Lily Childs is a horror writer with a distinctive voice. Her stories are visceral explorations of the grotesque, her characters real and distorted, and she can set an atmosphere that will create a chill. Her horror collection, Cabaret Of Dread had me turning the pages, as I read one gem of a story after another. I highly recommend it and you can buy it here. She’s also writing a novel.
Lily met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about femme fatales and horror fiction.
How do the tactics of a femme fatale differ from the approach of the dark man who inhabits the dreams written about in horror fiction?
Oh, the Femme Fatale is quite different. She’s the consummate planner; has already explored every outcome before she bites or wheedles her wily way into someone’s life. She’s all about seduction and power whereas the Dark Man’s a chancer.
Both have an overwhelming confidence though. If I were writing crime then their arrogance would be their downfall; in horror – anything goes.
I probably stereotype the Femme Fatale; a gorgeous, dangerous woman with a violent chip on her shoulder. I hate this excuse for my sex but I kind of admire her too. Maybe I’d like to look like her (those fabulous clothes) but I certainly wouldn’t want to be her.
The Dark Man has disturbed our dreams forever. He whispers wicked promises; seduces then abuses you – laughing all the while. He’s a shape-shifter; we’re always running away from him – yet chasing him too. Sometimes he’s a clown, or a Jack Sparrow. Sometimes he’s the insurance collector with an innocuous name like Mr Virtue who visits your house every week and grabs you when your mum’s not looking.
Occasionally the Dark Man is a Dark Woman. And that’s scary.
Do you think the unveiling that exists in horror fiction is related to the sense that people are unknowable and why does that exert fear?
Yes and no. Individuals surprise us all the time. Sometimes it’s as simple as the quiet accountant winning a marathon, or the loudmouth school bully sobbing at Strictly Come Dancing. When it comes to horror we can manipulate reality to deliver a disturbing fiction, but can we emulate the truly bizarre? The genuine tales of cannibalism that dip in and out of all nations’ histories, inbreeds trapped in wardrobes, syphilitic libertines spreading dripping pox…
A worrying number of people are immune to real life, to struggling – to disease, mental illness and poverty. They’re the ones that should be afraid. Unfortunately they’re more likely to burn your books than ever be affected by words of horror.
To turn it around, I’m quite happy for this lot to be at the mercy of my dark compatriots; strung up by demons or ravaged by soulless creatures for fun. It takes the humanity out it; perhaps that makes me a coward.
For the true horror fan, you have to work really hard to garner that fear. Unveiling something unknowable to that audience means showing them respect. As a fan myself, I want to be shocked and disturbed but I also want to be excited by the darkness of the story’s main character; for me it is the characters rather than their actions that scare the crap out of me. And I like that.
What is your relationship to mythology?
Can I laugh or cry here? The ‘old tales’ were those that held my fascination as a child. Even the myths in the Bible (no offense) intrigued me until that old expulsion thing reared its fine and ugly head. “Out girl – there is only One True God.” “Then who were the many Gods all those other people worshipped, Miss?” “Your questions are inappropriate; leave – and don’t bother coming back.” Such understanding and compassion shown to an inquisitive 8-year-old… but hey.
I have a special relationship with the Greek island of Crete, home to the Minotaur, the Bee Goddess and the Snake Goddess. I visit annually – on the excuse of eating grilled octopus in the olive groves, drinking crisp wines and swimming in the bluest waters, but always I take the time to wander in the hills, to lie down upon the stark earth and talk to the Ancient ones. I won’t disclose my conversations, but I would ask that you believe me when I tell you they do reply.
The extremes of mythology and legend – of deities consuming and vomiting up new offspring have so many parallels in nature, if only we’d care to look deeply enough. When such tales drift into my own writing, however horrific the story or reference – it’s delivered with respect.
This glorious island of Albion too resonates with a unique mythology of its own. Some of it revealed and Disneyfied, other histories untold – bound to rocks and stones, to wells and sacred springs. I’m forever happy in those places; I remember.
Who are your literary influences?
These are authors whose writing deeply, deeply affects my psyche; who terrify me, make me weep with the beauty or starkness of the scenes they set, and who force me to question everything.
