Clay McLeod Chapman doesn't just write horror, he performs it in The Pumpkin Pie Show, an immersive storytelling experience that recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. If you haven't had the pleasure of seeing Chapman perform (which our own Daily Dead Editor-in-Chief Jonathan James experienced at The Overlook Film Festival), you can certainly read his work anytime in a number of books, including his new short story collection, Nothing Untoward: Stories from The Pumpkin Pie Show. To celebrate the release of his new collection, we caught up with Chapman for our latest Q&A feature to discuss his literary influences, twenty years of The Pumpkin Pie Show, writing The Tribe trilogy for Disney press, and his upcoming Marvel project that he describes as "a love story between Deadpool and Venom."
What authors and storytellers were you drawn to in your formative years that influenced your own writing and performing?
Clay McLeod Chapman: First off… I just want to say thanks for the questions. I’m a follower of Daily Dead and it means the world to me to haunt your site for a few clicks. Thank you.
As far as influences go, there’s no denying the King… particularly his short story collections Skeleton Crew and Night Shift. I remember reading “Gray Matter” in the 7th grade and being completely weirded out by its combo of cosmic horror and alcohol. Stephen King was my gateway author to Lovecraft. To Poe. It was like stumbling upon a family tree and climbing my way up it. I wanted to be a part of this literary heritage, both as a reader and a writer.
Not long after that, around the same time, I discovered Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. This book changed my life. If you haven’t read it, I would wholeheartedly recommend it. Who doesn’t love a book about giving birth to circus freaks with run-of-the-mill household cleaning agents and narcotics! Geek Love taught me about the humanity you can find in horror.
Then there’s Ai. If you’ve never read her poetry, you must. I know, I know… poetry, right? But believe me, I swear to you, the brutality of her stanzas is devastating. Her first books, Cruelty and Killing Floor, are my all-time favorites. I’ve been copying her ever since. Hands down. All I’ve been doing for the last 20-odd years is aping Ai’s writing. She’s the best.
Then there’s Cormac McCarthy. Reading Child of God and Blood Meridian and The Road were absolutely fundamental to me. I bow down before the altar of McCarthy.
Your writing often focuses on everyday people immersed in abnormal situations. Do you find the most engrossing stories to be the ones that feature characters that readers can relate to or might recognize from their own lives?
Clay McLeod Chapman: For me, the most terrifying monsters are the ones with human faces. I think it’s fine and dandy to write about vampires or zombies or werewolves or whatnot, but there’s something to be said about exploring what’s monstrous within ourselves…
The stories I like to write are the ones that focus on a particular curdling point within everyday people, that moment when our morality sours into something less than exemplary. We are all capable of monstrous things, but we comfort ourselves in this protective blanket of virtue… but what happens if our virtue were to rip? What if we were just a few snapped synapses away from insanity? Perversion? Evil? That, to me, is terrifying.
If I’m being totally honest, all I’m doing is attempting to update the Poe formula. Give it a domestic spin. You take “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Black Cat” and you root those narratives in a contemporary, suburban setting and it’s surprisingly fresh. Poe’s unreliable narrators were always so fascinating to me… I love the idea that these people are the absolute worst narrators. The dude in “The Cask of Amontillado” should not be the one telling his story, because he has zero perspective outside his own tunnel-visioned lunacy. But we’re stuck with him. As readers, we have no choice but to take these unreliable narrators’ hands and walk through their stories… and at some point, we have to say: Dude, this guy is crazy. I don’t believe a word he says. The character becomes the story.
If I could replicate Poe’s myopic-narrative style with a contemporary, domestic spin, I’d be a happy, happy man… and meanwhile, Poe is probably spinning in his grave.
You bring your short stories to life through The Pumpkin Pie Show, which is widely regarded as one of the most unique and engaging live reading experiences for many years now. How did you decide to start performing your stories instead of just reading them, and how has the show evolved over the years?
Clay McLeod Chapman: Oh, man… You’re being way too kind. The Pumpkin Pie Show has been a labor of love for two decades now. We’re officially twenty years old! We’ll go wherever we’re invited, we’ll perform in any kind of venue—bathrooms to black box theaters. You name it.
I started this weird endeavor all the way back in high school, just as a means of expressing myself. I had these weird ideas in my head and wanted to find a way to articulate them. I loved short stories, but this felt… different. Somehow. More than just a story. All my friends were in punk bands—while I couldn’t play an instrument or carry a tune to save my life. But I loved the energy of a punk show. I loved the mosh pit, the stage-diving, the connection between the singer and the audience… If there was a way to replicate that energy onstage for a live performance of a mono-story, then that would be a blast. I wanted the catharsis of a punk show while delivering the creepiness of a campfire story.
And The Pumpkin Pie Show was born. Creating these icky ten-to-fifteen-minute character ballad monologues became my way of… singing a song, I guess. I’d construct a set-list of stories, taking on these characters’ personas in that first-person narrative style, a la Poe. To me, this was as close to performing in my own band as I was going to get. The Pumpkin Pie Show was my band. These stories were our songs. And the books were our albums…
Filmmaker Craig William Macneill has adapted your work with short films and a feature-length movie, The Boy (2015). When did Macneill first approach you about adapting your work and what do you enjoy about his takes on your material?
