After I read Cirque Berserk, I reached out to Jessica Guess on Twitter and asked if she would be interested in a little bit of a Q&A for my blog. I cannot recommend Cirque Berserk enough. She has been more than gracious, and it has been a pleasure to talk to her more in depth about her novella and her website, Black Girl’s Guide to Horror. Check it out.
Me: Cirque Berserk starts out as nine teenagers going to an old circus/amusement park that is supposed to be haunted. You mention a few times that this is a bad horror movie trope and [the main character] Rochelle’s least favorite trope. What is your least favorite horror trope? Like what novels or movies will you skip completely because you’re sick of it?
JG: I really hate the “black person dies first or needlessly” trope. It’s ridiculous that that one is still being used. Like the 2020 movie, Underwater? Sorry for the spoiler, but that happens in there and it took me out of it. I was kind of over it once I saw that. Also, I love The Shining, but in Kubrick’s version, when Dick Hallorann dies in that stupid and needless way, it felt insulting.
Me: This is one of those stories that is definitely a slasher, with a pretty high body count, but can also be seen as a sweet love story. There are also many instances of important social commentary (including diversity in horror, male entitlement, and the truths of long term partnerships). If you could pick how every reader sees “Cirque Berserk”, what would you choose?
JG: Is there such a thing as a horror-romance? Not erotic horror like Anne Rice, but just like a genre that is as romantic as it is horrifying? I think Danny sums it up pretty well in the first chapter when he says he wants to bask in the blood and the love. It’s what I did while writing it. I loved the carnage, but love was just as important. That’s what I want people to take from it. And not just romantic love, but familial love, love between friends, and all of that. I know that those two things seem like they’re so far away from each other, love and horror, but not to me. That is, they don’t have to be.
Me: One of my favorite parts is the relationship between Rochelle and Brian, particularly the fact that Brian’s advances are thwarted, and he is frustrated about it. At one point, toward the end, Rochelle says,
“You thought you deserved me. A person isn’t something you deserve. That’s just what guys tell themselves when they think they’re doing something to earn a girl’s attention but getting nowhere.” Rochelle puffed out her chest and deepened her voice. “Hey, I tell her she’s pretty and buy her Coca-Cola! She should give me a chance even though she explicitly told me no because I’m nice and I deserve it.” (p.144)
This is a very honest and blaming the other person for not being into you is a staple of our culture. I appreciate you writing this commentary into your book. Do you have any thoughts on why we have this belief that rejections can be reversed with tokens and flattering words?
JG: I’m not sure, but if I had to guess, it probably comes from this archaic belief that women are prizes to be won and that sex is something that is owed. Like, if I do this, this, and this then I deserve the girl, or I deserve sex. That’s not how any of it works but yet that’s how we get these weird notions about nice guys finishing last and friend zones. There is this sense of entitlement that some men have when it comes to women they desire and it’s pretty scary that a lot of them don’t even realize the insanity of it. It’s just drilled in. The truth is that a person does not owe you any kind of relationship be it romantic or otherwise.
Me: I notice that the title of the novel changed from “Cirque Berzerk” on your Twitter account header to “Cirque Berserk” on the final product. Was the original title with a Z instead of an S?
JG: I love this question. So, early on when I was drafting Cirque Berserk, I needed a name for the carnival and the first thing I thought of was my favorite anime/manga, Berserk. It’s super bloody and a really fucked up (can I curse? If not “messed”) story. It was perfect for a working title and I thought I would come up with something better, but then the title just seemed right when it was all done, so I kept it. Then when the publisher sent me a draft of the cover art, he spelled it with a “Z” instead of an “S” and I didn’t notice until he caught it and fixed it. When I realized, I was like, “Oh man, I kinda like the Z better.” It looked cooler to me. Z’s are cool, right? That’s probably why I didn’t think of it. Anyway, it was too late to change everything, and it was such a minor detail that I didn’t bother even bringing it up, but I still liked the Z, so I kept it as my header art. It feels like the Z version is just for me.
Me: You have a website, Black Girl’s Guide to Horror. The website points out the lack of diversity in horror. Do you think we are starting to do better with recognizing this gap or do you think that it is more of the same? And also do you have any recommendations of authors and filmmakers of color that we should be paying attention to?
JG: I think it’s a little better. There is still a lot of work to be done, but it seems like it’s opening up a bit. There are more people noticing the absence of people of color from this genre whereas, for a long time, I don’t think too many people questioned it. People of color are asking more questions, or maybe it’s just that these questions are finally being seen/heard because of social media. Where are the black final girls? Where are the Latino vampires? Are there any Asian shapeshifters? We want to see ourselves in the genre we love.
For authors I recommend, I’d say, V. Castro (she has a Rewind or Die book out too), Tananarive Due, Zin E. Rocklyn, and Stephen Graham Jones. All of them have amazing stuff and if you want to talk about prolific, Stephen Graham Jones has like, 20-something novels and a bunch of short stories. For filmmakers, I think we all know to pay attention to Jordan Peele, but there’s also Issa López, Gigi Saul Guerrero, Nia DaCosta, and J.D Dillard. I wrote about Dillard’s movie, Sweetheart, for the website. I loved that movie a lot.
Me: One more question. What are you working on for your next project?
JG: I’m working on a screenplay about a haunted childhood home. It’s in the really early stages. I’m still plotting.
Jessica Guess is a writer and English teacher who hails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She earned her Creative Writing MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2018 and is the founder of the website Black Girl’s Guide to Horror where she examines horror movies in terms of quality and intersectionality. Her creative work has been featured in Luna Station Quarterly and MusedBellaOnline Literary Review. Her debut novella, Cirque Berserk, is available for purchase on Amazon. Check out my review here.