Monthly Archives: January 2016

Clay Warrior: Interview with Melissa Ciccocioppo

For our final January spotlight, I’m pleased to introduce artist Melissa Ciccocioppo. Melissa and I met a few years back at–you guessed it–a coffee shop (AKA my natural habitat and the only place I manage any socializing at all). Soon after meeting Melissa, I noticed all her rad jewelry and, of course, inquired about the artist. Turns out she designs it all herself. From a cache of Krampuses to Nightmare Before Christmas goodies, this is one designer who knows her way around polymer.

Recently, she and I discussed her evolution as an artist and where she plans to go from here.

A couple icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become an artist, and who are some of your favorite artists?

Melissa CiccocioppoI never really “decided” to become an artist. I’ve been drawing since I could lift a pencil, though I wouldn’t really consider myself a fantastic illustrator. Art was the only subject in school I liked and excelled in. My older brother has always been my biggest influence. He’s an amazing artist, one of those people where everything he touches, whatever the medium, is instant gold. He’s 12 years older than me so I grew up watching him and wanting my skills to be just as good as his. He’s also part of the reason I decided to pursue a degree in graphic design (he’s been in the graphic design business for years). I do have an Associate’s Degree from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, but unfortunately it’s not a career path that I see myself embracing. Computer work bores the crap out of me and is, at times, incredibly frustrating. Since I started sculpting, I’ve discovered some really amazing artists. Two of my favorites are Emily Coleman and Ellen Jewett. Emily sculpts incredibly lifelike animals and fantasy creatures. Ellen sculpts the same, though her style is more surreal and whimsical and she works in ridiculously tiny detail. Through Instagram, I’ve also discovered that Russians in general have it in their blood to be polymer clay wizards. I follow way too many to name them all, but Evgeny Hontor is probably my favorite. She too creates ultra stylized animals and fantasy creatures. I highly recommend checking out all of their work!

My husband is an artist, and he comments over and over about how difficult polymer is to manipulate. What inspired you to get involved with such an unusual (and at times temperamental) medium?

As I said before, I’ve got this graphic design degree but I don’t use it. After graduation I was freaking out because I didn’t know where my career was headed and had lost my motivation to create art. I thought, “man, if I have to sit at a desk and do art on the computer for 40 plus hours a week and have to quit my job at the coffee shop I might as well just kill myself now.” Then one day (sometime in September, 2009), a customer came in wearing these really wild gauged earrings. I asked her where she got them, and she said she made them out of polymer clay. I had never heard of the stuff, and remembered the one time I sculpted anything, it was in 7th grade and it was a pink and black dragon and I LOVED making it. Unfortunately, it didn’t survive for more than a week because one of my idiot classmates knocked over the display table it was sitting on and it shattered into a million pieces. Anyways, I needed a fun new way to fuel my creativity and also liked the idea of having customized gauged earrings for myself, so I went out and bought a sample pack with like, 12 colors. I was instantly hooked. I certainly didn’t have the skills and techniques then as I do today, but I loved doing it, and that’s all that really mattered.

Many of your designs lean toward the fantastical side of life. Have you always been a fan of fantasy and horror, and what was your earliest experience with these genres?

KrampusAlways! Oh man, I remember loving the show Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon when I was like 7 until I started having nightmares; then my parents banned me from watching it. In fact, they did a pretty good job at hiding the horror genre from me (they’re ultra Catholic and conservative). When I was 10, they went on vacation for a couple weeks and I stayed at my cousin’s house down the street who was 3 years older than me and allowed to watch all the horror she wanted. That was when I watched my first R-rated movie, Halloween H20. Oh my god I had nightmares all week! Every time I looked at the doorway, I saw Michael Myers standing there. He’s still my favorite slasher, and I still have this weird phobia of like, looking out a window or something and seeing a stranger in a mask staring at me from afar. I’ve always loved Halloween, and while I did go through a goth phase in my teens, I still hold the same interests; I just don’t dress in all black anymore. My jewelry designs wouldn’t be as fun if they weren’t so colorful. As far as my interest in fantasy, that has also always been a huge part of my life. My older sisters have always been my inspiration for all things geekery, the older of the two being more heavily involved in fantasy stuff than the other. She still plays D+D, was involved in larping for a few years, and introduced me to anime when I was 10. My earliest documented record of my love for fantasy creatures has to be this homework assignment from like, 1st grade. I had to draw what I wanted to be when I grew up and I had a ridiculously hard time deciding between my two favorite things so I drew them both: a McDonald’s employee and a dragon. I loved me some chicken McNuggets!

