Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow Revue Interview with Bryce “The Govna” Graves @HellzapoppinTM
Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow Revue took the U.S. by storm last year with their Face Your Fears tour, bringing Circus Sideshow to the front and center stage to raise awareness of these amazing performers and death-defying feats even while a lot of artists were still too afraid to tour. When I first saw them at The Cotillion in Wichita on July 1, 2021, I immediately knew that I had to find a way to bewitch them to visit us here at Haunted MTL.
There’s no stop’n Hellzapoppin!Bryce “The Govna” Graves
This year, they’re at it again, encouraging audiences to join them for the next Face Your Fears tour with these talented performers as they worm their way deeper into our hearts. Here at Haunted MTL we were fortunate to snag an interview Bryce “The Govna” Graves, the Ringleader behind Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow Revue. Follow along with bated breath as we journey deep into the magical circus tent and peek behind the curtain to learn more about this incredible show.
So without further ado, here’s the interview…
You are a man of many talents, including high rise window cleaning and the fundraising Making Memories bicycle ride. You’ve also been intensely immersed the entertainment industry as a jack of all trades in rock n roll, television, stuntsmanship, casting, production, mobile tunes, and more. What drew you to the freak show when you first witnessed the art form in 2004?
OK, this is a good question. Back in 2004, I was a young man, cocky, maybe even a little arrogant but also completely naïve. I thought that I had seen it all but what I didn’t realize, I had not seen anything yet! I was managing rock bands, TV personalities, traveling the world and I even had my own Rock ‘n Roll TV show called True Music on Mark Cuban‘s old TV Network, HDNet. I was on top of the world!
I was producing a large scale event for a local radio station at a haunted attraction in Dallas Texas and was searching for something unique and different. I ended up booking an authentic turn of the century traveling circus Sideshow. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into at the time. I’ve seen many circuses at this point in my life. When I was a child I remember seeing a Freakshow at the state fair. It was terrifying to me at that time. They had Siamese twins, a bearded lady, a half man, Sword Swallowers and all sorts of other performers.
Anyway, I remember driving up to the haunted attraction and seeing the circus tent with the incredible beautiful giant handpainted banner line in front. I was immediately bewildered, overwhelmed and stupefied at what was before my eyes. I was even more blown away when I saw the show. Circus and sideshow is literally a dying art form. Before the Internet, before television and yes before radio, the first forms of paid entertainment in America were circus and sideshows. I had an epiphany… I knew at that very moment it was my job to let the world know that this sort of entertainment still existed.
I am so passionate about music, I loved working with rock bands and TV personalities but nothing filled my heart more than the circus. This is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and here I am 18 years later still in business and thriving more than ever. We have traveled and performed well over 3000 shows in 16 countries. When we are not off touring and performing in our own circus tent or inside music venues and small theaters we are touring with some of the biggest and most famous rock bands in the world.
How did this experience drive you to become involved in the Brothers Grim SideShow and later create the “vaudeville freak show of wonder”, as you yourself have described the Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow Revue experience?
Okay… this is a very touchy subject and I’m a little reluctant to respond. Up until now I have ignored this question so consider yourself lucky. It’s bittersweet if you will. It actually makes me cringe however when I hear the words Brothers Grim Sideshow.
The sideshow world is a very small and tight niched community. As you can probably imagine, it is a very dark and dangerous business. There are a lot of very unusual people in this business and they don’t take lightly to inexperienced newcomers such as myself at that time and rightfully so. I had an artist management company called Brown Gravy Entertainment in Deep Ellum, Dallas Texas. As mentioned, I was managing rock bands and TV personalities. Soon after my haunted attraction event ended, I met with the owner of the Bros. Grim and offered him a management deal. At this point in their career, the performers were actually running the outfit and they had only performed a handful of shows.
Within a few short years, I had taken this little sideshow that nobody had ever heard of all around the world. I personally and solely produced all our tours including Ozzfest 06 and 07, The Family Values Tour with Korn and Deftones 07, the Vans Warped Tour 07 and on Festival Tours all around Scandinavia and Europe. I brought all of my industry connections to the table. I invested countless backbreaking hours, days, months, years and personal money into someone else’s project. I put my name and my entire being on the line for someone else that I truly believed in and later it came back to bite me in the ass.
The show owed me a ridiculous amount of money so the owner agreed to convert what he owed me into equity. I then became 49% owner of the show but that didn’t last very long. He was notorious for not paying his bills. I brokered deals with friends of mine in the business and he later screwed them over and never paid them either. My name was being soiled and ran through the mud and due to massive creative differences and personality conflicts, I decided to leave and start my own show.
It was like a horrible horrible divorce between my former business partner and I. We were the best of friends so it was incredibly heartbreaking for me. Still is… Half of the performers and crew went with me and the other half stayed with him. Even up til today, many of these people still slander, harass and bully me. They have defamed my character and integrity as a person more than you can imagine. I can’t begin to tell you the damage they have caused. No matter, I have stayed true to myself and just ignore the lies and horrific accusations.
