Anthology explores queer and trans identity through horror films

Closet has been embraced by readers. The book is on its second printing, and has received starred reviews. “We knew there would be so much crossover appeal, that queer readers and writers would be interested in it, and horror lovers, and people who just love to read really excellent nonfiction,” says editor Joe Vallese.

The idea for It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror was so obvious to its editor Joe Vallese, of Palisades Park, that he almost didn’t write the book proposal for it.

“I waited around for a while thinking someone had already come up with this idea, someone must be in the process of doing it,” says Vallese. 

The anthology, published in October by Feminist Press, features essays by two dozen queer and trans writers who explore their identities through the lens of horror film. 

“It was a book I’d always wanted to read and couldn’t find and realized didn’t actually exist,” Vallese says. “I wanted to read folks writing about horror movies not in a super academic way. There exists a lot of queer and feminist theory around horror film—a lot of very academic writing, which I think is important and there should be more of it—but I wanted to know how other queer people connected with horror movies, if their experiences were like mine or if they differed from mine.”

Some of the writers Vallese approached had such a different experience with horror movies that they didn’t want to be a part of the book. “It turns out a lot of queer writers don’t like horror movies, which isn’t surprising because I think life can be like a horror movie for so many queer people,” he says.

Editor Joe Vallese in conversation with NY Times writer Erik Piepenburg

The whole process of bringing the book to life took about five years. In addition to approaching some writers directly, Vallese had an open call for work, which received 240 submissions. Ultimately, he was able to take 24 of those pitches and submissions, and worked closely with the writers to craft their essays.

That kind of work is something Vallese is very comfortable with; by day, he is an associate professor in NYU’s expository writing program. 

“Absolutely the work I do as a teacher of writing factored into how I was able to wrangle two-dozen writers and their work and make the essays feel cohesive and part of the same book even though the work was all very different,” Vallese says.

He has worked at NYU for much of his career, aside from a five-year stint with the Bard Prison Initiative, where he taught writing and critical reading and did administrative work as the director of what he describes as a “pop-up college” program at women’s corrections facilities in New York.

“I learned a lot about the corrections system, the legal system and human nature working in that job, which is the most interesting thing I’ll ever do, I’m sure,” says Vallese. “I saw three classes of students get degrees. When they enter the room they’re students, not inmates.

“My tenacity and guidance that I give to my students translated in a collaborative and generous way with the book contributors. I felt very prepared to work with a variety of voices and give constructive feedback that would always be in service of making the piece better and more itself,” Vallese says. “There were some pieces that came to me as an 18-page piece on one movie and by the time we were done with it, it was a seven-page piece on another movie.”

Closet is actually the second anthology edited by Vallese. His first, What’s Your Exit? A Literary Detour Through New Jersey, which he co-edited with Alicia Beale, was published in 2010 with a small, now-defunct press called Word Riot. Exit came about when Vallese and Beale, both working on fiction MFAs from NYU, “took note that the other was always explicitly or implicitly writing about New Jersey” in their pieces for class.

“We were the only two people from New Jersey. Our professor was from Long Island and he’d make comments like, ‘It could be worse, you could be from Long Island,’ and we were like, ‘But we’re not making fun of New Jersey in our writing, we’re setting our stories there for a reason,’” Vallese says. “We both felt like there was something literary about the state. We felt like Jersey deserved to be the backdrop for some of these stories.

“We met for a drink one night and were like, ‘Maybe we should do a literary Jersey anthology with fiction and poetry and non-fiction and collect a lot of work that exists already but also solicit new work.’ This was when The Sopranos was coming to an end, so Jersey had sort of changed in the cultural lexicon. It felt like the right time. We had meetings with multiple literary agents who were interested in the idea of a Jersey anthology, that’s how hot the iron was when it came to The Sopranos,” Vallese says.

Exit ended up with Word Riot in part because many of those agents weren’t as interested in a literary anthology, and wanted to represent a coffee table book. “We didn’t want to compromise our vision,” Vallese says. “Word Riot was this small, radical alternative press run by Jackie Corley. She reached out and said, ‘I love this idea and I will put all of my resources into it; I will cut you guys a really great contract and give you most of the proceeds.’ It turned out to be an awesome experience with her.”

Exit contains work from iconic Jersey writers including Joyce Carol Oates (who they often had trouble reaching because she had a tendency not to open her mail), Tom Perotta (who had no digital copy of the story they reprinted from his short story collection Bad Haircut, so Beale and Vallese took turns retyping it—“Perotta immediately spotted the mistakes,”) the actor Jason Biggs (“who wrote this very short prose piece about listening to Z100 and going to the mall and what Jersey makes him think of now that he’s in Hollywood,”) and Robert Pinsky.

Vallese first became interested in anthologies in college, when he spotted The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture, which was published by his eventual publisher Feminist Press. 

“Being first generation Italian-American, I was very drawn to it,” Vallese says. “Reading an anthology from Feminist Press inspired the New Jersey anthology and its structure, and then a decade later, I did another anthology for Feminist Press and it felt sort of full circle in a way that was really nice,” he says.

Vallese’s experience with Feminist Press, who he calls his “dream publisher,” has so far proven to be a good fit. Margo Atwell, executive director of the press as of last spring, proposed raising funds to help cover production costs as well as writers’ fees by taking preorders for Closet via a Kickstarter campaign. At first, Vallese was unsure of the idea. “I didn’t want anybody to be confused and think this is not coming out on a real publisher.” But ultimately, they used the campaign as a way to generate interest, promote events around the book, and build community. It was a huge success—they sold hundreds of copies via Kickstarter and raised $18,204, significantly more than their $6,666 goal, allowing them to increase payments for the writers in the book.

Closet has been embraced by readers. The book is on its second printing, and has received starred reviews. “We knew there would be so much crossover appeal, that queer readers and writers would be interested in it, and horror lovers, and people who just love to read really excellent nonfiction,” Vallese says.

Vallese is currently planning additional events to promote the book, including working out the details for a film screening and panel discussion in Asbury Park. “I want to start doing more Jersey stuff,” he says. “I haven’t celebrated it at home yet.”

As for his next project, Vallese will continue to explore horror films—by writing a screenplay for one. He describes the work as “surrogacy horror” based on his husband and his experience with surrogacy, a topic he also explores in an essay for Closet

“Before I wrote that essay, I needed to process it in a different way so I wrote a screenplay that represents our experience,” he says. “It was really cathartic but also turned out well,” so Vallese found a producer who is working with him to get it just right and hopefully get it made.

Vallese’s experience with surrogacy and fatherhood may also end up inspiring him to edit another anthology. 

“I suddenly have the urge to edit a book of essays about queer parenthood,” he says. “I think about how the journey to getting to be a father as a queer person was so specific, but also there are all these small ways in which parenting while queer is very different. Queer parenthood is still pretty rare. It’s expensive, it’s difficult, it’s logistically nightmarish. Adoption is shockingly expensive and tricky. If I do another anthology, it would be something about queer parenthood.” 

When asked more explicitly about the possibility of a second volume of Closet, with more essays on horror, Vallese says the answer is maybe. “But I’m also hoping our anthology inspires other marginalized folk to extend this work,” he says, adding that he can imagine great anthologies on subjects like horror and disability, horror and race, and horror and motherhood.

Vallese says, “I want to inspire others to do that work. I want others to pick up the baton and run with it in other directions. I want the conversation to start with the book, not end with it.”

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