Make Yourself at Home: An interview with Tom Breen, author of ORFORD PARISH MURDER HOUSES

Orford Parish Murder Houses is a slim and unassuming book, featuring cover art and design that look right out of a local tourism pamphlet. Beneath that (purposefully) humble exterior, however, is a volume of first-rate weird fiction. Tom Breen, author of the book and review contributor to Muzzleland Press, answered a few questions about the hilarious (and spooky) tome.

Q: What is Orford Parish? How did you come up with the idea?

Orford Parish, Conn., is America’s Mysterious Disappearance Capital, home to some 55,000 human and 3,000+ not-quite-human residents. Major sources of employment include local government, a shopping mall, and the manufacture of cursing tablets. Come visit, but don’t tell anyone you’re here!

A more, uh, straightforward answer would be that Orford Parish is my platonic ideal of the sinister New England town so familiar to horror tales. Except in so many of those books and movies and television shows, the New England town is this glamorous Gothic place, which never sat quite right with me growing up in Connecticut. My town had a lot more strip malls and fast food places and abandoned mills than it did spooky old mansions, so Orford Parish is a blend of the two.

The idea started coming to me in bits and pieces when a job took me away from New England for the first time in my life. I lived in the South for years, and found myself shockingly homesick for the place I had desperately tried to escape for most of my adult life. Orford Parish was my attempt to write my way back home, in that sense, but to a home knitted together from all the weird parts of all the New England backwaters I had ever visited.

It first struggled into the light on a Livejournal I somewhat embarrassingly still update, and then it became the subject of a fake newspaper I printed as a jokey gift for friends-the Orford Parish Vituperator. I’ve always loved small town newspapers, and yearned for many years to publish my own, but instead of town council meetings and high school football games, my ideal newspaper would have columns reviewing your bad dreams and features on necromancy.

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Q: Orford Parish Murder Houses feels very much like a local history booklet you’d find in a gift shop. Why tell these stories in this way?

Until the murder houses booklet, everything I wrote about Orford Parish had been in the form of fake media from this imaginary town—the newspaper, the Livejournal posts that were just excerpts from never-published issues of the paper, fragments of history books and almanacs and things like that.

That’s the way you get to know a town that isn’t important enough to have novels or movies about it, right? It’s all stuff like that: historical society brochures, self-published memoirs, newspaper inserts about the sesquicentennial or whatever. I liked the idea of expanding on the Vituperator with something a little meatier, but I didn’t want to leave behind that lens of fake media. It struck me as a way to do “world-building,” for lack of a better term, in a way that was both more and less direct than writing a collection of straightforward short stories or something like that.I also liked the fact that it was different. I’m a big fan of horror/weird/strange/ooga-booga/whatever fiction, and I read a lot of novels and short stories that are soooo much better than anything I could do in those areas. Basically I was afraid of being compared to anyone else, so the idea of writing something that didn’t fit into an easy category was tremendously appealing. I may be terrible, but I’ll be uniquely terrible!

Q: Even when the details get grisly, the book still feels lighthearted. There’s an innocence about it—a sense that the people of Orford Parish lovingly accept the state of their city. How did you cultivate that balance between horror, humor, and local pride?

I’m fixated on the stuff that gets categorized as “folk horror,” from The Wicker Man to Harvest Home, and one of the most familiar tropes is that the small town with the horrible secret is populated entirely by sinister, furtive yokels. That makes sense from the perspective of a horror movie, but if you think about all the stuff that happens in a town, it’s completely ridiculous—how do you operate a sinister, furtive Department of Public Works? What are Rotary Club meetings like in Dunwich? It’s not all human sacrifice and blasphemous rites in forbidden woodland glades. Someone has to plow the streets when it snows.

