JW Ocker loves spooky shit. And he may just be the most knowledgeable and well-traveled expert on creepy places, haunted spaces, and cursed objects in America. His blog Odd Things I’ve Seen details his travels across the world to some of the most profoundly disturbing (and sometimes just plain odd) locations in history.
His nonfiction books cover similar territory: Poe-Land, A Season With the Witch, Cursed Objects.
And he has written one of the finest (and creepiest) middle grade horror novel of the last ten years: The Smashed Man of Dread End.
We reached out to Ocker, and he kindly agreed to sit down for the interview below.
Your writing career started with Odd Things I’ve Seen, a blog where you detail your travels to some of the creepiest and most bizarre places around the world. When you first launched OTIS, did you envision it leading to nonfiction projects like Cursed Objects and eventually to authoring middle grade horror novels?
Never. OTIS was an act of desperation by a lonely guy in a bad phase of his life. I only knew that 1) I had to get out of my apartment and 2) I liked the instant gratification and imminent danger of hitting the “post” button on blog entries.
You’re clearly a huge Halloween fan. You celebrate the season for two whole months and devote a special section to it each year on your website. What does Halloween look like at the Ocker house?
Black and orange and lots of skulls, light most Halloween Heads. We have a bit of an advantage, though, because we live in a black house. As far as the day-to-day goes, we try to take advantage of every moment. On weekday nights, that might be as simple as popcorn balls and a horror movie or jetting out to hit up a local farmstand. On the weekends, we try to be more adventurous and hit up creepy events and spooky places.
How did writing Poe-Land change your understanding of Poe’s writing?
It gave Poe flesh and blood for me. Before that, Poe was more of a caricature or symbol. But when you stand beside the death bed of his wife in the house where he lived, all his stories and poems about love and loss and being haunted become excruciatingly human.
What are your favorite of Poe’s works?
Ululame, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. The Imp of the Perverse. The Raven above all, of course.
You once noted that Poe has become so ubiquitous in our culture that he is a Halloween decoration. What do you think explains the popularity of a writer who is remembered for a small handful of short stories and a couple of poems?
Gloomy author is a great brand.
In a recent interview we did with Newberry winner Jack Gantos, he singled out Poe as a writer who “gives back and expands” the more you read him. Has reading Poe changed for you over the years? Are there stories now that strike you differently than when you were younger?
Oh, totally. When I was young, I was all about the creepiness of his work and just how utterly different it was from all the other literature adults were pushing at me. As an adult, though, I appreciate his ability to create and sustain an emotion and effect. He’s peerless in that regard. As a writer, I am enthralled by his pure wordcraft (also peerless). Although I do still love his creepiness. That never changed.
Having done Poe-Land, are there other authors you’d like to do similar books for?
I don’t think it would be possible. Poe is a unique case. For instance, I love Washington Irving and Ray Bradbury, but there’s no way I could create the same kind of physical landscape out of their life like I could with Poe.
Your work is deeply associated with New England, and yet you’re not a native. What drew you to move to this spooky corner of the country?
I wanted atmospheric autumns, white Christmas, ancient graveyards, and a sense of age. It’s all here.
I remember reading once that Dickens haunted graveyards looking for character names. What are some of the most interesting things you’ve come across in graveyards? Any great character names?
A woman in a white dress all alone playing the violin, epitaphs that are murder accusations, a cafe. Graveyards always harbor surprises. I’ve never used graveyards for character names, though, but only because I’m not that organized.
Some of Stephen King’s novels forward the idea that “evil places draw evil men”. As someone who has visited many of the so-called evil places in America, do you think that some places are, as Shirley Jackosn put it, just born bad?
Possibly. Some places do seem custom-made for evil. All the shadows fall in the right place. More hiding places for a wide variety of extravagant sins. Guilt and regret hang as easily as curtains.
In spite of traveling to so many haunted places, handling cursed objects, staying overnight in haunted asylums and such, you’ve never had a paranormal experience (much like Stephen King’s character in 1408). Is it a disappointment or a relief that you’ve never actually experienced the supernatural?
Complete and utter disappointment. Makes me sad.
You’ve visited hundreds of strange sites around the world. What are your favorite pieces?
Oof. You’re asking me to choose among my children. I’ll name a few: The Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic, the Black Aggie in D.C., the head of the Dusseldorf Vampire in Wisconsin, Morphy the Corpse Flower in New Hampshire, Ray Bradbury’s Ravine in Illinois, the Extraterrestrial Highway/Area 51 in Nevada, Boneyard Beach in South Carolina, the burning ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, the Cushing Brain Collection in Connecticut.
If you asked me again in two weeks, this would be an entirely different list.
You’ve said that you love the Psycho House (from Hitchcock’s Psycho) and have seen everything it has appeared in. What is it about the house that fascinates you? Are you a fan of Robert Bloch’s work?
I do love Robert Bloch, but my fascination with that house is primal and cellular. The same way I just instinctually love the shape of the human skull and the feel of the crumbling decay of an old graveyard, I just love that old, sinister house. I need a tattoo of it on my body.
You’re a collector. What are the strangest items you’ve collected over the years?
A severed child’s head prop from the 1983 film Something Wicked This Way Comes, a cursed bulldog statue, a necklace Vincent Price gave to his wife, a special Happy Meal toy from the McDonald’s at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, a brick from one of Edgar Allan Poe’s homes. Lotta weird stuff.
