The Morbid Life: An Interview with Loren Rhoads

Loren Rhoads, an author, editor, and essayist with an essay about cemetery postcards in issue #6 of The Deadlands, has a new book out titled This Morbid Life. She was gracious enough to sit down with psychopomp and Deadlander David Gilmore and reveal some of the macabre details of the book.

For readers unfamiliar with your work, please introduce yourself and tell us what This Morbid Life is about?

I’m the author of five novels (three of them “brought grimdark to space opera,” according to Publishers Weekly, and the other two concerned a succubus and her angel in LA). In the nineties, I created Morbid Curiosity magazine, which published confessional nonfiction. I was lucky enough to edit a collection of my favorite contributions to the magazine for Scribner. That book was called Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues (https://lorenrhoads.com/editing/morbid-curiosity-cures-the-blues/). I’ve written two books about visiting graveyards: 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, my cemetery memoir.

My latest book, This Morbid Life, is a death-positive memoir in the form of a collection of essays. In it, I explore cadavers in an anatomy lab, nurse a friend during the AIDS epidemic, eat bugs, poke around medical museums, tour a mortuary college and a commercial crematorium — and also talk about living in fire country, falling in love with sensory deprivation tanks, and basically indulging my curiosity every chance I get.

The essays in This Morbid Life are arranged and read almost like a memoir, and you note that you edited your first zine, Sanity Ltd., in high school, and the essay “True Life Romance” is about how you spent prom in a cemetery. What led a small-town girl from Michigan farmland in the eighties to this morbid life, what was your inciting incident(s) if you will?

Once I moved to San Francisco in the late eighties, I lucked into volunteering for the legendary small press RE/Search Publications (https://www.researchpubs.com/). This was when they were finishing the book that would become Modern Primitives. I saw the photos of all the intimate piercings before the book was completed, then volunteered to be a gofer when RE/Search did a residency at a local gallery after the book came out. Working for [V.] Vale and AJ [Andrea Juno] was an education I could not have gotten on the farm. Inspired by Modern Primitives (https://www.researchpubs.com/shop/p/modern-primitives), one of my friends invited me to be her moral support when she got her first labial piercing. The experience was so amazing that I wrote about it — my first personal essay — and it was published by the first zine I submitted it to. After that, writing became my excuse to indulge my morbid curiosity.

You edited and ran Morbid Curiosity magazine for eleven years, and described it as a fascination with the unsavory, unwise, unorthodox, or unusual: all the dark elements that make life worth living. What have you learned from your lifelong examination of all things morbid that makes life worth living?

A. My awareness that everything is temporary encourages me to seize every sunny day. I’ve got so many things I want to do, so many places I want to see, that I feel like I can’t waste a moment. If I want to tell my stories, I have to do it right now. Tempus fugit, and all that jazz.

What essay from Morbid Curiosity still sticks with you?

A. I have so many favorites! Working on the magazine really was the honor of my lifetime. I had the opportunity to work with incredible storytellers as they processed some of the darkest things that had ever happened to them.

I used to host Morbid Curiosity open mics at the World Horror Convention. They combined contributors to the magazine getting up to read their pieces and people from the audience confessing in public. Brian Keene told a story about an intimate encounter with machinery which was really funny and wince-inducing. Brian Hodge told about encountering an angel. Christa Faust spoke, Maria Alexander, Nancy Kilpatrick…I never knew who would volunteer to get up and tell a true story.

One of my favorite pieces from the magazine was Bill Selby’s (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1285257/) piece, “The Last Gasp” (https://amzn.to/3B28IDC) about surviving a car accident where he was buried in roadkill. It was hilarious and gross. Claudius Reich’s story about the pub bombing in London was really heart-wrenching. Dana Fredsti wrote about working at a big cat rescue and getting kissed by a tiger. There were so many good stories!

“Death in Four Flavors,” “Anatomy Lesson,” “Mortuary Science for the Absolute Beginner,” and “Burning Desire” are all about funerary services, mortuaries, and your fascination with dead bodies. Where does your fascination with the dead come from, and why didn’t you make a career out of that?