There was something good that came out of all this hell. Had I not seen that beautiful circus tent and banner line, had I not worked with so many amazing performers, I would not own my own show today. This is how Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow Revue came to be.
In response to the last couple of years and the definition of FEAR as False Evidence Appearing Real, how have the Face Your Fears tours inspired you, the myriad of performers with whom you share the stage, your audiences, and others? What advice can you offer our readership on facing their fears?
You are just full of good questions…
Up until 2020, HELLZAPOPPIN was unstoppable. We had been through a lot of shit in our time. We survived the 2008 economic crash, the constant slander and bullying from my former business partner and his goons and now a global pandemic.
There’s a tagline that I live by. There’s no stop’n Hellzapoppin! I never thought in a million years that something as simple as a global pandemic would cut me off at the knees and leave me stranded but it did. We lost over 150 shows and 1.5 years of work. Two months prior to Covid, my lady and I had purchased a 20 acre tree farm in Florida. We were supposed to be in Russia March 2020 but that got canceled. We were scheduled for a European tour, a Canadian tour and two U.S. tours but they all got canceled as well.
Naturally, I was terrified and in uncharted territory. I didn’t know what the hell we were going to do. The definition of Hellzapoppin is chaos. It means anything can happen and it probably will. The world had met Hellzapoppin head on.
I remember spending months terrified and living in fear. My lady Willow Lauren and I had decided to turn the TV off. We stopped watching the news, we stopped worrying and we began to focus on ourselves. We had decided to use our down time from touring wisely. We spent the next year rebuilding, re-branding, rewriting and restructuring the entire show from top to bottom. We were not about to let this pandemic get the best of us.
We are signed to one of the most amazing rock ‘n’ roll booking agencies in the world, TKO. We were strategizing a tour for months and we wanted to be ready to pull the trigger the second the economy reopened and we did. It was February 2021 when we announced our first tour back. Florida was one of the first to re-open so we booked shows all around Florida. Soon there after many other states were beginning to open so we launched a national tour. According to my Booking Agent, we were the first touring act in America to hit the road after the economy reopened. The eyes were upon us. Damn near every booking agency, every promoter and every venue around the country was keeping an eye on us. They all wanted to see how we would do.
I had two major fears. Were people going to buy tickets and could we get through a tour without getting sick? It was time to face our fears and get back out there and show the world that we were a force to be reckoned with and that’s exactly what we did. We sold out damn near every single show from February to August and we set record merchandise sales!
By mid April the first tour was coming to an end. At this point we have seen so many bizarre differences between the various cities and state mandates. Our last few shows were in Colorado and South Dakota and at this point neither had mask mandates. If we were going to get sick it was going to be here. It wasn’t until we were driving home back to Florida that almost everybody on the show was feeling sick. The second we got home we all got tested and all but two people came back positive. Luckily the tour was over so we all quarantined here at our farm. The good thing, none of us had it all that bad. It was pretty much the standard headaches, loss of taste and smell, brain fog, leg cramps, etc. I found that if I laid in bed I felt worse but if I got up and stayed busy on the farm I got through quite easily.
I have named all of my tours last year and this year, Face Your Fears. I found that sitting at home and watching the news and all the chaos that was going on in the world was tearing away at my soul. We can’t let this define us. We must continue to move forward and if we don’t the world is going to become a very ugly place. Think about it. Friends, neighbors and even family have turned against each other. The presidential election, the pandemic, the vaccinations or lack there of has turned us all against each other. This madness must stop! It’s time to put our differences aside. This is time that we are supposed to come together and support one another. It’s time to face your fears! You must dig deep and muster up the courage to get back out there. You can’t let this define who you are. We can do this. Face Your Fears! Get out there, support your local restaurants and bars, touring shows, artists, festivals and so forth. If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you want to get vaccinated, get vaccinated and if you don’t, don’t but either way you’ve got to FACE YOUR FEARS!
I hope to help re-open venues, help employ people, and bring fans back together again to reclaim our livelihood and inspire other touring artists to take the plunge and get back out there. Laughter and wonder can be the best medicines. I love seeing the excitement, the positive shock and awe on people’s faces. Most importantly, I like to connect with people and bring them into our world and share our stories with them. We aim to teach them how to look at the world differently. If people can escape their harsh realities, fears, and anxieties for just a few moments, then we have succeeded.
I caught your show in Wichita, Kansas, USA on July 1, 2021 and was awestruck by the mastery, passion and showmanship that everyone in Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow Revue puts into all they do. You have an amazing lineup on your 2022 tour featuring some of the previous performers as well as new talent. Please introduce us to the incredible artists you are bringing with you and let us know where you met them. We want all the juicy details we sink our teeth into…
First off, thank you for those kind words. I’ll feature many star-studded performers on Hellzapoppin this year. We have four tours going out this year. This coming March and April I will feature performers such as Lucian Fuller. Lucian is a freshly unique, high energy and family friendly circus performer with world class juggling skills, dangerously funny stunts and clean fun comedy that is sure to entertain and create an enjoyable memory of a lifetime. In addition to Hellzapoppin, Lucian Fuller is also a performer on Cirque Du Soleil and has amazed audiences around the world performing in over 5,000 shows and 27 countries.
