On Writing, with David Annandale
As the weather gets chillier, you may be looking for something a bit less beach-read and a bit more spine-tingling. David Annandale is the author of Gethsemane Hall (Dundurn), which offers a fresh twist on the haunted house tale.
David talks to Open Book today about scary vs. funny, why we can't resist stories of our safest space becoming terrifying and "the story that will eat your soul forever".
Tell us about your book, Gethsemane Hall.
I’ve long wanted to write a haunted house novel, and Gethsemane Hall is my take on the genre. Years ago, when I was first musing about tackling such a book, I imagined a group of investigators operating from diametrically opposed philosophical outlooks. What if, I wondered, the believers and the sceptics were both wrong? So that was the starting point. In the novel, then, investigators with conflicting agendas descend on Gethsemane Hall, a medieval English manor house. Some of the characters want to debunk the rumours that the house is haunted, while other want to prove that it is. The owner, Richard Gray, is a grieving widower and father who knows that something is going on at the house. Embittered and hurting, he opens his home to the investigators, determined to know the truth, no matter how awful it might be. None of the characters, of course, is prepared for what actually lurks there.
The book has already been praised as being genuinely chilling. What are some of the challenges of creating a truly frightening story?
Horror is like humour — what scares or amuses one person will leave another cold. And, for that matter, what frightens one person could easily strike another as hilarious. So that’s a big challenge right there. Horror, furthermore, as a form of artistic expression, transforms itself continuously, and often radically, as what frightens us as a society and a culture changes over time. Some fears (death, the loss of the self) are far more universal, but the specific forms they take change, too. So the horror writer must think hard about not just the in the story that is supposed to be scary, but why that thing or event should be frightening. I think the most effective stories are the ones where it is not simply a question of monstrous appearance or acts, but of what those things mean. Whether I have succeeded in this goal will depend, of course, on the individual reader.
Given that most people want safety and security from their homes, the enduring appeal of the haunted house story is interesting. What do you think the appeal is for readers?
Because our homes are where we should feel safest, that is where we let our guard down, and so, paradoxically, that is also where we are at our most vulnerable. Home should be our refuge, and if it is the source of horror, now what do we do? When we read horror fiction, we are inviting authors to target our pressure points, and this is a big one.
But the other appeal of the haunted house story is, I think, its vintage. It’s a genre that’s been around for well over a century. There is an almost cozy familiarity, at least in its set-up. We should read these sorts of stories in a comfy armchair, by the fireplace, while the snow falls. But to be properly effective, the haunted house story should also, I firmly believe, push the readers out of their comfort zones.
You've studied horror fiction and film extensively. Do you find the two forms very different? Is what is scary in a book different or similar to what is scary in a movie?
There both differences and overlaps. Movies, of course, can goose us with sudden sights and sounds in ways that books can’t. (Though, having said that, the moment of the murder in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” is a brilliantly structured sentence, one that comes very close to being the literary equivalent of the the jump-scare.) On the other side, books can get us into the head of characters in ways that are difficult for film. (Though Robert Wise’s The Haunting, the 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, does a great job of capturing protagonist Eleanor’s interior monologues.) In the end, the most profound horror fiction — whether it be a novel, a short story, a film, a comic (like Alan Moore’s run of Swamp Thing), or a video game (like the brilliant Silent Hill 2) — will tap into deep-seated anxieties and beliefs. The tactics might change according to the medium, but the targets are the same.
For readers new to horror and suspense, what would some of your go-to recommendations be?
Here are a few writers who have marked me: H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King (especially The Shining), Peter Straub (especially Ghost Story), Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, Kathe Koja and Lucy Taylor (check out her “Making the Woman” — a very short story that will eat at your soul forever).
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a number of projects. The follow-up to Gethsemane Hall is one of them. I’m also writing Warhammer 40,000 fiction for the Black Library, with my first novel there due early next year.