Mason Hawthorne writes horror, dark and urban fantasy, and studied writing and English literatures at the University of Wollongong. Most of his work is in speculative fiction, usually dark or horror themed.
His stories often feature body horror, transformation, hunger, and anxiety. Queer thematic elements are always right below the surface, or in line with the surface. Sometimes bobbing along the very top.
Portfolio of Published Work: https://mason-hawthorne.jimdosite.com/portfolio/
Romancing the Gothic Talk: Gender and Adaptation in the Hannibal Lecter Franchise
CMR: Well hello! Welcome back to Eldritch Girl, and today we have Mason Hawthorne over from Australia with us. Mason, would you like to introduce yourself.
MH: Sure, so my name is Mason Hawthorne, I studied creative writing at the University of Wollongong and I’ve been published in Unspeakable, a queer Gothic anthology, and Monsters we Forgot anthology and a few podcasts. I mostly write horror queer fiction and Gothic fiction and I’m sharing some of that today.
CMR: And you’re reading an extract from Leadbitter House today, right.
MH: Yes, so it’s Leadbitter House, which was in the collection Unspeakable a queer Gothic anthology, yeah.
CMR: I’m excited! I love this story. When you’re ready and if you’d like to read it, go for it.
MH: All right, here we go.
Extract from ‘Leadbitter House’, Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology (Nyx Publishing: 2020) ed. Celine Frohn
UNSPEAKABLE: A QUEER GOTHIC ANTHOLOGY
- Let Down by Claire Hamilton Russell
- Moonlight by Ally Kölzow
- An Account of Service at Meryll Point, as recollected and set down by C.L.
- The White Door by Lindsay King-Miller
- Doctor Barlowe’s Mirror by Avery Kit Malone
- Laguna and the Engkanto by Katalina Watt
- The Moon in the Glass by Jude Reid
- Brideprice by S.T. Gibson
- Lure of the Abyss by Jenna MacDonald
- Hearteater by Eliza Temple
- Quicksilver Prometheus by Katie Young
- Homesick by Sam Hirst
- Rodeo by Ryann Fletcher
- Lady of Letters; or, the Twenty-First Century Homunculus by Heather Valentine
- Taylor Hall by Jen Glifort
- The Ruin by E. Saxey
- The Dream Eater by Anna Moon
- Leadbitter House by Mason Hawthorne
The dark under the mangroves is not absolute. Reflections, refractions of light from the water dazzle and gleam between the tangled roots and the drooping canopy, the whole dim thicket pulses and hums with insects, with the water lapping, Elijah sways on his feet, staring into the shadows, listening, his whole body bending toward it, while a hand curls over his stomach, his nails digging into his skin hard enough to leave marks, even through his t-shirt.
The sarong tied around his waist is damp at the knee, dark splotches on the hand-dyed fabric, and as he steps forward it slaps against his leg, clammy, and he twitches and glances down at himself, at the tangle of white roots and torn foliage at his feet, at his fingers, black with soil and clawing at his belly. Elijah shakes himself. The sun is hot on his shoulders, and the top of his head, and when he glances across the property and over the jetty, between the dark clouds of the casuarinas the river is bright as magnesium, and after a moment, Elijah blinks and the river’s negative is imprinted over the garden as he turns away.
Everything smells herbaceous, green and wet, though it hasn’t rained for, oh, months probably, and the paddock over the fence all brown grass and thorny weeds, the horses there forlorn and seemingly abandoned.
Elijah has lost track of the time he has been in the garden, pulling the weeds, upending clods of soil into his own lap, barefoot in the slippery grass, nor can he remember what it was that caught his attention in the mangroves, what it was he heard, or saw, or…his efforts with the weeds are ineffectual, he could keep going until sunset and hardly make a dent, the whole garden is overrun, overgrown.
A shadow falls across Elijah, and he turns. Behind him is a weathered man, shy of six feet with curling white hair that falls to his shoulders, and a great white beard, stained nicotine yellow around his mouth. His skin is raw and broken, sunspots and cracks and spidery veins cross his cheeks, and his nose glows red. There is a boil under his left eye, inflamed and fit to burst.
