There’s a wave of new writing being published within the genres of Horror and the Fantastique that in many ways is redefining the genre. Provocative, imagination, deeply felt… it refuses easy categorisation, blurs boundaries. Often unsettling, frequently awesome (in the proper sense of the word), always sublime.
Among that wave are three British writers, all coincidentally published by Undertow Publications, who encapsulate some of the very best of what this new wave is doing, what it’s capable of (don’t ask me to define it, it is by its nature constantly changing, exploring new territory).
They might not be household names (yet) but Priya Sharma, Laura Mauro, and Georgina Bruce are at the cutting edge of Horror and the Fantastique as they exist today. Defining what it will be tomorrow. Utterly refusing any attempts to place them in a box, limit their field of vision, or set any kind of boundary on their imaginations.
Their collections All the Fabulous Beasts, Sing Your Sadness Deep, and This House of Wounds are essential reading.
We invited all three of them to sit down and chat.
Diabolique: When Michael Kelly set up Undertow Publications, he named it well, could there be a better fit for this definition than your three collections?
Priya Sharma: It’s a terrific name, isn’t it? It creates an interesting umbrella. As a reader I am always excited by Undertow Publication’s output. It manages to have a certain flavour and aesthetic but great variation too.
Laura Mauro: Reminds me of the Tool song of the same name: “I’ve been struck dumb by a voice that/Speaks from deep beneath the endless water it’s/Twice as clear as heaven, twice as loud as reason/Deep and rich like silt on a riverbed, just as never ending”. I love the idea of what lies beneath the surface. Undertow are good at finding stories which are not as they first appear, I think. I began my writing career with Undertow back in 2012, so it’s very meaningful to me to have my debut collection published with them too.
Diabolique: I wonder what was the moment you knew you wanted to write? Was it another piece of writing, another author? And did you find the genre, or did the genre find you?
Georgina Bruce: What actually is ‘the genre’? I don’t know. I’d be surprised if any of us think of our writing in terms of genre; I know I don’t. I think that Undertow is really just the kind of stuff Mike [Kelley, Undertow owner/editor in chief] and Carolyn [his partner in life and publishing] like to read. It’s stuff that probably doesn’t fit in easily elsewhere, that drifts around different genres and none. All my stories are about the nature of reality itself, and that’s probably my main concern as a writer. What’s real, and who decides, and how do we know? Some of my earliest influences were Lewis Carroll, Douglas Adams, and Philip K Dick. So I think it’s interesting (and flattering) that I get called a horror writer. There’s something about horror as a genre that is kind of insatiable: it eats everything it sees. I don’t even know if horror is a genre, really. If it is, it’s a very strange and elastic kind of genre that can accommodate almost any kind of writing.
If there was a moment when I knew I wanted to write, I’ve forgotten it in the mists of time. Like most writers, I am first and foremost a reader. I learned to read when I was very little and I read literally everything in the house, the school library, and then the local library. It was inevitable that I would write, and I did from a young age. I am very grateful I had so much life before the internet came along and steamrollered everyone’s inner worlds.
Priya: “The Tyger’s Bride” by Angela Carter. I felt a physical pain reading it. I wanted to have the ability to make someone else feel what I felt in that moment. I’ve always read broadly but in writing I always bend towards the fantastic. I like the extremes it takes me to. I agree with Georgina that I don’t think about what I do in terms of genre when I write. It’s what serves the story best. I like stories that slip between the cracks.
Georgina: Yes! I recently read The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert. It defies genre. Everything I like best is like that. I really like when the ground falls from beneath your feet. Because I think life is like that.
Priya: I’ll check it out.
Laura: I’ve been writing since I was a child, before I could even really remember doing it. Mostly I wrote poems in the beginning. But then I read Watership Down by Richard Adams aged around 8 or 9 and although I’m pretty sure I didn’t quite comprehend how complex and brilliant it is, I remember realising at that point that I wanted to write stories. Around the same time I read Tove Jansson’s Moominland Midwinter and felt a connection to it that I never really had with all the other books I’d read at school, or from the library, and I think it was that sense of being in another world, where the rules are different, and where strange and melancholy things happen. I wouldn’t have had the language to express that back then! As for genre – like Georgina and Priya said, I’ve never really thought about genre, and have never really set out to write any one thing in particular. I wear the ‘horror’ hat quite happily, but it’s never been something I’ve set out to do. I agree with Georgina that horror is more of an entity than a genre – you can find horror in any other genre, permeating the membranes. Maybe it’s a literary virus. That’s what’s special about horror, I think; a horror story doesn’t necessarily have to exist in the horror genre.
