How do you terrify a reader? Two acclaimed authors talk creating horror on the page
Alma Katsu and Jennifer McMahon interview one another on how to get readers to jump in their seats
With her latest book, Alma Katsu (The Descent) has created another terrifyingly edge-of-your-seat horror novel.
The Hunger takes on the historical tragedy of the Donner Party. As the book begins, depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the isolated travelers to the brink of madness. Though they dream of what awaits them in the West, long-buried secrets begin to emerge, and dissent among them escalates to the point of murder and chaos. They seemingly cannot escape tragedy or the feeling that someone (or something) is stalking them. From there, people begin to disappear, leaving the survivors to start to wonder if there really is something disturbing and hungry waiting for them in the mountains — and whether the evil that has unfolded around them may have in fact been growing within them all along.
This is Katsu’s latest horror entry, and to discuss the making of the book as well as her approach to the genre more broadly, the author sat down with Burntown author Jennifer McMahon for a wide-ranging conversation. Their talk, exclusive to EW, delves deep into the process of creating and sustaining suspense, answering a question best left to those who don’t scare so easily: How can you terrify readers?
Check out McMahon and Katsu’s exclusive interview about horror writing below, and pre-order The Hunger ahead of its March 6 release here.
JENNIFER MCMAHON: I’m so excited to be doing this with you, Alma! The Hunger scared the hell out me. It actually made me sleep with the hall light on. It was so well done — dark and creepy and terrifying in the best possible way.
ALMA KATSU: Well, thank you! I’m always ridiculously pleased when someone tells me I was able to terrify them with my writing. It’s like having a superpower.
MCMAHON: Isn’t it wonderful to know you’ve scared someone? I always get such a thrill when I hear that I made someone afraid to open their closet or go for a walk in the woods! There’s something incredible about being able to take my own fears, put them down on paper and share them with readers.
What inspired you to take on the Donner party in such a unique way? Was there one particular spark that started it for you?
KATSU: I think that while a lot of people have heard of the Donner Party, they don’t know the details. We’re told about it in elementary school and if we remember anything it’s that something terrible happened a long time ago and it involved cannibalism. But once you start digging into it, you see the real dimensions of the horror: after months of struggle in the wilderness, close to 100 people find themselves trapped in the mountains with no food and no chance of escape. These are all families, so it’s mothers and fathers forced to watch their children die of starvation. It’s completely horrific. You can absolutely understand why someone would contemplate cannibalism.
The more I learned, the more it seemed that the party was doomed from the start. So many macabre things happened—they left sick people behind to die; one man, convinced he was going to be robbed, went out to bury his gold and was never seen alive again—that you got the feeling they were cursed. To be cursed implies that you did something to deserve it—and that’s where the idea for the book came from. That we all have the potential in us for evil, and if you feed the evil side, you’ll unleash the monster.
That sounds terribly dark, and of course, the story of the Donner Party is very dark, but The Hunger has its redeeming characters, too. Characters who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of others.
MCMAHON: I love what you said about us all having the potential for evil, and if you feed the evil, you’ll unleash the monster! And the idea of being cursed from the very beginning — that has such weight to it; a weight you feel pressing down on all of the characters from the very beginning of the novel.
Going into The Hunger, I thought I knew the story of the Donner Party — but it was only the basic facts I’d picked up in school and in documentaries. You made the story so real for me because I came to care so much about the characters, but also, because of all the incredible details you wove in. Your descriptions of the landscape and the difficulty of the journey itself were striking. And I loved all the little details you put in about the wagon train, what people brought with them, what they ate, what they wore, how their days were structured. I want to hear about the research. I know you must have done a tremendous amount. I was also hoping you could talk about how you balanced and blended the real historical facts with fiction.
KATSU: With The Hunger, at first I thought the book would be easy because I grew up in the era of TV Westerns. As hard as it might be for modern TV viewers to imagine, there once was a time when Westerns dominated the TV schedule. Bonanza, Gunsmoke, even one called Wagon Train. I thought, “I already know this stuff. This will be a shoo-in.”