Fans will also get the chance to witness the world’s most amazing half-man, Mr. Short E. Dangerously. This tiny daredevil is a Ripley’s Star and has been featured in 2 of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not books! There are wax figures of Shorty in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museums all over the world, and he was featured on the Ripley’s international TV show. You may have also seen Short E. Dangerously on AMC’s Freakshow!
Also making an appearance this year is the mysterious, sultry, and spellbinding fabulous woman of enchantment – Ms. Willow Lauren. Beautiful beyond desire and cruel beyond words, Willow is a former motorcycle stunt-rider turned international touring sideshow stunt-woman and aspiring illusionist and aerialist. She’s known as the Ballerina of the Blades. Willow swallows swords and performs the contortion blade-box of death. She not only eats fire she also eats and regurgitates razor blades! Willow will swallow a lifesaver, using dental floss she’ll saw a hole into her throat and will miraculously grab hold of the lifesaver and will pull it out of her neck right before your very eye’s and with no blood and no pain.
You’ll see the pain-proof strong man Mr. Eric Ross! Eric is a world renown magician and sideshow stunt-man. He performs death defying stunts live on stage such as the ancient and deadly art-form known as Fakir. Much like a sewing pincushion, Eric takes long stainless steel skewers and pokes them right through his biceps, through the palm of his hands and even through the mandible which is located directly underneath his tongue as it pops out just under his jaw and next to his throat. This is a demonstration of mind over matter and again with no blood and no pain.
Last and definitely not least, with a playful curiosity and a sweet demure, Camille Zamboni revels in twisting her way into your little black hearts. Camille is an incredible contortionist, a hand-balancer and archer that hails from the Paris of Appalachia. With as much grit as the city she comes from, she is self-taught in her acts. A background in artistic gymnastics left her bending and balancing. She picked up archery, and now sends arrows flying through the air using her feet as she balances upside down on her hands and bent over backwards. Camille Zamboni holds the official Guinness World Record for painting the world’s largest Ouija Board at the Grand Midway Hotel in Pennsylvania!
I will be announcing other amazing and incredible performers soon. To learn more about Hellzapoppin, and for tickets to the “Face Your Fears” tour, please visit https://hellzapoppin.com/tour-dates.
How long will this tour run and where can we can catch you next? (Here’s hoping a return trip to Wichita is in the cards…)
The first tour is going to last two months in April and May. I will be announcing the other three tours over the next few weeks. You can again find that information at hellzapoppin.com.
In the past, we have witnessed astounding feats, Guinness World Records have been broken, and we were even invited onstage to see Willow Lauren survive the contortion blade box of death… Are there any tantalizing tidbits that will appear in the show that you’d be willing to divulge to our Haunted MTL readership? Is there anything in particular we should keep our eyes peeled for when we come?
I can’t give away too much more, you’ll just have to Face Your Fears and come see the show and these world famous performers for yourself. Bring a friend or 10…
Thank you so much for dropping in and chatting with us here at Haunted MTL. Is there anything else you’d like to mention – any freakishly delightful morsels that may have rolled off this plate, onto the floor, and down the basement stairs?
Yes, please support a dying art form and one of the very last authentic Touring Circus Sideshows. Stop by hellzapoppin.com today and pick up some merchandise. We have amazing T-shirts, hoodies and all sorts of fun stuff at our merchandise store. Be sure to like us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. If you’d like to know more, sign up for our email newsletter also at hellzapoppin.com. Thank you for this opportunity, I look forward to seeing you all out on the midway.
Give me your eyeballs, and I will put them in a jar of formaldehyde and show you the world.Bryce “The Govna” Graves
So there you have it folks! Be sure to catch Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow Revue on their current Face Your Fears tour. And remember to stalk us here on Haunted MTL for the meaty scoop on all your freakishly favorite horrors…
An interview with creator of Kaidankai, Linda Gould
I was fortunate enough to interview Linda Gould about her beautifully eerie podcast, Kaidankai. I hope that you all enjoy getting to know her and her creepy work as much as I did.
Your recent collection is called Unpleasantville, a collection of stories from a singularly creepy town. What inspired this project?
One of the only poems I related to when in high school was Spoon River Anthology (SPA). For those who don’t know it, SPA, it is a collection of poems about life in a small town as told by the ghosts of the residents in that town. The poems were based on real people, and the anthology burst the bubble on the idea that country life was idyllic. I loved its irreverence and was captivated by the idea that ghost stories, which I always loved, could be literary, taught in high school AP English classes! For the Kaidankai, I asked listeners and contributors to pick their favorite poem and read it for me. Then, I did a special presentation of their readings for the podcast. Many people had never heard of SPA and were so happy to find it. So many people, way more than I expected, sent in their readings, and they were just awesome.
That made me wonder what a modern version would look like. Since the Kaidankai audience and contributors are all around the world, I couldn’t pick one place without excluding someone, so I made up a name and a few landmarks that anyone, anywhere could relate to and sent it out to see what would happen.
