It’s that time again! Welcome back to the 5X5 series that features five authors and their answers to five bookish questions. This time, it’s our Halloween edition!
As we’re just a week away from the day of the dead, we’re welcoming the wicked holiday by celebrating all things haunted and harrowing. As we rush to sink our claws into our favorite monster tales before the ghostly season is over, these five horror authors are just the women to give us all the gruesome details about what it takes to write horror and why the genre matters.
From thriller and suspense to the gothic, from the abject to the femme fatale, Gwendolyn Kiste, Tori Eldridge, Sumiko Saulson, Christina Sng, and Kate Jonez share their wisdom on the strange and scintillating.
Gwendolyn Kiste is the Bram Stoker Award-Winning author of The Rust Maidens. She has also published the novel, And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe, the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, and the occult horror novelette, The Invention of Ghosts, among numerous works of short fiction.
Tori Eldridge is the Anthony, Lefty, and Macavity Awards-nominated author of The Ninja Daughter and its sequel, The Ninja’s Blade. And she knows first hand what she’s writing about, as she possesses a fifth-degree black belt in To-Shin Do ninjutsi. She travels the country teaching the craft and encouraging women’s empowerment.
Sumiko Saulson is an award-winning author of Afrosurrealist and multicultural sci-fi and horror novels. Ze is the winner of the 2016 Horror Writer Association’s StokerCon Scholarship from Hell, the 2017 BCC Voice “Reframing the Other” contest, and the 2018 Afrosurrealist Writer Award. Ze is most recently featured in Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire.
Christina Sng is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of A Collection of Nightmares. She is also the Elgin Award runner-up for Astropoetry, and A Collection of Dreamscapes. She’s received nominations for her poetry in the Rhysling Awards, the Dwarf Stars, and the Elgin Awards. Her latest book The Gravity of Existence is anticipated to release in 2022.
Kate Jonez’ horror stories have been nominated three times for the Bram Stoker Award and once for the Shirley Jackson Awards. She is also the Chief Editor at the Bram Stoker Award winning small press, Omnium Gatherum, which publishes dark fantasy, weird fiction and horror. She has also written the novella, Ceremony of Flies, and her latest collection of short stories, Lady Bits, “explores the horror nestled in the female heart.”
1. At what age did you first start writing horror and why did it appeal to you?
Gwendolyn Kiste: I’ve always been a horror fan. My parents got married on Halloween, and they both love horror, so I was raised on a steady diet of Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, and Universal and Hammer horror films. In that way, horror is strangely comforting, a reminder of fond childhood memories.
I started writing my earliest horror stories around age four or five. Basically, as soon as I could hold a pencil and form words, I was creating weird little stories. That being said, I drifted away from it for a while during grad school. I didn’t come back to it until around 2014 or so, which is when I started writing horror short fiction and submitting it for publication. It’s been a fantastic and fun experience ever since.
Tori Eldridge: My first writing project with strong horror elements was a screenplay I wrote in my mid-thirties after a career as an actress, dancer, and singer. Although I didn’t set out to write horror, the characters and storyline led me to horrific places. I discovered right away that horror, whether deeply human or wildly supernatural, affects me viscerally and captures my imagination. This is why I’ve written several published short stories in the horror genre and even a narrative poem published in the inaugural reboot of Weird Tales Magazine. When writing the mystery thrillers for my Lily Wong series, I explore the tangible horrors of modern society: violence, trafficking, and domestic abuse. When working on my other novel-length projects, I expand those horrors into the realm of magical realism.
Sumiko Saulson: My first horror stories were campfire tales I made up, and told my younger brother and other younger kids, when I was in the third grade. I told stories about the Smeletons, which I’d invented. They were resurrected skeletal zombies with pieces of rotting flesh still hanging off their bones.
Horror probably appealed to me because I was introduced to it at an early age. Our parents took us to see horror films at the drive in when we were very young. I remember playing on the slides and swings at the front of the drive-in while movies like “It’s Alive” played on the big screen. That was back in the 1970s, when people had a very different attitude about exposing children to adult horror films. That said, the scariest movie, to me, as a small child, was Planet of the Apes. The idea that humanity would become obsolete as a species was terrifying. There was a lot of horror on episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. I still have a deep affinity for that kind of deep, thought provoking psychological terror, although I write a good gross-out horror story.
I first started to write horror for publication when I was in my teens. I sent a horror story to Fangoria and got a rejection letter back telling me the genre was suspense, not horror… but that they enjoyed my writing style and encouraged me to send in more stories that were clearly in the genre. I was too insecure to do it at the time, but it did help give me a sense that this was something I could do at a later date.