“Are you—Mr Davies, right?—are you the, uh, gardener?”
The man has a coiled green hose in his arms and he scowls, “Groundskeeper.”
“Oh.” Elijah’s hands curl and uncurl, twisting the hem of his shirt until the fabric strains and his knuckles creak. “But you do look after the gardens, yeah?”
Davies expression doesn’t change, he scowls, nods once and lifts a gnarled hand to scratch at his cheek. A drop of blood wells from the boil, but if it hurts he doesn’t react to it.
“This garden, I mean, those tomatoes are going crazy, but everything else…there are so many weeds, and the zucchinis are all rotten, they’re mush!” Elijah is out of breath, his heart thuds so hard his pulse flutters in his throat. His knuckles are white.
“I take care of it.” Davies scratches again, and this time his ragged nail catches skin and the boil splits. Something green sprouts out of the hole in his face, and blood drips all the way down to his beard. The green thing unfurls, standing up out of the hole in his cheek.
“What? What does that mean?” Elijah’s voice pitches high and strained, and he gestures to the overgrown garden beds, the weeds, and the thorns, “this doesn’t look taken care of, I don’t…I mean I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but this isn’t taken care of.”
“I work for the house,” Davies spits. He picks at the thing growing out of his face and pulls it free, and it comes out long, and greenish-white, and the crater in his cheek is a pit of blood.
Elijah gapes at Davies wordlessly, then skirts around him and backs toward the kitchen porch.
Davies watches him the whole way until the door is shut between them.
“Fuck,” Elijah says to the stillness of the kitchen, “what the fuck?”
He drifts through the house, feeling the hardwood floor and then the hall carpet under his bare feet. Vaguely the thought occurs that he ought to change, or bathe, or something, but then he is in the sitting room, where he has begun to work at clearing the mantle. He’s been doing a half-arsed Marie Kondo, the stuff sorted into three piles, to chuck and to donate, and so far the keep pile has a single small figurine of a bird.
In the morning he’d gotten into a kind of rhythm, clearing out junk, making some small progress in claiming the house for himself. Now he struggles to begin again, picking things up and shuffling them around, and then the rev of a car engine outside makes him jump and he looks out just in time to catch the taillights of his cousin’s flashy car.
Biting his lip, Elijah turns back to the mantle. He holds a garbage bag open and sweeps the rest of the clutter into it. China tinkles against metal, and there is the loud crack of something breaking. Every last thing gone. Taken care of. He ties the bag off, and it splits down the side. He wraps it in another bag and hauls it out to the bins. The pile of donations goes in a cotton bag and onto the front porch, and he sets the little bird figurine back on the end of the mantleThe rest of the sitting room, the rest of the house swims with stuff, a grotesque assortment of items tossed together by his aunt’s dedicated hoarding.
Interview with Mason Hawthorne
CMR: I love the little moments of body horror it in that with like Davies and the boil and the little tiny sprouting thing, which is a little garden friend. Do you find yourself drawn to certain repeated themes or motifs in your writing and is Leadbitter House a good example of some of these? And why did these come up for you a lot? Sorry, there’s a lot of questions in there.
MH: Yeah, so in terms of themes or sort of motifs, yeah so body horror comes up a lot I’m not sure if that’s a theme, or like a genre I suppose. I tend to end up writing a lot of stuff that I think is like, Oh, this is a nice story, this is interesting, and then people read it and they’re like yeah you’re writing body horror again, like thanks… thanks for showing me that before I’ve had my breakfast, like love that.
So yeah the body horror stuff does come up a lot. I think the other big thing for me is like, descriptions of natural world. So a lot of plants and animals and sort of natural features being very present in the story is a big part of what I write, yeah, and that – yeah, so both of those sort of turn up a lot in Leadbitter House, yeah.
CMR: Why do you think… what’s the appeal of those for you, why do you think you find yourself writing those sorts of things?