Clive Barker is always in my head. Imajica, Weaveworld, The Great and Secret Show – they are just astounding works of art. My bibles. Barker’s work is pure craftsmanship yet despite its fantasy element, is so uncontrived. I feel I have been to all the wondrous places he describes, have met Gentle and Pie ‘oh’ Pah and Dowd, Celestine, Hoy-polloi, Peccable, Godolphin, Uriel, Little Ease and all those incredible characters. There is something of the divine and the earthly, of the deity and the demon in all of them. Isn’t that how we really are?
I was also a huge fan of Barker’s Books of Blood as a teenager and re-read them all recently – with relish.
Joanne Harris – her writing is so dangerous and magical it makes me shiver in fear and delight. I particularly love Holy Fools; it’s as though the pages are dripping in gilt and sparkling with sigils and disallowed pagan truths. Sleep Pale Sister is sensual and gothic, and Gentlemen & Players is wicked in the purest sense of the word. Harris tackles evil with such evident pleasure you are sucked right in – and tricked – over and over again.
Add in Sarah Waters, Gunter Grass, Camus, Zafón, Woolf, Plath – all writers that send you spinning with fear, with passion; who take you to the very edge – and sometimes let you go.
For many years I was a collector of Andrew Lang’s original “Coloured Fairy Books”, traditional tales and myths gathered and translated from across the world from the 1890s to 1910, all with extraordinary illustrations. The stories are written as they were meant to be told; horror lies deep within their beautiful pages, and stays with you.
I can’t say I am influenced to write in the style of anyone else; when I scribble I bare some dark part of myself that I don’t always recognise and hope that’s a voice readers enjoy. But if my writing brings even an ounce of the same emotions that I get from the authors I have mentioned, then I’m happy.
Tell us about your novel.
I haven’t told anyone about it yet! It’s half-written at the moment but is fully outlined and the writing is progressing well. It’s perhaps less horror than a passionate, supernatural mystery (with nasty bits). I won’t give too much away but…
Dispirited by Lily Childs
Alexandra Ford is not nice to know. Cold, heartless; she lives off the gullible and the vulnerable. It’s so easy. But Alex has a secret. Desperate to find out who she really is, the cynical young woman has been delving into her own past. Attracting the attentions of local archivist Daniel Carey the pair gradually uncover a disturbing and unexpected ancestry.
Inspired by her discoveries, habitual con-artist Alex uses her research to concoct a brand new scam – her best ever – but her ancestors have had enough. Seeking Alex out they awaken her perceptions, opening terrifying doors to abduction, possession… and execution.
With her carefully-constructed barricades falling apart, the police at her door and the voice of a missing girl trailing her in the dark can Alex change her ways to help the victims that are counting on her? Will Daniel hang around long enough to see through the beguiling Alex’s tough exterior? And is Alexandra Ford finally ready to face her own shocking truth?
What made you start writing horror fiction?
Dark thoughts. Being… not bullied at school but criticised, ignored and constantly made to feel useless. Seeing things other people couldn’t and getting laughed at. It all led to feeling insular, where I developed a healthy interest in the occult and a fascination with all spectrums of emotions. I wrote lots of gothic-style poetry as a teenager which was extraordinarily self- indulgent, poor quality slush but that was probably where it all started. Oh, and listening to Kate Bush.
Later on I worked in Social Security for 8 years and saw things I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It stays with you.
These days I find writing horror marvellously therapeutic; though I do sometimes wonder if I enjoy it too much!
Do you think horror lives in real crime?
There’s no doubt. Rape, assault, murder. Abuse, stalking, abduction. Even burglary is the rape of someone’s property, of their confidence. As a writer I feel a morbid responsibility to see inside each of the victim’s, criminal’s and observer’s heads when a crime is committed. They are all terrifying places with different interpretations depending on the viewpoint. I don’t see how you can write objectively without understanding (whether you like it or not) all sides.
Who is the Long Man?
Apart from the title of my first unfinished novel? ‘The Long Man’ refers to The Long Man of Wilmington, a 226ft high, ancient chalk-figure carved into the South Downs near to where I live in East Sussex. His origins are unknown and there has been much speculation as to his identity; a surveyor – holding primitive measuring rods, Baldur the Beautiful, Tiw, Hades, an unknown deity, Jesus… we are unlikely to ever know.
