Dracula is the classic Victorian horror, the monster born of women’s lustful thoughts, the fear of sexually transmitted diseases, and that alien “otherness” that bloomed cold and afraid in the hearts of many. In “The Eight People Who Murdered Me (Excerpt From Lucy Westenra’s Diary),” you burned that story to ash and created it anew for a different sort of horror. What inspired this particular retelling?
This story had a long gestation period. It took me almost two years to finish, and that was after writing it, rewriting it, and then ripping it apart at the seams and writing it all over again. At its heart, I wanted to honor the character of Lucy. She’s such a wonderful presence in the book, but she’s disregarded far too early on. As a child, I remember watching Dracula films and hearing my parents talk about the book. I knew there were only two women in the story: Mina who lives, and Lucy who dies. When I was young, I remember thinking how much I had to be more like Mina if I wanted to survive a vampire. As I got older, I realized how much of a huge flaw in logic this was, as though Lucy brought it all on herself. This story was my way of working through that and paying respect to a character who’s all too often overlooked.
Since there are already so many great homages to Dracula—including Robert Aickman’s “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal,” which is referenced in the title of this story—I knew I wanted to do something different with this retelling. Turning it into a list format came very late in the process, but that was also when the whole piece really crystalized for me in the way I’d been hoping for months that it would. I liked the idea of seeing the horrors of the story unfold through Lucy’s eyes after the fact, after she’s been mostly forgotten by the rest of the characters. That seemed horrifying in a very unique way, but it also gave her a chance to reassert her voice when no one else is even worried about her existence.
In particular, I looked to Sadie Frost’s performance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. She’s so buoyant and whimsical and magnetic on screen. I also love Hammer’s first iteration of Lucy, who was played by Carol Marsh in Horror of Dracula. Those are two of my favorite Lucys, but every time I see a new version of the film, it always leaves me wanting to get to know the character better. This story gave me that opportunity.
Though Lucy states that Dracula is “still mostly to blame,” he almost feels like one of the least horrific elements of the story. His predations are horrific, yet seem a passing moment when compared to Lucy’s struggle against the “If onlies.” Do you feel that the attitudes surrounding women in horror have changed since Stoker originally published Dracula or do you feel women continue to assert themselves as more than victims and/or monsters in horror fiction?
I do feel that attitudes have changed for the better, at least somewhat, but we still have a long way to go. Sometimes, it’s heartening to see all the new female characters—and more importantly, female authors—in the genre, but other times, it’s a bit demoralizing that it’s taken us this long.
Fortunately, as more women gain recognition for their work in horror fiction, the representation of female characters gets better. More than anything, we’ve got to tell our own stories. That’s the main way that women will stop being one-dimensional victims and monsters in horror—if we’re the ones controlling our own narratives.
No matter how we may try to slip inside a character’s skin, modern readers and writers come to a story with modern points of view. Lucy insists that she will not believe that she is one of the people responsible for her death and then goes on to detail the quiet and heartbreaking ways women turn guilt on themselves like the sharpest of knives. To me, perhaps this is the most horrific element of all because it is the most identifiable. As a writer, how conscious are you of the cultural divide born of time and how readers may relate to your work?
It’s definitely something I always consider. No matter what time period you set a piece, you already know that readers are going to approach it from where we are today. With this story in particular, I felt that a lot of people, especially women, still often blame themselves when something goes wrong, so that felt like an idea that modern audiences would sadly understand all too well. Lucy is not alone in the way she internalizes victim-blaming.
That being said, I try not to let that modern perspective completely alter how I write a story. After all, we live in a rapidly changing world, and you can’t be sure how a story will read to audiences even a few years in the future. It’s more important to me to try to hit on some theme or idea or truth that I’m wanting to communicate in that moment. You can’t always control how something will be viewed, but as long as you know what it is you want to say, then it’s worth writing down that story. For example, if we ever get past our current point as a society so that self-blame isn’t something as common as it is today, I am completely fine with a story I’ve written feeling dated. That would mean that the world has become a better place, which is a nice albeit overly hopeful notion.
You are a Bram Stoker Award-winning author with a history of dancing with the shadows through the darkness. What started your love affair with short horror?
I’ve loved horror short stories ever since I was a kid. My dad is a huge Edgar Allan Poe fan, so he would recite “The Raven” to me and read “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” as my bedtime stories. Then when I was around five or so, my mom introduced me to Ray Bradbury’s story, “Homecoming,” which features a whole litany of strange creatures descending on a beautifully creepy family home. From there, I was completely hooked. There’s never been a point in my life when short horror wasn’t around and brimming in the back of my mind, so in a way, I’ve always found horror oddly comforting. The world is such a uniquely scary place, especially when you’re a kid, and horror gave me a way to make sense of my fears.
As I got older, my love of the genre only grew. Eventually, I found plenty of horror novels that I loved as well, but there’s something really special about horror short stories. They have this “around the campfire” feel that makes them so visceral and so perfect. You can dive into this terrifying world and reemerge so quickly. It feels like the best way to deal with fear: explore it and come back from it again, all in one sitting. It’s utterly cathartic.
Writers are readers. Who are some of your favorite authors? Do you have a particular favorite when you want to get your horror on?
I’ve already mentioned Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury. They’re still tremendous influences on me. Poe’s use of language is so hauntingly gorgeous, and Bradbury’s whimsical yet often sinister settings can still draw me in with just a few sentences, as though I’m reading the stories for the first time. Shirley Jackson is another author I admire so much. Her insight and sense of humor about the grotesqueries of small-town life never cease to astound, horrify, and delight me.
As for authors who are still writing today, I absolutely adore the work of Sara Tantlinger, Christa Carmen, Saba Syed Razvi, Brooke Warra, Eden Royce, Anya Martin, and S.P. Miskowski. I would encourage anyone who loves horror to seek out those authors’ stories and poetry. You won’t regret it.
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