Georgina: You saying that about the Moomins, Laura, made me remember how much I loved the Moomins too and how I felt immersed in Moominland. But way before that I loved Enid Blyton. I remember reading the Noddy books to myself, so I must have been really little, and I remember being totally immersed in the world of the story. Noddy and Big Ears driving into town… that was the whole story! My favourite book was The Magic Faraway Tree – it was completely real to me, and the real world disappeared. I think the magic of reading got me really young. I sometimes say I write children’s stories for grown-ups, which I guess is a way of saying I want to create that kind of immersive experience in another world or perspective.
Laura: I loved The Magic Faraway Tree too! I definitely gravitated towards stories that were unreal in some way, either because they had literal magic or were set in other worlds. One cool thing about the emergence of YA as a genre is that you’ve now got a world of fiction written specifically for that in-between audience – not that kids aren’t capable of moving on to adult fiction, and I’m sure many still do, but I think it’s brilliant that we now have authors weaving those kinds of immersive other-places for older kids and teenagers, speaking directly to them. I might have been reading the wrong stuff as a teenager but it felt like a lot of ‘teen’ fiction back then was resolutely mired in ‘real life’ – ‘real’ world issues and experiences. Not to say that’s a bad thing, but I never really related all that well to those books.
Georgina: I don’t think there was even such a thing as ‘teen fiction’ when I was a teen! There must have been but I don’t know what it was. I read just everything and anything I could get my hands on – the complete works of Shakespeare was a favourite. Germaine Greer, Solzhenitsyn and Henry Miller were memorably inappropriate reads for a pre-teen!
Priya: I was never age appropriate in my reading. It’s interesting that you’ve both mentioned Watership Down and The Moonmins– both books that are very adult to my mind, that encompass birth, life, death, loneliness and relationships.
Did you both like fairy tales? I feel there’s a fairy tale element to This Hounds of Wounds and that you’re almost inventing ones for now.
Laura: I have to admit I didn’t care a great deal for fairy tales until I read Angela Carter and realised what fairy tales could be. I hadn’t realised how dark the original fairy tales were! I’d grown up with the sanitised versions which were always accompanied by some kind of cautionary moral, or else Disney-fied. I have always enjoyed folklore, though. I’m not really sure what the dividing line is between the two.
I definitely read This House of Wounds as contemporary fairy tales in the Angela Carter mould; not necessarily dealing in morals, but turning a mirror on the dark parts of the real world and reflecting it back skewed. I especially love the way Georgina invokes the Alice stories as a kind of fairytale of its own; “Red Queening” is an especially acute example of this, I think, and it’s one of the things I really enjoy about that story, the way it takes the conventions of the fairytale and kind of dismantles them, like the hero’s journey, the magical helper, the wicked stepmother figure.
Georgina: I absolutely always loved fairytales and had lots of books of them with different versions. I was fascinated by the fact that there were different ways to tell the stories. They always seemed very adult to me – they were about death, betrayal, challenges, danger, seeking the truth, seeking freedom and justice, especially for girls and women. My favourite was “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, in which twelve sisters escape to another world of magic and dancing every night. When their father sends a young man to work out what’s going on, they drug his wine and have him killed. It’s wild.
I guess any woman writing surrealist or irrealist fiction is at risk of having her work categorised as fairytales/Carter-esque, and I do play with elements of that, but it is far from what I’m trying to do with my stories.
You both have very strong leanings towards the fantastical in your writing. What drives that, do you think? Why not write realist fiction? What would that stop you from exploring in your writing?
