Ginger Nuts of Horror
Karen Runge is a writer based in South Africa. She writes the kind of stories that leave a mark, long after you have finished reading them. Karen first came to my attention through the Grey Matter Press anthology ‘Deaths Realm’. In collaboration with ‘Suspended in Dusk’ Editor Simon Dewar, they created a tale of sexy horror that I thought was a real stand out inside an already excellent anthology. Fast forward a little and Karen popped up again in another anthology from the excellent Grey Matter Press. This time it was a story in the ‘Savage Beasts’ anthology. For me it was the best story in there, and once again this was a high quality collection of dark fiction.
I heard a little rumour that Karen was working on a short story collection to be released this year. To say I was eager to get my hands on a copy is an understatement. ‘Seven Sins’, released by Concorde Press is the debut collection from this incredibly talented writer and is readily available right now! With blurbs by Stephen Graham Jones and Paul Tremblay you know that this will be something special. Also later this year, Karen will be releasing her debut novel through Grey Matter Press.
I was lucky enough to snare some of Karen’s free time to talk books and dark thoughts. Enjoy!
GNoH: Hello there, Karen. For those out there unfamiliar with your work, can you tell us about yourself?
Hello there Adrian! What a pleasure to finally sit down with you. I’m a dark fiction (let’s just call it horror) writer, and raging fan of the hardcore. Meaning, the kind of horror I write very seldom involves any supernatural elements, and where I can I like to explore my subjects from the more extreme angles. No doubt you’ve noticed that! I’m fascinated by human bonds and how they can go wrong, so this is a recurring theme in my stories. There are just so many possibilities, so many angles to approach from… I don’t think it’s possible to ever run out of ideas.
GNoH: When did you begin writing?
Honestly, I’ve been writing (or trying to) as far back as I can remember. My father instilled a love of literature in me before I could even read, telling me what wonderful worlds can be found in books. Of course, as soon as I knew my ABCs, I was rearing to give it a bash. I tried to write my first novel when I was about seven, as I recall…. It was about a mouse that goes adventuring at the bottom of the sea and encounters enormous, monster crabs. I think Lovecraft’s ghost might’ve had something to do with that one. Wouldn’t that be nice. I couldn’t wait for any creative writing assignments in school, and my teachers did a lot to reinforce my enthusiasm. I guess you could say it didn’t take much for books and writing to become a very important part of my life.
GNoH: Can you remember your very first published story? Where was it? What was it and who was it with?
Remember it? In technicolour! It was a story called ‘The Lighthouse’, picked up by the sadly now-defunct South African Horror and SF magazine Something Wicked. I remember jumping up and down in front of my computer yelling “YES!!!” when I read the acceptance letter. One of the happiest moments of my life.
GNoH: You’re based in South Africa. How is dark fiction looked upon down there?
We’re old hats at that. Stormy histories and fierce kick-backs from the liberation groups, plus a vicious crime rate, mean that there’s no room for soft, head-in-the-sand sensibilities. My father in particular is a huge admirer of the ‘Sestigers’, the Afrikaans literati who stood up against Apartheid. We’re talking incredible works of literature here: nerve-tugging poetry and hard-hitting longer works all designed to wake people up to the realities of life as it was at the time. Tag on JM Coetzee, who isn’t afraid at all to delve deep into tough subjects, and you’ve got a good grip on dark fiction and its importance. That said, say ‘horror’ and people still assume you’re talking vampires and werewolves. Or, God forbid, Twilight. I’d love to see that line of thinking change. Horror first and foremost is psychological: if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t work. I’ll argue that it taps into the real and relevant better than any other genre. You want to tell me South African writers aren’t telling horror stories? Look again.
GNoH: Where does your love of dark fiction come from and what influences you as a writer?
I’m pretty sure that’s a question most, if not all, dark-genre lovers struggle to answer. I don’t really know where my love for this thing comes from. It always just spoke to me. When I was a little girl, I was transfixed by the covers of horror novels and story collections. Film cassettes, too. Artwork, photography, whatever. They were terrifying of course, but I saw something so awesome there. I’m pretty sure I was thinking something along the lines of: That is the coolest shit ever!! Whatever they made me feel, I wanted so badly to one day be able to evoke the same emotional response in others.
