Why I Write Horror
First of all, I must say, I don’t really consider myself a horror fiction writer. Then what the hell am I doing here? Allow me to clarify… I see myself as a dark fiction writer, one who writes what might be classed as quiet horror, but if you’re looking for no holds barred gore you won’t find it in my work. Instead, my fiction leans toward the psychological, is interwoven with mythology and legend, is sometimes speculative, often poetic. Always told from the heart.
If I’m honest, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in touch with my dark side. Even as a young child I seemed keenly aware of illness, grief, death, and the powerful consequences such states have on us as humans. Far more so than any of my peers were.
My favourite fairy tales and nursery rhymes were dark, and my mother had a special way of telling them with just the right amount of terror in her voice and fear in her eyes. I loved visiting graveyards, ancient castles, dungeons and caves. At the age of about nine, I remember coming home from a jaunt at the local cemetery (armed with paper and crayons to make gravestone rubbings) and informing my mother that I’d chosen the exact tombstone I wanted for her when she died. In her early thirties, and a bit of a hypochondriac, she wasn’t best pleased.
During my teens, the music I listened to was dark and dangerous, loud and anarchic. I read James Herbert, Graham Masterton, Stephen King, as well as the classics like Poe, Mary Shelley, and novels such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights which some people may not class as horror, but…don’t get me started on the whole genre thing!
My favourite films as a child were Hitchcock’s The Birds and Psycho and Robert Aldrich’s black and white classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Regardless of how many times I watched it, each time Joan Crawford’s character took the silver cover off the dinner plate and discovered her sister had served the pet budgie for dinner, it made me reel. It’s the psychological aspects of horror that enthral me most. The fact that the character played by Joan Crawford was a paraplegic and therefore, to some degree, helpless, made the horror of the situation so much worse. Similarly with Steven King’s Misery. I also remember finding the mental regression of Bette Davis’s character at the end of the film horrific. Again, the psychological horror of her losing her mind entirely. Just terrifying! And the reason for this comes down to control, or fear of the lack of it.
Control is a big issue for me, self-control, I mean, not control of others, which I despise. Once again, the psychological fear of mental illness comes into play. I can honestly say that although I’m not teetotal, and, like most people, enjoy the odd drink, I’ve never drunk enough to lose control. Similarly, I hate seeing people really drunk, or out of their minds on drugs. I’m not moralizing here, I’m just saying it’s a personal issue. The lack of control scares me and therein lies the rub as far as horror is concerned. Think about it…whether you’re trying to escape from a monster, attempting to outwit a murderer, or even if you’re the one with the power, the fear comes in the shape of learning to control it. Or, as is often the case, the total inability to control the situation no matter how hard you try. Take, for example, Steven King’s Carrie, her rage is a powerful, destructive force, instigated by her lack of control over the bullying behaviour of others. And again, in this one, mental health plays a huge role.
In my collection Door and other twisted tales, the protagonist in the titular story, Door, faces supernatural repercussions when trying to deal with his mental health issues following the death of his mother and a few downturns in his life. He is plagued by OCD, continuously counting the number of steps it takes to reach the door at the end of the corridor. He becomes obsessed with the notion that the door is somehow controlling his mind. Is it? You’ll have to read the story to find out. This is the darkest story in the collection, the one that seems to get under people’s skin.
My writing is hugely influenced by whatever happens to be going on in my life at the time. Darker stories often stem from dark times, and vice versa. Sometimes, a traumatic incident from the past may find its way into a story many years later if the mood takes me, or at least the associated angst does.
In my collection Mists and Megaliths, one story, in particular, was written as a means of offloading negative events that occurred in my life a decade prior to writing. In all honesty, it was the worst decade of my life. It’s called Mãra and features a Tibetan spirit box with the power to kill. Apart from the ending, everything that happened in that story is anecdotal.
In my novella, Immortelle, the psychological aspects of grief are explored (a popular theme in my work), when a grieving mother enlists the help of supernatural powers and the whispers of ghosts to help her discover what really happened to her daughter. As I mentioned at the start, I’ve always been more than a bit obsessed with death and grief, but stories allow us to deal with those feelings from a safe distance. And more than that, as writers, we are in control of what happens, not the other way round. In Immortelle, the protagonist controls the ultimate revenge through the ingredients she uses in her glaze recipes.
Exploring the dark side provides an ideal opportunity for the monsters in the closet to be given free rein, those bits of our psyche that might otherwise internalize and destroy us. I’ll quote a line here from the story Lure which features in my collection, Mists and Megaliths:
“Set them free, every single one of them, and in doing so redeem yourself.”
That line kind of sums up how I feel about allowing my inner demons to roam free on the page, and that’s why I write dark fiction.
When Elinor’s daughter, Rowena, is found poisoned and dead in an animal trough, Elinor is sure the local parish priest is to blame.
A ceramic artist by trade and influenced by her late grandmother’s interest in supernatural magic, Elinor crafts an immortelle for Rowena’s grave and attempts to capture the girl’s spirit in the clay model of a starling.
Soon she is inundated with requests for immortelles and the more immersed in the craft she becomes, the greater her powers grow.
As the dead share their secrets with grieving Elinor, she learns the sordid truth of what happened to her beloved daughter and plots a revenge so hideous, it must be kept a secret forever.
Catherine McCarthy is a spinner of dark tales from Wales, U.K.
She writes horror with heart, and has recently published her new collection, Mists and Megaliths. Her Gothic novella, Immortelle – a haunting tale of a mother’s revenge – will be published by Off Limits Press in July 15th 2021.
Her short stories and flash fiction can be found in various places online and in anthologies, including those by Crystal Lake Publishing, Flame Tree Press, The BFS, Curiosities, and Kandisha Press.
When she is not writing, she may be found walking the Welsh coast path or nestled in an ancient graveyard reading Machen or Poe.
Discover more here: www.catherine-mccarthy-author.com
Mists and Megaliths collection: Mists and Megaliths
Immortelle novella: www.offlimitspress.com