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Ladies of Horror : the Next Generation

e-interviewed by Martina Bexte (October 2003)

One of the most rewarding aspects about reviewing for BookLoons is the opportunity to discover new authors; especially those who put a fresh spin on old themes. Some of the most innovative work in the horror/dark fantasy genre is being produced by very talented ladies - no big surprise there, as it was after all Mary Shelley who created the perennially popular Frankenstein in 1831. Four such innovators talk about their work here and answer the question on everyone's mind as summer wanes and fall displays her harvest colours -- 'is Halloween really your favourite day of the year?'

Kelley Armstrong's first book Bitten (which tells the story of Elena, the world's only female werewolf) caused publishers and readers to sit up and take notice. The sequel, Stolen, further explores Elena's world and life within her close-knit all male Pack and also introduces Armstrong's intriguing 'supernatural sub-culture', one that she delves into more fully in her third release, Dime Store Magic. Hollywood is currently eyeing Bitten for the big screen. Kelley lives in rural Ontario with her husband and three children and writes full time.

Karen Koehler is a New Jersey native, who has always had a deep interest in monster films and horror literature. At the ripe old age of 29 she published her first vampire novel Slayer. She followed it up with a series of equally memorable and graphic books: Scarabus, a skin-crawling story set in early Egypt and two sequels to Slayer, Black Miracles and Stigmata. Her recent The Maiden : Out of the Ashes, is the first of another series that puts an interesting, action-packed spin on the alien invasion theme.

Jaye Roycraft lives in Milwaukee and has, in her own words, had a 'twisted career path' that's taken her from being a teacher to a police officer. She left that dangerous profession after eight years and now works in the insurance industry. Jaye slips easily into the world of vampires and otherworldly denizens. Her popular vampire romance books - Double Image, Afterimage, Shadow Image and Immortal Image - are published by ImaJinn books and she's currently at work on two more vampire stories, Moondance and Half Past Hell.

Tamara Thorne is a self-described ghost hunter and Fortean. Her interests include witchcraft, haunted houses, vampires, voodoo and folklore, the scientific side of the paranormal, and government high-jinks and conspiracies - some of which she's explored in her novels. She's proven herself increasingly popular on the Pinnacle Horror lists with such titles as Haunted, The Forgotten, Bad Things, Moonfall, Candle Bay and Eternity. Her current release is a serial novel called The Sorority that follows college students Eve, Merilynn and Samantha as they investigate the sinister sisterhood of Fata Morgana. Tamara lives and works in California with her husband Damien, and their spoiled felines.

Q: Ladies ... let's begin with the question you're probably tired of answering but that everybody always asks anyway -- Why horror? What attracted you to the genre?

Karen: I think it happened the day I sat at my grandmother's house in front of the TV with my hands half over my eyes while It Conquered the World played on, scaring the stuffing out of my poor, virgin, 6-year-old brain. It became a kind of infection; as I grew horror grew with me. I was a somewhat lonely, isolated teen but these terrible monsters growling and gnashing across the silver screen were always there to entertain me. When I turned to writing professionally in my early twenties, it just seemed natural that I should write horror. It never occurred to me to write anything else.

Tamara: I didn't choose it, it chose me. I write about things I'm interested in and I've been a sucker for ghosts and hauntings and folklore in general since I was knee-high to a garden dwarf. There was never a choice to make.

Jaye: I've had a fascination with vampires since I was a kid. WGN had a show every Saturday night called Creature Features that ran classic vampire, werewolf and Frankenstein movies. I was hooked, and as a result saw every horror movie made in the 30's and 40's while still very young. Of all the movies, the original Dracula movie with Bela Lugosi was my favorite. As an adult, my law enforcement career has also had a big impact on my writing dark fiction. I've seen a lot of the worst of humanity, and it has spilled over into my writing.

Kelley: I've been interested in the supernatural for as long as I can remember ... right back to Saturday mornings watching Scooby-Doo. When I started to write I chose the genre I knew best and most of my childhood and teen year stories contained supernatural elements. Then, as an adult, I felt the pressure to develop more so-called 'mature' writing tastes. So I wrote mainstream fiction, but occasionally slipped in the odd bit of horror for fun. That's what supernatural fiction is for me -- fun. It's the opportunity to explore dark fantasy worlds, where I can create my own rules and tell the stories I want to hear.