You were selected as a featured Pittsburgh artist for the RAW showcase in 2013. How did you get involved with RAW, and what was the experience like?

I can’t actually remember who it was that asked me to join the RAW community. At the time, RAW was fairly new to the Pittsburgh area and it was getting a lot of hype. The rules were simple: sell 20 tickets for $10 each to the event you’re featured in and get the table for free. Any tickets I didn’t sell I had to pay as my entry fee. I think it was March 2013 that I had my showcase at CAVO. That place is the swankiest venue I’ve ever sold my stuff at. So swanky, I felt a bit silly selling my creations there since my work is cute, colorful, low-priced, and… I dunno… generally, unswank? And all the people filling the place seemed like upper class snobbery. It took a few hours for people to really notice me. I definitely blame the fact that I was next to a bar for the hoards of drunk ladies swooning over my jewelry by the end of the night. It turned out to be my most successful event to date! And then I went on to win the Accessories Designer of the Year award at the end of the year, which was a huge shock.

Out of your creations, do you have a favorite piece?

My squid design is probably my favorite single piece because that’s the design that got me selling my work. About a month into my new sculpting hobby, I started having a series of random wacky ass nightmares about giant squids eating me or my family members. It made no sense. I’m an animal nerd but at the time I knew nothing about squids or cephalopods in general. So then I started researching them and found them to be both terrifying and fascinating. It inspired me to branch out from gauged earrings and start making other things, like squid pendants. Pretty soon people were asking to buy them and the rest is history. My favorite series of sculptures are definitely the Spazimon. I think it was sometime in 2012 when I was looking through [my partner] Spaz’s artwork that I found this adorable bunny rabbit/bee creature drawing and asked him if I could sculpt it. It turned out really great and he suggested that we keep going with the collaboration. He drew about 150 silly looking creatures and I sculpted 23 of them. We even came up with little bios for them describing what they ate, what environment they lived in, how they mated etc. We even created a description for the world they live in, Spazciopia. We had a gallery showing at The Irma Freeman Center for Imagination in Garfield in February 2013 and people really loved it! In the beginning of February I’m actually planning to get 4 of my favorites tattooed on my leg! Currently, Spaz and I are working on a new series of creatures called the Lippy’s and hope to have another gallery show sooner than later.

Big thanks to Melissa Ciccocioppo for being part of this week’s spotlight. Find her on Etsy and on Facebook!

Happy reading!

Apex Author: Interview with S.A. Mckernan

For this week’s author interview, I’m thrilled to introduce S.A. Mckernan. This dark fantasy author crafts incredibly beautiful and terrifying worlds while doing some real beauty work in front and behind the camera as a makeup artist.

We talked recently about her work as a writer and artist as well as her future plans in the publishing and beauty industries.

A couple icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?

ScarlettI began creative writing in high school when I needed extra credit for my English class. I wrote a short story based off a dream I had, so in a way I was stricken by sudden inspiration and necessity, which are two amazing motivators. After boosting my grade I decided to continue writing. I eased into it because I enjoyed the creative process as well as the creative outlet. One of my biggest inspirations is Anne Rice. Not just because of her stories, but because of her writing style, especially in her earlier works. Of course, there’s J.K. Rowling. Growing up I read a lot of Harry Potter. Mary Stanton is amazing. I adore her Unicorns of Balinor novels. Then there’s Walter Farley, who wrote the Black Stallion. Then there’s Abigail Tartellin who wrote the Golden Boy.

Your novel, The Apex Predator: The Chain, debuted last year. What was the best part about your experience writing the book, and are you currently working on the follow-up?

The best part was when the story/novel finally came together. I loved stitching up the seams of that monster and finally seeing the end result. Apart from the editing (which I did plenty of) I drew the cover artwork and designed the cover as well as the interior formatting.

A sequel is in the works. I don’t have a specific due date, but I’m shooting for completion in mid-late 2016.

Your work leans toward horror and the darker side of life. Have you always been a fan of horror, and what was your earliest experience with the genre?

Apex PredatorNo, I haven’t always been a fan of horror. My first love was fantasy. It was through video games that I began liking and appreciating horror, especially psychological horror. The first truly frightening video game I ever played, and which still remains a big influence is Silent Hill 2. The protagonist receives a letter from his dead wife who is claiming to be waiting for him in a haunted town called Silent Hill so, of course, he goes in search of her. Along the way he encounters monsters, a handful of people, and most disturbingly various levels of the town. The town transforms into hellish states. Silent Hill is a manifestation of the individual’s psychological state. The monsters that he fights are symbols of various aspects of his torment and personality as are the people that he encounters. The disturbing levels the town transforms into are levels of his emotions, from foggy and empty to bloody and decaying. It’s frightening and fascinating. Since this game I’ve always enjoyed horror. It’s that type of visceral horror I enjoy. But horror has to have a purpose. I don’t write horror for shock value. There’s always a reason for it.

