Curating the Creepy – a Conversation with Varla Ventura

Ankhie sat down (virtually) with the always awesome Varla Ventura (Book of the Bizarre, Beyond Bizarre) to chat about her role as curator of the new Weiser Books Digital Collection, specifically the series Magical Creatures. I want to live next door to Varla. I really, really do.

Hi Varla. Thanks for taking time to chat! I thought we could talk about the Magical Creatures series in the new Weiser e-book Collection. You curated this group as well as the Paranormal Parlor series. How did this gig come about?

 Well, Jan Johnson, the publisher over at Weiser Books just called me up one day and said she had a new idea and could I come for tea? Weiser has published The Book of the Bizarre and Beyond Bizarre and they have been pretty successful and I guess my penchant for collecting and my eye for the unusual or strange made her think I’d be the right person to curate! It has been great fun.

Was the decision to split the collection into these two series a publisher decision or a curatorial one?

Both. Originally they asked me to do the Magical Creatures but then I found a great deal of paranormal stuff that I liked and we kind of mutually came up with the Paranormal Parlor collection.

 In your own occult collection (which I know is vast) are you more inclined toward the paranormal or the monstrous? Or is that like asking you which child you prefer?

Worse. It’s like asking me who I’d rather date, Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi.

My first question about this series is a fairly obvious one. What distinguishes a magical creature from, say, an ordinary house-pet?

Magical Creature is the marvelous umbrella term for fairies, elves, gnomes, imps, mermaids, werewolves, vampires, and more. Your house-pet may well be a magical creature–you never know what they are up to when you are not around. Your cockatiel might just be a shapeshifter in disguise! A Magical Creature is a description of a being of folklore or myth but I’d like to invite readers to throw out the idea of real vs. myth. Sometimes it is just a matter of how keen your eye is, or how observant you are. You may not have seen them, but I can pretty much guarantee that you have been seen by them. And they have the magical ability to reveal themselves only to select people, and grant them riches or curse their first born.

There are two books in this series that focus on the undead as their subject matter. Vampyre – a Tale, and The Mummy and Miss Nitocris.

Starting with Vampyre; this story has quite a literary legacy. Could you tell us briefly how it came to be written?

Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft (Shelley) were reading ghost stories aloud to one another one stormy night at Byron’s lake house in Geneva, Switzerland. Byron prompted his partygoers to write a ghostly tale of their own. Out of this came the beginnings of Frankenstein, a Modern Prometheus.  As it happened, John William Polidori was also there that fated night. Personal physician to Lord Byron and a writer as a past time, Polidori crafted The Vampyre, A Tale from a sketch of a story that Byron composed that same evening. Often wrongly advertised as a story by Byron himself, The Vampyre has remained a relatively obscure tale of terror. The first vampire story published in English, Polidori’s work predates the seminal Bram Stoker’s Dracula by more than seventy years!

So this is one of the first vampire stories written for the entertainment of the reading public? How was it received in its day?

I think it probably was fairly well received, at least at first, because of its association with Byron. When it was first published several printings were mistakenly identifying Byron as the author. I guess back then you could just poach something pretty easily and print it. Also the publicity confused matters, saying that Lord Byron was the author but he was embarrassed by it and denied it. That wasn’t really true, though we really don’t know the ultimate truth. I kind of think of Polidori as this doctor to the stars who wished he was one himself. And so he made it happen. Would it have happened if he hadn’t known Lord Byron? Probably not. It is entertaining, but admittedly Polidori was not the master of language that Lord Byron was.

What do you think Polidori would have thought of today’s sparkly teenaged vampire heartthrobs?

He would have probably wanted to inject them with some kind of slow poison that first robbed them of their sparkle and then stopped their heart.

I think I love him!

The mummy hasn’t fared as well as the vampire in the public’s affections, but it was enormously popular at the time The Mummy and Miss Nitocris was published. What do you think accounts for that decline?

We know too many of the facts about the Pharaohs and the Egyptians. Back in late 1800s and the early part of the 1900’s we were still going about raiding the tombs and rumors of curses were rampant. Now we have all of these scientific facts getting in the way of our imaginations. Also, you have to be an Ancient Egyptian to become a mummy. A vampire is much more communicable. One bite, and bam! You are in.

We know that mummies are real (though not perhaps in the way that George Chetwynd Griffith meant), but you also mention in your introduction to The Werewolf that there is a scientific basis for that phenomenon, at least in part. Can you tell us a little more?

There is a rare but very real disease now called clinical lycanthropy. Those diagnosed believe themselves to able to transform into a non-human animal, specifically a wolf.

You also talk in that introduction about the difference between vampires and werewolves. Vampires are frightening but also, let’s face it, kind of sexy, whereas there is something sympathetic, even pitiful about the werewolf. Why is that?

Well, there is something kind of lusty about a bite on the neck. We might have some sympathy for the poor immortal vampire, but overall we kind of want to be a vampire ourselves. Live forever, make out with other vampires with dark hair and pale skin. I’ll keep it G-rated here, but certainly we’ve all had a hickey here or a love bite there?

But werewolves, in many cases, seem to not want to be what they are. And they have this more pathetic help-me kind of vibe, I guess it’s the dog in them. Vampires are very civilized but werewolves have an uncontrolled wild streak. You can put pants on them, but as soon as the full moon comes round they are going to dash the pants and run out into the yard howling and foaming at the mouth. They can’t hide what they are. I’ve dated both and I can’t tell you which I prefer. They both have merits.

Now for my favorite title The Occult Power of Goats (I want that on a tee-shirt) – this is really a fantastic compendium of British and Welsh Faerie tales. Most everyone reading this knows the difference between Fairy Tales and tale of the Fae, but for the sake of clarity what makes these stories chilling and not really for children?

These are old-world fairies that prey on children, or expect payment, or play tricks. They aren’t all evil, but there is no Prince Charming here. There are things you can’t outrun and creatures that lure you into their kingdom. Ultimately, the fairy gets rewarded for trapping mortals so don’t expect the fairies with sparkling wings and cute figures. They’ll take whatever form necessary to get you, but once they have you, you will most assuredly regret being so foolish. These are goblins, brownies, imps, selkies, and other mythological members of the fairy world.

I know that there are a lot of people in both the old world and the new that believe wholeheartedly in the Fae. There is also a modern witchcraft tradition known as Feri, and a Faery Pagan movement. It may seem a silly question, but can you tell us briefly what the difference between them is?

Actually, as I understand it, the modern magical traditions attempt to work in harmony with unseen forces from the fairy kingdom. They are also really into fairies, so they probably wear wings to all the pagan conventions and such. All witches work with unseen forces, but I think the fairy traditions specifically use the trickery and magic of the types of creatures that appear old-school tales like those in Occult Powers of Goats. But I’m no expert on the magical practice part. I just like to scare people.  

And scare them you do!

As always you are an amazing resource Varla, and this is a fabulous collection. Will there be more titles to come?

But of course! There are some upcoming fun things like a Christmas Troll, always more mermaids, and a great collection of Pooka stories. I’ve got about two-thousand potential titles that I am trying to narrow down, so it will keep going as long as Weiser sees fit!

Excellent news! Thanks Varla!

Want more Varla? Check out her Blog of the Bizarre and on The Huffington Post!

If you are a Nook reader, the Weiser Collection can be found here.

The Collection is coming soon to iPad and other e-readers everywhere!

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