John Jennison knows horror—especially EC horror: how it moves, breathes, and crawls under the skin. At this year’s Flame Con, Jennison took to the show floor to present the queer horror anthology The Closet of Secrets, three stories about how both hate and a fear of love can create monsters, especially when faced with queerness. It was written and illustrated by Jennison, who also organized Flame Con 2019’s after party, aptly called ‘Fire Ball.’
The comic follows in the footsteps of EC Horror anthologies like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, especially in how terror builds up in each tale and how their ‘monsters’ or haunts reveal themselves to the reader. But what was truly surprising was how Jennison managed to extract love and hope from these stories without sacrificing any of the horror. The horrifying stuff in the stories stay horrifying. They just become more flexible.
There’s a very Twilight Zone-ish aspect to the stories in The Closet of Secrets. They have clear messages that force readers to think about them to understand the characters and their fates. It never veers into preachiness, though. That same style of storytelling was present in the EC comics, although they were more gruesome and morally ambiguous than Jennison’s take on the style. This by no means lessens the impact of Jennison’s stories. On the contrary, that The Closet of Secrets invites some form of hope into horror means that the emergence of more unique Queer horror stories in the future becomes way more plausible. Perhaps it’s fair to say that horror could do with a bit more hope sometimes. This is a question I never truly asked myself until I read The Closet of Horrors.
I don’t want you to get the impression that The Closet of Secrets lacks bite. Each story reaches peak horror and we get a healthy dose of demons, zombies, and even an unsettling Coffin Joe reference thrown in for good measure (at least as I saw it). As I said earlier, horror is never sacrificed here. It’s truly remarkable how Jennison made every element work in each story.
I had the chance to ask Jennison about The Closet of Secrets in a phone interview, about how it all came together and what inspired this unique take on the horror formula.
Ricardo Serrano: Before we jump straight into the comic, you organized this year’s Flame Con after party. It featured burlesque and some 14 different performances, which really sounds like it was its own massive show. How does the after party fit into the larger Flame Con experience?
John Jennison: We started working on Flame Con back in 2014 and the group of people were all artists and performers who went to a lot of conventions. So we wanted our vendors and attendees to do and see the things they wanted to do and see in other conventions. A lot of the after party came out of Geeks Out as an organization. For fundraising, for instance, we did a lot of performances and drag and burlesque bar shows in order to incorporate all those aspects as well into Flame Con. We want the convention all-inclusive, but we don’t want to forget our 18+ and our 21+ crowd. We wanted, for lack of a better word, the seedier aspects of sexuality to be a part of the show. And that aspect needs to be explored. We didn’t have that as prominent on the floor, so we went for it in the after party. It was the place where people could cut loose, not feel restricted. If people wanted to wear a t-shirt with breasts or penises on it then they could wear it there rather than cover it up with a smiley face on the convention floor.
Serrano: You capture a lot of those ideas you just discussed about the after party on Closet of Secrets. There’s a sense of cutting loose and just being honest and inclusive with the horror you explore in your comic. It has the EC vibes, it has its darkness, but it also has light, a kind of hope that comes out of horrifying things. How did you land on the ideas for this comic?
Jennison: It kind of came to me when I was doing a 24-hour comic back in February. The first story in Closet of Secrets, “Departure with a Kiss,” was heavily inspired by that comic. I’ve always liked the idea behind twist endings and I think a lot came of reading the DC horror comics, House of Secrets and House of Mystery, while growing up. I found the queer characters were always a kind of throwaway. It’s like, “the husband murders the hairdresser because he thinks his wife is having an affair,” but it felt like coding for the hairdresser being her gay friend. I wanted to take those moments and bring them to the forefront. I think some of these things come up in my book as kind of trope-y but, I hope, also meaningful. I wanted stories about love and fear of love or even fear of finding love and so I went in that direction with Closet of Secrets.
Serrano: I absolutely saw that element of love and fear in the stories. It felt as if the comic has certain messages it wants to get across rather than go for stories where somebody beheads someone and then buries them in different places just for the sake of it. Was getting a message across intentional?
Jennison: I love the old Twilight Zone twists and how each episode starts in one place and ends in another. I think the first story of the book definitely has that, in terms of whether a certain character is alive or dead or if there’s something beyond weird happening around the characters. In fact, that first story might continue in a future issue. The same goes of the other stories. I mean, a lot has to do with me questioning a lot about my sexuality growing up.
The last story in the book, the one about the zombie and the two boys, was inspired by a story my grandmother told me over lunch when I graduated from college. She’s an extremely catholic woman and she told me a story about a friend my grandfather had when he was in the Vietnam War, another soldier in the same platoon. This man set up a picnic lunch in Portland, Maine, I believe, and during this lunch he essentially comes out to my grandfather and his feelings towards him. From what my grandmother told me, my grandfather respectfully said he wasn’t interested and was very gracious. Years later my grandparents found out the man was murdered for being queer. I had not come out to my grandmother by then but it was like she was telling me to be careful with what I do in life. She was saying, “I know that you’re gay and you need to look out for yourself because there are people who resist this out there.” So that story is an homage to my grandmother and the story she told me.
Serrano: It’s interesting that even with those type of stories you expect the worse but, in your case, you find a way to land on a more uplifting conclusion, even when the stories end on a more terrifying note. Do you think that’s a signature of yours, not settling with certain expectations to say something with your story?
Jennison: You know, I think it is a signature of mine. I started making comics in 2009, when I was 30 years old. At one point I had to go the hospital for a blood transfusion and I started imagining different people entering into my body with each blood pack. I started thinking why they donated their blood. It sounds creepier than the story actually is. I was just thinking of what makes a person donate blood and how thoughtful that is. About a year later I was diagnosed with endocrine tumors, which is a type of pancreatic cancer. So I started documenting my chemo treatments and imagining my cancer was this fang-mouthed globular creature. I didn’t see this as me creating horror initially. It wasn’t until I started Closet of Secrets that I looked back on it and saw it as a horror story.
I’m currently working on a book that comes out of those autobiographical comics. It’s about a boy who is diagnosed with cancer and the conversations he has with this tumor monster I created. It’s really a monster comic, like a Frankenstein/Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of story.
Serrano: So what is queer horror for you? What sets it apart or, perhaps, brings everything together?
Jennison: Honestly, I think horror has always been queer. Horror is the genre that has allowed itself to have queer characters! The problem is, they die too quickly before they’re even explored. What I want to do is give these characters the chance to grow and evolve.
Serrano: Thanks, John!
Jennison: Thank you!