Scary’s Voices – Spotlight & Interview
Sometimes when people label something as horror, they’re looking through a narrow lens of blood, guts, and jump scares. But the genre encompasses so much more. Atmospheric gothic literature, subdued ghost stories, the realities of grief – these just as easily belong under the grand umbrella of horror, and often they disturb us on a much deeper level. When I first discovered Neil McRobert’s podcast, Talking Scared, I found a place that delved into these subtle areas of horror and I felt very much at home.
Each week the show invites an author to discuss their latest release, writing process, and frightening aspects of the human condition. While there are innumerable podcasts that interview authors, Talking Scared stands out because of questions and topics Neil McRobert poses to his guests, giving listeners an intimate look into the lives of authors outside of the pages they write.
For example, in the episode with Jeff VanderMeer, host and guest explore the politics of ecology and extinction in relation to the novels Hummingbird Salamander and Annihilation, as well as how humanity can cope under the pressure of these terrifying realities. When Andrew Pyper appeared on the show the discussion focused not only on the ghosts of the Whitehouse, the basis for Pyper’s book The Residence, but also touches on the extremes people go through after losing a child. I was also enthralled by the dialog between McRobert and guest Danielle Trussoni, author of The Ancestor, as they touched upon diverse topics from cryptids like Bigfoot to the double standards women face in publishing.
You can tell McRobert puts in a lot of effort into researching his guests, as the questions and conversations are unique to each person, creating distinct talking points in each episode with runtimes of 1 to 1.5 hours. As the host and guests are all extremely well-read, Talking Scared is also a fantastic resource to find more books, as chats often veer into comparative titles.
Another aspect I really enjoy is that nearly all the episodes are spoiler-free, so if you haven’t read anything by the episode’s guest, you can still listen and enjoy without feeling left behind or come out knowing the entirety of the book you’ve been waiting to read. In rare instances where spoilers can’t be avoided, they’re clearly marked in the show notes which you can look through prior to listening.
Covering a vast range of topics and styles of horror, Talking Scared is a terrific podcast to learn more about your favourite dark fiction authors as well as finding writers who may have escaped your radar. And as you’ll see in the interview below, upcoming episodes include some of the masters of the genre that you absolutely do not want to miss.
J.A. Sullivan Talks To Talking Scared
I was delighted to chat with Neil McRobert about his experience behind the mic from England’s spooky North, so let’s get Talking Scared!
J. A. Sullivan: What inspired you to start a podcast?
Talking Scared: I took up running several years ago and you get through a lot of podcasts when marathon training. I had that typical thought of “I could do that” and then just as typically did nothing about it. More recently I became very disillusioned in my job as a copywriter and, craving some creative control over my life, went back to the podcast ambition. I had ZERO idea of how to do it, what tech I needed, or even what an RSS feed was.
I had two things in my favour though: a friend of a friend who was an audio-technician (and out of work due to the pandemic), and a contact for Paul Tremblay who I once interviewed. Attaching Paul’s name as the first guest opened doors to other people. And from there it’s just grown. So, thanks to Paul, for writing the best horror novel of the 21st century and for helping out a nobody when he didn’t have to.
JAS: When and what was your first introduction to horror?
TS: Wow. That’s hard to pinpoint. I’ve always been macabre of mind (but jolly of disposition), and I’ve always LOVED mysteries and monsters. There are a few inaugural moments – but I’m not sure which came first.
My dad telling me the plot of Carrie on a Greek holiday when I was eight. No idea why, but the imagery of this girl, a bucket of pig blood, and a burning school just captured my imagination.
My gran, who would watch ANY old horror film with me. We watched A Nightmare on Elm Street when I was worryingly young.
Reading Stephen King’s Night Shift one morning after I’d been awake all night at a friend’s sleepover. I think the heightened exhaustion increased the impact of the short stories. I devoured them, moved onto It and never looked back.
I was very lucky that my dad had the most wonderful imagination and patience for a little boy who was obsessed by the weirder side of life. He told me all these creepy stories and mysteries that woke something in me.
JAS: I know you love gothic horror, so for any readers new to this subgenre, what three books would you recommend they start with?
TS: Oh, that’s HARD. I ask my guests a similar question and never realised what I was requiring of them.
A lot of my favourite books actually play with the genre in an informed and meta-way, but that requires some pre-knowledge of tropes etc., so, they possibly aren’t for people NEW to the genre. For a newbie, I don’t think you can go far wrong with the trifecta of:
Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger – a sly, subtle ghost story that may not be a ghost story at all, or not in the way you think. It’s clever but also warm and embracing and it has a lot to say about a certain brand of toxic masculinity before that phrase was well-known.
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights – for me, THE classic Gothic novel. The Brontë’s grew up in a tiny town called Haworth, very close to where I live in the North of England, and Emily captures the bleak moorland and the isolated communities that still prevail here, better than any other writer of her time or since. And even though I’ve just mentioned toxic masculinity, and there is probably no better manifestation of it in all of literature than Heathcliff – you still can’t resist him as a character.
It’s a tough call between Stephen King’s The Shining and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. So, sod it, I’m having both!! Both snowbound narratives, both are infected with an uneasy, sliding sense of minds in disarray, but both at their heart are stories about flawed men doing their best to fight off an invading evil, and perhaps failing. They are, for me, the two greatest supernatural novels to come out of the twentieth century.
