Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Nancy Kilpatrick

You begin “The Age of Sorrow” with a stark, almost meditative, beauty that calls to mind other post-apocalyptic tales yet manages to maintain its own character. In particular, you weave in the twins of menstruation/menopause in an understated, personal manner that drives the character’s past. What inspired the narrative voice and focus for the story?

I write a lot of stories featuring a female protagonist. In some genres, particularly horror, females are not popular protagonists unless they are either helpless victims or ball-breaking, kick-ass kung fu masters. Most of the women I know are like me, they get the job — whatever it is that has to be done — done, and they live their lives as women, for whom menstruation, menopause and sometimes childbirth are natural physical and psychological and emotive occurrences, and part of being female. Women take these experiences for granted. Menstruation, for example, is a monthly occurrence that spans roughly forty years or so. One gets used to it quickly and despite all the “I Hate This!” voices of some women, the perspective of the media, the overt or subliminal ads directed towards menstruating women, just about every woman I know greets menstruation not as anything particularly negative, but as a positive, (and I’m not talking cramps here!), a kind of affirmation. It’s really a monthly rite that is a quiet and introverted realm. So, it’s part and parcel of being a woman and often welcomed because that connection is acknowledged or understood intuitively. It’s a renewal every single month. I like to write about that reality. There are plenty of tales published that show menstruation, childbirth, menopause in a completely different light — and I’ve written some of those, too. But I also like to present this full, female life in a story. I like characters who feel like real people and not plastic people.

This seems to be a very feminine story — lush greenery, menstruation, Artemis, watering plants to encourage growth, survival at all costs, pregnancy, sex and death — yet that does not stop the slow, intimate horror. Some hold that women have no understanding of the true meaning of horror. What are your thoughts on women’s contributions to the horror genre and the exploration of the feminine as a trope?

Thanks. That’s what I was going for.

Women write horror as well as men. Unfortunately, the world is still male directed. Women who read horror are open to male protagonists and can relate to a greater or lesser extent to their terrifying situations. Can men relate as well to a female protagonist? That’s a big question. Sure, I know plenty of men who can and do. But I doubt it’s the “norm” in the mainstream and I also doubt it’s the norm in the mainstream of horror readers. Don’t forget, the mainstream presents women in a certain way, as sex symbols, as hags and witches, as ball-breaking kick boxers, as pathetic little girls who need help and/or protection. The reality for me is that women are finely tuned to the horrors of the real world, real or metaphoric, but we often write about them in a different way. So, I’ll never buy that crap that women can’t write horror. If a man is saying that (and would a woman say that a man can’t write horror?), he should ask himself what’s stopping him from relating to that character and her situation if the story is well written and the author is a woman? Few on this planet have travelled into space. How many of us live in a haunted forest? It’s rare to contract a seemingly incurable virus that turns a human into “other.” Yet both genders can relate to those extreme situations in a story if the character is believable and the story well-written, so a man should be able to relate to a woman menstruating, even if he doesn’t bleed each month — he’s likely been around women all his life that do. And news flash — the bottom line of horror — we’re all gonna die! We can all relate to that, no matter who writes about it.

The story touches on multiple fears without bogging down in the hows that lead to the whys. Being alone, nuclear war, environmental decay, zombies, the loss of friends and identity, helplessness in the face of what you cannot control, death. What scares you? What shapes do you see in the dark?

I’m not scared by much in the way of supernatural, probably because I’ve been so steeped in this genre for so long and also the fact that I’ve never met a real zombie or vampire or werewolf, but of course have met them metaphorically. In that realm, ghosts can unnerve me, but most ghost stories do not.

In the “real” world, I am not so much afraid but more repulsed by the horrors humans enact on one another, from war to incest. Like many people, I am particularly upset by abuses to children and animals; adults can think and have some ability to protect themselves, but children don’t and animals are operating on instinct, if they are able to, in the face of human cruelty. I’m also upset by the ongoing destruction of this planet, which can’t lead anywhere good.

