Halloween may be over, but the horrors persist... in the best of ways, as Chloe Spencer brings to us a brand-new adult sapphic romantic horror named Vicarious, out November 15th. Read all about the inspiration and process behind Chloe's work in our insightful interview below!
Hi, Chloe! Thanks for joining us. First off, introduce yourself to our audience!
Hi everyone! My name is Chloe Spencer, and I’m an award-winning filmmaker, game developer, and the author behind the YA sci-fi horror novel Monstersona, and the upcoming horror novella Vicarious, which I’m so excited to talk about with y’all today!
Your romantic horror novella releases next week, eek! Tell us about Vicarious and what inspired you to write it.
Vicarious centers on Gertie, a widow and the PTA president of an elite private school. She’s a single mother to June, an overachieving high school student, but Gertie thinks that June is only successful not because of her own tenacity, but because she’s invested so much time in June’s school life/her academic career. This is a sharp contrast to how she was raised—her mother died when she was young, and her father was emotionally neglectful. As a child, she was bullied frequently, which has left her… let’s just say she’s not such a nice person.
One of those bullies was a girl named Bea. During one particularly horrific incident—which I’m going to omit the details as it’s quite triggering (trigger warnings for this one are on my website!)—Gertie ended up being rescued by Jack, her late husband. When Jack passes away, she ends up becoming wealthy and uses her money for nefarious purposes, like ruining the lives of her PTA competitors.
After being subjected to so many awful things during her life: the death of her husband, the death of her mom, the neglect she suffered at her father, and a terrible bout of postpartum depression she’s never really recovered from, Gertie believes she’s incapable of love. She doesn’t even know if she loves her own daughter, although she will tirelessly support her. But with June being in her junior year of high school, Gertie knows she can’t continue to serve on the PTA forever, and she’s going to have to figure out what’s next after her nest is emptied. She learns there’s a school board position opening up and a special election in March, so she decides she’s going to run for it.
But one day, she runs into Bea again, who begs to meet for coffee. Bea explains why she did what she did, blaming her own traumas, and because she had a massive crush on Gertie when they were kids. Gertie’s pissed off by this explanation—like, “Wow, thanks for inviting me to coffee and then not apologizing”—but realizes Bea is still attracted to her. A master manipulator, Gertie decides to take advantage of this, and starts dating Bea to get revenge on her, and break her heart in the most hideous way possible. Yet as Gertie grows closer to Bea, she slowly learns that revenge is way more complicated than she thought.
As for why I decided to write Vicarious, I mean, I love enemies-to-lovers stories. Love, love, love them. I wanted to make an enemies-to-lovers story where both the characters were villainous in their own unique ways. I think toxic characters are compelling, and I also loved the idea of writing an extreme horror romance. There are a lot of horror romances, but I haven’t come across many extreme horror romances (May Leitz’ Fluids is one and the work of William Joseph Martin, formerly known as Poppy Z. Brite, is exemplary!) but I think there are so many more stories that can be told within that space. I also was inspired by the politics and sinister secrecies explored within shows like House of Cards and Desperate Housewives, but thought it would be funny to make a school board election—often overlooked—extremely intense.
Another thing: I wanted to write a book with a title with a double meaning. The book is called Vicarious because at first, Gertie is living vicariously through June. Then the meaning for the title shifts as the story progresses—Gertie develops vicarious trauma as a result from learning about Bea's horrific childhood, which feeds into her murderous motivations.
What initially drew you to the horror genre and, in particular, the theme of revenge and extreme horror?
I’ve been a fan of horror, in particular sci-fi horror, since I was a kid, but I only got into reading extreme horror within the past few years, after I began receiving treatment for PTSD.
For me, I love the extreme horror genre because it forces me to be uncomfortable, and it’s a safe sandbox to explore the gross, the gory, and the macabre. I think sometimes this genre can be subjected to unfair criticism—a lot of people equate it to “torture porn,” and while it’s true it’s supposed to push you to your limits, I think that’s an oversimplification of it. I also despise the term “torture porn” when used to describe art, because a lot of people use difficult, uncomfortable art to explore their triggers and trauma. Extreme horror was important to me for that reason! If you choose to view it exclusively through that lens, I think you’re missing out on the wealth of fun and/or intellectual discussions the genre has to offer.
I’ve encountered some interesting, sensitive explorations of characters and difficult topics in extreme horror. Kristopher Triana’s Full Brutal touches on the conflicting and harmful messages about sex and sexuality teenagers experience, Ali Seay’s Go Down Hard explores navigating the world as a survivor of sexual assault and other traumatic incidents, like the death of a parent. In the right hands, I think extreme horror can be empowering.
