Women in Horror Month: A Discussion with Maruyama & Fenn

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Harrowgate author Kate Maruyama

KM: So, Fenn, aside from both of us having horror books that came out this fall and the fact that we’re both women, we both grew up in New England. What sort of alchemy is at work here? Did the New England thing have anything to do with your writing horror? Was it the long winters or old houses? Graveyards? Local lore?

JLF: Absolutely. It’s a spooky place in general, but you feel it even more in small towns, like the one I grew up in. In winter the days are short, the shadows long, and you’re surrounded by history, much of it bloody although no one talks about it. You just start to notice things. Like why are the local schools named after Native Americans when you’ve never met one? Why are the songs you sing on the playground about plagues that happened in England hundreds of years ago? New England is all about the unspoken horror.

KM: And those graveyards! I was obsessed with them, particularly small ones that occurred in totally random places. I grew up on a college campus and there’s a small graveyard with only twenty graves or so next to a dorm. My dad told me stories about them—of three of them bearing Chinese characters and he said, “Traveled all the way from China here for school. Died of immediately smallpox.” The joke is, he was probably making it up, but every grave had a story! Some of the graves dated back to the early 18th century.

The long winters (and hot humid summers) made for a LOT of reading time. As this is Women in Horror month, I’ll ask, who were your biggest influences among women writers?

J. Lincoln Fenn Avatar

Author J. Lincoln Fenn

JLF: Edith Wharton. She’s generally not included in the canon of women horror writers, but she knew how to write a helluva good ghost story. Afterward is one of my favorites. I also worked at her house in Lenox (The Mount) which A: is haunted, and B: became the source of recurring dreams. I’m always searching the panels for the secret door to take me to the cupola, which is where she keeps her illegitimate daughter hidden away. I’m sure a Freudian analyst could have a field day with that one.

KM: I adore Wharton. And she knew what to do with the northeast. Even in her non-ghost stories, her Hudson River Valley is haunted – the trees, the cold, the houses, the regret. My horror influences were horrifying but, like Wharton, not technically considered horror. Margaret Atwood- A Handmaid’s Tale was one of the most terrifying, tense books I’ve ever read. And Shirley Jackson. I saw a film version of “The Lottery” in passing on television when I was about eight or nine and thought it was a documentary. I lived in terror that our New England town had just such rituals, but no one had told me about them yet. I totally imagined my Dad would pull that black spot and I tried to think of ways to get us out of it. We could move to the city! When I read the story in high school it was a huge eye-opener to the deep, unsettling power a scary story can wield. That’s a certain brand of fear I can’t easily shake.

JLF: I have an altar to Margaret Atwood which I bow to daily. Oryx and Crake is both horrific (ChickieNobs!) and prescient (we now have glow in the dark bunnies). Maybe that’s the connecting thread – they all expose the larger horrific truths within the context of the genre. (And scare us to death in the process).

KM: Yes! And I think good horror exposes those truths, unearths those fears and points them out so that we can all essentially admit that part of being human is to be terrified. Death is, after all coming for us all.

Or as this epitaph from a Connecticut graveyeard dated 1783 says: To the living: Begin betimes your Christian race, for every moment flys apace, and none can escape a dying hour By art or riches, strength or power.   

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