JAS: If you could have a séance to contact any deceased author for a guest appearance on your show, who would it be?
TS: Crikey!! What a power that would be. Though it would probably take them a while to get up to speed with the recording software. I’m tempted to say H.P. Lovecraft so that I could have a good go at him for his racism, as well as asking him to actually describe a monster for a change, but no…
Here’s a slightly more obscure answer. It would be a guy called William Gay. Anyone not aware of his work should immediately seek it out. He wrote these few, slight but wholly compelling southern gothics that blended myth and fairy tale and action in a heady mix unlike anything else. The Long Home, Provinces of Night and Twilight, check them out. Plus, a posthumous book called Little Sister Death that is more straightforwardly horror, but GREAT. The closest comparison would be Cormac McCarthy, if he dared crack a joke once in a while. Yeah, I’d love to speak to him because he had quite the life as well.
JAS: You’ve got a fantastic lineup of authors for upcoming shows! Was there anyone you were nervous to speak with?
TS: EVERYONE!! Each week I sit at my desk in my loft and wait for the tech to fail, for me to call the book by the wrong name, for me to make some shockingly offensive comment by mistake. Everyone has been so kind though. Horror authors really do have a heart (not always their own, and sometimes kept in a box under the bed!) and I’ve been so amazed by the kindness shown.
That said, I was a little awestruck by speaking to Tananarive Due recently. She’s such a reigning monarch of black horror fiction and unlike most guests I had to arrange the interview via her assistant. It made me think “oooh this is a bit more professional now” and I was a little worried that she’d be quite brusque – but quite the opposite, she was utterly delightful, and very tolerant of this random white bloke from the other side of the Atlantic asking her all kinds of questions about ‘the black experience’ and ‘black horror.’ I probably sounded like an ill-informed idiot.
Going forward I’ve got some seriously big names: Ramsey Campbell, Max Brooks, Chuck Wendig, Joe Lansdale, Josh Malerman, Grady Hendrix, Stephen Graham Jones, Zoje Stage, Carmen Maria Machado!!! It doesn’t get any less nerve-wracking talking to your heroes.
JAS: Besides hosting a horror podcast, you’re also a writer. What can you tell us about your story “A Well-Fed Man” which was included in the anthology The Fiends in the Furrows II?
TS: Oh, thanks for mentioning this. It’s a great collection of stories and the guys at Nosetouch Press have put out a fabulous book. It’s an anthology of folk horror, which isn’t something I know all that much about – The Wicker Man and Midsommar aside. I wrote the story just because it was burning a hole in me, and they took it for the collection despite me not even being sure it was folk horror.
It’s about a little boy in the middle of The Holodomor – the great Ukrainian famine of the early 1920s. It was a horror intentionally created by Stalin to punish the peasants and it gave rise to all sorts of atrocity and suffering. In my tale, a little boy is searching for food when he becomes aware of a man watching him. A pursuit ensues with some awful secrets unveiled before the end. Let me put it this way, it was inspired by a documentary my dad told me about (there he is again!) in which an elderly woman looked back on the famine from the other side of the century and talked about living with the knowledge that her neighbours stole and ate her baby.
Yeah, it’s a lovely tale.
JAS: What are you currently writing?
TS: Well, I quit my job several months ago to write the GREAT BRITISH HORROR NOVEL. So far, it’s been a struggle and I’m relying on the podcast Patreon to fund the completion, so you know what to do. Wink wink.
It’s a sprawling supernatural tale set in an analogue of the small town of my youth. See the above-mentioned bleak moors and isolated communities and the attached photos that show nothing has changed. It involves a house in which awful things happened, a quarry in which other awful things happened, and the town below in which … yeah, you guessed it. There are sexually voracious demons too.
I’m also tinkering with a more straightforward novel about some people on an island where awful things are happening in real-time. I can’t say too much about that one though because I’m amazed no one else has had the idea already. I’m just praying I can get to the end before someone more gifted writes the same bloody story!
I’d sincerely like to thank Neil McRobert of Talking Scared for taking the time to speak with me. I hope you enjoyed this interview, and if you would like to know more about this show and its creator, feel free to connect with him on the following social medial platforms:
J. A. Sullivan is a horror writer and paranormal enthusiast, based in Brantford, ON, Canada. Attracted to everything non-horror folks consider strange, she’s spent years as a paranormal investigator, has an insatiable appetite for serial killer information, and would live inside a library if she could.
As curator of “Scary’s Voices” on Kendall Reviews, an article series reviewing horror podcasts, Sullivan loves listening to all things spooky. If you have a horror podcast recommendation, let her know.
On top of contributing short stories to Kendall Reviews, her fiction has appeared in Don’t Open the Door (2019), It Came From The Darkness (2020), and she acted as an assistant editor for Black Dogs, Black Tales (2020). Other spooky tales and updates on her writing journey can be found on her blog.
You can follow J. A. on Twitter @ScaryJASullivan
Check out her blog https://writingscaredblog.wordpress.com
Find her on Instagram www.instagram.com/j.a_sullivan
Find her on Instagram www.instagram.com/j.a_sullivan