Can you tell us a little bit about your characters? Which, if any, did you connect with most and least and why?
Oh gosh, I think there’s so many characters to love in this piece! Gertie is so awful, but that’s what makes her so fun. She’s a fat woman who learns to embrace her curves and her sensuality. She’s sexy, horrible, complex. I love spending time with her, whether it’s watching her complain about the women in the PTA, or engaging in a murderous rampage.
The characters I connected the least with are the characters who died, sans Jack, Gertie’s late husband. But I can’t talk too much about those kills without giving away the plot! :)
Did you find any challenges while writing Vicarious? How did you overcome them?
One of my goals with writing Vicarious was pairing brutality with tenderness. There are some vile, heinous events in this book, and Gertie is dating Bea to get revenge on her, but then her feelings change as they grow closer. Despite the toxic origins of their relationship, I wanted their romance to be believable (keyword: believable, not idealized for obvious reasons), and I wanted readers to embrace Gertie’s growth as a person.
One of the ways I've tried to bridge this gap is incorporating kink! There are a couple of spicy scenes in this novella. Kink is grounded in a lot of consensual practices, and for Bea, it's a safe way for her to explore trauma and reclaim her sexuality. I wanted the book to be filled with violence, but even when they're engaging in some violent acts in the bedroom, they're at their most tender with each other.
You’re also an indie game developer and a filmmaker, which is so exciting (we’re huge fans of indie games). Do you ever find that one medium aids the other(s)? Do you take anything from game development into writing or filmmaking, and vice versa?
Oh my gosh, all the time! I think that screenwriting has helped me become a stronger writer in many ways. I write tighter now than I have in previous years, and since writing for film is so visual, incorporating screenwriting techniques into my own writing has helped my books feel that much more visual. When you're designing a video game, in particular RPGs, you're forced to develop a strong sense of space/build a mise-en-scene, which translates into filmmaking pretty well. In video games, every prop or object you add to a space helps to characterize it and the protagonist—well, the same can be said for film.
You also have announced two books to be published in 2024! Tell us about Mewing and Haunting Melody. Is there anything new for readers in these works? Anything unexpected?
Mewing, like Monstersona, is a body horror novella, albeit very different. Mewing centers on a small-time Instagram model who joins an influencer house led by a mysterious supermodel, and chronicles this model’s descent into madness in her pursuit for beauty and love. For those familiar with my work in film (probably few but I’ll mention it anyways!) it expands upon the themes of body dysmorphia I explored in my short film, Serotonin, but with a sapphic twist. There are some scenes in there that were super fun to write, and still make my stomach turn.
Haunting Melody is my next YA and probably the furthest from any of the things I’ve written so far! It’s not horror, it’s a murder-mystery set in a fantasy world which centers on a ghost hunter that has to team up with a ghost. I like to say it’s akin to a Disney Channel original movie. Yes, it’s about a teenage girl with PTSD, and yes, there’s still some horror elements throughout, but it kinda gives me Halloweentown and Scary Godmother vibes. It was just a lot of fun to write, and after I wrote Monstersona, I wanted to explore a YA story that was less heavy. I’m also excited for this one because it features a butch-femme romance and fat and mid-sized representation—Melody, the protagonist, is mid-sized, and Cyrus, the love interest, is a fat butch musician. Cyrus is so charming and charismatic, and probably my favorite love interest I’ve written out of everything ever. She’s just so wicked cool.
There is one more project which was recently announced—An Affinity for Formaldehyde with Grindhouse Press. This one is about a queer woman who returns to her hometown to stop her childhood best friend from marrying her grandmother (ew!!!) and ends up uncovering a horrific science experiment in the process. It’s very much Reanimator meets The Half of It, which, yes, is just as weird as it sounds. I’m excited for this one because I’ve dreamed of working with Grindhouse Press for a long time, and it’s unique in that there’s no romantic B-story, the B-story is about friendship!
Vicarious is an adult horror, but does draw from Gertie’s experiences as a young girl, and you also write for young adults. Is it difficult to flip between different age groups when writing different projects, or is it something that comes naturally? What draws you to both, or either, and how do you decide if a project will be YA or adult?
