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Host: Julie Strauss
Guest: Mona Kabbani
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Discussed in this episode
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club Movie
Vanilla by Mona Kabbani
The Bell Chime by Mona Kabbani
Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
Mark Leslie Lefebvre, Horror Author
Body Art by Kristopher Triana
Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca
The Living Dead by George A. Romero
Creep Show Movie (1982)
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Hello. Bookworms welcome to the Best Book Ever. The podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m going to shock all of you by talking to a horror author. The scarily fantastic Mona Kabbani, who had compassion for my poor nerves and did not choose a horror book. Instead, she joins me today to talk about why Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk is the Best Book Ever.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Mona. Welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Mona Kabbani: Hi, thanks for having me.
JS: Thank you for joining me. Let’s start with what you do, because I think it’s very unique. Will you tell my listeners all about what Morality in Horror is?
MK: Yeah, definitely. I’m a psychological horror writer. I published two books so far, Vanilla and The Bell Chime. They’re available on Amazon. Essentially, I take the horror genre, but I do a much more psychological lead into it and kind of, morals that people have to go through day to day in their life or experience and turn them on their head a bit and make them more horrific. I find the horror genre to be gothic romantic, and I to play around with that a lot. That’s my goal, and Morality in Horror is just expressing, I think, a moral story. I think horror can have a moral depth to it that makes it last longer. The fears and anxieties that you would get from a horror movie last longer than just the length of the medium that you’re expressing on. Whether it’s movie or book form, it’s not just turning the page and seeing these horrific scenes play out. But it’s also thinking about what that underlying moral was throughout the work, that would haunt you in your daily life too.
JS: I think the word moral is tripping me up. Does that mean that all of the people who you write about are making bad moral choices?
MK: It’s, it’s more about the duality between the different sides of a moral choice and how sometimes you know something’s wrong, but you still do it cause you’re human. And it’s showing that and how that’s a very natural thing people experience and do. For the most part in a lot of books and stuff, it’s the bad guys are bad, because they’re obviously doing bad things and the good people are good because they’re trying to stop them and for the greater good. But from a human aspect, it’s really a lot more gray than that. I think it’s showing that making those decisions throughout the books, I try to make my characters teeter-totter between what’s the right choice and what’s the wrong choice. And it’s okay to stray off the good path sometimes. And that’s human.
JS: You also run a website and Instagram, that is really focused on horror books and reading horror books. What got you so fascinated with horror novel?
MK: Well, it started with a fascination with the horror genre in general. When I was a kid, the story that I tell everyone is when I was a kid, I was scared of everything. Even being in a dark room by myself freaked me out. The mention of Bloody Mary and that whole kid’s story kept me up. I had to sleep with my parents for weeks. I could not stand it. So I kind of wanted to extinguish that fear from myself because I remember, all the kids in my school used to watch horror movies together and I could never join because they would just freak me out so much. I wanted to slowly extinguish that for myself. I just one day woke up and I wasn’t as afraid of horror anymore. And I kind of became obsessed with it. This fact that something that was so debilitating to me before could suddenly become a joy. I didn’t stay up, you know, I could sleep with the lights off. I could sleep with the lights off and not be terrified. And so, I got very into horror in that sense. The first book I remember reading and really enjoying was Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire. I’ve read now throughout my horror career, some very splatter punk, crazy horror. So she was more of a Gothic, romantic interlude into it. So I picked it up that, and then rea through Anne Rice, which kind of became the gateway drug, I started picking up more books and all that. And now doing my book reviews on Instagram, I got into the indie horror scene, which is an amazing level that cannot be experienced through traditional publishing. It’s amazing. that you just are exposed to so many different origins. And then you realize that it’s a horror is just an umbrella for so much more of it.
JS: What are the indies doing that traditional publishers aren’t doing?
MK: I mean, traditional publishers are looking for things that can be mass marketed, right? So you want a clear storyline, clear characters, nothing too trippy, or even the formatting of the book in and of itself. My first book, which is a huge hit with a lot of people, would have never been traditionally published because the structure I wrote it in isn’t linear. You start from the end and then you go to the beginning and then I take you to the middle. But it all clicks together in the end. And traditional publishers are really looking for things that fit a formula. Whereas if you’re indie you get free rein to really do absolutely whatever you want. I think from that you get some of the greatest creative works that a person could possibly cause they have no limits at that point. And so, if you want to go extreme, weird horror, that’s, you know, grotesque but tasteful, there’s an audience for that. You can do that. You have free reign, so therefore you’re going to create some of the best content.
JS: So, it’s not only that it can be bloodier and slashier. It is also that the actual creativity of it is really different?
MK: You can be very experimental. I think experimental would be the key word in this whole thing. When you’re indie, you can be extremely experimental with your work.