Unpleasantville is a shared world, with many writers telling their own stories. What was it like, working with so many writers in this shared space?
Well, that describes the Kaidankai podcast in general. People from Asian countries, Australia, North America and throughout Europe contribute. Sometimes, before I reject a story, I have to read it a couple of times to make sure that it isn’t just a different storytelling technique that I don’t understand or relate to. I force myself to explain to myself why a story isn’t a good fit. I’m not sure that I would take that approach if all the stories came from Western writers.
Of course, Unpleasantville is only part of your overall show, Kaidankai. What can you tell us about the show? Where did the name, Kaidankai, come from?
First, I have to tell you how much I love this podcast. The podcast started August 1st 2021 and was initially going to last only for 100 days in order to tell 100 stories. I live in Japan and in the last several centuries, people would go on pilgrimages to famous shrines during the month of August. Pilgrims from all over Japan would meet, and to pass the time, they would tell ghost stories, just like we do in the west around campfires. In Japan, they lit candles, 100, and as each ghost story was told, a candle was blown out. So, as the night progressed, as the candles were blown out one-by-one, it got darker and the stories became scarier. Imagine being in a deep forest or at a pilgrims inn inside a deep, dark forest. Imagine all the creaks, howls, screeches and mysterious sounds that surround you as the candles become fewer and fewer and how those sounds get closer and closer. It raises the hair on the back of your neck and gives you chills. And THAT was the purpose of kaidankai–to cool people off during Japan’s crazy hot and humid summers while entertaining people at the same time.
That is the basic outline of the Japanese storytelling tradition called kaidankai. Some might have heard of it as hyakumonogatarikaidankai because I think there was an anime made around it. A lot of the Japanese scary woodblock prints come from the stories told at that time, and the tradition of telling ghost stories in August holds true to this day, although in a different iteration. And the podcast was meant to be just another iteration of that. I was going to upload one podcast a day for 100 days, then start deleting them one-by-one after about a month. BUT, when it was supposed to end, people wrote me and said how much they would miss it, that they didn’t want it to end. So, I changed it to a weekly podcast. A few people asked to have their stories removed as originally planned, but most are still in the archives.
Most of your episodes are quite short, averaging from eight to twenty episodes. Was it an intentional choice to focus on such short form horror, or just a coincidence?
A little of both. Some people have sent in longer stories and, if I like them, I’ll read them on the podcast. But, I really wanted to stick with the short story format because I wanted to keep the feeling of people just sitting around a campfire or in a candlelit room telling their ghost stories. If anyone talks too long at a campfire, people get restless and tune out. And, I think if people are listening in the car or while cooking dinner, they want something that they can complete.
Your podcast has over 150 episodes. This is an impressive amount of spooky work. What can you tell us about creating that many episodes?
Well, like anything, the more you do it, the better it gets, lol. If you listen to the early episodes, they are definitely not as good as the later ones, mainly because the mic got a lot better. My readings have also improved, because a few of the earlier episodes had a professional reader, Michael Rhys, so I could learn from listening to him. Other people have read some of the stories, too (not just the Spoon River Anthology project) and it is really nice to have a diversity of voices, I think, but others have told me not to have different readers because the sound quality varies and it dilutes the branding of the show. I’m not really sure what to think of that. I mean, definitely, the sound quality varies, but unless the sound is just awful, in which case I wouldn’t upload it, I like the authenticity of it.
It’s a surprising amount of work, especially at first. You need to research the best way to do an intro and outdo (I didn’t), the best equipment to make quality sound (I didn’t) and how to promote it (I didn’t). I’m amazed when I look at how I just barreled into this with very little planning that people kept listening. But that attests to the need to have good stories, which is the most important thing.
Many horror podcasts drop off soon after creation. What’s helped you keep at this so long? I’ve been so lucky that writers from around the world have trusted me with their work. I can’t accept all the submissions, but I do read them all (like I said, sometimes more than once). At several times during the podcast, I’ve mentioned how much I love the diversity found in the stories featured on the Kaidankai, and that is 100% true. I love that there are ghost and vampire and monster stories, that some are cute and some or gruesome, that they include folktales and horror from around the world, and that they are presented as poems and prose. You never know what you will get when you tune into the Kaidankai, just like you don’t know what you will get when you sit around a campfire telling stories. For some people, maybe they don’t like that one day will be horror and the next day an atmospheric poem about a haunted forest. But I do, and the Kaidankai seems to be filling a niche for others, too. So, as long as people want to share their stories and listeners for those stories, I plan to keep it going.
After your Unpleasantville collection, what’s next for Kaidankai?
My dream is to have artists listen to a story and feel inspired to create something based on that story. I’m working on a YouTube channel right now that would feature a few of my favorite stories from the archive. I hope to have it up in time for October and Halloween. It might have to have the logo run through the whole reading like most YouTube videos have, but my dream would be to have an artwork of some sort as the visual element that relates to a particular story instead of the general logo. There are so many amazing artists in the horror/ghost/supernatural genre, just like there are so many writers. It would be great to be able to showcase a visual element to the stories, too.
Aside from your podcast, are there any other projects you’re working on?