And the other thing is, lots of town are just like Orford Parish in their embrace of some weird local horror, although Orford Parish admittedly turns that attitude up to 11. I used to live in West Virginia, and there’s a tiny town in the southwestern part of the state called Matewan, which, as its lone claim to fame, was the site of a 1920 gun battle between striking miners and private security guards that left 10 people, including the mayor, dead. And every year, the people of the town reenact what’s known as the “Matewan Massacre!” I mean, there are still bullet holes in the walls of buildings on the main drag from the actual massacre.But that’s the thing: when you don’t have much going for you, you make the most of what you have. So if what you have is a massacre, guess what? You’re going be the best damn massacre-celebrating tourist destination you can be. Towns like Matewan and the town in New England where I grew up used to be centers of industry—coal in Matewan and textiles in my hometown. But all that stuff is gone, and so all that’s left is this attempt to make the best of places that have seen better days. There’s a kind of desperation beneath the veneer of local boosterism, which is fertile ground for horror and also for really dry jokes.

Q: What are the real-life crimes that inspired some of these cases?

I’M NOT AT LIBERTY TO SAY. No, the big one is the Lizzie Borden case in Fall River. My friend, Karen, and I went to the Borden house in Fall River, Mass., last year, which is now a bed and breakfast that offers daily tours. It’s just insane. In the room where Borden’s father was murdered, they have this realistic-looking rubber hatchet, and you can pose on a Victorian couch with a friend or loved one “murdering” you (Karen and I did this, obviously). You can buy hatchet-shaped cookie cutters in the gift shop. And the Fall River Historical Society, nearby, is even more over the top: they have Borden’s mother-in-law’s bloodstained camisole on display! It’s this completely frank celebration of a famous double murder that completely bypasses the way our society normally responds to gruesome death.

That inspired the story of the Lathrop House murders, which was the first story from the booklet I wrote. I didn’t have anything in mind, but after it was done, I thought, “Hey, that was kind of fun,” and eventually had the idea of doing a little suite of these things.The others have less direct influences. The Armorica story was inspired by my fascination with the seediness of Old Hollywood, but there wasn’t a particular Old Hollywood murder I had in mind (although there were a lot to choose from!). The Paul Moxley story was actually inspired by something that happened in my hometown, in a neighborhood where my friend and Orford Parish co-conspirator Joe Pastula grew up. This guy’s wife disappeared after her shift at a restaurant one night, just completely vanished into thin air, and although the police were absolutely convinced her husband killed her, they could never prove it. A couple of years ago—and this is long after her husband died—they dug up what had been their yard in hopes of finding her body, but didn’t turn anything up. The Moxley story is obviously a lot different, but the idea of digging up a yard in Joe’s neighborhood for a body is what gave me the idea. That pizza place in the story is real, too, although you won’t get a discount on your order for mentioning a non-existent murder.

Q: I’ve heard that Leeds is Orford Parish’s sister city. Will we see a crossover?
 

I am glad (and nervous) to say you will! The Conqueror Weird website (https://conquerorweird.wordpress.com/) is doing a month-long salute to the incredibly talented Matthew M. Bartlett in April, and as part of the festivities, I wrote a story (after getting the blessing—blaspheming?—of Mr. Bartlett) in which both those wholesome New England communities play a part. It’s much more of a straightforward horror story than anything Orford Parish-related so far, and if Matt doesn’t hate it and stop speaking to me, I’m hopeful there will be more cross-pollination in the future.

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Q: You have a background in journalism and communications. How long have you been writing fiction? How does your background influence your fiction?
 

I first tried to get short horror fiction published when I was in my early 20s and just starting out as a newspaper reporter and, listen, I don’t like to brag, but these stories were among the worst things ever written in English. Just appalling. Nothing was published, thankfully.

I really stopped trying to write fiction shortly after, when my career as a reporter started picking up. I ended up working for the Associated Press for years, and I had non-fiction books on religious subjects published by Baylor University Press and Patheos Press (I did a lot of religion reporting for AP).

I didn’t try to seriously write fiction until around 2011 or so, when I was living in North Carolina and kind of hating it. Fiction was this amazing outlet for all these emotions I really couldn’t express any other way, and it’s continued to be that for me.

In terms of what journalism has contributed to my writing, I think it’s the ability to tell a story concisely, which is both good and bad (the idea of writing a novel is incredibly daunting). I also have a preference for leaving things unexplained if possible, which is a necessity in journalism when you only have 700 words or something to tell a complicated policy story; you have to leave a lot for the readers to decide for themselves, which I think can make powerful fiction. And it’s also meant I write stories that are almost dialogue-free. I have to work on that! But that’s a journalism thing; quotes are only there to emphasize a point, not to carry a story.