JS: So, this year, one of my favorite books is called Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. And I don’t think it – I’m sure it’s not marketed as a horror book. I was so terrified as I read it that I almost couldn’t breathe and nothing happens in this book. Something is about to happen. And the entire thing is tightening dread. And I was texting a really good friend of mine, Mark, who is a horror writer. And I said, I cannot handle this. I think this is horror. And he said something really interesting. He said, slasher movies have destroyed our understanding of horror because, a lot of people think that body parts have to be chopped off for it to be horror. When something is psychological, that can be absolutely terrifying. So, given that, how do you define horror? What makes a book or a movie a horror story?
MK: Yeah, definitely. I was actually going to say, when you said you don’t do horror, I totally get that, but the umbrella is so huge that there is something for you. There is something for everyone in the genre, regardless. You don’t have to have monsters and scary stuff for it to be horror. I think for me, horror is anything that kind of gets your heart rate, that freaks you out that makes those words conjure on your lips. “Terrifying.” I was scared. It doesn’t have to be “This clown has burst in through my apartment door and suddenly try to kill me.” It can be paranoia. I think that’s a very big horror element. It’s really anything that gets you thinking, but also scared for your survival and how you exist and all your flight and flight instincts.
JS: Is there anything that you won’t read in horror? Is there anything that is too much for you, or too far?
MK: I will try anything. I’m not a fan of horror with a sexual connotation, unless it’s justified for the purpose of the story. I’ve read Body Art by Kristopher Triana. He does it, but he does it in a tasteful way where it’s kind of a commentary on the porn industry and porn stars as well. But if you’re going to give me a nice family home and then just throw a rape scene in it, that’s horrifying for no reason besides shock value. I will not finish, I’ll DNF on-site. That’s probably my only thing. Otherwise, I really do enjoy every single variety and field. I’ve read horror poetry before.
JS: That’s a thing?
MK: I mean there’s Gothic poetry and horror poetry. Yeah.
JS: Why are horror writers always the nicest people? Where does this darkness come from?
MK: Yes, this is my favorite question. I think it’s because everyone exists with a little bit of darkness. I think horror writers have allowed ourselves to have an avenue to expel that and have that cathartic release. And because of that, if I can write about a situation that happened to me that I just want to rewrite and fix and then go back to that situation after, but in my mind, I’ve already resolved this and I’m happy and good and all that, it gives you that release of all those negative emotions and you put them into something else and you make them into something creative and beautiful and cool that makes people want to read. And then you’re left satisfied with the emotions that are left in that you got to expel that negativity. I’m super, extremely nice.
JS: I mean, you’ve got such a positive demeanor, even in your social media. You come across nice. I know you do your dress up and everything, but it’s not terrifying.
MK: No. I’m not trying to hurt you mentally in any way. I’m not really here to scare these people into emotional trauma. I hope that they didn’t want to function properly for the rest of their life. No, it’s more that I just want to show you a different alternate universe where things are a little darker. To very respectfully take you by the hand and guide you through that, to whatever your emotional capacity for it is.
JS: When we first started talking about you appearing on this podcast, I was trying to steel myself for a horror novel. And instead, you chose something different. You chose Fight Club. I call it horror because it horrified me, but I don’t think most people classify it as horror. Do you?
MK: It’s more psychological thriller. I think you could make the stretch and claim it under horror. Although it there’s nothing that really leaves you kind of being scared. More like what the fuck just happened? And in that sense that makes it more psychological thriller than it does scary. It would be a reach, but no, I dunno, things that mess with your mind are still such fun for me.
JS: But I would say the end of the book, the epilogue is very horrifying and it’s not the same end as the movie.
MK: That’s what I love about the book is that he did something that just extended beyond him. And that’s scary in and of itself too, is you did an action and you regretted that action after. But it’s beyond you; it’s evolved into something. This brainchild that you had has evolved out of your control. It’s as if you never were even the one to create it because you can’t do anything about it anymore. It’s crazy.
JS: Do you remember how you first came across it?
MK: Yeah, I watched the movie first, with my parents. I remember loving it and I would show it to people. If ever anyone said, oh, I haven’t seen Fight Club. I’d be, like, what? You have to see Fight Club. And then I would make them watch it. Then I realized it was a book. I read it in one sitting. I like both versions. I still loved the movie, but the book has a different taste to it. That’s amazing too.
JS: Can you summarize this book for my listeners, who maybe haven’t come across it?
MK: Yeah. So if I were to give this book to someone and explain to them real quick what it’s about, I would say it’s about a man who suffers from insomnia, who has to exist in corporate America, but doesn’t necessarily enjoy or agree with his nine-to-five job and the decisions that come with it. And he kind of just slowly loses it along the way. But he makes a friend that makes him more stable. It’s about their journey into, I guess, everyday drone, mundane life that we all have to go through.
