On a trip with their U.S. History class to a presidential wax museum in a nearby city, three girls make up a game they call Categories, the rules of which are perfectly simple. First, one girl suggests a type of person or thing—Beatle Wife, Pride and Prejudice Sister, Greek Goddess, Mode of Fortune Telling. Second, each girl tries to identify one another within said category. That’s it. That’s the extent of the game. As they play, one girl feels like crying and another feels like screaming and another wants to stop playing Categories altogether, because no one wants to be the Yoko Ono, and no one wants to be the Mary Bennett. But they never officially quit. They are sixteen. They’ve been best friends since grade school. They are Kara (The Mean One), Ruthie (The Funny One), and Olive (The Smart One). All three are mean and funny and smart, but Kara is probably the most of each.
Katie Coyle grew up in Fair Haven, New Jersey and has an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. Her debut novel VIVIAN APPLE AT THE END OF THE WORLD will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in January 2015. Her short fiction has appeared in The Southeast Review, Cobalt, and Critical Quarterly. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, and blogs at www.katiecoyle.com.
Hannah Tinti on “Fear Itself”
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Vincent Price’s classic horror film House of Wax on late night TV. In the climactic scene, the young heroine discovers that the museum’s wax figurines are made from real corpses, including her best friend, who has been transformed into Joan of Arc. Trapped between a young Charles Bronson (Igor) and Vincent Price (the museum curator), she beats Vincent Price’s face, which falls apart, revealing a monster hidden behind a wax mask. I was reminded of the movie the first time I picked up our marvelously strange new issue, “Fear Itself” by Katie Coyle. Not only because of the wax museum setting, but because both stories center around identity and false appearances. The teenaged heroines of “Fear Itself”—Kara, Ruthie & Olive—are best friends, but find themselves grating against their assigned categories (the ugly one, the caretaker, the prude). The girls’ internal frustrations bubble to the surface on a class trip to a presidential wax museum, and soon overflow. Jealousy, love, courage and hate all come into play as these three friends search for ways to find new ground, eventually standing together against the forces of darkness (and in this case, also bad boyfriends). Check out our Q&A with Katie Coyle to find out more about the inspiration behind this sharply written, astonishingly bizarre and simply fun short story, then click here to see a clip from House of Wax. Despite all of the movie’s campiness and bad-acting, the moment where Vincent Price’s face falls apart still resonates with a creepy magic. What’s really behind the masks our friends and family wear each day? What’s behind our own?
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- KC: In high school, I really did invent a game called Categories with two friends on a field trip. We played for hours, and when we were done, I typed up our various identities in an Excel spreadsheet and presented them to my friends as gifts (I was very cool). I didn’t realize how passive-aggressive the game was until I found my copy of the spreadsheet a few years ago (“No, you’re the Amy March because you’re blonde, not because you’re annoying!”). It seemed like a rich area to explore—this time when a girl can be simultaneously childish enough to play this quaint game and diabolical enough to turn the game into a weapon.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- KC: When I start writing a story, I tend to approach it like a joke—in this case, “What happens when a teenage girl falls in love with a wax figurine?” The plot is the punchline. The challenging part for me is always circling back to find where the heart of the story lies. When I began I had no idea what Kara and her friends could actually be afraid of; it took several drafts before I figured it out.
- HT: What did you enjoy the most?
- KC: I would be lying if I said I didn’t love writing emotionally abusive wax figurine demons.
- HT: “Fear Itself” is one of the strangest stories I have read in a long time (and I mean that in a good way)! First and foremost, however, it is a story about friendship—particularly girl friendships and how girls in their teen years search for identity. The game of categories is an interesting way for these three girls to try and define themselves, and later, to also buck those definitions. Can you talk a bit about why you’re drawn to write about female friendship and identity?
- KC: I write about girls because I believe wholeheartedly in the one reasonable thing FDR inadvertently says in this story: girl stuff is human stuff. It’s human nature to forge your identity through comparison; the explosion of Buzzfeed quizzes (“Which Contemporary Artist Are You?!”) speaks to this. But I think there’s something more fraught in this process for girls and women, maybe because the range of culturally-approved identities we have access to is more limited. Kara, Ruthie, and Olive strain against the boundaries of being the hag or the prude or the mom or the slut; that friction is interesting to me. There’s this weird idea that female friendships are inherently toxic, that our primary goal is to tear one another down. But really I think it’s just a case of pushing up against this very narrow definition of femininity—we’re fed these images of women in culture and media, and then we can’t help look at the women around us and wonder, “Am I doing this right? Is she doing this right?” But for me the space in which girls and women do it wrong is where the magic happens.
- HT: Though in some ways “Fear Itself” tells the classic “bad boyfriend” story, it also could be seen as a new take on the classic “Wax Museum” horror story. Have you ever been to a wax museum before? Or seen House of Wax?
- KC: I have been to wax museums. I try not speak of these experiences, because wax museums are nightmarish hellscapes. But my favorite wax museum is the one near Mount Rushmore, which is filled with grim tableaux, including George W. Bush standing on 9/11 rubble and LBJ swearing in next to bloody Jackie O. I’d already included this last as a detail in “Fear Itself,” but only because I thought it was so horrifying it could sure not really exist.
- HT: Why, out of all the presidents, did you decide to bring FDR to life?
- KC: In my head, the FDR figurine comes to life the moment Kara’s friends identify her as Eleanor Roosevelt—I think of him as a sort of poltergeist born out of Kara’s self- loathing. If they’d called her Mary Todd Lincoln instead, I imagine it would be a very different story.
- HT: At the end of the story, Olive and Ruthie are singing, but Kara seems to feel more ambiguous about what they’ve done. What do you think happens next for these girls? Do you think they stay friends?
- KC: I believe these girls genuinely love one another, and they’ll probably always be in some form of touch, having experienced this intense supernatural trauma together. But I think their closeness will fade in time. They’ll all make more lasting friendships in college, and refer to one another as “my crazy friend from home.”
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- KC: I wrote the first draft nearly four years ago, and I’ve revised it several times since then.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- KC: I’ve just finished the sequel to my YA novel, and now I’m digging into a bunch of weird projects I’ve had floating around the back of my head, including a short story collection about more girls dealing with more creepy magic, and a novel about teen cosplayers.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- KC: Write what you want to read. Also, I once heard George Saunders say he only writes when he’s happy, and when he’s not happy, he gets happy. I’ve found that very effective too.