"I got that feeling again, that cold feeling. And I thought, well, this is where you put this. This is the architecture for the cage that contains this feeling."
The Last House on Needless Street
When did you start writing? Were you always drawn to horror?
It’s a bit of a funny story because I started writing in my late 20s. And instead of having the typical bottom-drawer novel that most writers have, where they hone their skills and put it away, I wrote The Girl From Rawblood again and again and again for seven years.
The one thing that triggered my interest, and interestingly, it’s like so much of writing, it all happens off stage. You don’t realize what parts of yourself you’re using until suddenly you recognize parts of your life in a book. But I grew up in the U.S., Kenya, Yemen, and Madagascar, so a lot of moving around. And every summer, we went back to this house on Dartmoor, which is really rugged and wild and quite spooky.
When I was about 13, I started waking up in the middle of the night with a hand on the small of my back, pushing me very firmly out of bed. And I could feel every finger on this hand—every individual finger––where it was touching me. It was probably the most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me, before or since. By the time I was in my 20s, I could identify what it had been. But at the time, as far as I was concerned, it was a ghost, and I slept on the floor of my sister’s room for probably four years.
I never told a grown up. Probably because I think it didn’t seem any weirder than any of the other strange aspects of growing up. It just seemed to be part of that strangeness. But the main thing I took away from it was the abject terror. I don’t think people feel fear like that normally in their lives and in the waking, daylight world. You can feel all sorts of terrible things, but that cold hand around your heart is different. And I remember reading one of my first uncanny stories when I was 18 or so, The Monkey’s Paw, by W.W. Jacobs and I got that feeling again, that cold feeling. And I thought, well, this is where you put this. This is the architecture for the cage that contains this feeling. And I think that spoke to me really powerfully of the sort deep and profound nature for that kind of writing.
So, when I finally started writing much later in my 20’s, that was what came out. And it took me quite a while to realize that there was a connection between this experience that happened. But it’s proof of how deep these things can go sometimes.
The Girl from Rawblood
"If you’re writing something you’re afraid of, you’re making yourself vulnerable. It’s showing the reader your soft parts and asking whether they’re afraid of that too."
That sounds absolutely terrifying and makes sense that it would draw you to horror. Why do you think people like to read horror? What draws them to it?
I think the subject matter in horror, and definitely more of the Gothic end of literature, has always appealed to me because I think it's the only genre that's really willing to discuss feelings that aren't very palatable to us as grownups. You're not supposed to feel afraid after you grow up. The literature that deals with it can seem sort of cartoony or a bit camp––not serious. And I think it’s got a huge amount to say.
Horror has a particular quality between the author and the reader. If you’re writing something you’re afraid of, you’re making yourself vulnerable. It’s showing the reader your soft parts and asking whether they’re afraid of that too. I think that’s why it makes people feel less alone. It’s something very private, that perhaps people don't show each other on a daily basis.
We’ve constructed so much around controlling and guiding our instincts to make them compatible with the way we live. It’s so rare that we get that back of the cave fear. But fear can be an inoculation. If you sample what you might feel in a situation, then it doesn’t have the power to hurt you. It has a perpetrator and a reason why the bad thing happens. It’s much more organized than the arbitrariness of life. And maybe we seek out the monster to prove to ourselves that we are not the monster.
"With historical Gothic, it feels like there’s a very established set of rules. I wanted to break some rules."
Your first two novels are firmly Gothic horror novels, and The Last House on Needless Street is less so. Why did you decide to write a more modern horror story with Needless Street? Was it intentional?
There were several things at play. I actually think that Needless Street is very Gothic. It uses all the things that I think of as Gothic in a very different way. All the oppositions are there. Containment and savagery; domesticity and wild landscape. The idea of the house as the central, iconic edifice that drives the narrative.
But I’d also written two historical Gothic novels about distressed girls on moors. Which isn’t meant to be derogatory, but I’d done it. There was an element of feeling a bit defiant because Little Eve, which did very well critically, didn’t sell well. And I thought, I might not get another chance at this. So, I wanted to try something different.
In retrospect, and I didn’t feel like this at the time, but if there isn’t a historical familiarity to lend you comfort, if you transpose it into settings that aren’t naturally associated with the Gothic, it starts to feel quite dangerous. It starts to feel exciting. Because you’re making it up, you’re inventing the rules to the universe. Whereas, I think with historical Gothic, it feels like there’s a very established set of rules. I wanted to break some rules. And I wanted to see if I could do it.
If you could describe Needless Street in five words, what would they be?
Talking cat solves horrible murder.
"People can not only survive but actually thrive in situations where it shouldn’t be possible at all."
Without going too much into Needless Street, what do you hope readers will take away from the story?
