From the collective mind of S.L. Grey (the pseudonym for South African writing duo Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg) comes The Ward, an ingeniously perverse sequel to the alternate-reality shocker The Mall, in which two misfit teenagers – tough addict Rhoda and emo wimp Daniel – found themselves at the mercy of monsters, grotesque automatons and an evil corporate entity in a mirror realm known as the Downside. This time, more is revealed about the Downsiders and their brutal bureaucracy via a one-way ticket to the Ward, a place even more chilling.
As a setting, the “scary hospital” might not be as ubiquitous a staple as the haunted house or the cabin in the woods. Nevertheless, it is perhaps the one most likely to induce the heebie-jeebies – an interstitial domain where time moves sluggishly, people hover close to death, the burning scent of disinfectant masks something worse, and the distant screams of distressed patients echo down long, empty corridors. Grey utilizes all of these elements and gives them a terrifying new spin.
The Ward (out now from Corvus) sees the authors dip their toes into the bloody waters of extreme body modification, human harvesting and narcissistic obsession. Once you’ve cracked The Ward’s spine, prepare to be scared witless. Grey’s sophomore effort has the writing duo firing on all cylinders with a novel full of gore, tension and paranoia, where weird body horror abounds on every page. The deeper Grey takes you down the rabbit hole, the crazier the story gets, with spine-tingling moments of mutilation tempered by the astute psychological dissection of its two characters.
The story alternates between Farrell, a fashion photographer who wakes up blind in New Hope – a Kafkaesque institution nicknamed No Hope – and Lisa, an emotionally scarred plastic surgery addict admitted to the same hospital in a last-ditch effort to have cosmetic surgery when nowhere else will take her. When Farrell and Lisa become convinced that something is stalking the corridors, their attempt to escape leads them to the Downside, where monstrous orderlies, sociopathic nurses and the Administration await them.
We recently chatted with the writing team about their return to the Downside. (Scroll down to the bottom of the post for a chance to win a copy of The Ward!)
The Ward is the second in The Downside Trilogy; it’s set in the same universe as The Mall and works as both a follow-up and a standalone novel. Was it during or after you collaborated on The Mall that you decided to return to the Downside?
Sarah Lotz: We started on a completely unrelated idea after we finished The Mall, but the Downside world drew us back in. We realised there were more stories that would be fun and pacy that we could set down there.
SL: Yes, the process was exactly the same.
The central concept of The Ward is body modification. Sarah, could you tell us about your investigations into Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)?
SL: As well as researching the medical and psychological effects of this condition, I went onto several forums that provide support for people with BDD, and I’m very grateful to the people there who shared their own experiences in dealing with the disorder. BDD is a debilitating psychological condition that often coincides with OCD and extreme depression and isolation, and is often misunderstood as stemming from vanity. I think almost everyone has a niggling sense of dissatisfaction regarding their appearance, partly due to the relentless media bombardment of unrealistic body ideals, so while our character Lisa suffers from an extreme version of this, I hope most of our readers will be able to relate to her.
Louis, Farrell’s story echoes a Franz Kafka short, with him waking up blind in No Hope. What was the most difficult thing about writing from the perspective of a blind man?
Louis Greenberg: I realised just how visual our writing was when I had to describe things by feel and sound rather than by sight. It’s a great writing exercise, because often other senses are neglected in favour of the visual, and often, more sensually rounded description is more engaging.
While we were finishing The Mall, I contracted severe measles, landed up in hospital and couldn’t see for a few days. So Farrell’s opening experiences were based on my own. That became a clear starting point for him and this novel.
No Hope is a grimy, grey, filthy hell-hole. Were either of you drawing from your own personal experiences of the healthcare system in Johannesburg?
LG: I have private medical insurance, so when I was hospitalised, it was in a private hospital. Public hospitals and clinics in South Africa, which offer free care to most people in the country, are always in crisis and struggle to keep up with the demand and particularly the effects of HIV and AIDS, which in South Africa is pandemic. It must be noted, though, that given their resources and fluctuating state involvement and the massive challenges they face, the healthcare professionals who work in public hospitals do a remarkable job of staying ahead of the tide. For example, the South African government offers the biggest free antiretroviral treatment programme in the world. We thought a grim hospital would make a good, fun, generic horror setting, but where the settings had any relationship to South African reality, we were at pains not to criticise the hospitals and the public health system themselves, but rather the inequities of the two-tiered system.