Wrong. I learned that television writers, under pressure to make things easy for production, take a lot of shortcuts with history. A lot of what I learned from television turned out to be incorrect. Did you know that pioneers didn’t travel inside their wagons but walked alongside to spare the oxen? Or that they slept in tents at night, because the wagons were packed full of the belongings they needed to start a new life? The one that helped drive tension in the book was the fact that pioneers had to find water and grass for their livestock, they didn’t carry it with them (too heavy). The Hunger is full of all these odd little facts that you need to make fiction feel real.
MCMAHON: I totally agree. I think there’s an art to it, though. I know I’ve read novels where I get to bits that scream history lesson time and pull me right out of the story. I think it’s very easy to end up doing an info dump with all these cool facts we learned that end up actually taking away from the story rather than adding to it. I know I’m guilty of it and it’s something I have to watch for when I’m revising. All that said, I didn’t have one moment when I felt that way while reading The Hunger — every detail just pulled me deeper into the world of the story. I never thought about the stress of having to make sure there was grass and fresh water for the livestock, or of what would happen when the livestock die. There are so many different layers of tension building throughout the story!
KATSU: The Hunger is the first novel I’ve written that’s about a famous real-life incident. In my previous books, while there was history, the fantasy element took center stage. Here, I had to be careful not to run afoul of history but at the same time, needed to take liberties in places in service to the story which, strictly speaking, is not the story of the Donner Party. I kept on the lookout for opportunities in the actual history that could be repurposed into something spooky. Finding the letters at Ash Hollow is a case in point: Ash Hollow is a real place in Nebraska (you can visit it) and pioneers did indeed leave letters there in the hope that someone would carry them back East.
You have some interesting history secreted in your books, too! In Burntown, I was captivated by the appearance of Thomas Edison’s Spirit Phone: his invention for speaking with the dead. What a brilliant idea for a story! And the whole novel turns on it like a ballerina on pointe.
MCMAHON: Here’s a question: Do you think about genre when you’re writing? I admit to kind of cringing a little when people ask me what sort of books I write and I’m never sure just how to answer. I don’t think The Hunger fits neatly into a box either but has elements of several genres.
KATSU: I cringe, too. It’s tough sledding trying to reach readers when you have a book that doesn’t fit neatly on a particular shelf in the bookstore. And yet, many of the most satisfying reads are cross-genre. The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is like this: you wouldn’t shelf it in the fantasy department, but it’s got fantasy at the heart of it. My earlier books, The Taker Trilogy, are very hard to describe. They definitely didn’t fit into any box. I keep thinking (hoping!) that it will be easier with The Hunger because it’s only two genres, historical fiction and horror.
MCMAHON: I so agree about the most satisfying reads being cross-genre! And I do think that if you’re writing a book like The Hunger, your story will appeal to folks who enjoy historical fiction and also, the folks who enjoy horror. I think for a book to be successful, we have to reach a wider audience. I love it when I hear from readers who say things like, “I don’t normally read things like this… but I love it!” And sometimes, they even ask me to recommend other scary books they might like, which is wonderful. It’s like I’ve opened this door for them (come to the dark, creepy side… we have lots of fun here!).
KATSU: I find horror to be a funny, tricky thing with readers. It’s still a bit of a taboo in publishing, so we skirt around it by calling them “thrillers” or pretending they’re suspense or fantasy. It makes it hard for books to find their audiences. And yet the horror genre is so popular in other media, films and television and video games and comic books. I keep thinking that those people would like to read horror novels, too. Where do they think the ideas for those movies come from (some of them, at least)? A book!
