Back when fellow Society member, Cat Burglar, International Adventuress, and Supreme Necromancer, Countess Kim von Graff innocently asked me to contribute at YA-Asylum.com (now e-zine Strange Far Places), I started off writing reviews, where I treated YA horror with all the literary criticism I thought the genre deserved. One of the titles in those halcyon days before my brutal murder at the hands of schismatics was Mary The Summoning. It was also my first positive review.
Then I had a small heart attack when Hillary tweeted me to say how much she loved my smart arse review. (WHAT?!?! You mean people I don’t know will read my posts??) And Over the past year, I’ve come to respect Hillary for more than just her horror chops, she’s one of a handful of writers who’s opinions and philosophy I not only listen to, but genuinely admire, even when I disagree with her.
But enough of the heartwarming guff, let’s get on with the interview! (Here’s my review of Mary Unleashed. If you don’t buy it I shall internet sneer at you before berating you with the superiority of my vocabulary.)
Timon: What do you want to give horror fans with Mary Unleashed that readers can’t get anywhere else?
Hillary: Local lore from my hometown. I grew up in a little place called West Bridgewater. Most people won’t hear of it, won’t pass through it, won’t recognize it. With Unleashed, I get to share the spooky stories the townies always told about the Hockomock Swamp. Some of Wee Bee’s (ain’t that cute?) backroads have swamp to either side and the fog rolls in like clockwork spring/fall nights. It’s so thick, you can’t see the fingers on your extended hand. It’s one of the creepiest things I’ve ever witnessed.
Timon: You write some of the most wonderfully strong women characters in both YA and horror, and in both Mary Unleashed and The Awesome, we see multi-generational badassery—Aunt Dell is one of my all time favorite characters—how did this become an important theme in your writing and what’s your process?
Hillary: My husband, when he first met my family a trillion years ago, looked at me, my mother, and my grandmother and went, “Holy crap it’s Maiden Mother Crone. You’re the same person.” It’s true, to a point. The women in my family are all In Your Face. Not a lot scares them. I grew up surrounded by these giants and learned that I could be a giant if I wanted to, too. It was shocking for me to read books with timid women protags because it was such a foreign concept to me? I had moments of, “Wait, that actually happens? Other girls are passive? But why?” My mother and grandmother never let anyone walk on them, and taught me that female voices are as strong (and in their particular cases, stronger) as any male voice.
Timon: In Mary Unleashed, you get to show off the versatility of your voice with the letters from the 1800s. What research did you do to capture that tone while still keeping them accessible to modern audiences? Can we expect a historical horror or a literary horror from you down the road?
Hillary: Ha! Well, I actually have buckets of letters/family mementos that I looked at. And I’ve read a lot. And at times I had to double check when a particular turn of phrase got penned so I wasn’t in the wrong century. One thing I had a particularly troubling time figuring out was the use of contractions. They were less prevalent back when, but they saw a rise toward the end of the century, and I allowed Constance to jump on that train, though the older generation letters not so much.
And yes, I have a literary/period horror that I’ve finished called THE WAGON WITCH’S APPRENTICE. Elisabeta is part of the traveling people. She’s also the wagon witch’s granddaughter. She pairs off with a non-traveler boy named Will, and for it, both she and Will are attacked by some of the traveler boys. To save Will’s life after a horrid beating, Elisabeta must harvest body parts to power a magic spell. A good person has to decide if she can do a not-good thing for the greater good.
Timon: You make Bloody Mary a complex, tragic, and to a certain extent—a sympathetic and understandable character. Personally, I think you do for Bloody Mary what Stoker did for the vampire. What made you want to write about Bloody Mary and how important was it to you to make her more than just another Freddie, Michael, or Jason?
Hillary: Mary scared me as a kid more than Freddie, Michael, and Jason combined. They were tangible and you could outrun them, but her? Nahhh. She was called Mary Jane in my town, and I obsessed over ghosts in mirrors for a long time because of that legend. I think it was that thing of “what’s on the other side. If I can see in, what’s looking out?” The concept fascinated me and terrified me. I think the only other monster to get my imagination churning overtime like that was the possessing demon in The Exorcist.
Timon: One of the most wonderful things about your books is how you turn all the usual tropes on their head and yet still keep that wonderful sense of glee us horror folk love. What’s your secret for reinventing the tired and worn-out making them fun again?
Hillary: Just . . . do something different. That’s it. If you can think of two examples of a trope off the top of your head, don’t do it that way again. It’s okay to tip your hat to fandom—fans LOVE that stuff—but it’s another thing all together to reuse material and claim it’s your own (see: why I hate the movie The Conjuring.) Select parts of the trope and deploy them, but make sure they’re tethered to a fresh take or twist so it’s not tired before it’s even out of the gate.
Timon: The Awesome is unique because it’s an issue book, but it’s genre, and it’s absolutely pure, straight-up fun where most issue books are grimmer than than the clinched asshole of hell, and that made it all the more effective. Even my shriveled-up soul was moved by it. How important is it when talking about serious things—like body positivity and feminism—to approach it with humor and fun?
Hillary: I think it’s one way to do it, certainly, but no better or worse than other tacks. Issue books can hit like a hammer because they’re talking to the uglier side of life kids have to deal with. Some kids don’t like being hit with a hammer. It’s too much, too confrontational, too heavy, too something. I wanted to talk to those kids about sex and body positivity. Also? I wanted to write about the issue in such a way that I’m not standing on a soapbox screaming. No one likes to be yelled at, and I feel like The Awesome addresses some heavy subject matter without the preaching angle. In some ways the humor softens the message, yes, and people might not look past the silly dick joke to find the nugget underneath, but that’s the risk I run with this approach, but I’m okay with it.