Meet author Melissa F. Olson @melissafolson #HorrorLounge
Tell us about your latest book
Switchback is the second book in a trilogy that started with Nightshades. The first book was about what happens when the FBI has to take on vampires. In book 2, the team has to investigate a vampire-related mass murder in one of the rich suburbs of Chicago.
First memory of reading horror
I read a few of the Goosebumps/Christopher Pike type books when I was in elementary school, but none of those made much of an impression. My first real, grownup horror novel was probably Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton. My parents were really careful about what they let us watch, but they rarely thought to police my reading material. The imagery in that book blew me away, especially the scenes where the team goes from house to house, and everyone is dead in gruesome new ways.
I think I was in fifth grade at the time.
For readers new to horror which 3 books would you recommend they start with?
The Haunting of Hill House, Dracula, and Silence of the Lambs. One’s a ghost story, one’s a monster hunt, and one’s a terrifying psychological thriller. Between those three, anyone new to horror should be able to find something that grabs them.
Do you have a favourite horror sub-genre, and why?
In film, I’m partial to a good creature feature: Deep Blue Sea, Lake Placid, Skull Island. In literature, though, I tend to be all over the place. Some of my favorite horror reads from the last few years include A Head Full of Ghosts, which is psychological, Meddling Kids, which is a horror/humor/pop culture mashup, Chuck Wendig’s Invasive, a Crichton-style scifi book about killer ants, and Anno Dracula, which is a reimagining of Dracula if the count had actually beaten Jonathan Harker.
Most terrifying book you’ve ever read.
I’ve got to give this to House of Leaves, mostly because –without spoiling anything—the nature of the ending still unnerves me, fifteen years later.
Your favourite Stephen King book.
I’m not a huge King fan, for the simple reason that I don’t love how his books tend to treat female characters. I will say The Shining made quite an impression. I read it in college, and I have never been more grateful to have a roommate nearby.
New horror authors you’d recommend.
I just started Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. My friend Kate Maruyama (author of Harrowgate; so no stranger to horror herself!) recommended it so enthusiastically that I moved it to the top of my enormous (and mostly digital) To-Read pile.
Who do you consider the King and Queen of horror fiction?
Shirley Jackson for queen! I was actually really late to the Shirley Jackson party, but now I’m in awe of her books and stories. During my brief stint teaching literature, I assigned the class both Haunting of Hill House and “The Lottery.” It was the only time all semester I was glad the class started at 8 am, because it meant I couldn’t creep myself out walking to the parking lot afterwards.
For king, well, I know everyone says Stephen (I mean…it’s right there…) but I’m gonna say Alan Moore. I have a list of authors and actors who have unnerved me so much that if I spotted them in a dark alley in real life, I’d scream and run the other way. (But for real, I think I would.) You can bet Moore is on that list.
Your favourite horror film (adapted from a book) & why?
My brain shorted out trying to choose just one, out of all the great classics, so instead I’ll pick a movie that I think is sadly underrated: Odd Thomas. I haven’t actually read the Dean Koontz novels, but Mummy director Stephen Sommers crafted a funny, heartbreaking, and engaging little flick starring the late Anton Yelchin. It’s on Netflix, and you should give it some love.
Horror book that you’d like to see adapted to film & why?
There are so many! The Last Werewolf, Fevre Dream, Anno Dracula—actually, I’d love to see a really good adaptation of the original Dracula. There have been dozens of Dracula movies, of course, but they’re all either dated, ridiculous, or both. I think the world could use a light-on-the-CGI Dracula that follows the book and doesn’t involve Keanu Reeves. (Actually, wouldn’t Keanu Reeves make an awesome Renfield? “Bugs! Whoa!”) I hope Universal’s Dark Universe project actually gets organized and does right by the Count.
Best horror TV?
Right now, it’s easily The Exorcist. Going back a few years, Penny Dreadful, and a few years before that, I really enjoyed the hell of out of a slasher show called Harper’s Island. I think that one came out about five years too early to get the appreciation it deserved.
Did you write in other genres or straight to horror?
I started in urban fantasy, and that’s really my comfort zone. The Nightshades books probably veer into horror by virtue of body count and tone, but it’s a fun horror.
Horror doesn’t seem to be as well respected as other genres of fiction. Why do you think that is?
I’m not sure I agree. The entire publishing industry has diversified so much, not just in terms of how books are published, but in how they are reviewed. In addition to major national news outlets, we now have access to thorough, critical reviews on YouTube, podcasts, web magazines, blogs, and review sites like Goodreads and Amazon. Sure, you have to sift through some junk to get to the thoughtful discourse, but it’s everywhere. We have more access to literary criticism than ever before. And plenty of that is focused specifically on horror.
So if you say horror isn’t well-respected, I have to ask, well-respected by whom? Because there just isn’t a single model of reviewer, or reader, or publisher. Not anymore.
Do you think horror is ready for a renaissance?
That’s a really complex question. I think horror, like most genres, is constantly reinventing itself, reviving itself (insert your zombie joke here). It’s very cyclical.
I will say, though, that I would like to see it reinvent in a bit of a different direction. Right now everyone is obsessed with Stephen King and his film adaptations, again, and frankly I’d rather shift toward other kinds of stories, the ones that don’t involve a group of misfit boys bonding over a shared scary experience. There are so many great stories written by women, people of color, and people with disabilities, and I’d like to see horror readership widen the scope more to include them. If you want to call that a renaissance, I’m all for it.
Tips for new writers of horror fiction.
Use what you’re afraid of. I’m sure you’ve some variation of that before, but I find it especially helpful when it comes to setting. For example, when I was a kid I lived across the street from a cornfield, and once in a while I’d have to go in there to retrieve a ball or the dog. Cornfields, even in broad daylight, are scary. Once the corn grows over your head, it’s so easy to become lost and disoriented. It’s like being in the middle of a fog: you can only see a couple of feet around you, and anything –or anyone—could be hiding just a few feet away.
Years and years later, when I started writing Nightshades, I felt like one of the challenges was to make vampires scary again (they so often get bogged down in romance-type stories that they’ve lost some of the fear factor). So I decide to open the book with vampires chasing their victim through a cornfield.
Writing horror is about trying to evoke feelings of fear, and you can give yourself an advantage by setting your story someplace that scares you. I’m still really proud of that cornfield sequence –and still you couldn’t pay me to go into a field at night.
Do you believe in evil?
I suppose I believe in evil deeds, but not evil people. Human beings are incredibly complex creatures shaped by dozens of different sources, both internal and external. Labeling a person as “evil” is so simplistic as that it feels dangerous (“Oh, he’s just evil” should not be the end of a conversation about why someone committed murder). It’s way too pat and easy to describe such a complicated organism.
What scares you?
Oh, all the usual stuff: my kids getting sick, my loved ones dying, the current president of the United States. Also eels. And sharks. And leeches. Basically, I don’t go in the water.
3 most scary words in English language?
You. Missed. Deadline.
Do you celebrate Halloween?
Absolutely. Now that I have kids I get to do the whole bit: costumes, trick or treating, decorations. Getting to do kid Halloween is one of the main reasons to have children. I was smart about it, too: during my first kid’s first Halloween, I instituted what’s now known as the Peanut Butter Cup Tax. You want me to get you a costume and take you trick-or-treating? Fine, but candy WILL be taxed.