Horla Interview (July 2021)

 

HORLA INTERVIEW

CATHERINE McCARTHY

‘Once the seed is sown, it germinates a while, until eventually it grows into a flower,

albeit a crimson rose or toxic Digitalis.’ Catherine McCarthy

Catherine McCarthy is a spinner of dark tales from Wales. She describes herself as a writer of ‘horror with heart’. She has recently published a new collection of short stories, Mists and Megaliths, which is set in her homeland and which includes ‘classic ghost stories, cosmic horror, eco-horror, and even a dark comedy in a modern setting’. This month (July 2021) sees the publication of her novella Immortelle, by Off Limits Press. Set on the West Wales coast, Catherine describes the work as ‘a haunting tale of a grieving mother who calls on the supernatural to help her exact revenge of the most hideous kind’.

Her short stories and flash fiction have been published widely in various places online and in anthologies.

When she’s not writing, she says she may be found walking the Welsh coast path or lurking in ancient graveyards reading Machen or Poe.

Here we talk to her about her life and writing and her most recent projects.

Horla: Thanks for agreeing to do this Q and A with us Catherine. May we begin by asking you to tell us something of yourself – where you’re from (originally), your career and life outside writing, and where you live now?

Hi Matthew! Thank you so much for the invite.

I was born and bred in the South Wales Valleys, and went on to teach in Merthyr Tydfil for twenty-eight years. However, my husband and I longed to escape to a more rural area, preferably close to the sea, so three years ago we moved to Ceredigion, West Wales. We now live in a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse, fifteen minutes from the coast.

When I’m not writing I sew in my ‘bee hive’ (summer house), walk the coast-path, or seek out old graveyards, abandoned cottages and ancient monuments. Those are the kind of places that have their own stories to tell, and those are the kind of places that inspire me to tell mine.

Horla: So how did you get into writing? Was it always an ambition?

I’ve always been an avid reader and love stories in both spoken and written form. My late mother encouraged me from a young age through her own love of stories. As a child, my favourite presents were books. For me, Christmas smelt of books, not mulled wine or mince pies.

I wrote my first novel whilst teaching: a middle grade fantasy called The Gatekeeper’s Apprentice. Then, when my mother died, I wrote a dark family saga called Hope Cottage in her memory which explores grief and triumph over adversity.

Only after finishing full-time work (I won’t call it retirement because I view it more as a change in career) did I really find the time to dedicate to writing. Within the first year of freedom, I wrote and published a collection of short stories (Door and other twisted tales) and completed the first draft of a novel (The Wolf and the Favour) which I’ve yet to publish.

In 2020, I won the Aberystwyth University Imagining Utopia creative writing competition for my story, The Queen’s Attendant, which was judged by Michael Caines, assistant editor of The Times Literary Supplement.

Since then, I’ve written and published my collection of Welsh tales (Mists and Megaliths) and have two novellas, as well as several other short stories, which will soon be published.

Horla: Where does your interest in horror fiction, in particular, come from? Any influences (books, cinema, TV) you’d care to mention?

I explain more about my take on the horror genre below, so for now, I’ll just say that I’ve always been in touch with my dark side. Even as a young child I was keenly aware of illness, grief, death, and the powerful consequences such traumas have on us as humans. A bit of a Wednesday Addams, I suppose.

My favourite 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. Even then, I loved visiting graveyards, ancient castles, dungeons and caves. I remember coming home from a jaunt at the local cemetery and informing my mother that I’d chosen the exact tombstone I wanted for her. In her early thirties, and a bit of a hypochondriac, she wasn’t best pleased.

During my teens, the music I listened to was dark and dangerous, loud and anarchic. I read James Herbert, Graham Masterton, Stephen King, as well as the classics like Poe, Mary Shelley, and novels such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights which some people may not class as horror, but…don’t get me started on the whole genre thing!

As far as writing goes, exploring the dark side provides an ideal opportunity for the monsters in the closet to be given free rein, those bits of our psyche that might otherwise internalize and destroy us.

My own writing is influenced by so many things, and so many authors. For example, Kathe Koja’s short story, Road Trip, from her collection, Velocities (left), inspired my first attempt at writing a story in second person point of view. It’s called Lure and features in the collection, Mists and Megaliths as well as the anthology, The One That Got Away. from Kandisha Press.

Horla: When it comes to short stories, do you have a favourite in the horror genre? If there is such a story, please tell us what makes it special in your view.

The story by Kathe Koja that I mentioned above is definitely one of my favourites. It’s the story of a father dealing with his daughter’s death following a car accident in which he was the driver. The description of the accident itself is bone-chilling, though short and succinct. It goes to prove how much can be said with so few words.

An indie author who writes in a similar style to Koja is Michael Sellars. His collection, Heartfelt Horrors (left), is in a similar vein and does what it says on the cover: delivers an emotional punch but with the absence of sentimentality which I truly admire. Highly recommended.

Horla: ‘Horror fiction’ is, of course a very broad-brush term. How would you describe the kind of fiction that you write?

So many potential readers are put off when they see the term ‘horror writer,’ but like you say, the term covers such a wide range. I don’t actually think of myself as a horror writer, at least not in the obvious sense. I see myself as a dark fiction writer, one who writes what might be classed as quiet horror, but 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.

Horla: We’ve noticed that your stories can sometimes take a comic turn. Can you shed some light on why your work sometimes walks that way? (We’re thinking of the likes of your story ‘Two’s Company, Three’s a Shroud’ in your new collection Mists and Megaliths, left.)

In my humble opinion, dark humour helps us through the bleakest of times. I find that many Welsh people are able to spin an amusing yarn out of bad fortune. I naturally err towards anecdotes that turn potential disaster or tragedy into comedy and think this is a common trait among Welsh folk.