MH: Well, the body horror I think is kind of like. I never really think of it as body horror until I’ve written it and then I’m like, oh yeah, like you know, doing a little bit of surgery on yourself is probably… probably body horror, I’ll put that on the list… so it’s just kind of like, I don’t, I don’t set out thinking I’m going to write some body horror I sort of start off and I’m like, here’s an interesting idea. What if you were doing, you know, this thing, and then you sort of end up down the garden path a bit, and then it ends up with like, you’re going to have a boil that has a plant growing out of it, that’s the perfect image for this moment.
So yeah it’s just kind of like, I don’t know sort of the permeability of the body into what else is happening in the story is kind of the way I get there, yeah.
CMR: Mm, I love the Gothic-ness of a lot of your stories as well and that you play with those sorts of themes and the aesthetic. Because you’ve got some interconnected short stories right, so this is one and then it’s all kind of set in the same universe of the same world with some crossover characters and that sort of thing? What was the other story that you had that was connected to this?
MH: So I think the other published ones I’ve got out is Banksia Men, which is set on a nude beach and involves some vagina dentata and cannibalism, and the other one is Darlin’ You’re My World which is like a little road trip with your vampire friend.
MH: Yeah, so I’ve [got] a few stories written in this setting. I think only those three are published so far, yeah.
CMR: Yeah. And they all touch on themes of – I guess you could call it Australian Gothic.
MH: Yeah I think it is pretty important for me to sort of ground my stories in Australian… Australian-ness, because, like obviously I don’t really have any other experiences. And I feel there’s a, you know, when I was studying and stuff there was a lot of sort of push of like well, if you want to write you’ll have to appeal to a mainstream audience, and that means people overseas and people overseas don’t want to read about Australia unless it’s set in the desert or it’s set in like, Sydney. You know you’ve got your opera house or you’ve got your red dirt, that’s it, there’s no other options, if you want to do something, if you want to do anything else, move to Germany or America, basically.
It was very it was very restrictive in that sense, and I sort of thought, like, I mean I read about small town America, like why shouldn’t they have to read about small town Australia? So that’s where I am, yeah.
CMR: I think that’s fair, yeah. There’s something about the small town experience itself though actually quite universal though as well, I think, if you do come from a small town, you see that mentality, even though it’s embedded in a different kind of culture, you still see how that works and how people work within it, I think there’s something universal about that that appeals to different – you know, you can appeal to a wider audience in that way, but also, it’s like, Oh, this is interesting, there are cultural differences that I’m able to pick up on in the context of the story and it’s like this is actually really interesting, so I think it’s more of a hook.
You know, like, if you want to learn about different things, but there’s also other influences on your work as well, so what what particular things influenced you with this story, but then in your work in general?
MH: This story – it’s been a while since I wrote it. This story, I think I had just read The Picnic at Hanging Rock which is sort of a classic Australian Gothic short novel, and I think I had not long since had my top surgery, and so I was kind of like, writing this character who’s kind of like not… not like sort of immediately post-hospital but sort of still in recovery and then having had like a big life change kind of thing.
And so that’s kind of where I came from with Elijah as a character, and sort of, at the time I was, I think I was Oh, I think it was like when The Haunting of Hill House [Netflix Series] had just come out and I think I’d watched that and I’d also read the novel, the novella, I can’t remember, it’s like a short novel as well, so I… read The Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Haunting of Hill House and I kind of was like, yeah. What if you did have like a weird house that, you know, [some] sort of a relative had left you?
And so yeah so he had this aunt, you know, it’s not explicitly said in the story, but I think his aunt was probably the only person in his life, who was … his family life, who was accepting of what he was doing and where he was going, and so, then she’s passed away and the rest of the family is kind of like wait, why does he get the house, that’s not fair so there’s like this sort of antagonism from her actual children who she had not gotten along with, so it was kind of the two outcasts of the family had bonded and been quite friendly together, and then she’d remarried and inherited the house from her late husband and then passed it on to him and the rest of the family went, well, we were going to get what’s ours… Which didn’t work out for them, yeah.