Laura: The short and facetious answer is that I already live in the real world and I don’t really want to carry that world into my escapism. It’s probably more complicated than that though. I think there are ideas I like to explore and themes I like to examine which are better served by unreality. Ghosts have always been literary shorthand for trauma and memory, for example; Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one of the most effective ghost stories I’ve ever read. Is the fantastic a means of unpacking difficult emotions and themes at a safe distance? Or is it not ‘safe’ at all, but a way of facing the unsettling and the uncomfortable head on, like running a simulation and placing yourself inside? The psychology of it is really interesting to me. But also, on a basic level, I enjoy reading about weird and fantastical things. I like it when stories break the rules of reality. Obviously, rabbits don’t talk, but you couldn’t tell the story of Watership Down without breaking that fundamental rule of reality. So it feels natural to me to lean into that in the things I write too. Maybe that’s the appeal of it to me: breaking the rules of what ‘should’ be, undercutting ‘normal’.
Georgina: I don’t really believe in metaphor. By which I mean, I don’t write something strange because I want to talk about something else the strange thing represents. I don’t read stuff and try to work out what it really represents on some other level. I think the fantastic or strange has to be somewhat ineffable, or what’s the point. If you’re really talking about something else, then why not just talk about that thing. Be direct. Otherwise it seems like a kind of trick. And the writing becomes cliched, I think. ‘Ghost’ becomes a cliched way of writing about loss. Then we are stuck with this empty kind of writing that seems to tick all the literary/genre boxes but it really isn’t doing anything. I feel like that’s something I keep seeing in novels, especially over the last couple of years. Maybe the strange is just not as strange anymore. Nina Allan has spoken about how she is increasingly drawn to writing the real, and I wonder if it’s a response to reality becoming so unhinged.
Priya: I’ve tried to write more literary stuff but it feels very flat to me. I guess I want to push out into something more esoteric and surreal. I think there was a big part of my upbringing that mixed up myth, religion, spiritualism, illness, plus some other very “out there” ideas, with the real world and when I found out the truth about how mundane day to day life is I was disappointed. Fortunately I also came to learn how wondrous the natural world is and that salvaged something for me. Books helped too. Perhaps I have something in my hardwiring. I need something more, even though I’m not sure what it is.
Georgina: A student of mine did a presentation last week on neutrinos. It blew my mind. The world is full of wonder!
In Ormeshadow, Priya, you seem to have a foot in both worlds, the real and fantastical. I’d say that’s true of your short stories too. I know you love Angela Carter and Isabella Allende. Would you say magical realism is your zone?
Priya: Thanks for picking up on that. I think I’ve fallen into it. Books like The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson were both part of my formative reading. Heightening the fantastic elements heightened the real world issues they tackled too. Laura, I noticed Sing Your Sadness Deep is full of this too- “When Charlie Sleeps” for example.
Georgina: Yes, that’s true. SYSD has a Gaiman-esque magical realist bent. Not sure that’s the right term for it, as it’s not really in the tradition of magic realism as I understand it. But that thing some writers are really good at, of writing about magic, often with a touch of humour and absurdity, while staying firmly rooted in the everyday. It makes for very powerful writing.
Priya: I really like Cate Gardner’s work for that. She is absurdist and funny sometimes, but then her stories turn on a pin and become very dark.
Laura: Cate Gardner does this wonderful thing where she lures you in with these strange and fascinating dreamscapes, which seem almost whimsical at first – so when she does flip the switch it is incredibly unsettling. The whimsical elements become terrifying, like a fever dream – like Alice in Wonderland but for adults. Nobody out there is doing quite what Cate does, and I think her work is really special because of it.
Georgina: Ha, I was going to say the opposite, that I think her stories are very grounded in the every day and that’s what makes it so scary when things start happening. But I see what you mean! I guess she is one of those writers who can pretty much do anything.
Priya, you mentioned real world issues in yours and Laura’s writing. Do either of you think of your writing as political? How so or how not?
Priya: I never set out to write about political issues, just people, but I think they go hand in hand. I never want to shoehorn what I think into a story but I think I reveal more of my beliefs than I intend to. Afterwards I worried about sounding preachy, as that’s a turn off for me as a reader. I love a good satire, but I don’t think I’m well informed enough to tackle the form. I think the other thing to remember is that we have the immense privilege of the freedom to see our work in print without being arrested, whether we feel it makes a difference or not, so maybe I should be more political! What about you, Georgina?
How do your own political beliefs shape your writing, if at all?