Clay McLeod Chapman: I’ve been very fortunate to have Craig as a collaborator. We have worked on a handful of short films and features together… My writing and his visual sensibility, I feel, make a great match. When we work on a film together, we’re coming at the story from opposing ends of the horror spectrum—he’s a bit more restrained and refined, while I’m a bit more grotesque. We find our middle ground together in the script-writing process, reaching a collaborative sweet spot that neither of us would’ve probably been able to reach without the other…
Our first collaboration was a short called Late Bloomer. It’s a total lark. Imagine Lovecraft in a 7th grade sex ed class. I’d written the script and Craig overlaid his visuals on top of it. We were just cutting our teeth in filmmaking, so when our little short made its way to Sundance, we were totally floored…
Craig had always wanted to adapt my first novel, miss corpus, into a feature, particularly this one chapter, “The Henley Road Motel.” After a few years, we finally got the funding to make a short, which led to our little baby, “Henley.” Once again, we made our way to Sundance, this time in 2012—and we caught Elijah Wood’s attention. His production company, SpectreVision, asked if we had any interest in cracking open our short into a feature and we said "hell yes!" Together, we got working on the script and that led to our first feature… The Boy.
Craig and I have been working on some new feature scripts, along with a television project. Keep those fingers crossed. One of these might just end up seeing the light of day.
You recently entered the manic halls of middle school with The Tribe book trilogy for Disney Press. Did you enjoy getting to revisit that era of life with horror and humor as you told Spencer’s story? Do you have any favorite school-set stories on the page or the screen that inspired you while you were writing the trilogy?
Clay McLeod Chapman: I should go on record as saying I think it’s downright insane, if not illegal, that Disney would allow me to write for younger readers. I have no idea what they were thinking. But I love it. Absolutely love it. The Tribe—particularly the first book in the trilogy, Homeroom Headhunters—was such a pure, unencumbered expression of joy. The only mandate I had in writing that novel was to have fun. There were totally moments where I’d ask myself: Am I going to be able to get away with this…? And I did! I totally did! Heaven help us all…
The Tribe is essentially Fight Club for middle school. Imagine a tribe of runaway kids living inside your school, completely unbeknownst to anyone… One student, Spencer, is roped into their crew—and at first, it’s an absolute blast. But when things start to take a darker turn and Spencer realizes he’s in waaaaay over his head, it’s too late.
I had to create chaos. Anarchy in the halls of your school! Who hasn’t wanted to turn their middle school into a battleground, right? But I can’t say there’s any historical truth to what happens in these books… It’s not like this happened to me when I was a kid. But… there’s one chapter in particular that is based upon something that happened to me when I entered my school’s talent show in the 6th grade. I’m not going to say any more than that, though. You’ll have to read the book to figure it out… Sssh. It’s a secret.
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books recently published your new short story collection, Nothing Untoward: Stories from The Pumpkin Pie Show. What types of tales can readers expect to experience in this collection, which contains 40 of your short stories?
Clay McLeod Chapman: Oh, man… I really scraped the headcheese out with this one. This book, this icky, ooky book. I’ve been lucky to have had two collections of short stories published. The first was called Rest Area, and it gathered up twenty stories… Nothing Untoward picks up where Rest Area left off and throws forty more stories in the mix.
All I can say about these new stories is… well, they’re not kind. I think of them as a menagerie of voices, just an assembly of characters. Each has a story to tell—and they’re going to tell it directly to you, the reader. Or audience member. They need to tell these stories, absolutely need to, and if you’re willing to give them five pages—or ten minutes—what you’ll hear are stories of men and women and children on the brink of some of the most absolutely batshit bizarro breakdowns you’ll ever hear. Some of these stories are based on real events, ripped from the headlines. Some of them are firmly rooted in my own imagination. But they’re dark. Or gross. Or scary. Or pants-poopingly funny.
What if an outbreak of a norovirus on a cruise ship felt like a zombie epidemic? What if a mother was convinced her baby girl was turning into a bird? What if a squad of high school cheerleaders were actually doubling as suicide bombers? What if a crematorium worker was melting down his 'clients’' fillings into a wedding ring to propose to his girlfriend?
Forty stories. Over ten years’ worth of writing… They are meant to be read two ways: either to yourself or out loud. I’ve been hell-bent on thinking of these pieces as distillations of campfire stories, the type of tale that roots itself in the oral tradition… These narrators are addressing you and only you. So be careful.
With Nothing Untoward: Stories from The Pumpkin Pie Show now available from Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, what other projects do you have on deck that you can tease, and where can our readers find you online?
Clay McLeod Chapman: Oh, man… It’s going to be a good year. There’s a lot coming down the pike. Some awesome feature film projects, a new graphic novel series, a new children’s book… I can’t quite talk about them yet, but if you visit me at my website (www.claymcleodchapman.com), there will be oodles of updates later this summer…
I can mention that Marvel comics had me write a love story between Deadpool and Venom for their upcoming Edge of Venomverse series. If you dig parasites, then I think you’ll like my comic. They just announced it earlier this week, so it’ll hit the shelves in August. Thanks so much, guys! It was a pleasure chatting with you.
To learn more about Clay McLeod Chapman and his work, check out the links below. In case you missed it, read the short story "Buffet of the Damned" from McLeod's new collection, Nothing Untoward: Stories from The Pumpkin Pie Show, and we also have a look at the Lovecraftian short film Late Bloomer that was written and narrated by McLeod.