This is such an excellent question and there’s so much that goes into this! For me, the biggest decision-maker between making a YA story or an adult story is whether or not that character is spending the majority of the time as an adult. We have flashbacks to childhood in Vicarious, but the majority of the time we spend with them is when they're adults. You can't tell a YA story about a mid-20s Instagram influencer, no matter how immature or naïve said influencer may be. That character is in a completely different headspace and developmental stage compared to a teen. There are other sub-factors that may go into determining an age rating I’m writing for—like how gory I want the story to be or how much sex plays a role in the story (if it’s spicy like Vicarious, it automatically goes in the adult category!)—but 99.95% of the time, it’s the age of the protagonist.
I try to make my YA stories uplifting even as they explore difficult topics. There's a line that the violence can't cross or terrible outcomes that can't be explored. When I'm writing for teens, I want to give them a sense of hope, and even when I'm working with morally gray characters, I want to empower those characters to make good, safe decisions for themselves as much as possible (and as it makes sense within the story.) I try to write the complex queer stories I wanted to read as a teen, ones that aren't preachy, but challenging and fun. I try to be sensitive to the fact that my audience is still growing and developing their worldview, as being a teen (especially a queer teen!) is rough enough as it is.
In adult spaces, I don't have to worry about those things as much. Adults have developed a strong moral framework by now (we can hope, at least) so I can write characters who say horrible things about other people, who cross boundaries, who can be straight up immoral, without worrying about being a "bad influence." I have less of a responsibility to this audience to protect them as I would with YA spaces, although, I still use content warnings to make sure people know what they’re in for!
I don't have difficulty flipping between adult and YA spaces, but I do have anxiety about it, haha! I’ve tried my hardest to make sure people know Vicarious is an adult story. Gertie is a mom. Gertie is a PTA President. Nothing about it screams "teen." This is why content warnings are also so important to me, because it's a chance for me to communicate one-on-one with the reader and say, Hey! Be informed! Take care of yourself! The content warnings for Vicarious are clear, as are for my other adult horror novellas. I am so fortunate every single publisher I’ve worked with has wholeheartedly embraced my use of them without question or pushback.
While I worry about it, I'm not going to limit myself to one age group alone in my writing, and I shouldn't have to. No author should have to! I still have stories to tell for teens, and stories to tell for adults.
We’d love a hint about any of your current projects! More sapphics? More horror? Anything that might surprise your readers?
Always more sapphics! Because of mental health issues within the past year or so, I’ve had to put off working on my RPG game, FEVER, for a long time (chronic fatigue will get ya, that’s for sure). I’m hoping to continue working on that in the next year. I’ve got another horror novella planned about a former child star, which features a mf bi4bi romance, and possibly—possibly?—a novel about a trad wife who befriends the ghost of a 1950s housewife. Spoiler alert: that one goes horrifically wrong.
Have any shows, movies, books, or games influenced your own work at all?
Of course! Kristopher Triana, Kentaro Miura, Eric LaRocca, Hailey Piper, Tiffany D Jackson, Charlotte Nicole Davis, Michelle Paver, Ruth White, and Terry Moore are all examples of authors/graphic novelists that have inspired my written work over the years. Like I mentioned earlier, shows like House of Cards and Desperate Housewives inspired Vicarious, and for my upcoming YA, Haunting Melody, it borrows inspiration from Danny Phantom and games like Omori, which is one of my all-time favorites.
If you could give any advice to authors set to make their debut, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, but also know your limits. It’s so important to not burn yourself out after one book.
Our podcast focuses on media we’re currently loving. Are there any books, shows, movies, or games you’re enjoying at the moment? Any recommendations for our audience? Bonus points if it includes sapphics!
I just finished Pamela Anderson’s memoir, Love, Pamela—talk about brutal, this woman survived such a rough childhood—and it was overall excellent. I also had the opportunity to read an ARC of Cat Voleur’s The Desert Island Game, another sapphic psychological horror releasing with Slashic Horror Press. That one is so creepy, and definitely not one to miss. I also enjoyed P. Djelí Clark’s Ring Shout, which is inventive and fast-paced.
As for films/shows, Bottoms is a must-see for many, many reasons, and if you haven’t had the chance to check it out, Young Love released on HBOMax. It’s a super cute animated family sitcom by the same creators of the award-winning Hair Love. Witty, smart, and full of heart.
Minnesota native Chloe Spencer is an award winning writer, indie gamedev, and filmmaker. She is the author of Monstersona, Duality, and the upcoming paranormal mystery-romance Haunting Melody and adult horror novellas, Vicarious and Mewing. In her spare time she enjoys playing video games, trying her best at Pilates, and cuddling with her cats. She holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Oregon and an MFA in Film and Television from SCAD Atlanta.
TikTok & Instagram: @heyitschloespencer