and as a whole?

Jac Jemc

The thing that I keep coming back around to is no easy answers, which I know can be frustrating for readers sometimes, but [instead] an openness and continued inquiry, that you’re never shutting your thoughts down and saying, “This is the way things are and I don’t need to keep thinking about that.” Instead, staying curious and alert and inquisitive in a way that is hopefully only making the world bigger instead of smaller.

FICTION
False Bingo
Jac Jemc
MCD x FSG
Published October 8th, 2019

1 comment on “The Difference Between Terror And Horror

  1. Loved the Unconsoled, too. Thanks for introducing this new author. Intriguing!

    Like

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