You own one of Ray Bradbury’s jackets, I believe. How did you acquire it? I’m having visions of you wearing it while madly pounding away at a typewriter owned by HP Lovecraft.
I bought it at auction. The first thing I ever bought at auction, actually. I don’t know how I won it, honestly. I’ve tried it on, but me and Ray are shaped very differently.
Your nonfiction resides in a narrow but fascinating niche. What other books would you recommend to readers who enjoy the kind of nonfiction you write?
Three Men Seeking Monsters by Nick Redfern, anything by Bill Bryson or Mary Roach.
You grew up as a fundamentalist Christian. How has that background informed the way you explore and write about haunted sites around the world?
I think it gives me insight into how extravagant our beliefs can be despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and, in the end, how much that extravagance and evidence doesn’t matter at all.
You’ve written an adult novel (Twelve Nights at Rotter House) and three books for middle grade readers (Dead and Douglas, The Smashed Man of Dread End, The Black Slide). Do you prefer writing for one audience or another?
I like writing nonfiction the best. That’s just the most natural course for my voice. After that is writing children’s novels. Last place is adult novels. Adults are too comfortable in our tastes. That’s why we don’t roll our eyes at the one-millionth haunted house novel on the market or ten-millionth middle-aged memoir to come out.
Children, though, are voracious for any and all stories and experiences. They’re open to experiments, the bizarre, and the conventional. It’s all new and wondrous to them. They are the best audience.
The Smashed Man of Dread End is one of the finest middle grade horror novels of the last twenty years, and the Smashed Man is a bizarre, unique creation. The Smashed Man has many limitations – he’s slow, he resets whenever characters leave the room, he only comes out at night – and yet he is legitimately terrifying. How hard was it to inspire fear in a monster that was hobbled by so many “rules”?
I tried to use it to my advantage. Not knowing the rules for a situation is possibly the most terrifying thing a human being can experience.
Smashed Man revolves around a group of young girls who must put an end to the horror in their basements. Was it a conscious decision not to include any boys in their ranks? Did you find it difficult to write about an all-female cast?
It was accidental, really. I based two of the characters on two of my daughters (my third daughter wasn’t around at the time) and just extrapolated from there. But eventually, I loved the idea that the monster was a man and our heroes all girls. Felt right.
Like many children who fell in love with reading, you said you were engrossed by books that you felt your parents would not approve of if they knew what was inside. What books were those?
Golden Age science fiction–Asimov, Niven, Clarke, Heinlein, etc.
Do you read much middle grade fiction? Who are your favorite middle grade authors?
Yup. I read a ton of middle grade fiction. Most of it is pretty cliche, unfortunately, and relies on kids not knowing all the adult cliches. My favorite these days is probably Christian McKay Heidiker.
Your novel The Black Slide comes out later this year. You pitched it to your agent as “Hellraiser for kids.” Tell us the novel and how you came to write it.
My middle daughter broke her foot shooting down a two-story black tube slide, so I’ve always wanted to use that incident in our lives and how I felt about it. Seeing her in even minor pain was extraordinarily painful to me, so the book ended up being about pain and this race of monsters called the Merciless, which is where the Hellraiser comparison comes in. Also, it was the second book in a two-book contract, so I could go a little weirder than usual.
Your middle grade work is definitely creepier and more intense than most of what has been done in the field. Is that intentional? Have you found it harder to connect with young readers given that parents may feel your work is too scary?
Yes! Kids deserve better, deeper, more original scares. Usually, parents are just happy their kids are reading, which is a wise stance, I think.
In Cursed Objects you write about 50 different objects with wicked, evil pasts. What objects freaked you out the most? Were there any objects that you wanted to write about but whose history you weren’t able to nail down well enough to make the book?
The objects that were so ordinary you would never think they were cursed. Like, if you had a human skull in your house, and bad things started happening to you, you might quickly suspect that skull as the creepiest object in your house. However, you would never suspect the leather ottoman or the Amish rocking chair or that glass vase you inherited from your grandmother.
Last year you wrote a short piece for New Hampshire Magazine about the famous Betty and Barney Hill UFO sighting in 1961 (later turned into a movie starring James Earl Jones). Do you find UFO lore as fascinating as tales of hauntings and cursed objects? Do you see much difference between the two?
Totally. Terror from the skies is as much fun as terror from the closet. There actually isn’t a ton of difference in the overarching stories, just in the details.
Your bathroom has a theme: Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow. As you called it the room is a “Headless Horseman head. A Sleepy Hollow baño.” What is it about Sleepy Hollow and Washington Irving that you find fascinating?
I love that the Headless Horseman is so tied to Autumn, probably more than any other monster, and I love that Sleepy Hollow is a real place and all the connections between Irving and the story and the town. It’s a very unique situation.
What are your top ten favorite horror movies?
In no particular order, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Pumpkinhead, Cemetery Man, Halloween, The Haunting, The Body Snatcher, Suspiria, Psycho, Scream, The Blair Witch Project, The Abominable Dr. Phibes. That’s more than ten, I guess.
You get to host an all-day outing with Poe, Irving and Hawthorne. Where would you take them?
The nearest bar. Zero chance I don’t try to get those three drunk.
If you could have President Biden visit one odd site in America, where would you have him go?
The Black Aggie. It’s just across Lafayette Square from the White House, and it’s one of my favorite oddities of all time.
What do you want on your tombstone?
The spooky children’s author John Bellairs has a selected bibliography on his tombstone. That would be cool.