There is White Enso, which is an online journal that features artwork of any kind that is inspired by Japan. WE’ve had quilts, poetry, photography, short stories, etc. And I’m always trying to write and finish my collection of short stories. I call myself an on-again-off-again writer because I’ll work so intensely for a few months on my writing, then will get involved in something else and not write a word for a year.
Is there anything you wish I would have asked you about, that I didn’t think to?
If there is one thing I would want people to come away with when they listen to the podcast it is the universal appeal of ghost and supernatural stories. People from all over the world write such stories, and there are similarities as well as differences in how they are told. People who have a poetic mind can write the most beautiful, atmospheric stories about ghosts or monsters, and on the other end of the spectrum is someone who writes slasher stories. But there is something in all of us that embraces the mysterious, and when you tune in to listen to the Kaidankai stories, they aren’t really going to scare you, they aren’t for the most part, horror, but they will entertain you and remind you that the mysterious can connect us no matter where we are in the world.
Where can we find you online?
This link will take you to the stories, the podcast links and how to submit.
(If you liked this post, you can check out another interview I did here.)
A Haunted MTL exclusive interview with Andy Thierfelder, creator of Tapes From Beyond
Author and voice actor Andy Thierfelder sat down with me to answer some questions about his audio drama, Tapes From Beyond.
So, where did the name, tapes from beyond come from?
It’s kind of funny, I don’t love the name for the show, but in the storyline Lena would be the one coming up with the name and she would have wanted something recognizable, spooky sounding, and with the word Tapes in it so people kind of knew what they were getting into.
How did you cast Jac and Lena?
The actress who plays Lena is my wife, and the actress who plays Jac is a friend of mine. I am pretty lucky that I have a large group of talented and nerdy friends who are into theater and LARPing (myself included), so I have never been short on actors for my various projects.
The story of poor Jac and her family was tragic. How do you think they’re doing after all of this?
Yeah there have been some rough times in the Fedik household, but I think by the end of the series they’re in a better place than they have been in a very long time. Nothing can erase the tragedies they’ve experienced but their constant source of misery (The Tapes) has finally been resolved, allowing them to start the healing process in earnest.
What made you decide to make this story into a podcast, instead of a book or other medium?
Funny enough this story was inspired by the Silent Hill video game series. I never thought of it as a game, but as a lover of the series I always wondered what story I would tell in that universe. The story grew into its own thing from there but the idea of someone getting spooky tapes in the mail was always part of it. With the tapes being such an integral part of it, it naturally led me to a podcast/audio drama.
I loved that the tapes were out of order. It made me feel a bit like a conspiracy theorist. What inspired that?
Thanks! There were a couple things that went into that decision. Firstly I thought thematically it made sense, there is a great deal of mystery behind the tapes and their arrival and this just added another layer to that. Secondly I always wanted the story to be interactive with the audience to a degree. The Trapped Man’s story was set in stone, but how much Jac and Lena discovered was very much left up in the air. It was important to me that there was a mystery for the audience to solve and finding the order of the tapes seemed like a fun one for them to do!
Tapes brings up an issue that I’ve struggled with, both as a true crime fan and podcaster myself. True crime and supernatural stories are often the stories of real people. What do you think of the morality of this? Do you think that it’s an invasion of privacy against people who have already suffered? Or do you think it’s part of our sympathetic nature as humans and shows our level of compassion for our fellow man?
That’s a hard question indeed. As with all things in life I think there are a lot of shades of gray to the issue and it’s mostly on a case by case basis. There’s something to be said about how their stories can act as a cautionary tale, but on the other hand I think if I knew the subject or the subjects next of kin were uncomfortable with the story being out there I would have a hard time watching/listening to it. I think it puts a lot more pressure on the content creators to make sure they are handling the subject matter delicately and with the proper care and respect it deserves.
As a follow to that, was this a question that we as readers were supposed to be asking ourselves?
In a roundabout way yes. I wanted people to think about how trauma permeates beyond the survivor who experienced it. I wanted to show how these tapes affected far more than just Jac, and how even though she hadn’t gotten one in a while, they were still opening new wounds for her and her family. I didn’t set out to specifically commentate on the morality of true crime storytelling, but I did want people to think about how a single traumatic experience often causes a butterfly effect throughout a person’s entire life as well as the lives of their friends and families.
Did you get a lot of real fan feedback with theories? Was any of the fan feedback in the show real?
All of the fan feedback was real. Some of it came from friends of mine who would ask me legitimate questions about the show but most of it was from strangers and none of it was planted. I was prepared to end the series with Tape J, but thankfully people solved enough of the mysteries in the show to trigger the final few episodes! There was a while there after Tape J when I was nervous that people weren’t going to solve the mystery of the order of the tapes, or the mystery about the movie the Trapped Man mentioned and I almost had a friend of mine make a fake review video of the series to drum up interest, but then I discovered fans had created a discord channel to try and solve the show and I figured at that point it was only a matter of time. In general I was floored by the fan response to the show, someone in a Russian speaking country actually did make an hour and thirty nine minute review video of it…although they hated the ending.
