Colored streamers everywhere, ten thousand more than she’d ever seen, flapping as she walked with Mr. Capulatio across his carnival, which was huge, which had risen in two days like an enchanted crop. Crawling with people who moved, built, sliced, hammered. A clockwork masterpiece, this camp, with massive tents and a stage flanked by booths where the customers would buy their heads come summer. And a metal cage, encircled by lanterns still glowing in the bottle-blue dawn, and people inside with faces tightened by fear. People she knew. When they saw her with Mr. Capulatio, when they looked at her like that, their hands on the bars, she tried to hide behind him, she thought: don’t look, I can’t help you, but he was walking ahead, wearing red pants and a tan shirt and carrying that knife. His hair was long and flashing black like a seabird, topped by a felt hat with an aigrette thrust through the hatband. He did not hold her hand. She followed him anyway.
The birds were singing as Mr. Capulatio mounted the stage. Loud as tin-cans tied to a spit in a storm. The people gathering about the stage were louder still, and she felt so alone, ringed on all sides by this oceanic land—she wondered wildly if this place was the root of her nostalgia, this country of surging grasses and wind that looked somehow like tides and waves. Then the first ray of true light split the horizon. All she could see was the block at the center of the stage, hideous-smooth and stained black. A servant directed her into a booth where three crones in face-paint offered to hold her, in case she fainted when the time came. They draped a shawl over her shoulders and one whispered Cover your eyes if you need to, while the other said, I don’t see why she’d need to, and the last marveled at Mr. Capulatio’s new costume. At the first execution of the summer—which this was; had she known? wasn’t she honored?—Mr. Capulatio was always resplendent, the old women said, with his unchopped hair and his knife made of pearlescent metal from the shuttle launch site.
Julia Whicker is a fiction writer from Richmond, Virginia. Her work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review, Lurve Magazine, Specter, Word Riot and The Millions, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her story “Wonderblood” appears in Unstuck #1.
Interview by Allie Werner
UNSTUCK: "Wonderblood" takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of the United States. What attracted you to that particular setting?
JULIA WHICKER: I think it was—and this is going to sound ridiculous—a line from that Conor Oberst song “Cape Canaveral.” I'd also been thinking a lot about how different the land is here in Iowa compared to Virginia. So I was thinking about spaces that are empty/becoming empty—and also about the fact that the space shuttle program was coming to an end. So I chose to make the world more empty.
UNSTUCK: I definitely got the sense of vast, empty spaces from this story.
JULIA WHICKER: Thank you. I was nervous to set it in Iowa because before that I'd mostly written about the South, which is where I'm from.
UNSTUCK: I grew up on the East Coast, went to school on the West Coast, and experienced the middle of the country for the first time when I drove through it on my way from Oregon to Texas. I was completely blown away by the empty flatness of the land. I'd never seen anything like it.
JULIA WHICKER: I know! I moved my sister out to L.A. a couple of years ago, and I think that experience of spending days and days driving through nothing was very formative.
UNSTUCK: You mentioned that you were thinking a bit about the space shuttle programs as you were conceptualizing this story. One of my favorite moments in "Wonderblood" occurs when we discover that a character's preferred magical incantation is the names of the space shuttles all blurred together: "Columbiachallengerdiscoveryatlantisendeavor!"
Do you have any thoughts about the current state of the space program? What do you think about the fact that the Mars rovers have their own Twitter feeds?
JULIA WHICKER: Ha—I didn't know that about the Mars rovers. I guess, when I think of the space shuttle programs, I think of something that seems utterly insanely impossible but is nonetheless possible—to go in that little craft away from the world—and that really does seem like magic . . . and how easy that would be to mythologize in a different time. I recently got into a discussion with a friend about the merits of the space program, and he was of the opinion that he would go to space if given the chance but he thinks it's silly. I feel like I would have a mind-break or go space-mad if I were actually off the planet, but I think the idea of going into space retains some kind of weird hope, and it seems like a natural human inclination.
UNSTUCK: There's also an interesting tension going on in "Wonderblood" between science and magic, in which science seems to be viewed as a particularly potent, possibly dangerous kind of magic.
JULIA WHICKER: Yes. My husband is a doctor and I have always been very interested in the dogmatic side of the medical profession. In that respect, science can seem very similar to religion, and I think in this story I wanted to explore that a little.
UNSTUCK: The story prominently features the taking and preservation of severed heads. Were you inspired at all by real life headhunting? What sort of research went into writing "Wonderblood?"
JULIA WHICKER: I had recently read In the Time of Madness, by Richard Lloyn Parry, which is about violence in Indonesia, and there were several descriptions in that book (I think from his travels to Borneo, specifically) wherein he spoke about seeing heads on tables at the entrances to villages, but noted that the headhunters weren't after him, so he never really felt afraid of them—and that image was pretty heavy in my mind when I was writing this. Also, I remember driving in Myrtle Beach and seeing a truckful of teenage boys streaming confederate flags out the back of their truck, and it made me think of carnivals, and streamers. I think when I write, I mostly assemble lots of images/ideas into something hopefully cohesive.
UNSTUCK: What's your favorite Aleister Crowley fun fact? Why do you think Crowley remains such an influential figure?
JULIA WHICKER: Oh gosh, I think he just seems like such a difficult man, and he was probably insufferable, and lots of fun, too. I always think about the story I mention in “Wonderblood,” which I'm not even sure is true because I read it in a Colin Wilson book and I know he is not the most reliable source, but I love the story in which Crowley stands in front of a mirror and tries to make his reflection disappear, and supposedly he succeeded. I think it took like three days or something. I think Crowley remains intriguing because he was ridiculous, and kind of fabulous, and those sorts of people are fun to talk about.
UNSTUCK: I'd read a few bits and pieces about him before, but after reading your story I dove headfirst into the Crowley Wikipedia page.
JULIA WHICKER: Yes, he was a crazy bastard. He is in my novel as well, although as an actual historical personage. I've actually been working on getting up the courage to write that part, because writing about any real person seems very very challenging to me.
UNSTUCK: Oh, yes. Especially somebody like Crowley, who has such a wealth of facts and fictions surrounding him.
JULIA WHICKER: I know! It is only a small part I have to write about him, but it's very intimidating. But I do like reading his poetry—it's weird and ridiculous. I took a lot of the magic words and things for “Wonderblood” from his poetry.
UNSTUCK: What are you reading right now, besides Crowley’s poetry?
JULIA WHICKER: I just finished Not So Quiet, by Helen Zanna Smith, which is a book about women ambulance drivers in World War I. It's a short book but it has a very powerful message of pacifism. Right now I'm actually re-reading Things Fall Apart because my students are reading it, and I'm really enjoying it.
UNSTUCK: You mentioned you're working on a novel right now. Care to tell us a little bit more about it?
JULIA WHICKER: It's a historical novel about the construction of the Florida East Coast railway. It's set in the early 1900s, so it's also about lots of other things, like Spiritualism, psychiatry, medicine, and miscegenation. It's long! And nearly every scene is set in a parlor. I hope to finish it this summer.
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Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.