Karen Russell writes some of the scariest, most haunting stories around. The 32-year-old also happens to be from Miami, of course. So we thought we'd take a moment on Halloween -- the most terrifying day of the year -- to ask her how local ghosts and ghouls shaped her literary career.
"In Miami, doesn't it always feel like Halloween?" she said with a laugh. "Nothing is really flagged for you as a kid as any more strange than any other thing because it's all getting narrated in this one register. So it's like, uh, a tropical storm rained tarantulas down on US-1. Or The Mango Strut parade, you know, with a man with an orange on his head wandering around in tights. Then it's school time. Time to learn fractions!"
Click through to read our complete Halloween interview with Russell, including her fear that dead bodies will crawl out of the Grove like crabs.
Cultist: Do you, personally, do anything special on Halloween?
Karen Russell:I don't. Some people go all out. I always feel like in some way that must be against type or disappointing because fiction-wise, exclusively all I want to write about is stuff that's creepy as fuck. But I don't know why it's not [something I celebrate]. I guess because my day job is spending so much time with those ghouls. Everyday is Halloween. No need to dress up on the outside, I can just wear Old Navy today.
In Miami, doesn't it always feel like Halloween? Miami is just such a fun, weird place to do Halloween. You're floating around under these palm trees. I remember it being very sweaty some years, like, it's a special thing to do. It's late October and you're sweating in these costumes.
Here, of course, everybody gets nearly naked on Halloween. Every costume is a "sexy nurse" or "sexy" something.
It's always a thin excuse [to get naked], but especially in Miami. The stakes in any other part of the country would not be so high.
You're famous as the author of scary stories. Were there are any ghost stories that particularly influenced you as a kid?
I was very terrified of ghost stories. I'm sure that you guys at New Times would roll your eyes at [the stories]. I can't imagine what you see on a daily basis.
What I didn't understand as a child is that it's not just the content in Miami, it's the tone of the delivery. People are pretty matter-of-fact about the most bizarre behavior. Nothing is really flagged for you as a kid as any more strange than any other thing, 'cuz it's all getting narrated in this one register. So it's like, uh, a tropical storm rained tarantulas down on US1. The Mango Strut parade, you know, with a man with an orange on his head wandering around in tights. Then it's school time! Time to learn fractions! Now you're at the Miami Seaquarium. Let's go to Publix! None of those things seemed any stranger.
But, because of that, kids in Miami can assimilate anything. There's that resiliency to them.
I loved horror when I was a kid, I loved bad horror, not even literary horror like The Turn of the Screw. I actually think Stephen King is a phenomenal writer but before I graduated to Stephen King I was reading whatever we all read: R. L. Stein, you know?
It's a confusing way to apprehend adult sexuality, where it's all, like, killers and rakes... and fire. It's a little like the education you get on Power 96 about what human sexuality might be. [You think to yourself]: I'm nine, I don't know what's coming but why is it making everybody scream? You just don't know.
You guys did a piece, do you remember this, about the shelter kids of Miami who made up their own myths? A lot of people sent it to me again and I was glad to see it again. There is some deep vein [of horror], and it's fed by many streams. We did Bloody Mary with some, like, Hispanic twists, for sure. At sleep overs, that was something. I remember being terrified of that.
The lushness of Miami, these totally foliated back yards. I remember a lot of that. Sleeping over at a friend's house outside at a friend's house, and it was all jungly. There is an underside of how fecund and lush Miami is. There is something unstoppable about that growth and that is sort of frightening.
The tide is also frightening. I remember in my neighborhood, for a couple of months we'd ride our bikes down to the water and it was obvious that someone was living there. There was some sort of cement block shelter.
I'm sure that kind of thing happens elsewhere, but in Miami we felt like we had access to a lot of these dark pockets that accumulate. There were those types of pockets of neglect... Somebody was stabbed to death in our neighborhood.
There is sort of a secret order that is autonomous of the mainstream reality. I always had a sense of that.
We would go down to Matheson Hammock and there was this sort of shanty tent community. We had the freedom to explore. In Miami, there's also something about the tides. I remember going down to the water and every day, something new would wash up. One time we saw some rafts come ashore. These kinds of mysterious kinds of lives that were overlapping with your own but you couldn't fully apprehend.
You don't get that in New York City?
Sometimes in New York I worry about these kids because they are so micromanaged. Where are they going to go? They are not going into some wilderness.
That was a word I kind of loved. [In Miami] you could really feel you were going into a tiny wilderness sort of right next a strip mall or Dadeland. Certainly, the Everglades were that. You had access to some primordial swamp and three minutes later you're back on Dixie buying outlet shoes with your mom.
Were there any specific ghost stories that terrified you growing up in Miami?
This used to freak me out. Somebody told me when I was really little that when it rained in Miami -- who told me this? Some asshole -- they told me that when it rains in Miami, there is a real danger that the bodies are going to come floating up. They are not buried deeply enough in the cemeteries.
In the Grove there is that cemetery - we used to go to church at St. Hugh's, so it's right next to St. Hugh's -- somebody there was like "We're always worrying that coffins are going to float around like parrots one of these times!"
You really can't say that to a 6 year old. We're, like, wearing our white dresses and getting donuts after mass. It's like: OK, well, put that on the calendar. I'm so excited for the next tropical storm. I was thinking of the way that crabs come out of their holes after storms. So I was like: wonderful, on the Day of the Dead....
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That's another example of how things are not really so stable and fixed, somehow [in South Florida]. It feels like the right weather can upend the order of the living and the dead in Miami. You have a weird lens.
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