Tenebrous Press, a Portland publisher of weird horror, will celebrate the month of spooks, thrills and chills by holding a launch party for its latest enterprise, Posthaste Manor, at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22, at Rose City Book Pub.
Tenebrous founder Matthew Blairstone is calling the new novel, which will be released Wednesday, Oct. 18, “one of the more ambitious projects we’ve undertaken.” Posthaste Manor, by local writer Carson Winter and his partner in crime, PhD candidate and Missouri resident Jolie Toomajan, is a “composite novel,” also known as a short story cycle. “And what it is,” explains Toomajan, “is a series of stories or chapters that can stand alone but when read together give you a much larger picture of what you’re seeing.”
Posthaste Manor is a haunted house book, a seemingly inexhaustible horror trope that Toomajan and Winter seek to turn on its head, twist, bend and completely reimagine, so that what you end up with is a little bit of something-you-think-you’ve-tried-before mixed in with a whole lot of I’ve-never-encountered-anything-like-this.
It starts off with a novella that goes back and forth between two different perspectives of two people living in two different timelines, experiencing the eponymous dwelling, which Toomajan says is “conceptualized less as a haunted house and more as a completely deranged house.”
The description is apt. There are next to no creaking doors, rattling chains, or booing ghosts in this house. It’s more cosmic dogs, humans vying to die the violent deaths of rats, cats communicating their inner monologue in a faux British accent, some unknowable “It” that devours men, and even a no-holds-barred 70s swinging orgy: “This haunted house likes to fuck,” says Winter, with not a small amount of glee. “This haunted house is a freak.”
Carson Winter, who lives across the Columbia River from Portland in Vancouver, is the author of the novellas Soft Targets (also Tenebrous) and Reunion Special. His work has also appeared in the literary journal Vasterian, Apex Magazine and the anthologies AHH! That’s What I Call Horror and Brave New Weird (yet another Tenebrous publication), to name a few places.
Likewise, Jolie Toomajan has spent years getting her grind on, and been published in places like Grim, Black Static, and LampLight, anthologies including Death in the Mouth, and also Brave New Weird.
“I’m the only me that has ever existed and ever will. Now my bite my skull and make my brains squirt from my eyes.”
— “Rats and Dogs on the Planet Nowhere” (Winter)
When you meet Winter and Toomajan, both of them feel decidedly sane, friendly even, and enthusiastic about each other’s work — not at all like the maladjusted miscreants you’d assume must have written this book. Why such otherwise affable people deal in twisted tales is a fascinating question.
“It’s a natural interest for me,” says Toomajan. “I was absolutely that weird little kid with the complete tales of Poe in her bag. The level of normalized sickness in the world bothers me, tremendously. When I sit down to voice my opinion on the world around me, it seems best translated through the lens of horror.”
“For me,” says Winter, “horror is a language; and like any language, you learn to speak it best if you’re taught young. I could’ve fallen in love with trucks or superheroes, but for whatever reason, I fell in love with the old Universal Monster movies. It makes sense to me to write horror, because that’s what’s in my artistic toolbox. The language of the genre is embedded in my bones, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Winter and Toomajan have been in the same online writing group for a few years now, and as published authors had developed a mutual respect for each other’s work and work ethic. “Carson writes some of the most brutal things I have ever read in my entire life,” says Toomajan, “not just because it’s horror and it’s gross, but because it says something about the world around us that I didn’t really want to admit to until Carson brought it up.”
About Toomajan, Winter says, “In the horror scene, Jolie is the best sentence-level writer that we have. Everything is intentional; every single comma, every word choice, she has thought and labored over. And the pictures she draws with her words are so lush and vivid.”
So the choice to work together on a project, if not automatic, did seem natural. “Getting published is an unforgiving grind,” says Winter. “You’re constantly submitting, constantly getting rejected, constantly showing your soft underbelly to gatekeepers to make them try to like you.”
When Winter and Toomajan decided to work together, they had no immediate intention to get published. This project would be just for the two of them, for fun. “A lot of my work, on its own, is kind of long, like six-thousand-word short stories, and emotionally heavy,” says Toomajan. “I went into this like we’re having a blast, we’re murdering everybody, every jerk who deserves it is getting it, I’m doing whatever weird stuff that I want to do.”
