Women in Horror: Interview with Kelsea Yu
Kelsea Yu is a Taiwanese Chinese American writer and mother living in the Pacific Northwest. She’s eternally enthusiastic about sharks and appreciates a good ghost story. Kelsea’s novella, Bound Feet, is published by Cemetery Gates Media, and her upcoming novella, The Bones Beneath Paris, will be published by Dark Matter Ink. Her debut novel, It’s Only a Game, will be released by Bloomsbury Children’s in 2024. Kelsea’s short stories are forthcoming or published in magazines such as Fantasy, PseudoPod, and Reckoning, and in various anthologies. Find Kelsea on Instagram or Twitter as @anovelescape or visit her website, kelseayu.com.
What inspired you to start writing?
As a kid, I loved writing stories. I remember a junior high assignment where we were supposed to write at least three pages of fictional diary entries in the vein of the Dear America series. I handed in fifty pages. So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me when, years later, I started itching to write again.
At that point, I’d been working in accounting for several years and running various creative ventures on the side, including a handmade jewelry business and various lifestyle blogs. As much as I wished otherwise, neither my job nor my side ventures fit me quite right—my creative side chafed at the restrictions of corporate life, and the side of me that loves business strategy and behind the scenes work struggled with direct customer service and the performance aspect of marketing my creations.
I wish I could point to a single eureka moment, but if there was ever one, it’s lost to the slippery nature of memory. What I do remember is this: I started imagining scenes—I’d call them vignettes, now—and jotting them down. I started recording dreams like they were stories, exercising atrophied writing muscles. I started taking the time, here and there, to write. And when one of my favorite authors posted on social media that they were joining National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I decided, on a whim, to join, too.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
I have a more in-depth answer about this in the afterword to my novella, Bound Feet, but I’ll share the short(ish!) version here. (TW: pregnancy loss.) It was the first year of the pandemic, and I was expecting. In order to keep everyone safe, my husband and I were distancing from our families for the holidays. We planned to share our happy news over Zoom, excited that it would bring joy in a tough time. I ordered a “big sister” shirt for my toddler to wear that day, wondering how long it would take our family members to notice.
And then the bleeding began.
Two weeks of frequent appointments, invasive medical tests, and continual bleeding later, doctors confirmed that our baby was gone. What followed was nearly two months of depression and mood swings as I dealt both with the physical aftereffects and emotional fallout of miscarriage. I kept myself busy cooking and baking and playing with my toddler and trying not to think about what I’d lost.
What I didn’t do during that time was write.
And then, in early January, I sat down and started writing. I didn’t know much about the horror genre at the time. I didn’t think too hard about what I was writing. I just…wrote.
What came out was a short story about Esther and the rust-red creature (that she may or may not have imagined) formed by what bleeds out of her when she miscarries. Though I didn’t have the genre terms for it until I consulted my horror-loving critique partner, Jena Brown, I would now describe it as psychological horror. (“Creature” will be published in Kaleidotrope sometime in 2024.) It was the first short story and the first horror piece I’d ever written, and I found myself completely hooked. I started asking friends for horror recommendations. I started writing more horror pieces. “Obedient Son” (published in the Death in the Mouth anthology) was next, then Bound Feet.
Horror helped me process my grief. Horror brought me back to writing. And, once I discovered the breadth of the genre, horror began to take over much of my reading. The horror genre found me because of its focus on catharsis, both in reading and in writing it. And horror continues to keep me interested because it’s such an honest and varied genre.
Do you make a conscious effort to include female characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
I do. Nearly every main character I’ve written has been female. And, while I don’t sit around and think, I’m going to put this theme in here, I find that my stories often do naturally incorporate feminist themes and questions about what misogyny has done to our world. My first published piece, “A Tale of Wickedness” (in the Classic Monsters Unleashed anthology), asks the reader who is to blame when women go very, very wicked.
In most of my stories, the main character is also Chinese or Chinese American. Over the years, I’ve explored stories with varying levels of connection to my Chinese American heritage. I like exploring that range, and I like incorporating issues specific to Chinese/diaspora women.
As indicated by the title, Bound Feet is centered around the ancient Chinese practice of foot-binding, which was both inflicted upon and (in many regards) perpetuated by women. I also explored Chinese diaspora-specific feelings and concerns, and historical elements of Chinese women’s lives.
An upcoming story of mine, “China Doll” (in the Aseptic and Faintly Sadistic anthology), has a strong focus on issues specific to Chinese women, including exoticism and harassment.
