A Point of Pride: Interview with Ally Wilkes
Ally Wilkes is a queer writer living in Greenwich, London. Ally’s debut novel, All the White Spaces – a supernatural survival horror set in the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration – will be out in March 2022. Ally is also Book Reviews Editor for Horrified, the British horror website, and you can follow her on Twitter @UnheimlichManvr. The t-shirt in her photo can be found at HorrorOasis.com. All proceeds will go to Trans Lifeline, available at 877-565-8860 in the US and 877-330-6366 in Canada. The organization describes itself as “a grassroots hotline and microgrants 501(c)(3) non-profit organization offering direct emotional and financial support to trans people in crisis – for the trans community, by the trans community.”
What inspired you to start writing?
I wrote extensively as a teenager – short stories, novels, graphic novels, you name it – but once I started my career as a criminal barrister, I found that I had absolutely zero time (and zero headspace) to devote to anything that wasn’t work. It was intensely frustrating: I eventually started finding ways to sneak in the odd writing challenge, like taking a week’s holiday so I could participate in NaNoWriMo – which is actually how I wrote the first draft of my debut! I’ve now left the legal world for good, but I think a lot of my writing is about pressure-cooker environments: living up to expectations, disillusionment, feeling under siege, overcoming despair… I can see now that I was using fiction – particularly horror fiction – to work through a lot of my difficult real-life experiences.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
I’ve loved horror since I was very young. I grew up with the Usborne World of the Unknown books and their absolutely terrifying ghost photographs, then moved seamlessly onto The X Files when it started airing in the UK – for me, the truth was definitely out there. I think I’ve always been drawn to the idea that there’s a ‘world behind our world’: that there are things out there which we can’t fully see or understand, whether it’s ghosts, a hell-dimension, or something more cosmic. It’s about the thrills and possibility (or terror) of what might be lurking just beneath the surface of our consensus ‘reality’. Incidentally, this idea of a hidden world or subculture is also one which has lent itself to some great queer texts – just look at Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, for example.
Do you make a conscious effort to include LGBTQ material in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
I don’t know if it’s entirely a conscious thing. I can’t really remember writing anything without LGBTQ material in it, except perhaps the fantasy novel I wrote when I was fourteen. And even then – talk about queer coding…
In my writing, I want to portray a range of experiences and identities, and characters whose LGBTQ identities are integral to who they are – but without that ever being portrayed as the sum total of who they are. This may be a strange comparison, but I’ve always been inspired by the way Starz’s Black Sails dealt with its numerous queer characters: it gave them rich backstories and a lot of complexity surrounding those identities, without feeling the need to offer much in the way of narrative hand-holding or explanation.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
In my previous career I saw how extreme experiences brought out both the best and worst of human nature, and a lot of my views on horror can be summed up by this quotation from Marisha Pessl’s novel, Night Film: “Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are.” I think that fear and darkness – those extreme experiences – are essential to understanding ourselves and finding out who we really are. What would you do? How far would you go to survive? Horror is therefore both a self-reflective genre and a very empathetic one. You have to identify, on some level, with the characters (which isn’t the same as having ‘likeable’ characters), otherwise the experience will fall flat. Perhaps it’s this empathy which makes horror writers – and fans – some of the kindest and most welcoming people I’ve ever met.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
I grew up reading the paperback novels and short story collections of the late 90s – in particular Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell – and also teenage series such as the late great Point Horror novels. I think horror has become a lot more diverse, both in terms of the authors and the characters: what really excites me is the growing opportunity to see new stories (or even the same stories!) told from different perspectives. What’s really driving this, of course, is the small / indie press market. While a lot of mainstream bookstores have a rather predictable horror ‘section’ (tucked away behind SFF), the internet and social media have allowed horror writers and specialist publishers to produce and distribute interesting new work which might not fit so readily into the blockbuster or mainstream markets. And I think the growing popularity of novellas or anthologies is also a fantastic thing for the genre in terms of taking risks and opening up new possibilities. We’re definitely experiencing a breath of fresh air.
How do you feel the LGBTQ community has been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
Representation of the LGBTQ community in horror definitely seems to have taken a turn in recent years – away from stereotypes and towards inclusion in the ‘main cast’. And that’s fantastic for any horror fan, but particularly for LGBTQ youth (or people who’ve come to understand their queer identity in later life) who can see that they’re going to be accepted in the genre. The horror community, I’ve always found, is deeply welcoming towards people who feel themselves to be ‘outsiders’ in one way or another, and I’m very proud to be a part of it.
And going forward? I hope for more stories with queer characters (whether by queer authors or otherwise), particularly ones in which those characters don’t necessarily experience ‘coming out’ or ‘overcoming prejudice’ narratives. That’s not to say that I don’t love those narratives – or think they’re very much needed – but I’d like to see queer characters be part of all sorts of different kinds of stories.
Who are some of your favorite LGBTQ characters in horror?
This is so difficult, because – in horror fiction – I often love characters whose LGBTQ identity isn’t necessarily presented upfront, but becomes drawn out over the course of the novel. If you’ve read this far and don’t mind spoilers – Jack in Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, and both Em and Gyre in The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling. In horror television, I have a real soft spot for Aunt Zelda in Netflix’s reboot of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. And in horror cinema, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better portrayal – or a better casting choice – for a non-binary character than Tilda Swinton as the archangel Gabriel in Constantine.
Who are some LGBTQ horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
I’d have to start with Billy Martin (writing as Poppy Z. Brite) because his work was so formative for me – absolutely unapologetic in its portrayal of a myriad queer identities. I’d also recommend Margaret Killjoy – whose Danielle Cain novellas are like a cool, queer, anarchist Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and I absolutely adore the short stories and novellas of Caitlín R. Kiernan and Hailey Piper. I recently also finished Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca, which is a great example of what exciting shorter-form material is coming out of small / indie presses. Honestly, there are so many great LGBTQ horror writers out there – these are just a few of them.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Read! If you can make the time, reading is an excellent way to see what’s out there and also replenish your own creative well – if you can take some lessons from it, so much the better (have I recommended Tim Waggoner’s excellent Writing in the Dark yet?).
And to the LGBTQ writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
This is such an incredible time to be getting started in writing, so don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. And always write what you love – not what you think you ‘should’ write. Your people will find you.