Georgina: I don’t think your writing is at all preachy! I know when teaching your story “Egg” to my students, what they like most is the emotional transparency of your writing, and how you use magic to create a space for ideas. That story has provoked a lot of discussion about what it is to be a mother, what it is to be considered disabled, the taboos around maternal relationships. I think you do an incredible job of provoking debate and discussion but it happens because readers get your stories first on an emotional level. They feel ownership and so that gives them space to think about the more political dimensions of the story.
As for my own writing, I honestly don’t know! People often call it feminist, but that’s such an embattled word, I don’t really know what’s meant by that. I try to write about the world as it is, and people as they are, so I suppose that can’t help but be political. And I write mostly science fiction, which I think is inherently a political genre, because it’s about how we live. I would hate it if people found my writing preachy or didactic when it comes to politics. I don’t feel political when I write – it’s never in my head. Writing is always about emotion for me. But like you, Priya, I think I probably reveal more than I intend to!
I completely agree that we have a huge privilege in freedom of speech here, now. And I also see that it is not something to be taken for granted – it is constantly under threat and there are lots of discussions all the time about what writers shouldn’t be allowed to write, and books being ‘cancelled’ and so on. So it is something to stay conscious and informed about.
Priya: I know what you mean. I think the word feminist has become loaded in ways we could never forsee, but it’s still 100% relevant. It’s not about asking for privilege. It’s about basic human rights. Also, thank you so much for teaching “Egg”. That just blows my mind!
Laura Like yourselves, I don’t consciously set out to write with politics in mind, but I think it inevitably leaks through. I think a lot of my stories are quite personal, and I think the personal is often inherently political, so I think it tends to sneak in that way. I’ve seen a couple of reviews here and there that referred to some of my stories as political or preachy, which I find really interesting, and is of course a perfectly legitimate response. But with the exception of “Ptichka” (for which the brief was to write a consciously political story), I’ve never sat down with the intention to weave a message or an ‘issue’ into a story – I write queer characters and women and working class characters and disabled characters and Romany characters because they reflect the world I live in and the world I observe, so it makes sense to me that they would be in my fiction as well. It’s strange to me when writers are accused of tokenism because they’re not writing exclusively about straight white men, as though that’s the reality all of us live in! The idea of ‘forced diversity’ only holds water if you assume we are all on the same baseline, which just isn’t the case. And it’s interesting to me that people refer to stories about women as ‘feminist’ – not that there’s anything inherently bad about that, but as you say Georgina, what do people mean by that? Is it just a shorthand term for ‘women-centred narrative’, as though stories about women must be political by their very nature? Can stories about women’s lives not just be stories?
Priya: I remember when I met you for the first time, Laura, you were reading “Ptichka” in Manchester and I was very impressed with it. It made the political personal. It’s a very intimate story, that echoes much bigger issues. It was great to hear it read aloud too.
Where did that story come from?
Laura: At the time, I was working in an antenatal screening laboratory in an NHS hospital. A large number of our patients in all departments were immigrants, and this was also the case in the maternity unit, where I was based. So when Tom Johnstone asked me to write a story with austerity in mind, the first thing I thought of was a recent news story – obviously very pertinent to my work – that immigrant women were foregoing antenatal screening out of a fear that they would be made to pay for it. And that wasn’t an unfounded fear – NHS staff are expected to report when we suspect a patient is not entitled to free healthcare, and the hospital will issue that patient with a bill. But the majority of staff refuse to police patients. We have a duty of care, and it isn’t our job to check every patient’s credentials when they come to us out of need. When I wrote “Ptichka” it was partly out of anger, because it wasn’t difficult for me to envision a world in which people would be denied healthcare based on their country of birth. And I wrote that story pre-Brexit, so it’s especially depressing to recognise that its more mundane elements are becoming more and more plausible. I strongly believe that no human being is illegal, and no human being should be denied basic care on the basis of any aspect of their identity. My work in the NHS has definitely influenced a lot of what I write, even if it’s not readily obvious – I think you absorb certain aspects of the job and the environment, from the people to the politics, so that even when you leave, you carry it with you.
Has your work in the NHS had a similar effect on your outlook, and would you say you carry this with you in your writing at all?
Priya: I took the Declaration of Geneva on graduation. One of the pledges is “I will not permit considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, social standing or any other factor to intervene between my duty and my patient” which I think is pretty explicit.
