Author J.W. Ocker and his youngest child

Author J.W. Ocker is a weirdness expert.

If you did not know that there could be such a thing as a weirdness expert, you should check out one of Ocker’s many travelogues and compilations of destinations that celebrate all things weird.

From his experiences visiting public sites such as a loosely defined Salem “history museum” where visitors don 3d glasses and are treated to kaleidoscopic monster dioramas, to glimpses of private collections including infamous artist Joe Coleman’s and Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed Peter Fawn’s, Ocker’s books are always a trip.

Ocker’s fascination and appreciation for the quirkiest, most ironic and macabre sites around America shine through on every page. And his candid insights are often laugh-out-loud funny.

Ocker is also a devotee of all things horror. And his first novel, Twelve Nights at Rotter House, was released last October.

Strictly sheltering in place, I’ve been revisiting Ocker’s books as a mental escape hatch. I was especially curious to know how a prolific adventurer was adjusting to the travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic. And I was fortunate to get to interview Ocker in late May.

You’re a published author, a blogger, a podcast host, a husband and a father living in New Hampshire. How has your daily life changed since the spread of Covid-19?

Honestly, not a whole lot. I work in a digital industry and already worked from home 60% of the time. Plus I do a lot of writing at night, and nothing’s changed between me and my desk.

So, for me, the “daily life” changes have just been a screw turn or two of inconvenience as opposed to the whole screw that it’s been for a lot of people. I feel a little left out, but in both a good way and a bad way.

While New Hampshire has a relatively low death rate from Covid-19, the unemployment rate there is currently higher than the national average. What is your perception of how things are being handled in the state where you live? Are people following social distancing guidelines? Are there shortages? Do you feel safe?

I live about five miles from the Massachusetts border and about 45 miles from Boston, so I’m only really in New Hampshire map-wise when it comes to stuff like this.

But we are notoriously the “Live Free or Die” state. I went out to the stores today, and I think it was pretty much a 100% masked population (the stores are all requiring it here, though, so I don’t know how much of that can be credited to personal responsibility). But it still surprised me. We don’t even make adults wear seat belts or motorcycle helmets here.

I’m sure farther north where there’s no virus, it’s a much more lax situation.

Shortages are probably about average, but there are a million grocery stores within driving distance of us. We can find what we need. Often what we want.

I definitely feel safe, but I do have this new fundamental and overall disgust of other people’s biology that I usually only felt on crowded subway trains previously. I think most of us are developing that. A new kind of stranger danger.

You have three kids, two of school age. Is your family dealing with home schooling? If you are how has that been going and has that made writing from home more challenging?

My wife Lindsey has really taken point on the homeschooling to such a degree that I don’t even know it’s happening most of the time. That’s shielded me so that I can keep working. Couldn’t do it without her.

Your older girls have been travelling with you and your wife their whole lives. Do you get the sense that exposing them to so many places has impacted how they are processing current events? What are the advantages you’ve seen of not just travelling, but travelling to bizarre places and cemeteries, in helping them form their identities?

I think the current situation to them is just a COVID Christmas. They don’t have to go into school. It takes much less time to do their work. They don’t have to leave the house, really. That and a computer is paradise to them.

As to the weird trips, I think they take some pride in it. My oldest calls us an “adventure family,” but she’s now ten and would rather stay at home on the computer.

But you can see it connect with them when a place we’ve visited comes on TV and they instantly point it out or they’re telling somebody else about a place that we’ve been.

Really, my hope is just that I’m planting a seed of curiosity about the world with them, and that when they’re older they’ll appreciate and pursue that curiosity. That’s how it happened for me. I was a jerk when it came to new experiences when I was young.

Do you feel that the time you’ve spent reflecting on macabre objects and mortality has helped you process or come to terms with current events?