“He thought it was a poltergeist, but I called it a house of devouring. A thing that takes and takes and takes. It took our pets, our friends, and it picked its teeth with our things before starting in on us. Though maybe that wasn’t even the house.”
— “Conscious Uncoupling” (Toomajan)
Once they decided they wanted to work together, the idea was to write a type of chap book, a small collection of short stories, self-published, and that would be that. The theme they chose was a haunted house. “Jolie suggested a haunted house,” remembers Carson. “We’re both horror writers, it’s a classic horror trope, there’s a lot to dig up in that realm.”
They came up with the title first. “Carson came up with it,” says Toomajan. “We engineered it backwards. We thought, if we name the house, we’ll get the vibe. So, we started throwing names back and forth and then we really both liked this one. And you find out exactly how the house got that name in the last story of the last chapter.”
“From there,” says Winter, “we decided what we wanted to do but we weren’t too beholden to a script or a story bible. We just started writing. We went back and forth on each other’s stories, reading what the other person did. I’d see an element of Jolie’s and I’d be like, ‘Oh, I like that. I should call back to it in my next story.’”
“Writing is usually so solitary,” says Toomajan. “It’s so great to have somebody to get jazzed with in the middle of it. Cuz usually you’re just by yourself like, ‘I’m such a genius!’
Winter concurs. “Yeah, that’s exactly my process right there. I’m alone and proclaiming my genius.”
They’re joking, and it’s genuine and it’s funny, but there is also a quiet confidence, a game-recognizes-game aura. These are artists who are slowly but surely making their way in their chosen field, and that’s to be appreciated and respected. Their enthusiasm and generosity of spirit for their book, for Tenebrous, and for working with each other is refreshing, and it feels earned.
With two other artists, a project like this might have personality conflicts. But that didn’t happen between Toomajan and Winter. “Collaborating with [Winter] was super easy,” says Toomajan, “it was us in chat constantly bouncing back and forth with each other: ‘What about this? If you do this, I’ll do this, if you do this, I’ll do this.’ It was really fantastic.”
“There wasn’t a way where Jolie was going to turn something in that I was gonna be like, ‘Oh, fuck no, that sucks,’” says Carson. “Jolie’s a great writer. I knew that going in. There is an element of trust that the other person was going to do something cool. That’s why we did the project. We wanted to see the other person do something cool. We wanted to do something cool together.”
When they each had five stories, however, the thought process changed and they decided to submit what they had to Tenebrous. Winter had submitted his novella Soft Targets to Tenebrous before, without success, but he had enjoyed the experience. “We had a friendly relationship,” says Winter, “because they rejected that book (since rectified), but very, very nicely and opened up the communication pathway.”
Tenebrous had an immediate positive response to Posthaste Manor. “They reached out to us with a collection of short stories they had co-written dealing with this ‘very haunted house’, Posthaste Manor,” Blairstone says. “We loved what they showed us, but we knew we could love it even more. We asked them to sit on it for a minute and see if there was a novella in there waiting to be written, something that would tie all the different threads together. A couple months later they sent us the dual narrative of Otho and Adira, and we knew it was gold. It was perfect. It made the whole thing sing.”
“Singing,” when you’re talking about a publisher like Tenebrous and writers like Toomajan and Winter, is apt to sound more like screaming, but the sentiment is the understood. Now, Posthaste Manor is an utterly insane experience with a driving energy and vitality to its prose quite unlike anything you’re likely to have read anywhere else.
“Posthaste Manor is a lot of things,” says Toomajan. “It’s scary, it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s touching. I want readers to go on that roller coaster with us, be disturbed in that fun way. The haunted house is a big concept with a lot of history to it, and we had a blast playing with that history and hopefully making something totally new out of it.”
“What I hope folks get from Posthaste,” says Winter, “is a sense of fun that they haven’t seen in the haunted house before. I hope they chew on the absurdity, connect the familiar and the strange into a funhouse mirror of a well-loved beast that’s been relegated to a Halloween decoration, but in its new, distorted reflection is once again restored to the realm of the unsettling and horrific.”
“Posthaste Manor” release party
- Where: Rose City Book Pub, 1329 N.E. Fremont St, Portland
- When: 7:30-9 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22