I’m also the child of immigrants. I’ve tried to keep my work and writing separate for my wellbeing, but the people we are colours everything we do.
In the same vein, listening to Georgina reading “The Queen of Knives” at British Fantasy Con was a pleasure. Listening to a story rather than reading it adds a different dimension sometimes. I’m always interested by family dynamic stories that look at power. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like “The Queen Of Knives”. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen female power in relation to mother and daughter portrayed in that way.
Would you tell me more about it?
Georgina: I love reading my stories, or just reading aloud in general. My stories are always intended to be read aloud – sound and rhythm are probably the most important elements in writing for me.
Relationships between mothers and daughters are really interesting to me. I loved Carly Holmes’ novel Scrapbook for showing a very complicated, toxic mother-daughter relationship that also contains caring and compassion and confusion. I think it can be an especially painful relationship. In a sense daughters are mirrors to their mothers, and so struggle to see themselves. For me, TQoK is a story about self-determination, breaking the mirror, rebellion against the mythologies of misogyny passed down through the generations. It’s also a story about the way men can abdicate parental responsibility, and pretend not to see and know what their wives and daughters go through as women and girls. I know a lot of women have great relationships with their mums – but I’m drawn to the kind of pain that happens when these fundamental, formative relationships go wrong.
Georgina: Another question to drop here is one someone asked on twitter the other day: how do we feel about the way women are written about in horror fiction? I definitely feel that’s of interest to me as I write about the representation of women’s lives a fair bit; what about you two?
Priya: I’ve always been more a fan of the book Carmilla rather than Dracula. I love Ripley, Clarice Starling, Merricat, Alice Nutter in Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate. The films Ginger Snaps (2000) and Let the Right One In (2008). I’d rather list the positives here than the negatives. I don’t want perfect women. I don’t want “good” women either. I don’t want Victorian heroines.
… Okay, maybe we don’t want to talk about that! It does get a bit annoying, as women writers, to always have to talk about WOMEN, being a woman in horror, being a writer whilst also having ovaries or whatever.
Laura: I can understand why the question always comes up though! But it can be frustrating. I have this internal battle every time Women in Horror Month rolls around. Because on one hand, there’s the fact that women are one of several demographics which are very underrepresented in horror, and this is a persistent problem which is worth addressing. But equally you find yourself asking what the point of rolling it out year after year is when little is actually changing. Every WIHM there’s a steady stream of ultimately meaningless lists of women horror writers – I say meaningless because they’re usually presented without any further discussion of the writer’s work, or without any recommended reads, just a list, like a dry Wikipedia entry. And everyone thinks they’ve done their bit, and that’s it, we’ve solved gender inequality. I’m being uncharitable here because some people do go beyond – I’m thinking here of Jim McLeod at Ginger Nuts of Horror, for example – but by and large it’s all very formulaic, and we pat ourselves on the back, and yet when February rolls around again we’re talking about the exact same problems as last year. And obviously this is not limited to being women in horror – the same is true for writers of colour/ethnic minority writers, for LGBT+ writers, and lesser discussed issues like working class writers. I’m very conscious in not wanting to speak for everyone here but I personally can’t wait until we find ourselves at a point where we don’t have to carry the extra weight of being ‘women’ writers, where we’re not considered a novelty to be rolled out one month a year, where we are acknowledged sufficiently that we just comfortably coexist alongside our male counterparts. I just want to be a writer, never mind my gender, which I would hope is one of the least interesting things about me.
Priya: Don’t ask me to be on a Women in Horror panel at a con. Or a Diversity Panel.
Georgina: Same. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an insult to suggest that women are in horror, as if horror could exist as a genre without us. It doesn’t. It can’t. The truth is, women originated horror. Every genre was pioneered by women. We invented the novel a thousand years ago! All the first writers we know about were women. It’s frustrating to keep having to start at the beginning, as though women have never done this before, as if we’re stepping in to something complete and established, when in fact we literally invented fiction writing.
All The Fabulous Beasts and Ormeshadow by Priya Sharma, Sing Your Sadness Deep by Laura Mauro, and This House Of Wounds by Georgina Bruce are available now from all major retailers, or direct from Undertow Publications https://undertowpublications.com/