Oh man, I wish. I’ve never gotten better at death despite my obsessive interest in it. In fact, I’ve probably gotten worse at it as I’ve aged. I think, though, you could probably make a good case that as a modern society, our distance from death has certainly influenced how we’ve reacted to the pandemic. Super interested in how all of this is going to look in hindsight to future-us and future-not-us.

Your blog Odd Things I’ve Seen (OTIS) and your travelogues catalogue your adventures in seeking out oddity sites. But you’ve recently put more focus into writing fiction. Your first adult novel, Twelve Nights at Rotter House, was published last October. And your second novel for a younger audience, The Smashed Man of Dread End, is being released next year. Were you reducing your dark explorations even before the pandemic stay-at-home orders went into effect?

No, not at all. Novels impact the volume of my nonfiction writing about my odd and macabre visits, but it doesn’t stop the actual visits. For instance, I have a list of like 200 oddities that I’ve been to that I’ve never written about, either in books or on OTIS.

I can’t foresee those explorations ever going away as long as I’m able to do them, but the writing about them has to share some desk space with my fiction for now.

I’m never not too far from nonfiction, though. Even now, I have a nonfiction book coming out this year, plus the weekly OTIS Club newsletter, which is all about the oddity I visit, plus I have a new column for New Hampshire magazine that deals with local oddities. I think it’s just the OTIS website that gets a little fallow these days (except for the Halloween Season).

Your next nonfiction book, Cursed Objects, is due in September. Your previous books and your blog only feature sites that you have physically seen. Is that true of Cursed Objects as well?

I got to bend my rules a little bit for this one. Partly because some of these cursed objects are lost to history. Also because we took the book in a more global scope and I couldn’t make it everywhere (although I did make it outside the country). But I’ve been to most of what’s in the book, and my personal experiences visiting (and even buying) cursed objects are a prominent portion of it. Basically, there are still a lot of I’s in this book, for good or ill.

J.W. Ocker peeking out of a monk cave in Massachusetts. Colonials used to store vegetables in these underground stone structures. This photo is from a post on the Odd Things I’ve Seen blog in September of last year.

Is oddity-hunting still a crucial aspect of your identity? If it is are you feeling at all lost or out of balance because of the pandemic? If it’s not, what’s changed?

Totally still is a part of my identity. And, yeah, this is the part of the pandemic that’s had the biggest impact on my life (other than not being able to see extended family).

I missed a trip to Vegas, in which I was planning to see the Tim Burton exhibit at the Neon Museum and a Headless Horseman-themed bar.

I’m still wondering what will happen to the King Tut exhibition that was supposed to be in Boston in June.

I don’t have any vacation scheduled. We can’t fly anywhere or go on a long road trip, because we’d have to make sure our comfort level with public restrooms and hotels was high enough. All the museums are closed.

I frickin’ built a fire pit at my house yesterday. That’s how homebound I’ve become. I mean, we’re still getting out every weekend, but not more than an hour or so away from the house at a time.

That said, I’ve discovered a lot of new and amazing sites really close to us. Sometimes you miss what’s at your toes when you’re looking at the horizon.

A photo of a headstone in Chester Village Cemetery (Est. 1751) in New Hampshire posted by J.W. Ocker on his Odd Things I’ve Seen blog last October

Do you have any advice for oddity seeking addicts to get their fix with so many sites closed? You mentioned very briefly on a recent episode of your podcast Odd Things I’ve Seen that you’ve been visiting graveyards lately. What have you been getting from those visits and have you had the spaces to yourself?

Yes! Graveyards are great for this. They’re full of strange history and odd epitaphs and weird art and interesting dead people. And everybody there is socially distanced the required six feet. It’s just straight down. But also great are anything in the woods (we have a lot of ghost towns and various natural oddities in the woods of New England), as well as outdoor monuments and memorials.

Many of the sites you write about are run on shoe string budgets and some are only open for part of the year. Are we losing valuable attractions and do you think the niche travel industry will be able to recover?