Christina Sng: I began writing horror around the age of 14. This was in the 80’s when horror in the media was prolific and I was swept up with the intrigue and excitement over it.
Kate Jonez: In third or fourth grade I drew pictures of monsters like “the guy with a snake for a head” or “the witch who lives in the shed behind my house.” I made up the stories and insisted they were true. I got tons of negative attention for this behavior. Then and now, all attention is good attention. I started writing actual horror stories as an adult in my mid-thirties. I found horror was a good way to explore real-life horror and tragedy without being too on the nose or naming names.
2. What do horror stories have to teach us about our world and ourselves?
Gwendolyn Kiste: Fear is such a universal emotion. It’s something we all share. Horror allows us to tap into the most uncomfortable experiences, but in a way that’s safe. We know when we’re reading a horror story or watching a horror movie that we’re going to survive to the end of it. It’s a way of facing the darkness while knowing that you’ll endure and get through it. There’s a real catharsis in that. In particular, during 2020, which has been without a doubt the most chaotic and terrifying year in recent memory, it’s helpful to be able to face those emotions and be able to survive the experience. It can give you a sense of hope and power, even in the most powerless times.
Tori Eldridge: Horror stories explore our fear and shine a light on the darkness we want to conceal. They can empower us through the heroic actions of our protagonist and challenge us with ugly truths and uncomfortable themes. My favorite horror stories are those that resonate with me emotionally and make me think. Writing dark fiction frees my wildest imagination and provides a powerful vehicle for communication and discovery.
Sumiko Saulson: Horror stories rely on primal fears. Primal horror dredges up things like fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, and fear of dangerous natural creatures in order to terrify the viewer. Some stories also teach us about the world and ourselves. For example, “ecoterror” was a huge genre in the 1970 about genetically-engineered superfoods that lead to giant insects and animals. These were sometimes pretty corny, but they sought to teach us to use caution in tampering with nature.
Cautionary tales are a big part of the horror genre. This dates back to old fairy tales told to children. In the dark ages, traveling troupes put on stories called “morality plays” to teach lessons to the masses. Because non-Christian stories were banned, these were always stories whose morals were some sort of object lesson that aligned with scripture. This sort of tone was very present in Gothic and Victorian horror novels, like Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, both of which are sci-fi horror tales warning against the hubris of mankind.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us are examples of cautionary tales based on human behavior. This kind of story, as I have said, showed up a lot on Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. This sort of goes full circle to my fear of Planet of the Apes as a child. It is about how the behavior and actions of humanity can be just as terrifying as outside forces like monsters and aliens.
Christina Sng: I’ve always believed that horror makes us confront our mortality and laugh at it. Death is something we cannot escape but, if we are fortunate, we have a choice in how we face it. Will we face it bravely and at the service of others, or will we face it with cowardice, pulling others down with us? Or do we elude it, for a time, to live a while longer? Horror makes us hold a mirror up to ourselves and ask how we are living. What sort of legacy are we leaving? It also tells us to be smart and get out the moment that we see the red flags! We all learn, eventually.
Kate Jonez: Examining the things that scare us through horror stories lets us poke at and examine the wounds without doing too much additional damage. I’m not sure we really learn much by reading horror. If we did, we’d have solved some problems by now. Horror is primarily entertainment. It’s fun to be scared when there are no consequences.
3. Why are monsters of all shapes and sizes continually revisited in books of horror? What are some of your favorites?
Gwendolyn Kiste: Monsters can symbolically allow us to explore the horrors of the world without having to look directly at what’s going wrong. It’s the same reason that dreams can help us process issues. We can cope with the things that are haunting us, but in a way that doesn’t traumatize us further. As for my favorite monsters, there are probably too many to count! Slasher killers, vampires, and werewolves are all great. As for specific monsters, I love the Babadook; any creature that gets his own pop-up book is pretty awesome if you ask me!
Tori Eldridge: Monsters put a face to our fears, so it’s not surprising to find variations of monsters repeated in fiction. No matter where we are in the world, we’ll find stories of witches, vampires, demons, and shapeshifters. We’ll run into lore about aliens, giants, and fairies. Although world mythology adds fascinating twists, it’s our shared humanity that keeps our monsters relevant.