Q: Karen, Jaye and Tamara ... you've built some of your credentials around vampire fiction, a sub-genre that remains consistently healthy. Can you explain the ongoing allure of the vampire archetype? Kelley -- werewolf tales run a close second to vampire stories in popularity -- what's the fascination? What is it about your particular vampire or werewolf tale that sets it apart from the others out there?

Kelley: Vampires really do dominate the genre. I read somewhere that the allure of vampires is that they combine two great universal themes: eroticism (and the price that may have to be paid for it) and immortality (and the price that may have to be paid for that). Werewolves run a pretty distant second, though they seem to be gaining in popularity. I think that the fascination with werewolves comes down to the simple 'call of the wild', the exploration of the wild side of human nature and the beast within the man (or woman!). What sets my werewolves apart from others? In a word: nothing. There's nothing that I've done that hasn't been done before in some form. When I created my werewolves, my goal was to make them as 'realistic' as possible, so I picked through the existing mythology, chose the elements that made sense to me and discarded the rest. Some of it I did 'make up', but I'm sure that if you combed carefully enough through werewolf fiction, you'd find that someone else did it first. When working with an archetype like vampires and werewolves, you have to accept that true originality is impossible to achieve.

Jaye: I love vampires for all the usual reasons -- because they're sexy, sensual, dangerous, etc., but as a writer I love them because they're so versatile. I particularly like to use vampires as a mirror for human emotion and as a way to explore 'good' and 'evil.' It bugs me when people tell me they don't read vampire stories because vampires are 'evil.' My vampires have both good and evil within them, just like humans. I believe that in the long run, my stories are more about human emotion and the struggles we all have within ourselves than anything else. The vampires just provide a fun vehicle for telling my human stories. I think what sets my vampires apart is that I put them in very contemporary, real settings. They re more 'human' than most vampires. They do have special powers, but they don't fly, climb walls or turn into mist. My mother once asked me how I knew so much about the vampire hierarchy. I laughed and said, 'mom, they're vampires -- I made it up!' But I think her question was a testament to how 'real' the characters had become to her.

Tamara: Sex and death, death that's also immortality, more sex, eternal youth, plus sex, forbidden body fluids, weird penetrations as pecker substitutes? I don't know. My favorite vampire is George Hamilton's in Love at First Bite, which tells a tale on Candle Bay. It's serious in some ways, but my stake in vampire fiction is more of a poke than a thrust. It's pastiche, frequently meant to tickle the funny bone of a very close friend who is famous for her special vampire, St. Germain. I think Candle Bay has some bite, and certainly I go for the jugular frequently but keep in mind the human heroine is named Amanda Pearce and the patriarch of the Darling Family thinks he's 'The Godfather'. I enjoyed it so much I left the ending wide open for a sequel. What sets my vampires apart? They're not terribly dark, they aren't arrogant when it comes to interaction with humans (for the most part) and they're hemoglobin snobs. What a wine cellar!

Karen: Vampirism is a metaphor for either sex or loss of identity, which are consistent themes throughout literature as a whole (and are often linked together). Vampires are the embodiment of what we most fear-and most desire. They represent taboo behavior, mortality, and destruction through rampant acts of desire. Lust without consequences. Hunger without conscience. Vampire literature gives readers with otherwise mundane lives a chance to envision a world dripping in decadent atmosphere, or they take readers away from a world moored in the insipid journey of the everyday man. Can you imagine a world without vampire stories? The idea scarcely deserves imagining.

Q: Your individual styles run the gamut from subtle to outright graphic -- is there a line you've drawn on the page that you won't cross or will you try anything once?

Jaye: I write for a publisher that targets the romance market as well as the paranormal market, so my books have to follow the expectations of a romance novel. Part of that expectation is that violence is not overly graphic, and the hero in particular cannot be excessively cruel, especially to women. Some of my scenes border on graphic, but they are short scenes and involve vampire on vampire violence, not vampire on human violence.

Tamara: I prefer not to show the good guys (and gals) having sex. Only the neutral or nasty people actual get down and dirty -- beyond foreplay -- most of the time. Showing your hero's fruit basket just seems rude. I never harm felines and in deference to my canine-loving friends, try not to do too much doggie damage. I'll never live down those poodles in Bad Things. I dislike animal horror and try not to do Bad Things to furry four-legged things in general. I disliked the movie Signs for killing those beautiful dogs. I don't even like dogs and it offended me. Why couldn't they have done in roving missionaries or obnoxious children? So much more satisfying! Hmm. Mel Gibson ties up the evil twin of Asthma Boy in the field every night ... I like that.

Kelley: My rule of thumb is that I won't write anything I wouldn't want to read. I'm more liberal with sex than with violence. With sex, I figure that the reader can see it coming with the first kiss, and if they don't want to read the details, they can skim to the next scene break. With violence, I'm more careful. My werewolves are inherently violent, so I can't whitewash that aspect of their lives, but I tried to avoid graphic detail. With Bitten, I did have one editor come back and ask whether I could add more gore. So I went through several of the more violent scenes and added an extra line here and there, bumping it up a bit. When I sent out the re-writes, another editor commented that she was glad to see I'd decided not to add more gore -- so I guess what little I was comfortable adding hadn't made any noticeable difference. Now I don't worry about it. I write the level of sex and violence that the story demands, within my own boundaries of comfort.

Karen: Graphic sex has never been an issue for me, since I prefer to keep my
characters within the ring of sensuality (rather than sexuality) - the less illustrated the better. Otherwise you take too much punch out of the atmosphere. Violence, however, has always been a struggle, since I want to keep the 'life' within my novels both realistic and aesthetically pleasing. I've often wondered how much is too much. In the end, I have a couple of personal rules regarding violence: I will not commit violence against most animals, particularly cats, because I'm a cat fancier and I've always been turned off by authors who wreak violence against our feline friends. And I will not commit violence against children, unless the child, or children, have a chance to avenge themselves (and to do it well). The most difficult writing I've ever had to do is the murder of the young girl Lilly in my
Slayer novella Immortal. I required the death for momentum to drive her guardian to revenge, but I didn't enjoy writing the act, even though it's entirely off-screen. I've often reiterated with readers and fans that I'm no advocate of violence. Committing an act of violence against children or animals in front of me will earn you an instant trip down to the hospital.

Q: Do you target your fiction to what's currently 'hot' or is that the last thing you worry about as you're writing?

Tamara: I write what I love. If it happens to hit a hot topic (like The Forgotten's government experiments with electromagnetic mind manipulation -- I love conspiracies, not just ghosts!) then that's the cherry on top. I'd rather repair computers than write something I don't care about.

Karen:I never worry about what's hot or what's selling or what's currently the thing. I don't know what that is. If it's a trend, I'll ignore it. In fact, I might purposely write something going in entirely the other direction just to mess with the industry. Slayer has been an enormous trendsetter. I can't begin to name the number of works that have borrowed from it since its creation in 1994. And for that reason -- or maybe despite it -- I like the idea of being a tsunami in horror publishing. If I weren't, Slayer would never have been conceived. I write for the industrial gothic underground, and if the mainstream digs it, then I'm happy, but I won't change my style to reflect mainstream concerns. Tell me werewolves are in this year, and I'll write vampire literature and save my werewolves for a year when everyone is into vampires. If I've confused and frustrated the so-called big names in horror literature and movies, then I've done my job well.

Kelley: My experience with writing to suit a trend has been 100% disastrous. While I was writing Bitten, I was also writing more mainstream fiction, with a distinct eye toward marketability, and I was absolutely certain that if I ever published anything, it would be that mainstream stuff. Werewolves were not 'in', and never really had been, so I assumed I was writing Bitten purely for my own enjoyment. Well, it was that 'unmarketable' werewolf book that broke me in, and my mainstream fiction is still on my hard-drive, where it will stay. You can't worry about trends because by the time you get your book published, the trend will probably have passed. Instead, you have to write what you want to write and trust that whatever drew you to the story will draw readers as well.

Jaye:There are a lot of 'hot' topics that don't interest me in the least. I wouldn't write about vampires if I didn't love the subject matter.

Q: Will you always include a romance in your stories?

Tamara: I like to be surprised. Generally speaking, I'm a fan of the Big Round Story -- what Joseph Campbell calls The Hero's Journey. Usually that includes romance. In The Forgotten, romance is rampant but no one except a gay couple has a clue about relationships. That was truly rewarding to write. I like to tweak the traditional.

Kelley: Yes. While I don't read many books that would be categorized as pure romances, I like to read fiction with a romantic subplot. I write what I'd like to read, so expect all my books to have some form of romantic subplot.

Jaye: No, at least not 'traditional romance' which I find to be very restrictive.

Karen:I try to get one in where I can, not to soften the horror but to round out the story as a whole, but sometimes the story won't accommodate romance. If that's the case, I won't shoehorn the issue. Scarabus is probably the only book which used a romance as a pivot point for the plot. The Slayer novels are all about survival against near-impossible odds.

Q: Who has the greatest capacity for evil, men or women? Who or what scares you the most?

Kelley: I don't believe either gender has a greater capacity for evil. What I do believe is that people expect women to be less capable of evil, and therefore when a woman commits a heinous crime, she's somehow seen as 'more' evil than a man who does the same thing. A nation was horrified when Lizzy Borden was accused of killing her father and stepmother, and when Susan Smith killed her children, yet countless men have done the same thing. Women may act on such horrific impulses less often than men do, but it doesn't mean they are less capable of doing so.

What scares me the most is the capacity of certain people -- leadership figures -- to persuade others to do evil. Adolf Hitler scares me. Charles Manson scares me. Osama bin Laden scares me. How does one person have the ability to make others commit acts that they must know, in their deepest heart, is an act of evil? We tell ourselves that we could never come under the influence of such a person, and yet these personalities appear so often throughout history that one has to wonder how difficult it is to tap into that deep-rooted reserve of evil within.

Jaye: I don't know who has the greatest capacity for evil. I've used both males and females as 'villains' in my stories. I actually find that the demons we fight within ourselves to be more interesting than any so-called evil villain.

Karen: Neither. I think children are far scarier than either men or women. Their capacity for imaginative thinking makes them genuine artists when it comes to minor cruelties, which is one of the reasons they figure prominently into much of my work. If the idea of dark or malignant children weren't so effective, there wouldn't be so many people scared stiff of films like The Ring.

Tamara: I don't believe in evil -- it's too tied to religious mythology. I only use the 'e' word when I'm writing something campy like Candle Bay or Sorority. I believe in positive and negative energy being opposite ends of the same scale. Negative is negative, equality for the sexes ... Although I have to admit that I think women are better at being nasty because it's less expected, especially by men, who really ought to know better.

What scares me most is an insane person with an axe who's very quiet and sneaking up on me on the one day I leave the house unarmed. Ghosts don't scare me. Ghosts don't kill people. People kill people. Beyond that, I'm not saying. I saw
The Witches of Eastwick! I'll never tell what scares me in detail, beyond this: it involves croissants.

Q: Do you actually believe in elements of the supernatural or are they simply good 'angles' to use in your books? Care to share any 'otherworldly' experiences you may have had?

Karen:I come from a very European family and am only a second generation
American. My family has been steeped in the supernatural for longer than anyone has been able to calculate. For them, the supernatural is very mundane, something not to be feared but to be respected. For most people the supernatural is a rare, frightening experience. For me, I like to think of it as an unsolved mystery I live with on an almost
daily basis.

Kelley: I'm a reluctant skeptic when it comes to all things supernatural. Remember the poster in Fox Mulder's office on X-Files: 'I Want to Believe'? Well, that's me. I would love to believe in ghosts etc, but nearly every account I read has a more plausible non-otherworldly explanation. The same goes for any potentially otherworldly experiences I've had. So, no, I don't believe in anything supernatural, but I love nothing better than a good book of 'true' tales of the paranormal ... and maybe someday I'll find that bit of evidence that my too-logical brain can't deny.

Jaye:I didn't think I really believed until I went to New Orleans for the first time. The city made me a believer. I felt a very tangible aura there, and it was a lot more evil than I had expected.

Tamara: It's not an angle for me, unless it's the angle of my entire life. I'm a non-believer, a Fortean. That means skeptic in the true, not current, definition. Things happen that defy explanation and eternally excite our inner primitive. I observe. I test. In my ghost watching activities, I've observed quite a few wow-pow-zowie things that remain a mystery. Perhaps there are explanations I haven't found; perhaps they're beyond science's knowledge at this time. The supernatural and quantum physics go hand in hand, I'll lay odds on that. We often spend nights in haunted hotels or just go to haunted places to see if anything might say 'boo'. Once in a while it pays off. Cold spots seem downright pedestrian nowadays. Minor poltergeist activity -- rocking chairs rocking, lightweight objects hopping an inch or two -- is a big kick, but I think electromagnetic fields have lots more to do with them than anything else. My best-ever experience was a repeated poltergeist attack. A strong one that filled the air with static electricity and made my ears feel like I was in a plane taking off. I guess there were five attacks on me (fended it off with foul language -- you feed those things your energy, they can get the better of you -- plus some incredibly cool piling of sofa cushions in the middle of the room behind our backs.) I've occasionally picked up on things that I think I'm making up until someone turns white and wants to know how I knew that. I think that's something anyone can do as long as they don't have any expectations. There are lots more than five or six senses. Science is as closed-minded as religion about things like that. Maybe worse. Maybe science is religion ... Auntie Em, Auntie Em!

Q: Halloween's right around the corner -- is it special day around your house or do you lock the doors and douse the lights once the kids start showing up and hollering 'trick or treat'?

Jaye:I love Halloween! But I have definitely enjoyed Halloween more since I started writing about vampires. It's now 'my holiday.'

Karen: It's my favorite holiday. If I could fit into a kid's costume I would probably be out trick-or-treating myself!

Kelley: I adore Halloween. When I was too old to trick-or-treat, I decorated my parent's place up every year, doing Dracula tableaus in the garage, turning the yard into a cemetery, persuading my boyfriend (and now husband) to sit on the porch as a headless scarecrow and scare the crap out of kids. Alas, I now live in a rural area, and one with a lot of religious-conservative families who don't celebrate Halloween. We're lucky if we get one trick-or-treater all night, so a 'haunted house' would be a wasted effort. I still decorate, but now it's just for my own kids.

Tamara: Halloween is my favorite holiday, always has been. We fill the house with pumpkins and watch all the channels showing those godawful supernatural TV movies over and over. I love those stinkers, especially the ultra-goofy ones. (Moonfall is a homage of sorts to those movies.) I usually do lots of public appearances around Halloween. Last year we did a televised seance, which was great hysterical goofy fun. On Halloween night we lock up tight, douse the lights and light the lanterns and watch horror movies. No one ever comes to the door -- with the lights out it's a yawning dark pit out there, something of a jungle, full of greenjacks and other goblins, including a couple of opossums to rustle the night-blooming jasmine and ferns. We often go out in the backyard and sit in the dark, enjoying the night, watching the shadows of leaves move in the burnt-pumpkin scented breezes. It's a night for ghost stories, not giving out candy to beggar children in store-bought costumes. I'm with the wicked old witches. Children belong in stewing cauldrons, not at your front door!

Q: What's next on your writing horizons? Fast forward 20 years -- do you still see yourself writing horror stories?

Tamara: I'll never give up the ghosts. Near future, more novels, a non-fiction book about hauntings, maybe doing a screenplay with a screenwriter-friend. Lots of near movie deals, but that's typical, and Sorority is doing well in lots of book clubs. As long as I have my honey, my cats, my ghosts, my books and movies, a computer that works, and batteries in my remote control fart machine, I'll always be happy.

Karen: I have a tremendous store of horror novels and series I have yet to finish up outline or begin to write. But I also have a large number of SF, fantasy and action/adventure novels I want to embark on. I love horror, but I often get the yen to do a spiffy SF book or a nail-biting action story. I also have several scripts I'm currently working on and I want to expand my skills into independent filmmaking in time. I think I can bring a lot to film. The entertainment industry is a fine place to grow and learn new storytelling techniques.

Jaye: Hey, in 20 years I'll be lucky if I'm still walking!

Kelley: Right now I'm plotting out my fifth book, and I don't have any plans to abandon my series anytime soon. As for whether I'd still like to be writing in twenty years -- God, I hope so! If I'm lucky enough to be able to continue life as a writer, I'll still be churning out stories thirty years from now. They might not all be horror by then, but I'm sure I'll never completely abandon my first love!

Ladies ... thanks for sharing some of your time with us! Happy Halloween and much success with your future work!

Learn more about Jaye, Karen, Kelley & Tamara and their works at their websites: Jaye Roycraft, Karen Koehler, Kelley Armstrong & Tamara Thorne.
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