Oh definitely. But niche attractions are always closing down. If I listed all the “dead oddities” I’ve been to in the past, it’d be a long list. So the pandemic might accelerate some of these deaths and that’ll be sad, but it’ll also be biz as uze. Fortunately, new ones always pop up. Weird finds a way.

Do you foresee changing how you approach travel even as the country reopens? What will it take to make you feel safe taking an extended trip with your family in the future?

Uncertain. I’ll definitely need to feel comfortable about it, no matter how things shake out. It’s a huge question for me.

But I think what it’ll take is just getting used to everything again. Stepping outside with a mask on was difficult the first time, because it was just scary to be out there. Now it’s just the way it is. Soon the first time without a mask will be difficult. And then we’ll get used to it.

Humans are great at adapting and normalizing. And who knows, maybe the new normal will still be the old normal. We’re good at that, too.

Your books New England Grimpendium and New York Grimpendium compile many historic macabre sites from early American history all the way up to the 9/11 memorial. At the time I’m writing this question, America has just tragically passed the 100,000 death count. Do you have any sense if this pandemic will result in any sites that would be worthy of future Grimpendiums? Why or why not?

Hopefully. Whether they’ll be worth visiting or not us up in the air. You can see that with the 9/11 memorials you mentioned. Some are compelling and some are boring. Certainly a time as strange as this and a death count as large as we’ve had, needs memorializing of some sort. But if you make a memorial, you’ve got to make it memorable. We often err too far on boring and sedate for our “serious” civic memorials.

One of the things I love about your guides is your humorous voice and observations that are laugh-out-loud funny. Does it take distance to find the funny and absurd side of death? Have you found any humor in the pandemic and do you think you ever will?

“Find the funny” is a great phrase. But it’s not really an effort for me. It’s more a default.

“Find the serious” is harder for me. You can tell that in my fiction and nonfiction, where it’s a real battle for me to relay the story as serious as I should when all I want to do is Douglas Adams everything.

But the entire world is ludicrous. Always has been. We live on the ludicrous and then we try our hardest to ignore the ludicrous. Even the pandemic is hilarious. We’re proudly showing off the designs of our masks on the socials and feeling sacrificial for binging Netflix at home and putting grocery baggers on the heroic scale next to astronauts and turning into soapbox preachers online and witnessing celebrities lose their minds for lack of attention and watching companies pretend they’re our family in commercials and sitting under leadership that literally doesn’t know what to do and suddenly everybody on the planet understands statistical analysis and disease vectors. It’s just that right now we’re all too close or too cautious to allow ourselves that perspective. Probably for good reason. But at some point we will get that perspective. Or our kids will have it when they grow up. They’ll probably make fun of us. I hope they do, at least.

What is the role of the written word and the writer in a time of crisis?

Great question. I think it’s to be mindful. To keep our heads. Today we have knee-jerk reactions that take 280 characters to type out and then get passed around to too many people at the speed of button clicks and then disappear like it never happened.

The writer, though, they need to sit back, research, take in ideas, play with them, allow time to alter their perspective, fret over every word choice, and then stand by it after it’s out there. If you’re not willing or capable to sit down and write a 1,000-word essay on a topic, that topic’s not important enough for you to post an opinion about on social media. Especially because writing is exactly how we organize thinking. The way to really tell the quality of the public discourse is not by the talking heads and the social media takes, it’s the longer written content. That’s where my hope always lies.

Twelve Nights at Rotter House by J.W. Ocker

The premise of your novel Twelve Nights at Rotter House is that the protagonist is going to spend thirteen nights in a haunted house with an especially murder-filled history. He makes the point that he’s not even going to step outside the front door during his time there. I read it going into my third month of isolation, and while it’s an engaging diversion and absolutely worth reading, I had the mean thought of “thirteen days? Please. I could do that standing on my head now.” Has your perception of any horror stories or tropes been affected by the pandemic?