Sumiko Saulson: Some of my favorite monsters are vampires. The dhampir which is a human/vampire is another favorite of mine. I loved the Blood Rayne movies. The title character is a dhampir. Blade, Vampire Hunter D, and Renesme from Twilight, are all dhampir. Often, dhampir are conflicted between their human and vampire nature and have to choose sides, which I think makes them interesting.
I like emotional monsters who still have a tie to humanity, like the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I also like the way that sometimes, the humans- like Dr. Frankenstein, can seem more monstrous than the creatures. That’s why I loved the 2009 film Splice. In it, an obsessive scientist used her own egg to create a human hybrid creature named Dren. Her emotional attachment to the creature and her scientific interest in it were constantly in conflict. Sometimes, she seemed to project emotions onto Dren – the way people do onto pets when they anthropomorphize them – and other times, she seemed cold and cruel towards Dren.
These types of monsters, that call into question human behavior, are more interesting to me as a writer, than completely detached creatures that consume and destroy humans, like in John Carpenter’s The Thing (Written by Bill Lancaster and based on the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr. novella, Who Goes There?). Not that I don’t love the detached type monsters, too. It’s just that vampires – because they used to be human – and other creatures like that bring up more of a question about the darkness that lies within mankind. Also, because human beings anthropomorphize certain creatures (like zombies, vampires, even the dog in The Thing), we get caught off guard and destroyed by them for presuming that they are like us.
Christina Sng: The eternal hexagon of vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, death, and man are continually visited because, I believe, they reflect our fears. Of being bitten, eaten alive, transformed into something maligned, possessed and taken over, controlled and destroyed—these are relevant and everpresent fears. I’ve always loved the vampire most, possibly because of the romanticism surrounding it—living forever, avoiding the sun, drinking blood, having all the time in the world to read all the books I want!
Kate Jonez: The things that scare us persist, so the monsters persist. Werewolves and shapeshifters allow us to examine the animal nature that lives in us all to one degree or another. Demons, aliens, and other agents of chaos let us address our fears that our social conventions, collective governments and organizations are too feeble to defend against; the vast void of all we don’t know. Zombies let us air out our fears of the failure of medicine and science. My favorites are the women in the water who appear in all cultures. They are the manifestation of the murdered, usually young women, who haunt the pools, rivers or deep water where they met their end for not properly conforming to what was expected of them. I believe these stories persist because people know what they did was wrong, and it haunts them. The idea that these water spirits exist only to get revenge and lure men to their death fascinates me. I often wonder what it is they’d rather be doing. Or maybe luring men to their death is rewarding work….
4. What other horror authors have inspired you and your work?
Gwendolyn Kiste: Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter are two of the biggest ones for me. Shirley Jackson’s work peels back the veneer of the world and exposes the darkness hiding just beneath the surface. In a similar vein, Angela Carter had an incredible knack for taking familiar stories—Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty—and creating deeply unsettling horror tales from them. Both Jackson and Carter were able to tap into the world we recognize and show how many dark things are lurking around us all the time. That’s definitely something I try to do in my own writing.
Tori Eldridge: I enjoy books that engage my emotions, challenge my perceptions, and transport me with vividly efficient prose. Some of my favorite contemporary authors (like Sylvia Moreno-Garcia, Nnedi Okorafor, Jonathan Maberry, and F. Paul Wilson) blend horror into literary fiction, magical realism, science fiction, and thrillers.
Sumiko Saulson: Peter Straub was the first horror writer I ever read, when I was nine. Stephen King was the first horror author I really got into, when I was twelve. Other horror authors that I have been influenced by are Anne Rice, LA Banks, Robin Cooke, and Clive Barker. I was reading LA Banks when I first started writing novels. I was also reading a lot of Christopher Rice when I first started writing novels, so I am sure he’s one of my influences, and not just his more famous mother, Anne. Although not everyone considers Toni Morrison a horror writer, I think The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved are all horror novels. Toni Morrison has had a major influence on me as a writer.
I have been very influenced by short form horror in anthologies. I read a lot of Fangoria. I read horror comics like Weird Mysteries, Witches Tales and Tales from the Crypt. Many of the classic horror comics illustrated older horror short stories such as W. W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw so I was influenced by classic horror shorts. There were terrifying sci-fi horror stories in my dad’s Issac Asimov’s Sci-Fi magazines. Finally, I would say that the Susan Cooper series, Over Sea, Under Stone, had a big influence on me as an adolescent. It’s a dark fantasy series also known as The Dark is Rising Sequence.