As a writer, I am very much influenced by film (specifically art films and subversive horror films—Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier are two of my particular favourites). Powerful, intelligent, designed to unnerve and disturb. I’ve been known to watch these types of films over and over again; I like to live with them awhile. Music is a huge influence, too. I pay a lot of attention to lyrics: they tend to catch my attention more than sound itself. And of course, I’ll read just about anything. There’s always something to learn.
GNoH: Is there an underlying message with your writing? Is there something that you really hope the reader takes away with them?
I like to hit hard. In fact I aim for that very deliberately, because the movies and books I most admire do just that: work under the premise of brutal honesty, unflinching, raw. Soft horror is fun and everything, but I’m of the view that there’s plenty of that around and not nearly enough nerve-splitting stuff. If there’s a message in my work, I guess you could say it comes from that place. I’m saying to the reader: “Look! Really look!” Because there’s so much more to experience and learn that way. But underneath that, I try to write with compassion. If something is happening, no matter how horrible, we need to understand it. Sometimes the only—and safest—place where we can do that is through art. In the act of writing, I’m trying to understand these things myself. If a reader is riding along with me, all the better. I’m glad to have the company.
GNoH: It must be a very anxious time, releasing your debut collection. I am not an author but I do wonder what sort of emotions you feel as a writer when releasing a book.
Exhaustion, first and foremost! Ha! There’s so much to do. We’re talking years of writing and obsessing over each story, whirlwind edits, and then all the tumult that comes with getting the polished result ready for the world. I’m also based in South Africa, which means that while my book is technically out and available, I’ve yet to actually hold a copy in my own hands. Which means that for me, so far, none of this really feels real. It’s still swirling up there in the mental ether. Hopefully that’ll change soon! When I finally receive my own copies I might collapse on the spot in overwhelm. That or scream like a hysterically happy banshee. We’ll see!
GNoH: Interesting that your debut release is a collection of short stories. I love single author collections, perhaps even more so than novels. How long have you been working on this collection and what can we expect from it?
I originally got the idea for it in around 2013/14. The trigger question was: Imagine you’ve gone your whole life believing you’re a good person, and on your death find yourself sent straight to hell? Which got me onto the idea of sin, and what crashcourse of events might hurtle well-intentioned / good people down such dark roads. I knew I couldn’t heap all of that onto just one character, so the idea of expanding it into seven separate stories was an easy step. What can you expect? The seven sins I write about are not the seven deadly sins we all know about, so look out for tragedies and depravities that slide more along the sidelines, but are no less damning. If I’ve got it right, you should feel some empathy for my characters, too, and identify a little with their decisions. I didn’t want to set them up as witch hunt victims. They are as much damaged and deserving of sympathy as any of the other characters in each story.
GNoH: How did these seven stories make it out of your personal slush pile at the expense of the others? What in particular was it about these seven stories made you say “Yes, these are the seven stories I want in my book”
Three of them were published along the way, and well-received (Structo for ‘Sweet Old Men’, Pantheon Magazine picked up ‘The Philosopher’, and Pseudopod produced ‘The Killing Machine’ in audio), so their place was assured. The remaining stories took more time, and went through many changes along the way. I think I binned at least three early drafts of ‘The Orphanage’, but I stuck with it because it was a story I really, really wanted to tell. Others just didn’t stick their mean little claws deep enough into my brain to keep me from shaking them off. There are at least four that I gave up on at various stages. You could say that the stories I was able to finish with that ‘Omigod I think I just did it!!’ writer-rush were sure from the moment I hit the last key. As for the ones I left behind, one fine day I’ll take a look at them again and see if there’s anything there worth salvaging.
GNoH: Stephen Graham Jones, Paul Tremblay and Nikki Guerlain have all had great things to say about ‘Seven Sins’ you must be thrilled when such talented people blurb your work.
It’s still very much in surreal-land that these amazing, incredibly talented writers have nice things to say about my work. I was obsessively reading and rereading the blurbs for about two days after they each came in. To be honest, I’m not convinced it’s fully sunk in just yet. I’m still dissolving in gratitude.