In addition to your writing, you’re also an accomplished makeup artist. Your designs are incredible! How did you get started with makeup art?

Thank you! I started studying makeup because I wanted to apply better makeup on myself. During my studies I developed an obsession with the transformative powers of makeup and beauty. My goal with makeup/beauty is to do more with less. Most of the time the biggest transformations can be made with the smallest touch.

Where would like to see your writing career in five years?

Ideally, I would like to be publishing with traditional publishers. Hopefully I’ll have more novels out as well. I have such minimal expectations it’s really hard to say what I want for the future without sounding arrogant. Right now I’d like to have more novels published and an increase in book sales. That would be super.

Big thanks to S.A. Mckernan for being part of this week’s author interview series. Find her online at Facebook and Twitter, and pick up The Apex Predator: The Chain on Amazon!

Happy reading!

Mangled and Macabre: Interview with Justin Hamelin

Welcome back for another author interview! This week, it’s all about author Justin Hamelin. I first became acquainted with Justin’s incredible horror fiction through his story, “Sick Love Potion,” in Issue 32 of Sanitarium Magazine. Since then, I’ve enjoyed reading his interviews at his site, Mangled Matters, where he was kind enough to spotlight yours truly a few months back.

Recently, Justin and I discussed his inspiration growing up in Ray Bradbury’s hometown along with the future directions of his very promising horror career.

Justin HamelinA couple icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?

I fell in love with reading and writing at a very young age. I was fortunate to be raised in a household that really encouraged creativity, reading, writing and just about anything that stimulated the mind, so I was pretty young when I realized I wanted to do something that involved excessive creativity at a young age. Some of my favorite authors include R.L Stine, Stephen King, Joe Lansdale, Poe, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury. Stine and King were huge inspirations for me growing up.

You and I have talked about this so much already, but it bears repeating: you live in Waukegan, Illinois, hometown of the inimitable Ray Bradbury. How has growing up surrounded by Bradbury lore affected you as a horror writer? Any great Bradbury-related trivia you can share with those of us unfamiliar with Waukegan?

Bradbury still is, rightfully so, a huge part of the Waukegan scene. I actually only started reading Bradbury late in high school. I would tell people I wanted to be an author, and a few teachers of mine suggested I do some research and learn about Mr. Bradbury. My first experience in the world of Bradbury was Something Wicked This Way Comes, and I immediately fell in love. I’ve also done a few Bradbury tours, both official and unofficial, around town and it’s really simply inspiring. As far as Bradbury in Waukegan today, the most exciting info is that the city is really working on opening a Ray Bradbury museum at the city’s old library location. The old library is actually a Carnegie building and it’s just the coolest little spot on a corner in downtown Waukegan that I think would be absolutely amazing to hold a Bradbury museum in!

You’re also a blogger at your site, Mangled Matters. How do you balance your nonfiction writing, such as your regular interviews, with your fiction work? Does one frequently influence the other?

It can be quite a juggling act! I love my blog and sometimes I do get sidetracked by one or the other, either the fiction or the nonfiction. Sometimes whichever one I’m working on less often does get put on the back burner inadvertently. I make a conscious effort to try and keep a pretty fair balance, though, between things like interviews and taking time out to write fiction.

I’ve been blessed to speak with so many amazing people, whether they be authors, filmmakers, actors and actresses, or simply horror fanatics like myself. Sometimes the conversations do lead to some inspiration for stories and such, but usually when I’m speaking with somebody for the blog, it’s almost solely on their work and celebrating their awesome achievements!

Your horror collection, The Darkest Corner, earned some fantastic reviews. The book is currently out of print; any plans for a second edition?

Oh man, I cannot wait to get that collection back in print! It was an amazing learning experience to get that first book published, and I was blessed to have a incredible group of friends, family, and horror fans from around the world really support me and that book.

I’d like to think that The Darkest Corner will be available again sometime very soon.

Sanitarium MagazineOn the personal side of things, I’d like to say congratulations on your recent wedding! Just from Facebook and our previous conversations, I know what a major influence your wife, Krystina, is on your writing. Is she a first reader on your work? Since writing is at times such a solitary pursuit, do you have certain ways that the two of you work together when you’re writing a story, such as brainstorming in the early stages or editorial suggestions in the later drafts? Also, is she a writer or artist in her own right?