What do you think the town is? Is it sentient, or do you think it’s a Bermuda Triangle sort of situation?
I think it’s best left for the listener to decide, but of the different theories discussed in the show Jac’s Mom’s theory in Tape K is my favorite.
While listening to this show, it occurred to me that we don’t know for sure that Jac ever came back from the town. All of her interactions with the fans afterward were second-hand, either from her father or her co-host, Lena. Are we to suspect that maybe Jac isn’t as okay as we might like to believe?
No, Jac made it back safe and sound. That was an unfortunate happenstance of the actress who plays her not being available to record that final episode. I went back and forth for a while about the best way to end it without her involvement. I don’t mind entirely that it leaves people with a little bit of a lingering question but that was not my intention. There is enough ambiguity throughout the whole series that I wanted this question to be firmly answered haha.
What have you been working on since the release of Tapes? Can we expect a follow-up?
I’ve been working on my next feature length screenplay and I’ve been hard at work on my next audio drama! It will not be related to Tapes From Beyond but it is also a found footage horror story. In the way that Tapes From Beyond is a love song to Silent Hill, my next project is a love song to one of my other favorite horror settings, the TTRPG universe of Vampire: The Masquerade. I have lofty ambitions of releasing the first episode by Halloween but it might end up being a little later than that.
Interview: ‘Sink’ Writer John Lees
We’re very excited at Haunted MTL to reach out to the horror community and spotlight creative and talented folks where we find them. We love to add to our interview series when we can, and Haunted MTL is fortunate to have a fantastic interview this week with writer John Lees, the mind behind one of our favorite comics, Sink – one of the more beloved series reviewed by our very own comic obsessed David Davis.
John Lees talks to us about the origins of Sink, his influences on the comic, and even provides valuable insight to anyone wanting to create comics themselves.
Sink Writer John Lees Interview
Haunted MTL: How did Sink first come to mind? Was this a concept that was developing for a while, or did it hit you suddenly?
John Lees: I think it’s a combination of both. The general idea of Sink is something I had in my head as wanting to do long before I did it. Scalped is one of my all-time favourite comics, and I had this idea of wanting to do my own take on a heavily location-driven crime saga, but mine would be set in Glasgow, and have more of a horror twist. I wasn’t sure if it would be something I’d eventually do with Iain Laurie, after we’d worked on And Then Emily Was Gone together, or what exact form it would take, so it was kinda in the back-burner in my brain for a couple of years. But once I made the decision I wanted to do it, it fell into place really quickly. Mr. Dig, Florence Kilcolm, Si McKirdie, the Dickheads, Busman Boab, the blue van clowns… Sinkhill took shape so quickly and so clearly in the way that happens with the stories you know are going to be special.
HMTL: How soon had you figured out Mr. Dig’s identity and story arc through the first two volumes? In a lot of ways, his story ends up feeling central to many of the themes expressed over the course of the first two volumes. Was this something intended from the start or discovered on the way?
JL: Oh, I knew Mr. Dig’s identity from the moment I first wrote him. If you look back to his first appearance in Sink #1, Mr. Dig says, “Fuck off back to where you came from” to Allan. When I wrote that, it was with the thought that he’d have the same line thrown at him by some racist asshole at a later point in the series, which we see happen in Sink #8. And having studied teaching English to speakers of other languages in the past, I’d previously done language profiles on how Kurdish speakers adapt to speaking English and some common recurring mistakes, hence why Mr. Dig drops definite and indefinite articles like “a” or “the” in his speech, something else which was part of his dialogue from the very beginning. As far as more overarching themes, the idea of Sink being a world where the protagonists are largely the kind of people who don’t get to be heroes in these types of stories is something that came together partly by design and partly by happy accident.
HMTL: How did you get Alex Cormack involved with the project? Was it something along the lines of, “hey, man, want to draw this hyper-violent crime book?”
JL: I’d already worked with Alex before. We’d done a short together, then had worked together at greater length on Oxymoron: The Loveliest Nightmare for ComixTribe. I was (and still am) continually in awe of his art, and on top of that, he’s just such a lovely guy, we immediately got on. And so, after we finished with Oxymoron, we’d been talking about how we should try working on something else together, something of our own rather than playing in someone else’s sandbox. And we’d thrown around a couple of ideas, but nothing was really clicking. And I had this Sink idea in my back pocket, but like I said, I’m thinking maybe this is an Iain book, maybe it’s just a bunch of loosely connected one-shots we release at Scottish conventions (which is where the anthology format idea originated, I believe). But then something clicked where I thought, hang on, why couldn’t this be an ALEX book? And that instantly changed the dynamics at play, I started imagining it less as pure psychological horror (though there are certainly still elements of that in there!) than as this genre-mashup with pulp crime and bombastic action elements, and really pushing the gore-drenched aesthetic of Oxymoron to new levels. And thankfully, when I then said to Alex, “Hey, man, want to draw this hyper-violent crime book?”, he was instantly down for the idea!
HMTL: How has the reception to Sink been in Glasgow among locals? What elements do they recognize in Sinkhill?