None of this is to say that I only ever focus on Chinese women’s issues. One thing I hope to portray, through my body of work, as a whole, is that Chinese women are just as varied as anyone else. That our histories and lives and everything else about us are complex. You’d think that would be obvious, but experience, the news cycle, and plenty of hurtful stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated show me that, unfortunately, it’s a lesson that bears repeating.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
Writing horror showed me the power of sharing deeply personal experiences. Before “Creature” and Bound Feet, I was terrified of going too deep, of being seen with too close a gaze. In many ways, I’m very private, and I spent my earlier writing years on the safe side of that boundary.
The messages I’ve received from quite a few of Bound Feet’s readers—people who felt seen by the story and the afterword, who found it helpful in their own time of grief—show me how worthwhile it is to continue pushing myself to share difficult things. Horror is the perfect space for that kind of sharing.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
When I first began reading horror in earnest, I was dismayed at the lack of BIPOC-authored horror books available. I still am, to some degree. For example, Chinese people make up a sizable portion of the world’s population, and plenty of us live in English-speaking countries. We also have lots of horror inspiration in our folklore and history. And yet, it is near impossible to find horror novels authored by people in the Chinese diaspora in the English language.
That said, I am pleased to see an upward trend. I’m glad that more of the stunning stories, novellas, and novels by fellow BIPOC horror authors are being published. I hope this continues. It’s a topic I think about often. In fact, earlier this year, I wrote an essay on this subject. “The Gateway Back to Gothic” will be published by Psychopomp in their newsletter and on their website, around when this interview comes out.
I’m also excited to see more horror being published in traditional imprints. Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love the indie horror space, a place I’ve been welcomed into and continue to publish in. But indie and trad don’t always share the same audiences, and I want more trad readers to discover horror! I want to be able to go into bookstores and see robust horror sections. I want horror authors to be able to break out in a major way, and to get paid big bucks for their brilliant work.
Selfishly, I’d also particularly love gothic horror to remain popular—or to grow in popularity. In part because I’m writing a gothic horror novel that I plan to submit with my agent soon, but mostly because I want to be able to continue reading gothic books—especially BIPOC-authored gothic books—forever and ever.
How do you feel women have been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
I’d love to see less cis men writing about men brutally victimizing women, and more stories of any horror subgenre from the perspectives of women. I’d also love to read more intersectional identities, including stories by writers of various marginalized genders who are also BIPOC, queer, disabled, neurodivergent, ESL, etc.
Who are some of your favorite female characters in horror?
Evelyn Caldwell from The Echo Wife is one of my all-time faves. The way she handles a deeply messed up situation will never cease to amaze me, no matter how many times I reread. Beatriz Hernández Valenzuela from The Hacienda is a wonderful, passionate character with a great arc. I love Noemí Taboada from Mexican Gothic for her stylishness and boldness, and for how much she cares about her cousin. Marlinchen from Juniper and Thorn goes through some truly awful things, but she finds ways to make small choices that are all hers, despite having very little agency in her situation. I could listen to Sam Montgomery from A House with Good Bones talk about insects all day—in fact, pretty much any T. Kingfisher protagonist is one I’d want to spend time with. And I’m forever intrigued by both the unnamed narrator and Rebecca de Winter from, well, Rebecca.
Who are some women who write horror you recommend our audience check out?
J.A.W. McCarthy writes wonderfully creepy, skin-melting horror that’s brilliant and shiver-inducing every time. I love Isabel Yap’s haunting sci-fi/fantasy/horror mashup stories, especially the Filipino folkloric elements (my dad is from the Philippines). Ai Jiang is doing incredible things all around; she writes subtle but lingering horror so well. Wailana Kalama knows how to mess with your mind in the best way. Cynthia Pelayo’s complexity of characters is truly masterful. Dana Vickerson’s stories both horrify and break my heart every time. Jessica Johns just debuted with an incredible novel that features an enthralling mystery, creepy horror, and complicated relationships with family and cultural history.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Because horror writing often involves a lot of catharsis, some of our stories are born of raw, open wounds. If you’ve written a piece in order to process something, it’s worth taking time to consider how you feel about it before you share it with anyone—critique partners, editors, agents, publishing directly, etc. It can be difficult to receive negative feedback or a rejection on something deeply personal, and your mental health is important. If you find that it is not yet ready for eyes other than your own, you can always come back around later and send that story out into the world when you’re emotionally ready for its reception.
And to the women who write horror out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Because the horror genre has been heavily dominated by cis white men and tales of brutal violence toward women for so long, it can feel like an intimidating space to enter. But there are a lot of people working to shift those demographics. There are a lot of women writing and publishing horror right now.
And there’s plenty of camaraderie and community to be had if you’re willing to put yourself out there a bit—talk to fellow horror writers on social media, go to a horror convention, or start up a conversation with an author whose book you loved.
Your story is worth telling. I hope you’ll write it—and that someday, I get to read it!