MCMAHON: Horror as a genre is tricky and I’m not sure what’s up with that. I’ve met a lot of people who say “I don’t do horror” but they seem to enjoy a “suspense novel” or “thriller” with horror elements. Yet, as you say, horror movies and TV are huge! And nine times out of ten, if it’s based on a book, I end up enjoying the book a whole lot more than the movie. I think maybe people have misconceptions about what horror is and can be. It doesn’t have to be in-your-face violent, and it doesn’t have to be about a serial killer, zombies, or vampires (though I love all those things!). It can be character-driven, it can be “literary,” and it can seamlessly blend with other classic types of stories — coming-of-age, historical, mystery, and so on.
KATSU: Horror seems to be a bit of a boys club too, which I’ve found discouraging. When all the “marquee” writers are men, it’s hard to break through. Readers seem to have a hard time accepting a woman writing horror. But women writing in the genre produce some wonderful stuff, more suspenseful, more delicate, less gore. Maybe this will change with the younger generation, such voracious consumers of horror in other media like The Walking Dead.
MCMAHON: It’s true, most of the big name horror writers we think of are men — and some of that has to do with labeling, I think. Meaning, there are more women writing horror than there are “Women Horror Writers.” I do see this changing — thanks to books like yours! — and hopefully, it will continue to do so!
Personally, I’m always drawn to the creepy in both my reading and my writing. In Burntown, I’ve got the telephone to the dead, but in other novels, I’ve written about ghosts, shape-shifting monsters, evil fairies, and bringing people back from the dead. I’m not big on explicit gore and much prefer a slow, atmospheric build-up of horror. That’s one of the things I so loved about The Hunger! I think what you don’t show is almost more important than what you do show.
KATSU: Those are all delicious ideas. I might be less imaginative than you — no evil fairies, though I wanted to write an evil fairy story after reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. But I have brought someone back from the dead in The Reckoning and played around with the Underworld in The Descent. Good times.
I totally agree on the enjoyability of horror. The only movie I can think of where I enjoyed the movie more than the book was The Shining (sorry, Stephen King!) I think what people most end up enjoying, whether it’s a book or movie or TV show, isn’t the splatter and visceral elements but the human part. The struggle to survive, to overcome our fear and save our loved one, to overcome a crippling anxiety that’s holding us back. The horror element is a way for the writer to up the ante, to make the situation larger than life, because that makes for a more enjoyable story and, strangely, inoculates the reader from real fear. No one was really afraid of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, were they? We want to be scared but we want to be in control, too.
Suspense is harder than it seems, don’t you think? Or maybe it’s hard for me because I’m not a fan of it in real life (very impatient, just ask my husband!) Though I love when it’s well done in fiction. Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is one of my favorites here.
MCMAHON: Oh, I loved The Little Stranger! Sarah Waters is such a wonderful writer.
KATSU: I was really pleased with how the suspense builds in The Hunger, but a big part of the credit there goes to Sally Kim, the editor at Putnam, who came up with some genius ways to play out the reveal. See: It really does take a village to write a book? Or at least some books.
MCMAHON: Yes, writing suspense is incredibly hard — ratcheting up the tension, putting in twists and turns without being ridiculous, and having the big reveals pay off. I feel like it’s the thing I’ve had to work hardest on, and the thing I most appreciate and admire seeing others do well when I read. Just one of the many reasons I loved The Hunger so very much!
One more confession and a question: The thing is, I’m a big scaredy cat. I’m drawn to reading and writing scary stuff, but I’m so not brave. I am that obnoxious audience member who screams the loudest at horror movies and books like The Hunger have me jumping at my own shadow for days after. The truth is, I even scare myself when I’m writing. I’ll be writing a creepy scene and I’m sure I can feel someone (or something!) watching me from the darkest corner of the room. What about you? Do you ever scare yourself with your own writing?
KATSU: This is going to sound obnoxious, but no, I do not scare easily. One of my jobs for many years as an analyst was to study humanitarian issues — which includes war crimes, genocides, and mass atrocities. It gave me a close up look at the terrible things that people do to one another in real life. It made me a ruthless pragmatist. Unfortunately, it’s also taken all the fun out of Halloween and visiting spooky old houses. But they tell me I can write kick-ass villains.