CMR: It’s a really good story! I was wondering what in general is the appeal for you in terms of the Gothic mode and how you choose to use that in your work?
MH: So. I think it’s second nature when I’m writing. I always – like ever since I was a little kid – I was always reading horror, like, I think I read my mum’s whole Stephen King collection when I was 12 and I was on school holidays one year and I was like Oh, I found all these new books in the cupboard here. Let me just take those down. And I just read them one after the other sort of lying on the spare bed [in the] spare bedroom.
So, when I was a kid I used to be able to create… my bedroom looked directly through into the living room so when we were put to bed, and my parents were watching movies, I could peek out, and I think the first time I saw like Alien was peeking out through my bedroom door when I was supposed to be in bed, probably far too young, but I liked it. So I’ve always been into sort of like horror and creepy things and dark fiction and stuff and when I’m writing it’s just kind of like. It just goes that way without really sort of trying so yeah I didn’t really consciously set out to be writing Gothic fiction, but it just kind of really fits the way that I think when I’m writing.
CMR: Yeah that makes sense to me I think it’s just you sort of find that’s part of your voice don’t you? I think it’s just something that makes a lot of sense to write.
MH: yeah like my current project, I’m working on a novella at the moment. I’ve got a writing group that I share work with them, we critique each other’s work and I sent them the first part of this current novella I’m working on. And I hadn’t said anything about it, I was in a rush I just sent the email here’s my piece this week and it’s just sort of a section of like a guy sitting in a garden peeling and orange and they were like this is going to be really scary isn’t it, I was like oh boy yeah but how did you tell and they were like well you didn’t – you didn’t use any scary words and you didn’t say anything explicitly was happening, but there was a sense of dread in the garden, and I was like good. That’s working well.
CMR: I love that! I like the little atmospheric moments so you’re like… Oh crap.
MH: I think that’s my favourite part honestly, it’s just like I want to be able to describe a garden and say nothing overtly, but just by reading about the flowers, or whatever, you go oh shit something bad’s gonna happen, yeah.
CMR: Yeah you like gardens a lot though, you write about –
CMR: – the natural world is a big thing for you isn’t it?
MH: I think cuz like you know, because the town that these stories are sort of based around is based on the town I live in, and so a big part of growing up for me was, you know, walking over to the beach and walking along the cliffs and looking at the… so we have stone quarries here so like just big chunks taken out of the landscape and also there’s the largest subtropical rain forest in the southern hemisphere is 10 minutes that way, so you know there’s a huge variety of natural landscapes and sort of different things that you can see, but also sort of, you know, backyard gardens and vegetable gardens and flower gardens and things, and mangroves showing up a lot because there we’ve got a river here that has beautiful mangrove swamps, so yeah it’s all the stuff that I’ve liked being around and looking at and exploring my whole life and it kind of works really well for the stories that I want to write.
CMR: I think there’s a lovely synergy, though, as well, between like writing about plants and trees and that kind of thing and then thinking about the permeability of the human body as well because, like. I’m just thinking of that episode of Hannibal where everyone’s like covered in mushrooms.
MH: Yeah. That’s sort of the connectivity that, yeah. I’ve been reading a lot of books, I read like the secret life of trees, or the secret world of trees, or something like that, [The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Peter Wohlleben, Mike Grady et al.] about how trees and their roots use mycelium to connect and share nutrients and communicate in tree language and whatever and I also read the Merlin Sheldrake book, the one about mushrooms, obviously I can’t remember what it’s called [Entangled Life] but it’s by Merlin Sheldrake I think he just won an award for it, which was like it’s an amazingly written book like really beautiful and I really enjoy reading nonfiction stuff about you know plants and the natural world and stuff so.
Yeah it all kind of comes together, and I feel like it gives me a better sense of like what I can express what I know like what the real thing is.
CMR: Yeah and you always tend to do it in and i’m always in awe of people who write really good contained short fiction, which I think you do—
MH: Aw, thank you.
CMR: Have you ever written anything in a longer form or is short fiction just where you live?
