Dissecting Nightmares, Part Two: Writing Horror

SARAH DUNN
Last updated 09:51 01/02/2013

Matt and Debbie Cowens are a husband and wife team who live near Wellington on the Kapiti Coast. They are keen participants in the horror genre, collaborating on a horror tale set in Wellington named The Event and scenarios for role playing games as well their first book, 2012's Mansfield with Monsters.

Mansfield with Monsters is a mash-up in the same tradition as 2009's breakout success Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It combines 17 stories from Katherine Mansfield's catalogue with various horror-flavoured twists, up to and including zombies, vampires, cultists, Lovecraftian sea monsters and Krakens.

Matt explains where all of this came from for the Baby Seal Book Club.

Tell me about your and Debbie's connection to Mansfield's work.
We're both high-school English teachers so we've come across her a bit, professionally. We both enjoyed her more famous work, things like The Doll's House and At the Bay, which tend to be quite constrained and refined stories about women going through moments of realisation. They're quite classic, and they can be a little dry.
We've enjoyed Mansfield's work and then we kind of realised because some of it has lapsed into public domain, we could have a bit of a tinker and see if it was possible to adapt some of the stories. As we read more widely in her canon of work, we were impressed at the range of stories she got across. There were underlying elements- not horror elements, more sort of sinister.

One of her trademarks is keeping the writing very tight. Did you have a hard time deciding how and where to insert your own work in there?
At first we were cautious. It ended up being selective. We didn't do all the stories, we tried the ones we could see a way into. As we did more and more stories it became more and more fun.

Did you have some favourites before that started?
Yes, I think the opening story in the collection, The Woman at the Store, that was a surprisingly horror-feeling story to start with.

That was one of her quite early ones.
Yes, that was one of Debbie's favourite new discoveries. I've always been fond of the story Miss Brill, it's quite a tongue-in-cheek piece and making changes seemed achievable. That was the first adaption I did. Debbie's first was Her First Bite, which is a vampire take on one of the most famous stories [Her First Ball]. It was pretty hard to pick favourites but I think for myself, The Garden Party was one I really enjoyed. The steampunk and giant bug aspects added to that.

The Garden Party was pretty grim to begin with, wasn't it?
Yes, it was a fairly nasty story before all of that. It was a story of guilt and privilege centred around death, but backgrounding that with an apocalyptic giant bug is something unexpected.

So your introduction implied Mansfield wanted to go further with the gothic elements in her stories but held off. You've got your academic describing her reluctance as "genteel manners and the concern for a high-standing literary reputation". Do you think that's true?
I was surprised that the more I read of Mansfield, the more sinister phrases she uses and the more sinister elements that appeared. I was surprised how much horror there already was in Mansfield.
In some cases we'd be halfway through a story and come across a phrase that reads like it's a horror sentence that's been stuck into her writing but it's from the original Mansfield.
The introduction is a little bit tongue-in-cheek. The idea that they've uncovered manuscripts of Mansfield, the meta-fiction element to the book, is something that was introduced quite late in the piece by our editor Stephen Minchin. I was initially a bit reluctant to do it because I felt Debbie and I had done a lot of work on the stories and I wanted our names to be prominent on the book, but the invention of the academic "Dr Marcus Walker" was another piece in the puzzle of how our story came about.

[Note: the academic I quoted, Carl H. Sederholm, is a real person.]

Do you think that concern for a high-standing literary reputation is still working to put writers off from exploring horror?
Debbie and I are long-standing fans of horror, and as a student at school I remember teachers being dismissive of horror writing. I read Stephen King at primary school and at high school and there were a few teachers who said "That's not worthy writing to be reading."
I think given enough prominent science fiction, horror and crossover books like Cloud Atlas, there's enough of that crossover happening that that attitude is eroding. It isn't gone, but it's less of a barrier. Good writing can be genre writing!

What do you aim for in horror writing? Tell me about what effect your perfect horror story would have on the reader.
My favourite horror writing builds on a sense of unease. It's tight character writing that builds up relationships and suspense side-by-side, and then reaches some sort of a payoff. Probably my favourite horror story would be The Mist by Stephen King.
Something that really pushes the reader's buttons is what I love. Something that builds on a fear of the unknown or preys on a primal fear, that really gives people nightmares.

You mentioned some favourite tropes earlier - I remember giant bugs, and inexorable madness were two. Where did those come from?
As a teenager I read a lot of Clive Barker and Stephen King horror fiction. James Herbert played on that fear of unpredictability, and Clive Barker did fantastical horror which I really loved. I was a huge fan of horror films from about intermediate age up.

I've noticed that with horror writers, there's a practicality about where their work sits within the genre. With subjects like vampires and zombies it's almost like there's a set of rules being developed across the board. What kind of influence have those rules had on your work?

You're right, there's a kind of codified genre in horror, and I also write science fiction. Growing up reading the stories and watching the films, there are a lot of rules and a lot of tropes. It's nice to sometimes follow conventions and sometimes undercut or break conventions for deliberate effect.
One of the things it gives the writer is a clear understanding of what the readers might be expecting. I find it kind of pleasant.

Do you read a lot of modern horror? Tell me about some emerging talents.

My reading hours have been somewhat curtailed by writing and raising a five-year-old child. I sort of keep in touch with modern horror but I don't read a lot of it. There's a guy called Paul Mannering who's recently written a novel called Tankbread, and Dan Rabarts is a New Zealander who's been writing short fiction that's doing really well.

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