This October, we’re proud to be hosting acclaimed horror writer Alison Littlewood, winner of the Shirley Jackson Award for Short Fiction. Her latest novel, Mistletoe, a winter ghost story, is published in October this year, and previous books have been selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club, and described as ‘perfect reading for a dark winter’s night.’ Her short stories have been picked for several year’s best anthologies, and gathered together in her collections Quieter Paths and Five Feathered Tales.
Welcome, Alison! What, to you, makes good horror?
Some people may find it odd, but I don’t think that horror is all about the chills. For me it’s something more than that – it’s an exploration of what it is to be human, albeit looking at some of the darker aspects of life (and indeed death). It’s also about the questions we’ll never be able to answer, the persistence of a little bit of mystery in the world. I certainly wouldn’t define it in terms of horror movies, which tend to be about splatter and superficial revulsion. I prefer more psychological work. And for me, horror is often really about love; after all, love is closely intertwined with fear, because it isn’t until we love someone that we can truly appreciate what it means to lose them.
Can you tell us about a couple of your favourite horror writers or short stories, and what it is you love about them?
That’s a tough question, because there are so many writers out there producing amazing work, before even looking at some of the classic tales from the past. Can I do both? I love Priya Sharma’s recent short story collection, All the Fabulous Beasts. It’s so subtle and nuanced and moving and beautifully written. Nathan Ballingrud’s collection, North American Lake Monsters, is another of the finest from the last few years – he paints such eloquent, fully-rounded characters with the seemingly casual stroke of a brush.
As for individual stories, one of my all-time favourites is The Monkey’s Paw, by by W. W. Jacobs. It’s just so neat and perfectly told – and another story that is really about love. It’s emotionally horrific and made a lasting impression on me. I also love The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which a slow, creeping madness seems to creep over the reader. It’s rooted in the author’s experience of being subjected to a ‘rest cure’, and speaks volumes about women’s position in society and oppressive approaches to their mental health.
What do you personally find scariest in horror writing? Are there subjects or themes that you return to in your own work?
I suppose what I find scariest is the fear of loss: the knowledge that all we have is temporary and can easily be swept away. That makes me sound rather maudlin, but hopefully it has a flip side in showing the value of what is truly important in life! It’s something I explore in my own work, though more recently, as well as the loss of others, I’ve been fascinated by the loss of the self. I love using unreliable narrators, where characters operate from within a particular world view or mental state but the reader can draw their own conclusions. I’m also interested in the ultimate unknowability of other people, particularly characters who aren’t what they appear to be. Hence I’ve been drawn to writing about changeling folklore, in The Hidden People and Cottingley, or characters whose perceptions are altered by hypnotism in The Crow Garden, or by even more supernatural influences, in my new book Mistletoe.
You can hear Alison Littlewood, along with Lucie McKnight Hardy, on Saturday October 26th at our Horror Out Loud at Frightfest! a one-day minifest of horror writing in Leeds’ oldest and most haunted surviving subscription library. Book your tickets here.