Thank you very much! It may be a cliché, but it’s absolutely true for me—Krystina is my world. She is my muse, my biggest fan, my most honest critic and I love the heck out of her for putting up with hours and hours of brainstorming, reading ideas, and really just supporting me in anyway possible.

She knows and completely respects that I usually write alone; however she is always there to provide feedback or whatever I may need to keep a story idea going. Once the story is complete, she is always the first to read it and usually offer insight, suggestions or questions that tend to make the story 100 times better!

While she is not a published writer, she is one of the most creative people I know and dabbles in just about every artistic angle you could think of!

Out of your published stories, do you have a personal favorite?

My favorite would have to be the one that was featured in Sanitarium Magazine alongside your awesome work! “Sick Love Potion” was a blast to write. It practically wrote itself but I absolutely love it.

I also have a fairly personal one from The Darkest Corner, titled ‘The Man Next Door’. There is a lot of emotional weight in that story, for me personally.

Where would you like to see your writing career in five years?

Simply put, I just want to continue to write and have a great time doing it! A career as an author certainly would be awesome, but I don’t write for the paychecks. I’d be awfully broke if I did!

I’m challenging myself to submit as many stories as possible this upcoming year, and I have a few half-baked ideas that deserve to be finished and put out there.

Big thanks to Justin Hamelin for being part of this week’s author interview series! You can find him at his Facebook author page as well as his site, Mangled Matters. This writer of weird fiction is definitely one to watch.

Happy reading!

Drabble Master: Interview with Thomas Kleaton

Welcome back to my author interview series! For the first spotlight of 2016, I’m pleased to present Thomas Kleaton. Thomas is an accomplished writer of short fiction, and his work has appeared at The Horror Zine, Riding Light Review, and Sanitarium Magazine among other outlets.

Recently, he and I discussed his influences and his long-term plans in the publishing world, along with his recommendations on how to write a great drabble.

Thomas KleatonA couple of icebreakers to start: When did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?

I started writing two years ago. I could say that it’s something I just started on a whim, but that wouldn’t be the case. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years, but thinking about it doesn’t work and it all comes down to sitting in a chair and typing words on the screen. It’s important to write on a daily basis, but I have no Bad Thoughts (sorry, I can’t help referencing “It’s a Good Life,” one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes) for someone who doesn’t write every day. Writers need a break now and then as well.

As for my favorite authors? I won’t deny it; I was heavily influenced by Stephen King, and am definitely a Constant Reader. Dean Koontz is another; his Sole Survivor and Intensity really bowled me over. Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is a personal favorite. I also have newer favorites, writers like Rose Blackthorn, Richard Schiver, and Aaron Gudmunson.

As a writer, do you have a particular genre that’s your favorite?

Horror, horror, and more horror. Actually, although I like horror best and it seems to be the most flexible genre, I do enjoy a good science fiction story here and there. Stories like Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.”

In addition to short stories, you’re a prolific drabble writer. Because the medium permits only 100 words, is your approach to crafting a drabble different than crafting a short story? Do you have any pointers for other drabble writers out there?

Spooky DrabblesA drabble is all about the core idea. For instance, in my drabble, “Whistling Past the Graveyard,” found in Spooky Halloween Drabbles 2015, I kept seeing this little girl playing Patty Cake with her mother. Then playing Patty Cake with her dead mother. The situation came next, which was of a father bringing his little girl to visit her mother’s grave. Only her father is a killer, and his mother is buried in a shallow grave. Shallow enough for hands to stick out and…


But I think you get the picture. It’s all in the details. Once you have the story worked out, it’s time to condense it down to 100 words. Easy, right? I’ve spent hours on one drabble! But it’s worth it when you see the final product.

Out of your published pieces, do you have a personal favorite?

I do. A short story titled “Birds and the Bees,” found in Sanitarium Magazine issue #31. I saw a photo in a magazine in which a woman’s seed-filled hands were outstretched near a bird feeder. Chickadees sat on her palms eating the seed, and I imagined a little girl seeing her grandmother doing this, and wanting to impress her grandmother by imitating her. Only she can’t find any birdseed in her grandmother’s garden shed. Not one to give up, the little girl finds a substitute. That puts a sting into things.

Where would you like your writing career to be in five years?

To a point where I can write full-time. This may not happen, but I will not give up on it, and at the very least I’d like to have a good following by then. After all, the first reason a writer should be writing is because he or she enjoys telling yarns to entertain others. Being told by someone that his/her story really resonated with them can put a writer on the moon.

Big thanks to Thomas Kleaton for being part of this week’s author interview series. Find him online at his website and his Amazon Author Page

Happy reading!