Oh, I loooove that insight. For me, in a family of five, the lockdown hasn’t been overly lonely. But you’re right. A lot of people are living that exact life right now. Although thanks to the Internet and the socials, they’re not as cut off as Felix and Thomas.

That’s probably even harder for us, right? It might be harder to be allowed to go anywhere you want, but you can’t use the Internet/socials/streaming services versus you have to stay by yourself, but you can do all of that.

As to horror tropes this pandemic has ruined for me…I’ve never been a big fan of apocalypse or post-apocalypse fiction (unless it’s an alien invasion or it’s so post that it’s a whole nuther world), but I’m pretty confident that it’ll be a long time before I read any disease/virus-related fiction. It’s not much of a magic trick anymore.

While reading Twelve Nights at Rotter House I also had the notion that sheltering in a house with that kind of offputting history would make social distancing a breeze. Take your children out of the equation for a second. Is there a haunted location from reality or fiction that you’d happily pass your self-quarantine period in? (I’m obsessed with the house in Woman in Black, so that’s my pick.)

In fiction, it’s the Psycho House. I’m in love with the Psycho House. Its shape, its role in Psycho. I’ve seen every thing that the Psycho House has appeared in, even the episodes of Murder She Wrote and Knight Rider that filmed at it.

In real life, I’d love to sequester at any haunted house. That’s always been kind of a dream of mine. In fact, TWELVE NIGHTS started as a nonfiction project where I wanted to do exactly that, but then I realized it would be a boring idea (and maybe the lockdown has proved that), so I turned the idea to fiction. That said, I would enjoy trying it at the S.K. Pierce House in Gardner, MA. That’s the house that inspired TWELVE NIGHTS.

I’m told I have unusually dark predilections. But there have been some recent days when reality has more than filled my horror quotient and even I crave light, frothy content. I know some people are deliberately seeking out the pandemic and infection horror catalogues during this time. You are a big fan of movies and television. What have you been watching during this period? Have you been drawn to or repelled from consuming any media because of the pandemic?

My movie and book consumption hasn’t changed as a result of the pandemic, either in quantity or content. I’m still watching and reading a lot of horror. I will say that I’ve stopped listening to podcasts. The only time I can listen to them is in the car because I need absolute silence when I’m working or writing. And these day my car is covered in spiderwebs.

What can we do to support your work during this time?

If you have some spare dollars, I’d be honored if anybody would buy a book (from your local indie store) or join the Patreon. If not, reviews on Amazon and Goodreads or a good word on the socials can really change my day.

Thank you very much J.W. for doing this interview. I really got to fangirl out on this one if you couldn’t tell.

Readers who’ve been quarantining, J.W. posed the question.  What do you think would be more difficult?: A) You can go anywhere you want, but you have no access to the internet.  or B) You are isolated in one location, but you have unlimited internet access.  Let us know in the comments.

And if you’ve read any of J.W. Ocker’s books share your thoughts on those in the comments too.

If you’re looking for something to read that lets you have a vicarious adventure while you’re social distancing, I highly recommend A Season with the Witch in which J.W. and his family spend the month of October exploring Salem, Massachusetts.  Poe-Land is another fun journey by J.W. where he visits all the sites relevant to our favorite dreary-ite, Edgar Allan Poe.

To learn more about J.W. Ocker’s work or to read his blog and listen to his podcast, visit his website, Odd Things I’ve Seen (OTIS).

I’m looking forward to the release of Cursed Objects (I anticipate it being like a wish list in book form I can pass out to friends and family who might want to get me presents.  How many cursed objects in the house is too many?  Trick question!) in the fall and you can preorder it here.

*This post contains Amazon Affiliate Links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Dahlia Jane

Dahlia Jane is a wicked writer living in Los Angeles.  She writes about the dark arts scene, goth life and fascinations with the macabre.  Dahlia spends her free time obsessing about skulls, devouring true crime and occult books, sewing and making messes.

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