Since Victorian times he has had a slightly modernist, smooth appearance and the brick that makes up his outline is regularly repainted. But originally he was a form seen only in certain lights and times of the year, an almost bear-like figure carrying a scythe and pole, horns at his head, both feet pointing to his right. It could be argued that he was a figment of historical imagination except for the many tumuli in Windover Hill above his head that give credence to this being a place of Bronze Age settlement. The sharp slope on which The Long Man lies would have been seen above the forests that covered Sussex lowlands in older times – perhaps he welcomed travellers, perhaps he called to shamans.
I’ve known The Long Man all my life, and have spent a lot of time on the hills above, beside and below him. The whole area is very powerful, very spiritual. Wilmington village itself has pagan Yew trees held up by Victorian street lamps; trees a thousand years older than its church. Rooks and crows nest here in droves, shouting constantly at passers-by. There is a derelict priory that adds to the mystery of the place, and neo-druids meet at the quarter festivals of the year on a flat circular plateau below the Long Man’s gaze to bless the land, to kiss and dance in The Earth’s honour.
I once met a fox cub in the wheat field at The Long Man’s feet. We stared each other out for ages until he approached and gave my hand a lick and a nip. Windover Hill, Wilmington and The Long Man are places of deep mystery, where paths cross and the veil is thin – how could I not write about that?
What advice would you give to yourself as a younger woman?
That’s easy. This sounds a bit like cognitive therapy laced with affirmations but it’s what I needed to hear as a teenage girl/young woman. Whether I would have listened is a different matter:
It’s OK to be different. Embrace that, don’t hide behind it.
Those girls that only want your company when it suits them? Drop them now – all you have in common is your gender. There is a world of fascinating, gentle and caring people out there that you will meet along the way. Some will drift away, but some will stay with you for ever. Take the first step to meeting them right now.
Don’t be afraid to believe in yourself and your own experiences – learn from your own journey not those imposed/dictated by others.
Whoever hurts you, puts you down or questions your abilities – rise above it. Take control. If you believe their words, they will have won. You are better than that, and you are better than them.
Perhaps most importantly, don’t struggle alone. If you need help – ask.
That was all a bit personal, I guess. If you mean writing advice I’d say:
Read, read and read some more. Take a road trip with Kerouac but snuggle up with some Dickens too. Don’t limit yourself to genre and literary style – read anything that appeals to you, and try those that don’t appeal. Review what you read; examine how the story makes you feel and the emotions it touches. Is it a sensorial experience? Does it make you afraid to stop reading?
Write as it flows; you can edit afterwards so don’t beat yourself up about typos and punctuation in the first draft. You’ll learn pedantry later (it might be reclassified as OCD by then).
And please – never throw your writing away.
Do you think an author needs to have a wicked heart in order to write about the evils of the world?
I guess we’ve already touched on this in different ways but I’d say no, I believe good writers are more likely to have open hearts, souls that see all sides of a situation. They have to truly understand pain to be convincing purveyors of truth – it doesn’t mean they’re running around the streets committing crimes themselves (cue a story prompt, methinks). In fact, in my experience crime and horror writers are a pretty pleasant lot – all with a great, and probably essential sense of humour. And a drinking habit – but hey.
Having said all that, I don’t ‘arf grin when I’m writing from inside a demon’s head, and have been known to laugh out loud when slicing flesh – I mean writing about slicing flesh. But that’s all just for personal pleasure… isn’t it?
Thank you Lily for an intensive and great interview.
Thank you Richard for inviting me to the Chin Wag. I’m sorry for taking my time – your patience is, frankly – incredible. I really enjoyed our chat and your challenging questions, and appreciate you treating me gently – as requested.
Lily is a writer of horror, twisted crime, dark fiction and poetry who sees beauty in everything. She is the author of the Magenta Shaman urban fantasy short novella series and has recently released the first volume of her extreme horror short stories Cabaret of Dread through Ganglion Press. Her ebooks are available to download from all Amazon platforms.
Lily is Horror Editor at award-winning ezine Thrillers Killers ‘n’ Chillers, alongside Crime Editor/writer Col Bury, and Thriller Editor/best-selling author of the Joe Hunter series, Matt Hilton. She blogs regularly at http://lilychildsfeardom.blogspot.com and you can follow her on Twitter @LilyChilds and facebook.com/lilychildsfeardom
Visit Lily’s website for links to her short stories and the anthologies she’s been published in.