JS: OK, we could have a four-hour conversation on your statement that this friend makes him more stable. That is a fascinating statement.
MK: [laughs] Yeah. Okay.
JS: So tell me, what do you like about it? Why is this your choice for Best Book Ever?
MK: I love stories that have twist endings to begin with. From a purely I was entertained standpoint, I love that ending. I work a nine-to-five job too. And I have a sleep terrors. So I understand kind of sleep issues and things that. So I related to the character on a personal level too. I mean, not to the extreme, but you know what I’m saying? Just with the sleep type. It’s just cool to see someone take a character that most people can identify with and give them this morally ambiguous journey.
JS: Have you re-read it frequently?
MK: I haven’t re-read it for two years? No, maybe a year and a half now. So it’s been a bit. I remember the general structure of the book, and I remember that was first person present tense, which always gives you such an eerie feeling when reading. But this time around, I listened to the audio book, which was only an hour. They do an entire, it’s a production more than it is a reading. So it’s very interesting, but it’ll give you the goods of what it’s about.
JS: This was my first time reading it, although I had seen the movie and I knew the twist. But I’ll tell you what I had completely blocked out the entire soap thing.
MK: Oh yeah.
JS: But I will say reading it, knowing the twist at the end was a fascinating experience. God it’s well done.
MK: And I think that’s the beauty of things like this. When there’s a twist such as that, it really makes you want to go back and reread it. And I do suggest doing so for any type of story that has that type of twist ending because you go back and you see details that you didn’t necessarily notice before or things where you were like, I thought this was weird, but I wasn’t sure why, and now I see it and it just clicks all the more. That’s a really fun part. You basically get two books in one at that point. It’s interesting because you’re reading them from different perspectives. It makes it exciting.
JS: This is an odd question, but do you like any of the characters in this book?
MK: I actually think I like Marla. I don’t know if it’s because of the movie. I don’t know if I had read the book first, if I would feel that way. But just her behavior in the movie was always very tragically romantic and just her style and all of that, I really appreciated. I mean, she’s extreme. But there’s something about her. It’s not even naïve, but her romanticism on life, but also hating life. That’s kind of, I mean, to say that that’s relatable is a statement, but there’s and emotional sense of relatability even if it’s not so severe. And I just like tragically romantic characters, so I enjoyed her.
JS: I have never actually asked that question before, because I actually think it’s a very dull question. And sort of meaningless, you know? I don’t know that we’re supposed to ever like fictional characters. But I couldn’t get the question out of my head as I was reading it because I kept examining, why am I so attracted to these people? They are objectively pretty horrible people. And yet the pull to them is, is pretty intense. And I was trying to figure out is it because I’ve seen the movie and I like all three of those actors?
MK: There is very much a level of relatability. You kind of see yourself in a sentence that they say, maybe, or a behavior that they do, especially with work and stuff that. That level of human relation makes you attracted to them. And it’s kind of taking emotions that you might feel internally and watching them be showcased for you to read about. And I think that there’s something very pulling about that that would make you like them, even though exactly they’re objectively not great people. You still have that spot for them because you can, in a sense, understand and almost empathize with what they’re going through.
JS: What do you think this book’s about? What do you think he’s trying to say?
MK: I think the first half of the book would be about how people, when they fit their lives or try to fit their lives into perfection or society’s view of perfection, and it might not be something that they internally a hundred percent agree with, especially when you live in a society that demands that, demands that you have your Ikea furniture and that you live in a nice apartment and that you have a nine-to-five job, that there’ll be a breaking point. At that breaking point, you’ll fight back and therefore that’s righteous. But then it turns over and also says that sometimes acting out on impulses or not living your true self for yourself can be more destructive than it can be good. And you might not be happy with the results of your actions in the end. I think it’s showing how the structure of day-to-day mundane life can be very ruinous if you’re not taking into account your mental health and things that you need instead of just worrying about what society expects from you.
JS: I asked that question because as I was researching in preparation for this conversation, the afterlife of this book is stunning. There are so many think pieces about why it’s a feminist book, why it’s an anti-feminist book, why it’s a capitalist book, why it’s anti-capitalist. Evidently the incels have adopted it as their anti-woman manifesto. It’s got this bizarre afterlife that everyone seems to be able to fit into their personal philosophy, which I think that’s almost as interesting as the book.
MK: Yeah. For me, if we’re doing antis, I would just say it’s anti-establishment, in the sense that the sort of labeling and making sure everything is perfect. It’s not so great for your mental health. Damn the establishment and live your authentic self and be happy with your decisions and do your decisions with intent. That’s kind of a very gray area to the clear, the ends of the spectrum that you’re bringing up, whether it’s anti-feminist art is feminist. I just think it’s down wiht the labels and the establishment in general.