That’s a fair question. The short answer is that I never wanted to be anything other than a storyteller.

The longer answer is that growing up on the farm made me realize early on that everything dies, whether you love it or not. I grew up down the road from the cemetery where my grandfather and an infant cousin were buried. Since I left home, all the rest of my grandparents and my younger brother have joined them. Death is fascinating, mysterious, and normally people don’t talk about it. I try to use my storytelling skills to make it less frightening, if possible.

This collection is filled with gruesome moments like anatomical dissections and exhibitions with penises being nailed to boards, and yet none of the usual suspects are what you call your most morbid experience. In the essay “The Most Morbid Thing I’ve Ever Done?” you share that your most morbid experience was giving birth. Considering the maternal mortality rate in the US, the juxtaposition of this essay is wonderful. Did the morbidity for you lie in your own mortality or the vulnerability of modern obstetrics?

I was hospitalized at 31 weeks pregnant with astronomically high blood pressure. The nurses made it clear that I had a very real chance of having a stroke — or that my daughter wouldn’t get enough oxygen and would be born with brain damage. For the first time in my life, I faced the imminent reality that I might die. Lying in that hospital bed, poisoned by magnesium sulfate, gave me a long time to think about what I wanted to do with my life. It was truly the most morbid period I’ve ever lived through. Thank goodness we both survived it okay.

In “Anatomical Venus,” there’s a quote at the beginning that says, “The images we humans make of ourselves are like mirrors. What we see in them depends on who we are.” In so many of these essays you describe corpses and bodies in funerary preparation or dissection as beautiful. What do these mirrors show you about humanity?

Human beings truly are a marvel. Our bodies are intricate puzzles, each one assembled slightly differently from the others. It amazes me that we have possessed these delicate bodies for 300,000 years — since the dawn of homo sapiens — and we still haven’t conquered disease or old age or even pregnancy. The last year and a half have made our deficiencies in understanding our own bodies and how individual health relates to society even more clear.

“The Ghost of Friends,” “Ghost-Inspired Fiction,” and “Of Course, I Live in a Haunted House” are all about your encounters with the supernatural and ghosts. If you could ask one question of any of those spirits from your past, which one and what would it be?

I’d ask the ghost in my house, “Do you have a message you would like to share?” If it’s the lady who owned the house before we bought it, she still has family in San Francisco. I would love to pass a message from her to them.

Tell me about your favorite essay you weren’t able to squeeze into This Morbid Life.

One of my essays that has been reprinted more than any other is about going up to Tulelake, California. I wanted to visit a graveyard associated with the American concentration camp where Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. I had just shaved my head, which probably wasn’t the best look to sport in this very small town. Traveling with another woman was fraught enough, without the homophobia that got thrown at us, too.

The essay was originally written for my column on Gothic.Net. I was going to include it in Wish You Were Here, my cemetery memoir, but that book ran long. I meant to include it in This Morbid Life, but it will fit better in Jet Lag & Other Blessings, the second book in the No Rest for the Morbid series.

Jet Lag will be all morbid travel essays. It will include my visits to Japanese love hotels, drinking all the absinthe I could find in Prague, encountering a rattlesnake in the Mojave, chasing alligators in the Louisiana bayou, watching whales on the continental shelf, and basically stalking my morbid curiosity around the globe.

What is something that you want readers to take away from your work?

That life is an incredible gift. Go out and smell the flowers, listen to the birds sing, roam around a graveyard, and find pleasure in being alive. Every day aboveground is a good day.

Would you rather be a psychopomp or a death god?

Oh, a psychopomp for sure.

Check out Loren’s newest book, This Morbid Life, from your favorite book retailer, or your local library!

picture of david

Loren Rhoads is the author of five novels, 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travels. Her most recent book is the death-positive memoir, This Morbid Life. She writes more about her cemetery postcard collection on Instagram @morbidloren.

David Gilmore is a writer, reader, and editor out of St. Louis, MO. His work has been featured in The Rumpus and at Lindenwood University where he also received his MFA. He lives with his wife and son and spends his free time manning a stall in the Goblin Market selling directions to various Underworlds in exchange for rumors and information on where he can find his muse.

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