Stories About Stories by Madison McSweeney

Enjoy an exclusive guest post from Madison McSweeney, author of “Dust in the Jail Cell,” featured in our upcoming anthology ON TIME.

I’ve always been fascinated by stories and storytellers.

I watched a lot of Tales from the Crypt (the animated version) as a kid, and the Cryptkeeper himself intrigued me more than any of the stories he told. Where did he hear all these twisted tales – and who is he telling them to?

I conceived Phillip Oddworth, the villain in “Dust in the Jail Cell,” as a storyteller figure. Oddworth is an omniscient magician who kidnaps a young woman named Lenore, whisking her across space and time and through every story ever told. The room in which he imprisons her overflows with books, notebooks that never run out of pages, and pens that never run out of ink. Oddworth tells stories for Lenore to transcribe; and whenever he sleeps, she furtively writes down her own. 

Of course, their tale doesn’t end well, as they’re challenged by a man who defies narrative: an adversary who can change his identity at will, slipping easily from one character to another.

“Dust in the Jail Cell” is a tribute to storytelling – to the unknown worlds that we visit, and the unusual characters we meet along the way. A hybrid of epic fantasy, science fiction, and gothic horror, it features homages to some of the weird fiction writers I’ve admired over the years: Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Richard Matheson, among others. It also allowed me to play with the sort of fantastical, otherworldly imagery I love – the kind you’d find on a heavy metal album sleeve in the ‘70s or ‘80s, or on the cover of a pulp magazine. 

Margaret Brundage’s provocative Weird Tales covers were a major inspiration for the aesthetic and the plot of “Dust.” To look at her illustrations is to be transported into a mystical world as dangerous as it is alluring; like the best artists, she was as much a worldbuilder as any author.

I’d also be remiss not to credit Vincent Price for informing my portrayal of both Oddworth and his adversary; that man brought villainous characters to life like no one else, and his influence has proved inescapable for me. (Pretty much any villain I write.)

I’m always interested in hearing about the inspirations behind fictional stories, and I usually have a good idea where my own ideas come from. But I really struggled to describe what inspired this one, because it’s not influenced by anything in reality (except, perhaps, the universal experience of being caught in a traffic jam). 

I consider “Dust in the Jail Cell” to be a microcosm of a larger, stranger tale yet untold – and a suggestion that reality may be even stranger than we believe. 


Madison McSweeney is a Canadian author and poet with an interest in the macabre and fantastic. She has published horror, science fiction, and fantasy stories in outlets such as American GothicCabinet of Curiosities, Rhythm & Bones Lit, and Zombie Punks F*ck Off. Her poems have appeared in Bywords, Cockroach Conservatory, Pussy Magic, and the Twin Peaks-themed anthology These Poems Are Not What They Seem. She also blogs about music and genre fiction at and tweets (mostly about heavy metal and horror movies) from @MMcSw13. 

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