SL: Before I could afford medical insurance, I spent a fair amount of time in government hospitals – both here and in the UK – and I’m happy to say that not all of them were as grim as No Hope, and as Louis mentions, the staff were generally fantastic. However, the discrepancy between the level of health care afforded to private and non-private patients is staggering. It’s idealistic, I know, but I do feel strongly that free health care, like education, is a basic human right (I grew up in the UK with doctor parents who worked for the NHS).
The donor/client selection process and the Downside’s warped politics are explained in more detail this time round, allegorising the extremes of plastic surgery. Is body modification a visible subculture in South Africa?
SL: As far as plastic surgery goes, the phenomenon of getting a new pair of tits for your sixteenth birthday or Botox in your twenties, is nowhere near as prevalent in South Africa as it is in the US and UK. I think this is possibly because our celebrity culture isn’t as in your face as it is in western countries. We don’t really have a Kardashian substitute, for example, although this is changing rapidly.
You’ve started developing an online game, The Downside, for Failbetter Games. What can you tell us about it?
SL: We’ve developed a good picture of the Downside world, so when we were approached with the idea, we thought it would be the perfect place to tell other Downside stories that won’t necessarily make it into novels. The game is an online story-based, choice-based role-playing game: we liked the retro feel, like those old create-your-own adventures, and the fact that story and world-building is prioritised. We’re building some prototype stories at the moment and Failbetter’s running a Kickstarter campaign in November and December to gauge interest in the project. We’ll see where it goes next year. You can visit failbettergames.com to see what else they’re doing.
The New Girl will be out next year and concludes the Downside Trilogy. Will this be the last time S.L. Grey takes us down that particular rabbit hole?
SL: At the moment, yes. We’re keen to keep surprising ourselves and our readers. But as we say, the Downside game will be a great place to keep up with developments down there.
What does S.L Grey have planned after The New Girl?
SL: We’re busy knocking about some ideas for the next novel. There’s nothing formal yet.
Sarah, you’ve also collaborated with your daughter Savannah on the YA Deadlands series. What do you enjoy most about the co-writing gig?
SL: I love bouncing ideas around and talking about them for hours, although I know this drives Savannah and Louis crazy. And because Louis and I write progressively, there’s always a few days of delicious anticipation while I wait for his next chapter to arrive. He always manages to surprise or freak me out (in a good way). Fascinating to see how other writers’ minds work. I’ve learned a ton from both Louis and Savannah – Louis because he’s such a brilliant literary stylist; Savannah because her writing is so fresh and raw and unencumbered by bullshit.
What individual projects are you currently working on?
SL: I’m currently working on a pre-apocalyptic (if that’s a word) horror/thriller novel that will be published by Hodder in the UK and Reagan Arthur in the US in 2014. I’m loving every second of it, and I’m thrilled to be working with ace editor Anne Perry, who is also part of the Pornokitsch.com team. Dream come true.
LG: I’m working on a literary thriller called Dark Windows, set in an alternative-present Johannesburg where hippies have taken over the South African government. It combines my character focus and style with a pace and plot that I’ve learned from working with Sarah.
Finally, what were some of the cinematic/literary influences behind The Ward?
SL: I guess we won’t be able to get away from the Session 9 comparison – I think it’s the first movie that jumps into anyone’s head when they hear the words “creepy hospital.” I don’t remember there being any direct influences, but no doubt many were lurking in our subconscious while we were writing. If I had to compare the Downside books to a particular movie, I guess atmosphere-wise it would be Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The bureaucratic nightmare he creates in that movie isn’t a million miles from that in The Ward. We both loathe bureaucracy.
LG: Oddly enough, I haven’t seen any of these flicks myself. I was scared of horror as a kid and avoided it, and only watched a little as an adult. Now, with young kids, the scariest I get is Barney and SpongeBob. So I can say that whatever references I was responsible for were completely picked from the collective unconscious and not from any particular horror source. I’d say Grey’s Anatomy served as the behind-the-scenes model of a hospital in my imagination. That’s horrible enough in its own way, I suppose.
Intrigued? Good, because Hell’s Shelves and Corvus are giving away three copies of The Ward. To enter, just answer the following question in the comments section below: What was the name of Lars Von Trier’s 1994 hospital-based horror series? Contest closes at midnight on Saturday, November 8. Winners will be selected at random from correct answers and contacted via email for their shipping info. Good luck!
Alan Kelly is the author of the pulp fiction novel Let Me Die a Woman and the European Liaison for the Viscera Film Festival. A horror and alt.cult fanatic, he has worked for many print and online magazines, including GCN (Gay Community News), This is Horror, Planet Fury, Film Ireland, Butcher Queers, and Bookslut. He lives in Wicklow, Ireland and is hard at work on his second book.