A year or so ago I read a newspaper article which explained that, due to lack of space, Merthyr Tydfil Council were considering the reclamation of old graves. There was a condition attached: the reclaimed graves had to be at least a hundred-years-old.

(Continue next column)

The story got my dark humour juices flowing. I wondered what it would be like if a typical Welsh ex-miner were to be  buried on top of a wealthy former magistrate. What kind of relationship would develop between the ghosts of two men with such conflicting life experiences? What kind of banter might occur? I loved writing this story. The protagonist, Stan, is so typical of characters I know in real life, though I did worry a little about whether non Welsh readers would be able to tune in to the humour. Judging by the positive reviews, I had no need to worry.

Horla: Staying with Mists and Megaliths for a moment, a collection of stories set in Wales, how important to you – as an influence – is the land in which you live? We’re aware that you like to visit old churches, for example, as well as walking the wonderful coastal paths in your part of the country.

I think it comes down to the old adage, write what you know. I’m not sure I agree with that entirely, but setting a story in a place you’re familiar with certainly helps make it feel authentic as far as location and characters go. I’m not particularly patriotic in the traditional sense, but Wales lies beneath my skin, is part of what I am and who I am. I would say around ninety per-cent of my writing is set in Wales.

Horla: So how does a story – the seed… the idea – come to you?

Story seeds are stimulated in a variety of ways. They are often sparked by a dream or an image, or, on occasion, by a powerful line that I find myself reciting over and over such as this one… ‘Wherever Elias went, he carried the bible in the crook of his withered left arm.’ Kind of random, I know, but the sentence popped into my head one day and subsequently became the opening line of a story. But more often than not, my story ideas stem from places visited, such as the Ice House in Bedwellty Park, Tredegar, the cromlech on the clifftop at Abercastle or a desolate fishing lake in Mid Wales.

Once the seed is sown, it germinates a while, until eventually it grows into a flower, albeit a crimson rose or toxic Digitalis.

Horla: We like that! Continuing with the production side of things. briefly let us in on your writing process.

I rarely plan a story, which is in total contrast to how I deal with other aspects of my life where I need to be in control in order to stay sane. Once an idea sparks, I allow the story to more or less write itself. The trouble with not planning is that you often find yourself lost with no clue where to turn next. That’s when I get up from the computer and either go for a walk in the countryside or lie in a quiet room and visualize the next scene. That way, the characters usually tell me where they want to go next as opposed to the other way round.

 I’m also a linear writer which means I start at the beginning and progress right through to the end. I have no idea how other authors write chunks from different sections of a story then piece them together at the end. I mean, how on earth can you write an ending if you haven’t written about what comes before it?

I don’t give myself a daily word count goal, but I do write most days, even if that means editing or preparing for interviews or podcasts. As a writer, there’s always some job linked to your current project that demands attention.

Horla: We understand a novella is due out from you any day now. Exciting times. Please tell us something about that.

Immortelle (left) is a novella and is set just north of Llangrannog in the hamlet of Mwnt. The tiny white-washed church, set on the cliff-top, features largely in the story. Immortelle is essentially a Gothic ghost story, and will be published by Off Limits Press July 15th 2021.

Throughout Wales, and especially in more untouched regions such as where I now live, Victorian immortelles can still be found in graveyards. Intended as permanent memorials to the dead, they consist of ceramic flowers, birds, cherubs and such like. The memorials are arranged on a base and covered with a glass dome before being placed on the graves of the deceased. Such things appeal to my macabre nature, and for this story I imagined a ceramicist who begins to create customized immortelles as a means of coming to terms with the suspicious death of her daughter.

I’ll give you the blurb and let you judge for yourself:

When Elinor’s daughter, Rowena, is found poisoned and dead in an animal trough, Elinor is sure the local parish priest is to blame.

A ceramic artist by trade and influenced by her late grandmother’s interest in supernatural magic, Elinor crafts an immortelle for Rowena’s grave and attempts to capture the girl’s spirit in the clay model of a starling. Soon she is inundated with requests for immortelles and the more immersed in the craft she becomes, the greater her powers grow.

As the dead share their secrets with grieving Elinor, she learns the sordid truth of what happened to her beloved daughter and plots a revenge so hideous, it must be kept a secret forever.

Pre-orders are available at: www.offlimitspress.com/catherine-mccarthy

Horla: And at present? Care to share something about what you’re working on currently?

In the autumn, I have a short story coming out in an anthology called Were Tales and another in an anthology called Up From the Depths. For the were tale, I wrote a twist on Y Ceffyl Dŵr (The Water Horse). It’s a tale of revenge that reads more like a folk-tale than horror. My story in Up From the Depths is called Instinct and is a modern psychological horror tale of self control, or rather the lack of it. The great master of cosmic horror, Ramsey Campbell, is writing the foreword and the cover has been illustrated by Francois Vaillancourt, a well-known cover artist.

I also have a shorter novella coming out as part of an anthology with Black Angel Press – Daughters of Darkness – an indie collaboration in celebration of women horror writers. The novella is called The Spider and the Stag and is set in Scotland. Inspired by a vivid dream, it’s a dark tale with elements of magical realism.

I’ve also started writing another novella, set in an old apothecary in Wales. I have a fascination with antique chemist’s jars and medical instruments from the past, though the story is very much character driven.

Horla: Sounds like you’ve got plenty to keep you occupied. Thanks for sharing your time, Catherine, and good luck with all of the projects!

Catherine McCarthy’s website is at:

https://www.catherine-mccarthy-author.com/

(Please note: Catherine tells us that it’s desk-top only at the moment – June / early July 2021 – because the mobile version is being worked on. But keep an eye!)