Q: Why publish this book now through your own imprint?

I just couldn’t imagine, when I was writing the stories, that anyone would want to pay to have this published: a weird little collection of fake historical society writeups of murders in an imaginary town. YOU HEAR THEM FOOTSTEPS, STEPHEN KING? HERE I COME!

I also don’t have that slightly stuffy bias against DIY publishing that you can still find pretty easily in the horror world. I grew up in the punk rock world in the early 1990s, and making your own art was not only accepted, it was expected: in my town, there were kids in high school who put out records, wrote songs and played in bands, made fanzines (I did one of these, with the aforementioned Mr. Pastula), booked punk shows, did radio shows, etc. And print-on-demand technology now means that publishing a book is actually a lot easier than sweating out 500 copies of a fanzine during an all-night Kinko’s binge.This is not to say I don’t hope to catch the eye of a “real” publisher (i.e. a publisher who I don’t look at in the mirror every morning). But if that doesn’t happen, I’m perfectly happy churning out oddball stuff under the Orford Parish Books label until the extinction comet hits our planet.

Q: What is your next project?

A few things are on the immediate horizon: one is a children’s book set in an even more bizarre version of Orford Parish. This is being written and illustrated by Joe Pastula, who has haunted this interview I now realize, who is not only a friend of 20+ years, but one of the most talented people I know, with one of the strangest imaginations I’ve ever encountered. You can check out his web comic, “Silkworms” for some of the flavor (http://silkworms-art.blogspot.jp/).

This will be published by Orford Parish Books around the same time as “Old Gory,” a “split chap book” by Joe and I, in which we each contribute one story with a flag theme. This was inspired entirely by a conversation we had driving around Eastern Connecticut last summer, when Joe was visiting from Japan. I imagine it will make people scratch their heads, but that’s fine. Desirable, even.

In terms of writing, I’ve started working on a “sourcebook” of fake primary and secondary sources about the Woman of Joy, a euphemistically named figure from Orford Parish folklore who is bad news for anyone who even hears about her (sorry, incidentally). There have been little snippets hinted at on the Orford Parish Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/opdowntown/), but this will, I hope, be a much broader, more kaleidoscopic look at the town than anything I’ve attempted so far.

Q: What are you literary influences, especially related to this book?

I read a lot of books about folklore, and the British folklorist Steve Roud in particular has been a big influence in terms of the material he brings together on incredibly disparate and obscure local customs. In the same vein, the amazing blog Scarfolk (http://scarfolk.blogspot.com/) almost caused me to stop writing Orford Parish Vituperator updates, because here was someone doing something similar, but a billion times better. The Italian writer Dino Buzzati is another huge influence; he was a journalist for his entire adult life, and that infuses his stories even when they’re about alien landings or the appearance of a gigantic fist appearing in the sky over a city. “Fantasy should be as close as possible to journalism,” he said, and I try to stick by that.

Also, and I can’t stress this enough: local newspapers, the smaller the better. There are entire anthologies waiting in the police blotters of our small local papers.

Q: How can people find out more about you and your work?

Right now the Facebook page is the best way to learn about Orford Parish, but there will be a dedicated Orford Parish Books site in the near future, once Joe’s book is in the proof stage. I’ll be at Readercon in beautiful Quincy, Mass. this July 7-10 and at Rock & Shock in Worcester, Mass. in October, quite possibly at a table alongside the good Mr. Bartlett. You can also cuss me direct on Twitter @TJBreen, but be warned that’s mostly a forum for pictures of independent wrestling shows I attend and my a-pox-on-all-their-houses political views.
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3 thoughts on “Make Yourself at Home: An interview with Tom Breen, author of ORFORD PARISH MURDER HOUSES”

  1. Tom this is great! Funny, I forgot about the lady buried in her back yard next door to us until you just mentioned it. Congrats to you! I’m also extremely excited for Joe to use his amazing talent and let others see it!

  2. As someone who has read Tom Breen’s Leeds/Orford Parish story, I can tell you that it’s absolutely fantastic.

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