MH: I’ve written longer things, I’ve just never really finished longer things. So I have like a third of a big fantasy novel written.
I wrote a novella, sort of 20/22,000 words or so, which is part of this collection of stories. I’ve got a 40,000 word novelette skulking in the shadows somewhere, the one I’m currently working on I’m aiming for about 25,000 words.
Yeah so sort of I’ve been working on a lot of shorter fiction in the last couple of years, but I do have that novel, but I do intend to finish. Because. Yeah I’ve been slack on that one but short fiction’s fun, because you can just sort of jot it off and then a lot of people go oh no, why did you show me that?!! So.
CMR: Yeah I was thinking like I I’ve always struggled with the short form for a long time until like the last couple years and I don’t know if that’s just because you know some premises don’t work as short stories and some premises don’t work as novels and you know, you know what I mean?
MH: Yeah yeah for sure, like, I think it’s also like a completely different process like writing a short story versus writing a novella or writing a novel it’s like, you know, in a short story conceivably you could sit down and finish it in a couple of hours, with a novel it’s like no you’ve got to hold the idea in your head and keep it working for the whole time it takes you to type it out, and you know, maybe you’re like a sort of amazing fast writer and you do it in six weeks and that’s great, but I can’t do that or I haven’t so far, you know.
So I think for me that’s kind of the biggest hurdle, being able to hold that clarity of purpose together for long enough to actually get the piece finished.
CMR: What is it about the short form for you that makes a good vehicle for the premises of your work? Like, why do you think it works better that way?
MH: I think a lot of the things I think of, it’s like well a lot of the short stories I write it’s ideas where I’m like, yeah I like a lot of them as a concept, but I don’t think it really has legs.
I’d rather give it like a short flash in the pan, like yeah that’s great and rather than sort of … With some of them that’s definitely the danger that I would sort of run them into the ground. Like, yeah this idea is great for 4000 words but at 60,000 it’s getting pretty thin, you know? Um yeah so I feel like it’s…
You know, I leave my options open. I think I could you know, there are some things where I think how that’ll work in a longer form, but when I get to it.
But yeah I think yeah but also you know, having said that no shame in redoing the same idea: if it’s a good idea, it’s worth doing twice. Yeah I could write longer things,
CMR: Expand, yes, but then that’s it isn’t it because, like with the short form as well, you can just layer those things on. So it’s more like you’re building it upwards, with like here’s the premise, you’ve got the beginning middle and end that’s 4000 words done and then you can kind of layering things into that instead of stretching it.
MH: Yeah. I think that’s kind of like with the novel that I’ve sort of stalled at on 30,000 words, which I will finish one day, it’s sort of similar ideas, the concept is… I was like Oh, I want to write like a fantasy story, but I want it to be based on Ancient Rome rather than Medieval. I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction about Ancient Rome and that sort of thing, and I was like Oh, but you could do some really cool weird stuff with that the way that they did things and the way that they thought about things, and so that was kind of the concept of that, but yeah I was finding first planning that novel, it’s trying to stack things in rather than trying to stretch things, because I really hate reading a book and going like okay yeah I get it, we got this at the first third of the novel, please just give me something new.
I kind of want to keep building things in but have them feel like Oh, of course, that’s how the world works, that makes sense given what we’ve seen, so it’s a little bit complicated.
I’ve actually got like three books about Carthage and Hannibal sitting over there because I kind of got into a Punic War phase.
I find it really interesting the way that like Roman religion becomes sort of mechanism of state control. Like yeah that whole thing of like no, you have to do it our way because that’s how we keep the state actualised, it’s really creepy but also like very interesting.
CMR: Yes, fantastic! Yes, sorry, back to Gothic-ness… [laughs] so yeah so in your short stories actually as we said you’ve got some linking ones and I’m wondering what the difference is between, for example, instead of doing a series of novels in which you follow these arcs through and in a novel you can have like be plots and all sorts of things, and so you know this linear story with short stories, how do you handle arcs into linking ones?
