Horror writer. Opera singer. Voice-over artist. Circus freak.
Nope, it’s not ultimate career day on the Rue Morgue blog; this is young-adult horror author Gretchen McNeil’s resume. With a few exceptions (Dia Reeves, Richard Yancey and Kendare Blake come to mind), recent YA horror has mainly consisted of paranormal romance yarns. It was enough to make anyone searching for real chills skip the entire section and head straight for the nearest Lovecraft reprint.
Last year, teen horror stacks got a jolt when McNeil’s debut novel, Possess, hit bookshelves. The story revolves around a fifteen-year-old girl who finds out she’s a natural-born exorcist. September saw the release of McNeil’s second novel, Ten, about a group of teenagers who are invited to a party on an island with a serial killer. No surprise, but the invites forgot to mention the “killer” part.
McNeil is hard at work on her next novel, 3:59, about a girl who starts having the same dream at 3:59 every morning. The dreams are actually glimpses of a parallel universe and she eventually switches places with the girl in her dreams, only to find out that she’s trapped in a world of horrors.
The writer recently took some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.
Opera singer, voice over artist, writer and circus freak – I’ll admit I’m insanely curious about the “circus freak” title, but let’s start with “writer.” After performing on stage and off, what was it that made you decide to try writing a novel?
It was one of those crazy, out-of-the-blue decisions, really. I was going through a very difficult personal time, and was floundering. I woke up one morning and said, “I’m going to write a novel.” And I did. It was horrible, but I did it. Then I got hooked on writing, improved my skills and…five years later, here I am!
I read a variety of firsthand accounts of demonic infestation, possession and exorcism. Some more credible than others. I got a sense for how the Catholic Church in particular views exorcism – its policies and procedures – which gave me a really strong sense of tone for Possess.
You went from possession to serial killers, and your next novel is about a parallel world. What sort of common thread might there be that attracts you to these ideas?
It’s hard to say exactly where my ideas come from, but they all have a common thread: suspense. I’m a huge fan of some masters of suspense: Hitchcock, Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier. I love the way they spin out a mystery, heightening the tension until you, the reader, literally cannot put the book down or turn the movie off. It’s my favorite thing to read, and my favorite thing to write.
Why do you think setting plays such an important role in horror stories? Do you think horror writers approach setting differently than other writers?
Tone and setting are so important in horror, whether it’s the cinematography in Alien or the deranged carny atmosphere in Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. In my opinion, they’re just as important as any of the characters. In Ten, Henry Island and White Rock House become as menacing as any villain. In some ways, the very inanimate nature of the island makes it even more terrifying. When added to the physical villain – a serial killer, a vampire, a demon, etc. – you have a fascinating combination of suspense.
Well, I start all my novels with a quote, and 3:59 is no different. So I can tease you with that!
And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
- from “The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
You tackle subjects that are time-honored fodder for horror movies (possession, serial killers). How have horror films influenced your books and how you write them?
The hallmark of a good horror movie is the “gotcha” moment – the culmination of a tension and false hope and a ridiculously tense soundtrack. It’s the moment we jump, scream, cover our eyes, plug our ears. That’s the moment you have to recreate in novel form, without creepy visuals, mood lighting, sound effects and screeching violins. The medium is different, but the effect is the same.
Care to talk about being a circus freak?
It’s less freaky than it sounds. I sing in the band of a local circus troupe here in Los Angeles – Cirque Berzerk. Check out the website. You’ll thank me.