Just in time for the Halloween season, dear reader, I bring you the perfect book for that favorite monster in your life. K.E. Flann’s newest, How To Survive a Human Attack, is pretty much my soul in book form. It’s funny and clever and dark and super, super weird. An instruction manual for monsters, the book has fun illustrations and a wonderful premise. I’m mad I didn’t write it myself.
Kathy stopped by What Scares You to chat about her very human fears, and I’m delighted to have her. Read on for the terrors of small talk, children in large quantities, and mismatched flip-flops. I warned you.
What is your greatest fear?
Small talk! Nothing sets my heart racing like someone saying, “How have you been?” A clammy sweat breaks out while I scramble to decide what’s “appropriate” to say. I feel like I’m about to lie under oath. How have I been? Well, I’ve had various crises since I saw the person last or some really cool stuff has happened. But I don’t feel like I can say, “My dad died” or “I won an artist award” because even though both of those things have happened since the pandemic started, they would be “big talk” topics, right? Plus, the question asks not only what’s been happening, but how I’m handling what’s happening. And honestly, I have no idea! Am I doing a good job? What does a good job even mean? But if I say, “I’m fine,” that’s vague and maybe even rude? I start mumbling some half-sentences that don’t make sense together and then I realize I can side step the whole thing by just saying, “But oh my gosh, how are YOU?” And my chest is heaving like I’ve crossed a finish line, and I’m thinking, Calm down, you weirdo. At least listen to the answer. I’ll choose spiders or a dark alley any day over small talk.
What is the scariest thing you remember from childhood?
When I was about three years old, I was in the car with my mom one day, riding up front (because …1970s). We stopped at a red light behind a school bus full of kids, all talking and laughing and making faces out the rear window. My mom pointed and said, “You’ll be on that bus one day.” I instantly burst into tears. I wailed, “I don’t want to get on that bus. Don’t make me get on that bus.” She laughed. “I don’t mean now.” I was like, “I never want to get on that bus.” It was the worst thing I could imagine – being trapped in there. To me, whenever kids were gathered in critical mass, they seemed one step removed from Lord of the Flies. Honestly, I think I stand by it.
“My mom pointed and said, ‘You’ll be on that bus one day.’ I instantly burst into tears.”
What is your favorite monster/villain?
This is kind of like trying to choose a favorite child! I love them all. But I have special tenderness for the swamp monster because he’s all alone and doesn’t want to be. In swamp monster stories, there’s usually no one else in the world exactly like him. He doesn’t understand why he can’t connect with humans. There’s no rage or hostility in his “monstrous” activities, as we see with other solitary types, like mummies or werewolves. He’s not strangling or eating anyone. He just wants a friend. Or a girlfriend (which I’ll grant is problematic when it comes to relying on abduction rather than dating apps). That’s why “Swamp Monster Makeovers” was one of the earliest pieces I wrote for the book. He’s like someone who just needs a fresh start and a bit of confidence. Initially, when I first published the piece in a magazine, I illustrated the makeovers myself, but in the book, the fabulous illustrator, Joseph McDermott, brought to life so many looks for the swamp monster, rendering his haute couture outfits with hilariously precise detail. It was nice to pamper the swamp monster – he deserves it!
Do you have a recurring nightmare?
Like most recurring nightmares, mine takes place at Walmart. At the end of an aisle, there’s this giant bin of discounted flip-flops, none of which are paired. All these single flip-flops are navy blue with black rubber soles. I clutch one size 8 flip-flop like it’s found treasure. The dream consists of rummaging with my one free hand for a matching size 8. The bin is so deep that I can’t see the bottom. THIS. GOES. ON. FOR. HOURS. I have a physical sensation of holding my breath, and I wake with a gasp.
What the heck? Is my greatest fear missing out on a great deal? In all seriousness, what freaks me out in the dream is that I can’t stop myself. This flip-flop search is obviously not a worthy pursuit, and I know that even while it’s happening, but it’s as if I don’t have control. And isn’t that what all nightmares are about – loss of control?
What’s something that most people are afraid of that you are not? Why aren’t you?
In moments of actual danger, which thankfully have been few, I don’t experience fear the way I expect. For example, the burglar alarm went off in our house one December night at 2 a.m., and I leapt out of bed. My husband hopped up, too, and he kind of stood there with his phone, trying to think what to do. I yelled, “What are you waiting for? Come on, let’s go!” I flung open the door, and charged downstairs, where I imagined the trouble was, which seemed literally in my mind like the only choice. Somewhere behind me, my (six-foot-three) husband was saying, “Wait,” but my adrenaline was too loud. I stopped short in our freezing kitchen, facing a window pried all the way open with a crowbar, the winter wind rattling into the room, blowing on my bare feet. Only then did I think that a plan might have been a good idea. Thankfully, the intruder had been scared out the back door by the alarm. But what would I have done? I still have no idea. I’ve caught myself doing the same thing at other times. In the “fight or flight” moments, I seem to go for “fight,” something that no one is more surprised by than I am. It’s like my mind thinks it’s all down to me. I don’t get scared until after the fact. And then I’m like, Whoa.
What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read? Is there a particular scene that really haunts you still?
I read Stephen King’s Cujo when I was thirteen, and the whole ordeal when they’re trapped in the car by the dog is still so vivid. Partly, I think that the setting of the car is genius. We all know that if a car isn’t working or if it’s blocked from moving, you can be incredibly vulnerable. The windows put you on display, and you’re stuck in a seated position, unable to run or get into strong fighting positions. We probably all hate it when someone approaches the car window when we’re stuck at a traffic light. To me, this setting was worse than any scary story that takes place in a house.
But then also, stories in which the dog dies have always wrecked me (and still do). Cujo was the worst combination — the dog as both victim and aggressor. The agony of the book was in that tension.
At the time, I had a terrible little dog named Snickers, who looked like Toto from The Wizard of Oz, but behaved like Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas. He would slip out the door any time we opened it to receive a package or whatever, and he’d run off for miles. He’d scrap with all the neighborhood dogs. I’d been bitten breaking up fights many times. And I loved that dog with everything I had. I spent so much time walking around the neighborhood calling his name and sobbing. Cujo was probably the “right” book at the right time to scare the bejesus out of me.
What scares you most about the writing process?
With fiction and memoir, the hardest part to me is the first draft, when I don’t know if something is going to become anything. I am terrified of working for a long time on something only to discover it’s awful and boring. Sometime during the fifth draft or whatever, there’s a moment of full-body, existential relief when scenes become vivid to me or I figure out what I was trying to say.
With humor, though, it’s such fun because it’s the opposite. In the early draft, or even the first draft, I kind of know if it’s going to work. If the concept itself doesn’t make me laugh, I don’t even bother working on the piece. I feel like there’s less fear with it in a way. I mean, of course, there’s the fear that other people won’t think it’s funny, but on the other hand, part of me is like, Well, they’re wrong. And that’s an incredibly funny and scary thought, isn’t it? When I have a thought like that, I feel sure humans are monsters.
K.E. Flann’s prose has appeared in McSweeney’s, The North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, and others. In addition to How to Survive a Human Attack, a guide for movie monsters from Running Press/Hachette, her published books include Write On: Secrets to Crafting Better Stories, from Stay Thirsty Publishing, and two award-winning short story collections, Get a Grip and Smoky Ordinary.