Well-portrayed zombies in hordes are frightening. I think zombies are a great metaphor for something we are experiencing these days, which is the fear of being overrun by extremists, terrorists, people (like zombies) who appear out of nowhere, are insanely driven, cannot be controlled, who can accost us alone or in a mob, and who cannot be reasoned with but are hell-bent on our destruction with seemingly no human feelings that can be reached. I’m sure I’m not the only person who finds that terrifying. And like most people who eventually become aware that they are going to die one day — yes, really! — there’s that. I’ve lived with the awareness of death from the age of seven. I used to imagine death as a raven sitting on my shoulder, which I wrote about in one vampire novel. I imagine I picked that up as a kid from Poe.

I can see the compound in my mind, the garden and mound, the solar panels and fence. Your details lend to the verisimilitude of the story, further proclaiming it a possible near future. What sort of research did you do for the story?

Thanks. I’m glad it was so visual and so real for you.

I did research to understand what might be the best way to protect yourself in a post-apocalyptic situation. The best chance of survival is in a warm climate, because you can grow food, and you don’t have to find ways to keep warm. On the other hand, water could be a problem unless you’re near a good source. Living underground is cooling and protective in a warm place, especially with an escape route. But insects and arachnids and poisonous snakes can be a problem. And if it’s a zombie story, the overwhelming stench of rot! Learning about solar everything makes sense, and I did research on that. I have an ex-boyfriend who put solar panels and windmills on his roof and I pretty much know how that works, and how difficult it is in a climate with little sun in the winter to generate enough power to run much — this, again, is where a warm and sunny place works better for survival. I also lived on a farm for a year and know a bit about growing enough food to sustain oneself, which is very hard to do — and which is why our ancestors from before refrigeration were much smaller and thinner than we are today. It’s 24/7 work just to eat. And, of course, my character has no freezer! A lot of decisions in a post-apocalyptic world depend on what the apocalypse is about. If the air and water are completely shot, that’s another story.

One of the inspirations for “The Age of Sorrow” was a film I saw as a child that had a huge impact on me: On the Beach. Nuclear war has occurred, everyone, everywhere is gone but people in Australia. An enormous wave of radiation is circling the planet, moving towards that country. People try to make the best of their remaining days and the government gives out suicide pills. A US submarine arrives. Hope seems to hinge on an erratic Morse Code signal coming from California and the sub makes a trip there, only to find out it’s an accidental signal — a Coke bottle caught in a window shade cord that hits a live telegraph key when the wind blows. It’s a very bleak story. Everyone dies in the end. Not your modern post-apocalyptic film (or book, written by Nevil Shute — though the book is more political). I wanted to create that feel in this story, that bleakness that can’t find a way out, being utterly alone, having to cope with a likely bad ending, and all of it from the perspective of a woman with a woman’s needs.

Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead, and Evolve 2: Vampire Stories of the Future Undead, are both considered must-reads for vampire aficionados as much for their great selection of stories as for the diversity in the vampires portrayed. If you could design a “perfect” vampire, what would it be like?

I’ve always thought that the vampire should be smarter than mortals, almost indestructible. What we often get is this creature that’s lived centuries being dispatched fairly easily, and that’s disappointing. I think if the vampire is that stupid, he/she/it should be destroyed before the book or film starts! I enjoy a vampire that is smarter than me. And maybe what we often get is a vampire that’s smarter than the common-denominator masses, but not nearly as clever as people who are a tad brighter. I’m not saying I’m a genius — far from it — but I, for one, wouldn’t go down into the crypt alone without a serious weapon!

What’s next for Nancy Kilpatrick? What tasty treats can eager readers look forward to sinking their teeth into?

I have quite a few stories out or coming out in these publications: Searchers After Horror; The Darke Phantastique; Zombie Apocalypse: Endgame!; and the upcoming Blood Sisters: Vampire Stories by Women; The Madness of Cthulhu 2; Dreams From the Witch House; Gothic Lovecraft, and a nonfiction piece in Stone Skin Bestiary. As well, I have two anthologies I’ve edited for 2015. Expiration Date is out in May. nEvermore! (co-edited with Caro Soles) will be out in early fall. As for novels, I have two in the pipeline at the moment.

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Sandra Odell

Sandra Odell

Sandra Odell is a forty-seven-year old, happily married mother of two, an avid reader, compulsive writer, and rabid chocoholic. Her work has appeared in such venues as Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE, Daily Science Fiction, Crosssed Genres, Pseudopod, and The Drabblecast. She is hard at work plotting her second novel or world domination. Whichever comes first.