Christina Sng: Robert McCammon is my biggest influence. Growing up in Singapore before the Internet, the selection of horror books at physical stores was limited to Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Saul, and Robert McCammon. McCammon’s Swan Song has been, for me, a masterclass in horror writing. It showed me that writing can be beautiful, eloquent, and tell a mesmerizing story. I have strived hard to do the same in my own work.
Kate Jonez: Katherine Dunne’s Geek Love was a huge inspiration when I first started writing, and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. When I read these books, I knew I wanted to create something so that I too could be a member of this “cool author” club. As I gained more experience, I discovered so many more talented authors to give me inspiration: Karen Russell, Caitlyn Kiernan, Kaaron Warren, Stephen Graham Jones, most recently Alma Katsu and Zoje Stage… and so many more.
5. What advice do you have for young writers (of any age) getting into the horror genre?
Gwendolyn Kiste: Keep going. Keep writing, keep striving to become the best writer you can be, and don’t give up when rejection comes. Because rejection will absolutely come. That doesn’t mean you should stop. Keep going, and good things will come your way.
Tori Eldridge: Let your imagination run wild and go, courageously, into the dark.
Sumiko Saulson: For writers just starting out, I would say that if you are pursuing a college education, I strongly urge you to consider majoring in English. Although I started later (I got my AA in English at fifty), I got a lot of support and knowledge as an English major. This includes learning how to work in writer’s groups, how to self-edit and peer-edit, and how to do research. Research is really important to compelling writing.
Joining writer’s guilds, like the Horror Writer’s Association, will help you network with authors, editors and publishers. So will attending, volunteering and paneling at horror, sci-fi and fantasy conventions. Get on the convention circuit and meet people in person. Go to book fairs. This is a lot more effective than just submitting to publishers through the Writer’s Market. If people get to know you in person and talk to you, they will give you advice and leads on what publications are the best fit for you. Remember that anthologies and other publications should be paying YOU – you should not be paying them. I have paid modest ($10) contest entry fees but, for the most part, be very cautious and hesitate to trust publications that ask you for money. Generally, you want to be paid. Your goal should be to start being paid at professional rates. While you are building up your resume (bibliography and biography) as an author, you might be getting paid less than pro rates. You might receive a free copy in lieu of payment. But what you aren’t going to want to do is pay other people money to publish you, ever. On the subject of working for free, use caution. I give reprints of previously published work to reputable charity anthologies.
I’d like to add, especially since this is about women who write horror, that a lot of women start writing later in life. Anne Rice was in her middle thirties when she wrote and published her first novel, Interview with a Vampire. Toni Morrison was thirty-nine when her first novel, The Bluest Eye, debuted. She was a school teacher raising two children. I am divorced and don’t have children, and I was a published poet at nineteen, but I didn’t write my first novel until I was forty-two. I was my mother’s in-home health care worker at the time. Many women are caregivers or educators when they first start writing in earnest. I definitely want to encourage the teachers, stay-at-home mothers, careworkers, and retirees who are just starting out as writers to take themselves seriously.
Christina Sng: Read extensively. Find your favorite authors and read all their books. Write. Write daily, even if it is a line or three. Send your work out. Treasure every piece of constructive criticism you receive from editors and readers. Keep sending your work out. Keep writing.
For decades, I wrote in a bubble. Living in Singapore, I had no writers group and so I developed a system where I became my own editor. I’d write a piece, set it aside for a week. Edit it with fresh eyes till I was happy with it. If I wasn’t, I’d set it aside again for another week and repeated the process until the poem was complete. I truly appreciate the editors who have taken the time to offer suggestions and criticisms about my work when it was found unsuitable for their venue. I’d scour through every word and find a way to apply what they advised. Feedback is always a greatly treasured thing. I am always grateful for it.
Kate Jonez: Stay up to date with the notable authors in horror. Be aware of who’s who and what they write. These are the stories that yours will be compared to. It’s not necessarily a competition, but it’s good to know who’s in the club you want to join. My second and most important piece of advice is this: when writing a scene, get all your words down, then throw out that first idea and come up with a new one. Then throw that out too. Your third (or possibly more) idea is the good one. It’s going to be fresh and all yours. Also slow down. Nobody (me especially) wants to read that novel you wrote in two weeks.
Thank you for joining us for this Halloween installation of our 5X5 series! And thank you to all of the extraordinarily talented female authors for sharing their insight in the realm and genre of horror. Keep an eye out for the second part of the Halloween 5X5, coming to you soon about horror writers of color.
all in-text images via amazon
feature image- second profile from the right- via The Straights Times