Josiah Hesse Summons Up a Haunted Writer's Retreat — With Cannabis

Josiah Hesse heads up the Haunted Writers Retreat in late February.
Josiah Hesse heads up the Haunted Writers Retreat in late February. Glenn Ross
Writing can be a solitary venture…assuming you don't count the ghosts and assorted spirits hovering about during the creative process. Summoning those specters is the hope of the Haunted Writer’s Retreat, courtesy of Josiah Hesse, author of the Carnality series, and Amanda E.K., Suspect Press editor-in-chief and director of Lit on Lit. This new event looks to pierce the veils of both the subconscious and the extra-sensory. In other words, it's a weird and wonderful workshop for everyone, living or dead.

So it makes sense that all this will take place in the small town of Victor, near Cripple Creek, at the Black Monarch Hotel, an old Victorian casino and brothel from 1899 that has embraced its violent and sordid past with luxuriously gothic rooms themed after all things that go bump in the night: killers, witches and more. And that’s just the lodging.

The Haunted Writer’s Retreat, stretching from February 24 to February 28, is an all-inclusive event — food, beer and coffee are included, and so is the cannabis — designed for those interested in both celebrating and composing the written word. (If we had you at “all-inclusive,” tickets are available now.) We spoke with Hesse about the upcoming event and all that is planned: curated horror-writing workshops, bone-chilling bedtime stories, scary movies, a ghost tour of an abandoned mining town and more. You know — the stuff of which nightmares are made, but in a good way.

Westword: So how did this eerie event come about? Where did the idea originate?

Josiah Hesse: I've been fascinated by the explosion in haunted tourism over the last decade, turning what used to be a liability for the hospitality industry into a selling point. And the mythology around Stephen King conceiving The Shining story in room 217 of the Stanley Hotel is such a big part of that. Now that our lives and society exist largely in digital environments, I think people are wondering what power physical spaces hold to empower and inspire us. Whether it's merely an image or an experience in a space tickling our curiosity enough to conjure a fun story or an actual supernatural presence that temporarily embodies us, telling its story through our hands, there's a craving among creative people to collaborate with physical spaces on their projects.

And I've always loved the trope of the haunted writer, like in many King stories, and in Bret Easton Ellis's Lunar Park. I truly believe in the power of a space to take hold of a writer and guide them through a story — sometimes involuntarily.

Why Victor? Did it all start with the Black Monarch hosting and spin out from there? 

I learned about the Black Monarch through Erin Barnes, who has been a staple of the Denver literary scene going back several years. Having a deep fascination with horror and the occult, the hotel was really exciting for me. I stayed out there for a couple nights and fell in love with the space, as well as Victor. I think as Denver is getting so crowded and full of air pollution, people are getting more curious about small mountain towns in Colorado, which often have an exciting history and enchanting community.

click to enlarge The Black Annis/Forest Witch room at the Black Monarch Hotel. - CAIT FALC
The Black Annis/Forest Witch room at the Black Monarch Hotel.
Cait Falc
You and Erin are two of the instructors. Any other Denver writing notables coming down to help?

Amanda will be hosting future editions of the Haunted Writer's retreat, but for this one it will be me and Erin. But we do a have a lot of other help! The morbidly charming Theresa Mercado is bringing her Scream Screen series to the workshops, curating a series of films about writers losing their minds in strange spaces. I've been a fan of hers for years, and am so excited to be working with her on this project. Also, the guys at Mutiny Information Cafe will be scouring their shelves for a collection of their favorite horror novels, which will provide some inspiration to our writers.

You're doing this in conjunction with Lit on Lit, so this is a 420-friendly event, right? The information says it includes not just food, beer and coffee, but also cannabis. That seems like something of a first — and also completely in keeping with the Colorado of today.

Yes! After years of working with Suspect Press creatives and just being in the literary scene in general, we are well aware of how common it is for writers to use cannabis in the conjuring and executing of their stories — and it's time the mainstream literary world acknowledged that. For too long, literature has been pigeonholed into conservative, family-friendly arenas, while no one acknowledges that seriously outrageous writing from Burroughs, Carl Sagan and Zadie Smith are on the shelves of their local library, written by people on weed.

I don't have a problem with these sober, suburban lit events existing — after all, that's how most creative writing programs are funded — but they often don't reflect the culture that has, historically, produced the work that we treasure as a society.

Also, cannabis is wonderful for stimulating ideas. I think it can sometimes get in the way of producing a polished, focused piece of work, but that's what editing sober is for. 

Some of the workshops seem like standard story development; others sound a little more alternative. How do you write a story with the help of a Ouija board and tarot cards?

At the end of the day, this is an immersive art experience. Yes, there is the traditional structure of a creative-writing workshop, and we aim to midwife the conjuring of some dynamite horror stories, but it's so much more than just structure and character development. Our main focus is inspiration and ideas, which can be difficult to teach. Things like a Ouija board, a walk through a haunted ghost town, a serial killer-themed hotel room, or the visitation of some troubled apparition in the middle of the night (or just the possibility of such a thing) can stir up all kinds of story ideas.

Personally, I've always believed that you can't scare other people if you're not scared yourself first. In writing the Carnality novels, I freaked myself out on a nightly basis, conjuring all my childhood fears into a story that, hopefully, translated into chills and nightmares for the readers.

What other sorts of alt-creative-process stuff do you have planned for participants in the workshops?

We'll be doing some writing exercises that are designed to turn off the critical, analytical regions of the brain and rely more on pure emotional instinct — with the potential of some supernatural possession from the sprites and banshees who reside at the Black Monarch. We'll also be diving deep into the history of the space as a saloon, brothel and casino for wealthy mining tycoons, who brutally exploited their workers and viciously harassed the lower classes that served them. The Black Monarch has such a rich history. I'm excited to sift through the volumes of nightmare fodder and lay it out before our writers like ingredients in a cooking class.

There's also going to be horror movies and creepy bedtime stories; what are some of your favorite scary narratives from either the screen or the page?

I'm an enormous Stephen King fan, which is a bit clichéd, but he does such an amazing job at first making you care so deeply for his characters, then intimately dragging you through their misery and mayhem. Lately, I've been obsessed with the movie The Witch. Even though it takes place 400 years ago, there are so many supernatural horror elements that dovetail with the Christian fundamentalist culture I was raised in that it triggers a lot of my childhood nightmares.

As a kid I was obsessed with slasher films, particularly the Friday The 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series, but also standard creep-show stuff like Tales From the Crypt, The Twilight Zone movie, and John Carpenter's films. Oh, and Evil Dead, of course. I rewatched that when I stayed at Black Monarch the first time.

When it’s all over, what do you hope participants take home from this premiere Haunted Writer’s Retreat?

I hope they have an inspiring experience that allows them to tap into the dark regions of their imagination and learn skills to translate that onto the page, ideally walking away with a short story they're proud of — though ultimately it's about the experience, the memories, the stories they tell other people…who are likely to be impressed that someone had the balls to be generally freaked out for five days straight.

The Haunted Writer’s Retreat will take place from February 24 through February 28 at the Black Monarch Hotel in Victor. All-inclusive reservations are available now.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen