Horror is happening right now in the UK and women are right there on top of the book charts. I was honored to chat to two absolute icons, Catriona Ward and CJ Tudor, and find out if it is all heaving bosoms and beguiling men in cloaks or if these British babes are breaking the mold?
(Interview conducted by Janine Pipe
CEMETERY DANCE: You are British Women of Horror. That means you only write pseudo romantic gothic tales of vampires and busty maidens or classic Victorian ghost tales, right?
CATRIONA WARD: Yes of course, as well as distressed girls wafting across moors! Actually, I’m very fond of the classic ghost story and gothic novels — and my first two books The Girl from Rawblood and Little Eve both owe a lot to them. I think those forms have a lot to say about gender and power. The Last House on Needless Street uses those same tools and strategies, too, but in a different way. Captivity and wilderness, domesticity and savagery, the lit window in the dark forest… I suppose the main thing about horror for me is that it’s predicated on empathy. You can’t conjure horror in the reader without making them care first. And as a writer, you have to make yourself vulnerable. Horror novels are mainly writers sharing what we’re afraid of. You reach out a hand to the reader and walk through the dark together. Horror as a genre seems to me recuperative –– it makes us feel less alone.
CJ TUDOR: Haha! I think there has been that stereotype for a long while. Female writers of scary stuff were presumed to be all ghosts, candles, and corsets –– and of course, as Cat has said, there is a place for that type of gothic supernatural horror.
But horror itself was a dirty word in the mainstream publishing world for a long time. It took me over a decade to get published and I was told very firmly by one agent that my mix of horror and thriller was simply “not publishable.” That was back in the early 2000s.
Horror has definitely found its feet again. People are realizing that horror — like crime — can be clever and literary and interesting. But we certainly need more female authors breaking through. Horror is still dominated by men.
How does it feel to be regarded as two of the top British horror authors right now?
CW: I don’t know what to say to that! There are so many great horror writers out there, it’s an honor to be considered anywhere near their company. Horror is being taken seriously again, which is wonderful –– there can be a tendency to trivialize it or portray it as childish. Fear’s not an easy thing to be comfortable with, and often people’s reaction to the literature of fear is to dismiss it. That’s changing, horror’s becoming legitimate again. Coming back, some might say — but of course horror never really goes away. It’s just waiting patiently beneath the earth for its time to rise up, reanimated and hungry for your soul.
CJT: Blimey! I still don’t see myself that way. I don’t know about Cat, but I have terrible imposter syndrome! I’m certainly glad to be perceived as a horror writer. I’ve had to keep a balance between that and the thriller side of my writing. I’ve been lucky enough for my books to do okay and I know my publishers, naturally, want to keep an eye on the commercial side. I mean, I do too — I want to pay the mortgage! But so far, the readers have come with me on the journey and my next couple of books are going to head in much darker horror direction.
You both got picked for the hugely impressive Richard and Judy’s Book Club of the Month with The Burning Girls and The Last House on Needless Street. Tell me more about that!
CW: That was so exciting. I never thought my strange book about a talking cat would be the one picked by a huge national book club. I’m just so grateful that they obviously read widely for their selections and take in lots of genres. I was writing in a cow shed in Yorkshire when I heard, and I had to crouch in the only three-square feet of space that had mobile signal to take the call from my editor. I just felt dazed and incredibly grateful. And it’s fantastic to be in any kind of club with CJ, of course.
CJT: Well, it’s bonkers, isn’t it? Like Cat, I never thought one of my books would get picked for R&J. I always thought I was a bit too creepy for them! But it’s amazing because it introduces your books to a new audience –– and it’s nice that it’s happened for me on my fourth book, as there’s a bit of a backlist people can pick up if they enjoy The Burning Girls.
It’s nice to be in there with Cat too. Again, it feels like horror is getting that mainstream recognition –– and horror by female writers too.
CJ, you’ve recently announced a new three book deal with Penguin starting with the wonderfully chilling sounding The Drift. What can you tell us about that and the other novels you have planned?
CJT: Well, I originally pitched The Drift to my agent as a “triple locked-room mystery/post-apocalyptic horror thriller.” Which went down well!! No, joking –– my agent and publishers have always hugely supportive, however nuts my ideas sound! Here’s the blurb:
An overturned coach. A stranded cable car. An isolated chalet.
Three groups of desperate people trapped by a fierce snowstorm.
Inside one group, a killer. Outside, something far worse!
Cue: sinister laughter!
I’m super, super excited about this one. It’s a passion project that was on the backburner for a while, so I’m thrilled I get to write it! It’s not out ’til 2023 though, so a bit of a wait.
I haven’t firmly decided on the novel after that, but the idea I have in mind is a murder mystery set in a tiny North American town beset by a colony of vampires. I liked the idea of a small community with a serial killer in their midst, getting away with it because the people blame these otherworldly monsters. But then, a new detective starts to realize that the monster they are dealing with is very much human.
I’ve wanted to write a book with proper scary vampires for a while (none of this romantic, twinkly bullshit), and I liked the idea of a word where it’s accepted they exist but they’ve been hunted almost to extinction. Only a few colonies remain in remote locations –– and communities have had to learn to live alongside them, or not!
It’s not fully fleshed out yet but I’m already getting those excited feels! Plus, I get to put a lot of Lost Boys references in there too!!
And Catriona, what can you tell us about Sundial, your release for next year? Is there any other news you can spill?
CW: Sundial is set in the Mojave Desert. A traumatic event forces Rob to take her twelve-year-old daughter Callie on a bonding trip to her old childhood home in the California desert — Sundial. Rob and Callie’s relationship is badly fractured. Mother and daughter mistrust one another and each suspects that the other wants to harm her –– possibly even plots her death.
Rob’s parents were scientists who carried out dubious experiments at Sundial during her childhood — and she realizes that this past might have implications for Callie’s future.
I’ve always been fascinated by the MKUltra experiments carried out by the CIA in the ’60s and ’70s. And I came across some very strange, more recent CIA experiments that have recently been declassified –– all much weirder than anything I could make up. As soon as I read about them, I knew I had to use them in a book.
It’s very different to Needless Street, but it has a lot in common with it, too –– it’s about the themes that I seem to return to in all my books: family, survival and the complex bonds of love. (Sundial will be published in March 2022 from Tor Nightfire in the US and Viper in the UK)
CJT: Can I just say, I am in love with Cat’s covers for this book. The story sounds amazing too, obviously. But honestly, I would have that UK cover as a tattoo. It is gorgeous!
You’ve been blurbed and praised by some amazing people, including the living legend, Stephen King himself. How does that feel and just how do you top that? Is there anyone else who would be a dream blurb or that you’d love to see reading your work?
CW: That was an unbelievable moment. I was in the pub with my partner when I got a message from my US editor. I saw she’d sent me a tweet from Stephen King that seemed to be about my book. I felt a bit faint, so I handed the phone to my partner and made him read it first. I said, “Just tell me if it’s ok?” He said, “I think you’ll be happy with this.” Then there was a lot of screaming.
I grew up reading Stephen King, so the idea that he has read my book is completely wild, even now. The Last House on Needless Street was extremely driven by word of mouth, I think. It wasn’t just Stephen King — authors like Natasha Pulley, Joe Hill, AJ Finn, Joanne Harris, Chris Whittaker and others –– lots of wonderful people championed it early on. They really changed the fate of the book. I’m eternally grateful. Also, I’ll never be rude about Twitter again.
CJT: I don’t know, really. I mean, it’s hard to top Mr. King, isn’t it? He’s been my hero since I was a child. Like Cat, I had a bit of a moment when he tweeted about my book –– I was on a train, so the rest of the carriage probably thought I was mad!
I also love Harlan Coben, so to be in touch with him, and for him to blurb one of my books, was awesome too. I’ve been very lucky to have some amazing authors say lovely things about my books.
When I was working as a dog walker, traipsing through muddy fields and parks, I used to daydream about this kind of stuff. I still find it a bit surreal!
Who are some other women of horror that you think readers should be checking out and keeping an eye on?
CW: Right now I’m reading Alma Katsu’s The Fervor, a historical horror about the American Japanese internment camps during world war II. It’s heartbreaking, and truly chilling on many levels. Recently I absolutely loved Mrs. March by Virginia Feito, about a New York socialite whose husband might be a murderer –– or perhaps she’s losing her mind. It’s so immersive and frightening. Sarah Langan’s Good Neighbors is wonderful. I love Priya Sharma and Laura Mauro’s short stories. Kelly Link is a perennial favorite — Get in Trouble, her most recent collection, is probably the book I recommend most to others.
CJT: Oh, crumbs, I am going to be rubbish answering this because I am so woefully behind on my reading in general –– and I feel bad about that, because one of the joys of being an author is championing other authors and sharing the book love. I love Alma Katsu – she’s great as well as being a lovely person. Samantha Downing is one of my favorite authors. I wouldn’t class her as horror exactly, but her writing is wonderfully twisted with a brutal streak of dark humor.
You write novels and short stories, would you ever consider a collaboration and if so, who would be your number one choice?
CW: The laws of life and death prevent it, but I couldn’t imagine anything more exciting than working with Shirley Jackson. Her mind was so gleaming and labyrinthine. She probably would have run rings round me, and I would have loved every minute.
CJT: I couldn’t collaborate, not even with a writer I loved and worshipped. I’m a very insular writer. Some authors I know like to workshop and share their WIPs. My idea of hell! I very much go by the King mantra of writing with the door closed and editing with it open. I love input at the editing stage, but I would find it impossible to actually write the story with someone else. I am WAY too disorganized and erratic in the writing stage – I would drive any collaborator insane.
Hollywood called and ONE of your stories is going to be a blockbuster movie. Which story, who directs and who are the stars?
CW: I’d love to see my upcoming novel, Sundial, on screen. The Mojave is such a bleak and beautiful place –– it’s a gift, visually. And I put everything I had into the intensity of the central relationships — sisters, mother and daughter. It’s a very female driven, passionate, almost feral book, and it would be fascinating to see it on screen.
I would have picked The Last House on Needless Street, purely on the grounds that I’m so intrigued to see how someone would adapt it — but it’s too late! I’m so excited that Andy Serkis and Jonathan Cavendish’s company, The Imaginarium, have optioned it for film. They’re amazing, I can’t wait to see what they do with it.
CJT: Well, all of my novels have been optioned for film or TV. Cat and I actually share a production company in Imaginarium (they optioned Annie Thorne). I also know that one of my books is on the cusp of going into production (can’t say which one though).
I actually think The Drift is the most filmic of my books. It’s kind of a BIG book. As for actors and directors, not a clue. I’ll just take the money and let Hollywood decide!!
Where can people find you?
Trading in a police badge and then classroom, Janine Pipe is a full-time Splatterpunk Award-nominated writer, whilst also being an awesome mum, wife and Disney addict. Influenced by the works of King from a young age, she likes to shock readers with violence and scare them with monsters — both mythical and man-made. When she’s not killing people off, she likes to chew the fat with other authors, reviewing books for Scream Magazine, Cemetery Dance and Horror DNA, and conducting interviews on booktube. You’ll likely find her devouring work by Glenn Rolfe, Hunter Shea and Tim Meyer. Her biggest fan, beta reader, editor and financier is her loving husband.