JS: What did you think of the movie now, after you read the book? Did it change your perception of the movie?
MK: No. ‘Cause it does follow about the same line except for the ending, as you said. The movie does do a pretty good job otherwise of staying true to it. And I’d seen them both so many times and once you know that twist ending and have re-consumed it a second time… Besides just being in different stages of my life when I first read and watched the movie. Before having a job and now I have a job and that changed my view of it solely just my stage of life. But in terms of the media and I consumed it on, no.
JS: I think I would say above the consumerism, I would say it’s a commentary on fragile masculinity and this need to physically hurt each other because that’s the only feeling they’re sort of societally allowed to feel, is violence.
MK: What’s funny is, when I was listening to the audio book, and I had never paid much attention to this before, but I realized that in the Fight Club, it was only ever men. Marla is the only woman. And I was like, damn, I would join a Fight Club.
JS: You would?
MK: Totally. Why not? I think it’s a little ridiculous to think that woman wouldn’t want to seek out that kind of violence too. We have frustrations as well, and that’s an output. I think this whole book does just extreme showcases to make commentary on that. But I it that it’s not necessarily saying, this is how you should feel about it. It’s more, so here’s an in your face portrayal of this and how do you feel about?
JS: Okay. I think we have different interpretations of the book itself, because I saw it as very gendered. I think it was very intentional that it was only men fighting and the fat for the soap came from women. Women were very much products, you know, a part of the production system for him. And I thought that was intentional on his part.
MK: No, I guess I just never really thought about it. With you saying that it definitely would be intentional. I’d be curious whether or not it’s intentional to make a statement that it’s just how it is and you know, the incels are right. Or if it’s more, you know, this is how society perceives that we should behave, and you should be upset and therefore realize that women would join a fight club and men could have soap made out of them too.
JS: Tell me, Mona, what are you reading these days?
MK: I just finished a YA, actually. That’s another thing that I read – I read young adult. Leigh Bardugo has a series of books that is currently being turned into a TV show. I didn’t watch the TV show and I probably won’t, but it made me want to read her work. And she has dark YA. It’s kind of dark and grungy. I really liked that. It’s not just like a prince and a princess. And then I recently also finished – and this is another thing about indie publishing – I just finished a short horror story called Things Have Gotten Worse Wince We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca and that was fantastic. It was a hundred pages, and it was all via internet. So it was two characters. These two women who have a relationship over the internet. It starts with emails and then it goes into instant messaging. It was like reading someone’s private diary on their computer and it was amazing.
JS: Is it horror?
MK: It’s very, yeah. Weird and emotionally traumatic horror. So if that’s not something that necessarily might tickle your pickle, you know, when to adjust it. But, if you are interested in kind of seeing how far your taste for strange horror can go, I, I would absolutely say, and there’s nothing extremely violent in it. It’s just so psychologically abrasive. It was amazing. I’m probably going to read it again very soon. I love that quick dose of adrenaline. And then right now I’m reading The Living Dead by George A. Romero. He actually, I think was the one that directed Creep Show. I don’t know if you know Creep Show?
JS: Of course not.
MK: Yeah. It was in the eighties. Stephen King wrote a screenplay that basically had five short horror stories and you watch the movie. It’s the director who wrote this book. It’s about a zombie apocalypse happening, but it has, a very racial, experience, POC experience, connotation, there’s different characters and the diversity and what it’s to not only exist in American life or in life in general as a person of color, but also to be doing it through a zombie apocalypse. This one is if you’re into The Walking Dead, it’s, you know, zombies are scary, but they’re not jump scares. I would suggest it. The writing’s been great so far. It’s a thick book though. I think it’s 700 pages or something, but the writing’s good, so I’m in for the ride and I’m enjoying it.
JS: Will you please tell my listeners where they can find you and your work?
MK: So my Instagram, which is probably my most popular platform, @moralityinhorror. that’s where I do my reviews. Just personal content writing updates. if you ever have a question about me or my work, my DMS are open, with respect, obviously. Please. I’m very communicative and I love conversing and talking with and connecting with people through there. I also have my website with my books, and a little bit about me and the mission of the whole. And then, on Amazon is where you can find The Bell Chime or Vanilla by Mona Mona Kabbani. And that’s where you can purchase my work.
JS: Fantastic. It has been a delight talking to you. I’m so thrilled you joined me. Thank you so much.
MK: Thank you so much for having me. This has been fun.
Thanks for listening, Bookworms! You can follow the podcast on Instagram. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me on Instagram.
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Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library.
JS …so you would join a fight club?
MK: I probably would, honestly. I don’t know. I think I probably would not attend every meeting, but I feel it would almost be cathartic. No? That’s just me? That’s just me.