GNoH: I really enjoyed ‘Going Home’ from the ‘Savage Beasts’ anthology. It was a dark and creepy tale with an ending that blew me away. How did this particular story come about?
Like most stories, a bit of this and a bit of that. I was aware of the submissions call for one thing, but wasn’t having much joy coming up with a decent concept. I had a very rough, very messy early draft of GOING HOME that just wasn’t working. Cue a tense moment with my then-fiancé at his birthday party, and his peace-offering of blasting my absolute favourite Nine Inch Nails album (The Downward Spiral) for the whole bar to quiver at, and the emotional mix was just right. I then focused on the song ‘Piggy’, paying close attention to the lyrics (which I know backwards anyway!) and I knew how I wanted the story to go. It doesn’t always come together like that, though. Sometimes the stars align and you’re able to draft up something decent. Sometimes, not.
GNoH: Grey Matter Press are one of my favourite publishers. You must be delighted that they will be publishing your debut novel (September time, I think?). Tell us how this came about.
The editors, Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson, are such amazing people. Having worked with them twice for two separate anthologies (Death’s Realm and Savage Beasts), I was blown away when they asked me if I had a novel-length MS stewing away in the background. As a matter of fact I did--Seeing Double—still a little raw but Draft 1 very much complete. I convinced myself off the bat that they would turn it down, but to my absolute astonishment… they accepted it. They actually accepted it. (I still have to say that to myself at least twice every time I talk about it.) Contracts are signed and we should start picking away at the edits any day now.
GNoH: How did you find the transition between the short story forms to writing a novel? Is it something that came easily to you?
No, it’s not easy at all. When you’re used to writing short stories, it’s quite a switch to drop to a slower gear, learn to pace yourself, go easy on the reveals… and still keep it tight. There’s a lot more editing involved. Every once in a while I bang out a short story that can go on its way without much editing (‘Sweet Old Men’ is a good example of that, actually), but I don’t believe that can really happen with a full MS. We’re talking a minimum of 50K words here! That’s a lot of space to get lost in in. In that way, novel-length works can be borderline soul-destroying. I’ve had a bit more practice now though, and am learning to have more faith in myself as editor and not just writer. Do my best in the moment, see how it looks later.
GNoH: What are your thoughts on the current state of dark fiction? I really believe that it is in a wonderful place with some incredible books being released, particularly by the smaller presses.
I agree, absolutely. Much like horror movies, most of the good stuff is coming from the littler guys these days: the independent producers / publishers who chose to do it first and foremost out of love. And isn’t it always like that? If you work with love, what you’re working on works. Motivation is everything, and I really believe that has a lot to do with the recent resurgence of truly brilliant work coming out of the dark genres.
GNoH: What are you reading right now and what have you enjoyed reading in 2016?
I just finished Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘We are All Completely Beside Ourselves’, and I’m currently reading ‘I’ll Take You There’ by Joyce Carol Oates. Not strictly horror, but these writers know how to punch you right in the heart, and they’re not afraid to show you some of the carnage. I also recently reread ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’ by Hubert Selby Jr—a hardcore favourite of mine that blew my mind when I first read it at eighteen. I have a pile of pulp horror novels I recently picked up at a secondhand bookstore… beckoning to me from their gorgeous, trash-tease covers. So many books, so little time!
GNoH: What else does Karen Runge have planned for the rest of 2016 and beyond?
Guess what? I’m working on another book! I also have a few stories out on submission, and am waiting for the verdicts on those. One sure short due from me is ‘Angeline’, which will appear in Simon Dewar’s ‘Suspended in Dusk 2’ a little later this year. I also wrote a novella, ‘Madrigal Hellion’, which I’d love to see published but which has had the very bad luck of repeatedly getting ‘lost’ in various small-press slush piles. That, or the various editors involved thought it sucked so badly they didn’t even have the heart to formally reject it! (Laugh or cry?!) I’d like to keep pushing with that that one, though. I may be a bit quieter on the short story front for a while, because I’m having such a good time with my new manuscript. As ever, we’ll just have to see what happens!
Find out more about Karen Runge at karenrunge.wordpress.com