MH: Yeah so with my short stories I generally try to have – every one should be able to be read on its own, I think I have one or two, I think really one actually in the lot that I’ve written so far, which depends on having read the previous three or four stories that it’s related to. So, like overall, I would like to have the sort of arc that’s going through the multiple short stories be completely optional. It’s just that one story really where it really needs the other ones to prop it up, so it makes sense.
And I think it works in the context of producing a coherent collection, based on a single setting and using the same characters. I think it works for that. It’s not something that I think is sort of approach that I want to be taking all the time, like, I feel like that’s kind of a one off where I kind of thought oh yeah the reason that happened was because I’d written the story called “Junkyard Dog”, which is about some boys who come across a vampire and that all goes pretty horribly. And I’d written a story about a baby minotaur, he’s been raised on a farm in isolation. And at the end of the minotaur one I was thinking like oh it’d be cool for the vampire boys to show up and befriend him and then that didn’t fit.
A lot of these things where it’s part of the interconnecting stuff, it’s like, I had the thought early on, of oh it’d be cool if these people showed up here like in the background. And then, it just ends up for not for whatever reason, not working, but because I liked the idea of it so much I’m like, I could write that story on its own, you know.
And it’s kind of kicking the can down the road and bringing more stories into it, because it just didn’t fit into what I wrote to start with, but yeah so Leadbitter House kind of has one of those as well, so originally that there’s a character for the other novella that I wrote, so the other novella in the collection is “Outside Angels” and is about a reverse werewolf.
MH: The reverse werewolf was supposed to be a character in Leadbitter House, but I sort of got to the end of Leadbitter House was like oh there’s really no room for this here it’s just not going to work. I’ll just cut that and do something else with it later. And that turned into Outside Angels, yeah.
CMR: That’s cool. Yeah. Do you plan on expanding the world that you introduced in Leadbitter House a little bit further? I mean how many… so you’ve got three stories now…?
MH: Yeah three published so far. I’ve got two novellas, a handful of short stories and the novella that I’m working on currently are all kind of set in the same world. I’m hopeful of publishing the collection altogether, but if it comes back from the submissions I’ve sent it on and isn’t there’s no takers, I’m probably going to start trying to publish more of the short stories individually and then try again later for the collection.
MH: Yeah, it’s eventually, you know, it’s all – I don’t have a time limit.
CMR: Is there anything you’d like to plug or like to mention while you’re here?
MH: Um… at the moment, not really. I think 2021 has been a bit of a slower year for me in terms of publishing, mainly because I haven’t been sending stuff out, like that’s the big problem.
CMR: That’ll be why!
MH: That’s, that’s why it’s so slow, I would say check out if you haven’t, if you haven’t read it, check out Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology because that has some great stories in it even aside from mine. Yeah, there’s a lot of like really cool stories in that so if you haven’t read it, check it out.
CMR: And also you’ve got a talk with Romancing the Gothic.
MH: Oh, yeah, so I did a talk with Romancing the Gothic. So I did my honours’ thesis on the Hannibal Lecter novels, doing structure and characterization in the Hannibal Lecter novels which was fun, and then I wrote a paper about gender specifically, which was also fun yeah. And then I did it for Romancing the Gothic, which was great.
CMR: I think that was a Sunday talk, wasn’t it, not a Saturday one?
MH: It was a short one, yes.
CMR: It was a short one, yes – found you! It was: “Is this our Great Becoming? Gender and Adaptation in the Hannibal Lecter Franchise”. And that’s on YouTube. That was a really good one. I did a live tweet of that. It was one of the first ones I did a live tweet for, I think. [live thread below: see also slideshare.net for the slides to download].
MH: Oh nice.
CMR: yeah. Yeah it was great.
MH: I think I also have a published version of that paper in a Horror magazine. Digital Horror Magazine? Or something like that. Yeah, my memory is not great for things.
CMR: Same. It’s fine. Words. What. Why. [laughs] Thank you so much for that Mason, it’s been really lovely to chat to you.
MH: Yeah no worries.