From deep within the wild Welsh countryside, Catherine McCarthy spins dark yarns that deliver a sting in the tail. She is the author of the collections Door and other twisted tales, Mists and Megaliths, and also the novella, Immortelle (published by Off Limits Press July 2021): a Gothic tale of grief and revenge, set on the West Wales coast. Her work has been published in various places, including The British Fantasy Society Horizons, Flame Tree Press, Kandisha Press and Curiosities. When she is not writing she may be found hiking the Welsh coast path or huddled among ancient gravestones reading Machen or Poe.
What first attracted you to horror writing?
First of all, I think I should clarify something, and that is I don’t view myself as a horror writer so much as a writer of dark fiction. The age-old arguments about what constitutes horror are endless and take you round in circles, but my personal brand of ‘horror’ definitely errs on the quiet side. If you’re looking for no-holds-barred gore, you won’t find it in my work. Instead, my fiction leans toward the psychological, is interwoven with mythology and legend, is sometimes speculative, often poetic. Always told from the heart.
So back to the question: if I’m honest, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in touch with my dark side. Even as a young child I seemed keenly aware of illness, grief, death, and the powerful consequences such states have on us as humans. Far more so than any of my peers were.
My favorite fairy tales and nursery rhymes were dark, and my mother had a special way of telling them with just the right amount of terror in her voice and fear in her eyes. I loved visiting graveyards, ancient castles, dungeons and caves, and living in Wales provided plenty of opportunity to explore such places.
My favorite films as a child were Hitchcock’s The Birds and Psycho, and Robert Aldrich’s black and white classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Regardless of how many times I watched it, each time Joan Crawford’s character took the silver cover off the dinner plate and discovered her sister had served the pet budgie for dinner, it made me reel. It’s the psychological aspects of horror that enthrall me most. The fact that the character played by Joan Crawford was a paraplegic and therefore, to some degree, helpless, made the horror of the situation so much worse. Similarly with Stephen King’s Misery. I also remember finding the mental regression of Bette Davis’s character at the end of the film horrific. Again, the psychological horror of her losing her mind entirely. Just terrifying!
After self-publishing a middle-grade novel (The Gatekeeper’s Apprentice) and an adult novel (Hope Cottage) that explored the issues of moving on from grief, I first dipped my toe into writing horror with my collection, Door and other twisted tales. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it’s my darkest work to date, and that’s because I wrote it during a dark period of my life. As you might have guessed from the title, it’s a collection of portal stories, and anyone who reads the first story, ‘Door’, will gain a pretty accurate insight as to where my head was during that particular period of time. Thankfully, things have improved since, though I’ll end by saying that my writing very much reflects my moods and state of mind at the time.
As a writer, I guess we shouldn’t have favorites, and I realize that’s not quite what you’re asking. However, I have to say the work I’m most proud of is my novella, Immortelle, which was very recently published by Off Limits Press.
Immortelle began life as a short story, published in the anthology, Dead Awake. I could not let go of the concept and characters so decided to develop it into a longer piece. Immortelle is set on the West Wales coast around the turn of the 20th Century. It features a ceramicist named Elinor, a ceramic artist and single parent who creates personalized immortelles to adorn the graves of the dead. In its essence, Immortelle is a ghost story, but it’s also a tale of grief and ultimate revenge. Here’s the link to the trailer for anyone who fancies finding out a bit more.
What are you working on now?
I like to push myself as a writer. I have quite a low boredom threshold and could never imagine writing a series. With each book I write, I like to do something different while still retaining my author voice.
Besides working on a few short stories for specific calls, I’ve recently started to write a new novel/novella which, as we speak, has no title and no definitive length. I imagine it’s plain to see I’m a pantser rather than a plotter.
I love historical fiction and this one is also set in the early 20th century. It begins and ends in Vermont, U.S.A. but the majority of it will be set in Wales, in the little fishing port of Newport Parrog, Pembrokeshire. This one leans towards the philosophical aspects of horror, it plays with the concept of the dark side of our psychology and raises questions about how memory is stored and utilized. Of course, there will be elements of magical realism. How could there not with such a magical setting?
I must admit, I’m a creature of habit. First thing in the morning, I check emails and social media and deal with anything to do with those aspects first. I actually sit down to write in the afternoon and work until early evening. Little and often works for me, so I rarely take a day off. Social media can be so distracting, so to counteract the temptation I do several things: firstly, I never have my phone close by when I’m writing. Secondly, I live by the rule of thirty minutes on, five minutes off, which means I write in sprints. This works for me personally and I often find myself writing over the length of time. It’s a discipline … one I need to adhere to in order to stop the distraction. Thirdly, if I get stuck on a plot issue, or need to find the pathway into the next chapter/scene, I step away from the computer and lie in a darkened room where I picture what’s just happened. I immerse myself in the story, as if I’m the main character and am actually there. This way, his or her next steps come to me … usually. Sounds simple, but is not always so simple in practice.
When I’m totally immersed in a piece of writing I find it difficult to switch off and end up literally eating, sleeping and breathing the story. I call it ‘stepping into story world’ and often have to apologize to my husband for not having a clue what he’s just said. Every night I go to sleep thinking about the story I’m writing. It makes for vivid dreams, but I find it a good way of stopping those negative mundane thoughts from establishing themselves just when you need to sleep.
Who do you admire in the horror world?
This is a tough question because I admire so many people, and for different reasons. I admire Guillermo del Torro and Robert Eggers for their unique direction in horror film. I admire writers like Thomas Ligotti, Kathe Koja, JS Breukelaar, the list is endless. But we mustn’t forget the classics: directors such as Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and writers like Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Poe, those who lay down the foundation of horror.
And then, of course, there are the indie presses who I admire for their willingness to take a gamble on less-established writers or niche authors and give them a voice. At risk of leaving people out, I would like to give a shout-out here to Off Limits Press, Meerkat Press, and the recently established Brigids Gate Press, all of which I have had the pleasure of interacting with in some form or other.
Also the bloggers and podcasters, such as yourselves, who give their time willingly to support indie authors like me. You all deserve a mention, too, because you do it for the love of the genre, not for financial gain.
Do you prefer all out gore or psychological chills?
A hundred percent psychological chills for me. All out gore doesn’t so much offend as bore me. I far prefer something to stimulate my own imagination and allow me to create my own mental images. That statement comes with an apology to hard-core and splatterpunk writers. It’s just my personal take on things and there’s truly room for everybody.
See, this is the bit I find most tricky. Stemming from a working-class background, I was raised to admire modesty. In our house, achievements were praised discreetly, not shouted from the rooftops.
So, I hope I don’t come across as conceited when I say that if you enjoy stories delivered by a strong voice, stories which offer insight into the dark side of one’s psychology, while being dusted with folklore and magical realism, then I’m the author for you. My most recent collection, Mists and Megaliths provides the best insight into the breadth of my story-telling. Ranging from modern-day to Gothic, second person narrative to cosmic tales, you should find something to suit your own personal taste. Around half of the stories in this collection were previously published by Flame Tree Press, Kandisha Press, and Diabolica Britannica so have been given the seal of approval.
Recommend a book.
WHAT? A single book? Okay, I’m going to choose a book I believe everyone needs to read during the course of their lifetime. It’s a short read, and an absolute classic, and the reason I have chosen it is because it is one of those rare books that reduced me to tears, even though it is completely devoid of sentimentality.
Are you ready? I’m going to recommend The Outsider, by Albert Camus.