JL: Whenever I’ve had Sink on sale at Scottish shows, the reception has been really positive. In my experience, Scottish comic readers have been really supportive of Scottish indie creators, all the more so when the stories themselves are Scottish. And so, readers have enjoyed all the Glasgow elements. That was a balance I was hoping to pull off while writing Sink. I wanted it to be somewhat universal, where readers from anywhere could enjoy it, but if you’re someone who’s from Glasgow, who recognizes some of the landmarks or local in-jokes, then you’ll have another level of appreciation for the comic.
HMTL: Do you feel Sink is a good introduction to your body of work, or would you steer readers to a different book, like And Then Emily Was Gone?
JL: I think any of my comics is a good introduction to my body of work, as I want people to spend money on all of them! And the cool thing is, I’ve had readers say Mountainhead was their first introduction to me, that Hotell was their first introduction, that The Crimson Cage was their first introduction, and then my older stuff is there waiting for them to discover. But Sink is a comic that’s particularly close to my heart. It’s a twisted love letter to my home city of Glasgow, and because of the broad range of tones, it manages to capture a wide variety of things I enjoy writing: horror, comedy, stories with heart and emotion, even some almost superhero-type stuff.
HMTL: The horror and crime angle of Sink is quite interesting. What drives you to write about horrific crimes?
JL: Ha! That question makes me sound disturbed! I’ve always been a fan of horror, as a reader and as a viewer, which I guess translates into also enjoying writing it. But I’d also say that I enjoy the challenge of getting into the mindsets of characters in the most extreme of situations. I think it might have been David Lynch, or maybe someone writing about David Lynch, that used the phrase “the twilight zone between crime and horror” when talking about Blue Velvet. The idea of this phrase is that, what might from one perspective be a crime procedural could be a horror from another perspective, if you’re grounded and right in there with the person experiencing that crime. I think it’s down to the empathy, and how much you want the readers to feel for the characters these horrific crimes are happening to.
HMTL: One element of Sink is that you really establish a consistent sense of place. A horrible place, but well developed. As a writer how do you establish a setting in such detail?
JL: Sinkhill is a fictional district within Glasgow, but Glasgow itself is a real city. And I think it helps, in my head, being able to know the actual city so well, and for me to be able to picture a particular road junction, and imagine, “Okay, if you take a left here, that takes you into Sinkhill.” It makes the place feel almost real. And it probably helps that there are shadows of various real place that form the genetic make-up of Sinkhill. I mean, it’s a running joke between me and Alex that, for being a place that ultimately is likely not much bigger than a few blocks, there are so many varied landmarks to be found here. What the heck would a map of Sinkhill look like?! But the more stories we tell in this world, the more lived-in this location becomes, and the more we’re able to pluck familiar locales from past stories and recycle them for new ones, just adding to that feel that this is all taking place in the same setting and these tales are all connected.
HMTL: When putting together the setting and the stories, do you have a system in place for keeping everything mapped out? A story bible? A wiki?
JL: I’ll plan out issues, and I’ll broadly map out plans for each volume. But in terms of big picture mythology, I don’t have anything so sophisticated as an official story bible. Maybe I should! I largely keep it all in my head, and I do sometimes worry about forgetting a plot point from an earlier issue, or re-using a character name!
HMTL: When it comes to inspiration for certain stories you mention a few, but I am curious how that works. For example, do you have a rough idea in mind, which reminds you of a movie and you watch it to help shape your approach? Or is it something where you watch or read something and think ‘how can this become a Sink story?’
JL: It varies. I think there are two types of Sink Tale. There are lore tales, where I’m putting in the work to add to the tapestry and build on the larger overarching mystery connecting the main players of the series. Then there are the standalone tales, the little one-shot vignettes of life in Sinkhill. With the lore tales, maybe I’m approaching with the mindset of “I need this character to get from point A to point B to enter the next phase of their arc, how can I get them there?” And with the standalone tales, often it can be me building on fragments – a character, say, or a scenario – which in itself might not have been able to sustain a full series, but when inserted into the world of Sink, becomes more fully realised. Like, with Sink #10, I’d had the idea of a twisted romantic comedy about a couple doing BDSM who end up in a mad home invasion scenario, but that’s not a series, it’s a sketch. Putting Kieran and Louise into Sinkhill, though, and you can then feed it into the wider mythology, and it becomes more substantial, and now that’s probably my favourite issue of the series so far.
HMTL: Kieran and Louise’s story was absolutely hilarious and an interesting way to end the second volume, especially given the catharsis and culmination of the end of the two-parter “Graphite Green.” Was the placement of “Bedbug” afterward purposeful?
JL: The placement was absolutely intentional. My thinking was, “Graphite Green” was our biggest Sink story yet, this epic two-part saga that was action-packed and climactic in its own right, while also setting up some major big picture stuff for down the line. And so, I figured it would be nice to then wrap up the volume with a little palette cleanser, something more light and fun, at least by Sink standards. I also liked the idea of each volume having a “happy ending,” comparatively speaking, of course. And underneath all the violence and butt toys, I think the story of Kieran and Louise is quite sweet and wholesome, and hopefully, if we’ve done our jobs, you’re invested in them on a human level and are happy to see them not just survive, but for their relationship to blossom.
