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Women in Horror Month 2024: An Interview with Kathleen McFall




What inspired you to start writing?

First off, thanks so much for having me! I’m excited and honored to participate. Now, on to the question. I have written, in one form or another since I was a child. Early on, reactions from my parents, brothers, friends, and others to my little stories, poems, and (often non-sensical) snippets emerging from that long-ago child’s mind meant the world to me. I think those young experiences set a foundation for a creative life. Decades on, I’m still inspired by reader reactions, driven by imagining someone somewhere anywhere in the world reading what I’ve written and being moved by my words, shaping their world if even just for a few short minutes. It is such a high.

What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?

Horror allows for the exploration of thorny human issues within defined genre boundaries. Readers know, to varying degrees, what to expect. This means they can relax into the proxy paradigm knowing on a primal level that none of this is real—the monsters, vampires, zombies, the creepy humans are just enough removed from reality that scary (or controversial) topics can be addressed in thoughtful, memorable ways. The existential dread associated with our mortality is the penultimate topic, but consequences of war, racism, misogyny, poverty, environmental catastrophe—we can all think of horror books or movies that have these or other concerns at their core, along with their redemptive antidotes (like love, integrity, having a fast car or better science). If a horror novel is executed well, the reader, in effect, completes the story by being drawn into an inner philosophical reflection directed at some part of their own life. That’s a pretty great outcome for a writer (especially if, along the way, the story makes a reader laugh too).

Do you make a conscious effort to include female characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?

We live in such an interesting time, as authors strive to center their work to include female and diverse perspectives. Yet, I can’t help but think about the parallel interview question put to a male author: Do you make a conscious effort to include male characters and themes in your writing? That question would never happen. Nor are men asked if they strive to include female characters or themes in their work. We are all—of course—products of our era, and it’s gratifying to be part of a genre evolution that more fully embraces one-half of humanity, even if it still requires we call out women during a special honorific day or month, rather than it just being the norm. Someday, this won’t be necessary because the momentum is building. And finally to get to an answer, yes, I am intentional about centering female characters, perspectives, and experiences in my writing. I suspect most women authors do so, and increasingly more men. Here’s one of several ways we (my co-writer Clark Hays and I) shook up the vampire mythology in The Cowboy and the Vampire series to give it a feminist slant: In our world-building, menstrual blood is the source of vampire power and immortality. When we were writing the first book (The Cowboy and the Vampire: A Very Unusual Romance, first edition, 1999, Llewellyn) of the eventual four-book series, we asked ourselves why wouldn’t female blood—which is intimately tied to the essence of life—serve this role? It made perfect sense. Ingesting menstrual blood bestowed power. Other blood was tasty or nourishing, but the source of true power was grounded in the female experience.

At the time of the first publication, we got surprising pushback from some reporters, reviewers, and readers. Gross. Yuck. Disgusting. As the years passed, however, this element of the series is increasingly seen as an early feminist-inspired and ground-breaking recasting of the vampire legend. Other female themes and empowerment, not as separate elements but in ways that are integral to the narrative arc, are woven throughout the Cowboy and Vampire series, along with a commitment to diverse characters. Powerful women oversee vampire clans, with men often cast in a supporting role. Equally important, the novels tackle three specific horrors that humans inflict on each other—ethnic oppression, religious extremism, and pathological greed—which are set up as an outgrowth of the interplay of patriarchy with capitalism. Writing stories that shine a light on this historical connection is in itself an act of feminism.

What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?

Writing horror has made me a braver and (slightly) funnier person, even if the latter is not much apparent here in this interview.

How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?

It seems the genre is changing to tackle contemporary issues, beyond everyday existential dread. I immediately think of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s brilliant horror film taking on racism. Or Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night flips the whole stalker-misogyny trope on its head. Plus the more recent Totally Killer mash-up directed by Nahnatchka Khan takes the same stalker-slasher trope to hilarious extremes. Integrating humor also seems to be gaining ground in horror, with authors not taking the subject (or themselves) too seriously, as Clark and I have done with our vampire writing. Sometimes people need to laugh along with (or even at) their scares.

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?

Women characters in horror have typically been the entities being acted upon, victims from which the rest of the story flows, as in the original Dracula. But such objectification is not unique to horror, rather, it’s a reflection of society’s values more generally. That’s changing, slowly, but it is changing, and that’s beautiful and hopeful.

Who are some women who write horror you recommend our audience check out?

I don’t have a specific author to recommend but rather a process to suggest for selecting new books and discovering authors. Resist defaulting to the visible, the ones already getting plenty of attention or being hyped by celebrities. Rather, dig deeper. Get recommendations from librarians. Pay attention to the new releases HWA announces each month from members, or the lesser-known titles appearing as part of the Stoker process. Follow indie horror writers and readers on Instagram and see what they are reading.

What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?

Write the best thing you can write and then write some more and then get up and do it again. Also, read. Read voraciously and learn from other writers.

And to the women who write horror out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?

We are in an era of publishing that presents more opportunities and challenges than at any other time in history. There is a myriad of ways to get your work out into the world of readers (the opportunities) but there are so, so many writers using those platforms to get their work out (the challenges) that it sometimes feels impossibly hard to get noticed (or to sell books). The sheer number of books published, both traditionally and independently, every year is staggering. Here’s my advice: look away from all that, write well, write because that creative process means something to you (even if the act of writing itself is often torturous), write some more, listen to feedback, and keep pushing—eventually you will find your audience. Don’t give up. Tenacity wins the day!

First published in 1999, The Cowboy and the Vampire Collection was the leading edge of the vampire resurgence in the modern era, helping to launch and shape a new paranormal genre: gothic-western horror. The four novels have received numerous awards, including Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2014, Best Books of 2016 by IndieReader, a 2017 Foreword Reviews finalist, and a 2017 Silver IPPY Medal for Horror. Kathleen McFall and her writing partner Clark Hays have written seven more novels in other genres including alt-history and science fiction.

Kathleen was previously an environmental, bioscience, and health journalist, and a communications director-writer at a major research university, and she received a fiction fellowship from Oregon Literary Arts. Learn more at Pumpjack Press, subscribe to the press newsletter, and follow her on social media — Instagram at @katmcfall or @cowboyvampire and on Facebook.

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