I think the book uses a lot of the conventions of horror to tell the story, although not perhaps in the way people expect. I’m really fond of those conventions, I have a great deal of affection for the narrative dance horror conventions do. It’s not meant to be a rejection of that, but I think it’s telling a slightly different story. I think it’s fair to say that some horror has a problem with talking about mental illness and I wanted to write a story that deals with that. Where the reader’s preconceptions can be played against them. And I don’t want to shame anyone or make anyone feel stupid, it’s just me telling the story I see around me.
I’d like people to come away feeling the sense of awe I felt when I was researching it, about how incredibly resilient the human mind is. The things people were willing to share with me was quite extraordinary. And the way people can not only survive but actually thrive in situations where it shouldn’t be possible at all. It felt sort of like the book started writing me as I researched it, because the more I learned, the more miraculous and strange I felt the world was. My biggest hope is that I’ve imparted some degree of my awe at the human mind and the way it works in the world.
Do you have a favorite character or book that you’ve written so far? Most challenging?
How can I choose between my evil children? It’s very difficult not to say Olivia. She represented such a rare patch of comfort and light in a book that was actually a hard place to spend my days. And I worked really hard to make sure it wasn’t sentimental or cute. I had all these worries about writing an animal narrator, and in particular a cat because that has cozy overtones. And in the end, it was that magical thing where she just strolled in, as cats tend to do. Plus, I love how she became the moral center of the book. I didn’t expect that to happen.
The most challenging is probably going to have to be Ted. He was difficult because I had to do so many things with him at once. You can’t just feel loathing and fear of him, he had to have humanity that steers him as well. Psychopathy can often be a big, empty narrative room with nothing there and he couldn’t be like that. It was difficult to draw him while doing what I needed to do for the story. That was really hard technically. And in another sense, without going into detail, there were scenes with him that I almost couldn’t write either. I found them too horrible. I knew they had to be there because the book needed them, but there was a space in my manuscript almost until the day I had to send it off. I just didn’t want to go there emotionally. So that was difficult.
What other areas of horror would you like to explore in the future?
So, my next book starts as a kind of domestic noir. It’s a bit different, but I didn’t want to do Needless Street again. This one wears the guise of domestic noir, which I have a huge affection for. But it also conceals something beneath that. It seems that what I like to do is write novels dressed up as other kinds of novels. I think that maybe someday––not today––but someday I might write something where everyone doesn’t die or have a terrible time.
And who doesn’t have a yearning for the vampire in their writing life? I think we’ve done something really interesting with vampires over the course of time. They started being monsters because we believed human beings could never do those terrible acts. But now we’re using them to express parts of ourselves again and it’s really interesting how we’ve reappropriated vampires into humanity.
I’d also like to do another haunted house narrative even though I already did that. I look at my first book sort of like an old lover, I’m very fond of it but I don’t know what I thought I was doing. So I’d like to have another crack at that.
What are you reading, listening to, watching right now?
I’m reading Alma Katsu’s new book, The Fervor, which is set in the American Japanese internment camps and it’s really wonderful. It’s so sad and so good. I love her writing.
I just started watching Midnight Mass, which I think is wonderful so far. I hope it continues and fulfills its early promise because it has some of the best characterization and writing I’ve seen in a long time. I’m also re-watching Mindhunter and the more I watch that show, the more I think it’s so good. It really knows how to summon the incredible tedium and dreariness of these investigations, while also conjuring incredible violence. I think David Fincher’s a genius at that.
The thing about listening is I don’t really listen to music when I’m writing because it’s too emotional. It makes me start writing the music. I know a lot of people use music to ground them and it helps. But for me, if I could, I would write in a hermetically sealed chamber with no sound and no people and no night or day.
What can readers expect from your next novel?
Sundial is about a mother and a daughter, where the mother starts to expect that her daughter might be dangerous and that she might be a danger to her younger sister. So, she takes her back to her deserted childhood home, which is almost a facility, where her parents had conducted experiments. The mother tells the story of her childhood to her daughter, and the past and present intertwine.
I have such a strong relationship with my family, so this book explores the idea of that going wrong and terribly awry. It’s so terrifying to me that this mother and daughter bond, which is so powerful to me, could have these less palatable aspects to it. That this bond doesn’t have to be a sentimental thing, that it can be a really powerful, atavistic, feral thing. It’s mainly the two of them talking in the desert but there are these suspicious, terrible moments that each of them has about the other. It’s very different.
I’m obsessed with the MK-Ultra experiments that the CIA did in the 70’s. It’s basically human experimentation and a lot of this stuff has just been declassified. One in particular I found in The Black Vault and I couldn’t not write about that. It’s so gratuitous, there was no purpose to it beyond the idea of can we do it. And I hope readers enjoy it.