HMTL: Can you tell us a little bit about ComixTribe? Did you help establish the publisher or were you brought in to work with them with Emily?
JL: I didn’t establish the publisher. It’s run by the great Tyler James. But I have been around with them since the beginning. My first ever comic, a superhero story called The Standard, was edited by my original comics mentor, Steven Forbes. He was working with Tyler on the formation of ComixTribe back at the time, this would be going back to 2011, and had suggested to me that we bring The Standard into the ComixTribe fold to be part of the fledgling publisher’s launch line-up. And I’ve worked with them ever since. They published And Then Emily Was Gone, and now they’re publishing Sink.
HMTL: With Dig #1 on the way, it is clear that you have more stories to tell about Sinkhill and its residents. Is there anything lined up after Dig? Another volume of Sink?
JL: Oh, we definitely want to do more. Over the last couple of years, I actually wrote out the entirety of both Volumes 3 and 4! The original plan had been for Alex and I to take a year off of Sink after the release of Volume 2 in 2019, do The Crimson Cage in 2020, then come back for Sink Volume 3 in 2021. But then the pandemic happened, and The Crimson Cage got pushed back to launching in December 2021, making it mostly a 2022 book. And that in turn impacted on Sink, meaning that Dig was pushed back to early 2022 and Sink Volume 3 to mid-2022. But with the global paper shortage and other factors, Dig ended up being moved back to mid 2022, and Volume 3 is now looking like late 2022, or maybe early 2023. But we definitely still have more stories that we want to tell, and we will get them to you as soon as we’re able!
HMTL: For people who want to create their own comics, what three suggestions do you have to help them get started or move forward in their careers?
JL: Suggestion 1: finish something. I think one of the biggest early pitfalls you see a lot of writers going through is that they become serial first issue writers, where they’ll write something, then get stuck or bored, so they start a new idea. I’m not able to do it so often now, but in the past, I would frequently have the entirety of a comic series written before a publisher had picked it up or before art had even begun. Because, especially early on, I think finishing is a VITAL skill. The beginning of a story is exciting and full of possibility, sure. But it’s getting through that middle, muddling through the process of figuring how all the component parts of your narrative click into place, where you really start building your plotting muscles. And writing THE END at the bottom of your final script will give you such a boost, such a feeling of achievement and a confirmation that you CAN tell a story in full. On a related note, so I guess this would be suggestion 1A, hold off on redrafting a script until you’ve finished your first draft. It’s so easy to get yourself stuck in a rut by not being happy with a scene you’ve written, and going back to tinker with it, and the script never gets done. Write out the script first, even if your brain is telling you that you’re writing garbage, just to get it down on the page, have something concrete to work with. Then, one you have a full script, you can get to going back and refining it and making it better.
Suggestion 2: find a peer review group. Something that has helped me immeasurably over the years is being a founding member, and later the leader, of the Glasgow League of Writers, a writer’s circle for comics where we meet monthly and review each other’s comic scripts. Over the years, I’ve been a part of that group, and a couple of other peer review groups. Writing is a lonely pursuit, often done in a vacuum, and we can get too close to our own stuff, not being able to see stuff that’s wrong. If you can gather a community of like-minded creative people you trust – be it online or in person – to share your work with, not only will you improve as a writer (both in terms of the advice you get from them, and in the advice you give in turn making you think more critically), but you’ll also gain a community. And even if getting to the point of actually getting your comic made is some way away, knowing you’re writing for an audience can give you that added drive and motivation to create.
Suggestion 3: don’t be afraid of failure. Making comics can be a frustrating, demoralising process, full of setbacks. I have spent YEARS getting rejections, and still get some rejections now. And the rejections are actually an improvement to the years before that where my queries to editors were just outright ignored. I’ve seen so many promising creators get told “No” for one pitch, and it just breaks their spirit, and they lose all confidence in making comics. And that makes me sad. Just because your comic can’t find a publisher doesn’t mean that it sucks. It might just mean that it’s not to the tastes of one particular editor, the time isn’t right, the market isn’t right, or maybe just that you’re not selling your idea the right way yet. That doesn’t mean your story isn’t worth telling, or that you don’t have other stories worth telling. Don’t be discouraged. Making comics is a marathon, not a sprint. And the good news is, there are more ways than ever to get your stories out there, with or without a publisher.
Want to learn more about John Lees?
If you want to keep up with what John Lees is working on you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram, and check out more of his work at his official website. You can also purchase comics directly from him via his online shop.
We also wish to extend a very special thank you to John Lees for taking the time to chat with us. Haunted MTL absolutely loves to interview creators in the horror space, so if you are a horror fan who does horror-centric crafting, please contact us via Twitter and share your work. We’re always looking to spotlight the craftiest members of the horror scene.
Want more of the world of Sink? (Sponsored)
Do you want to continue exploring the world of Sink? Why not pick up the Kindle edition of Mr. Dig using our sponsored link? Support John Lees and Haunted MTL with one purchase.