The Dead Girls Club: On Inspiration and What’s Hiding in the Dark with Author Damien Angelica Walters
Kids create their own mythologies centered around what frightens them, murmurs from their peers, grown-up issues they don’t quite understand. They are more open to what might be, even if it seems utterly impossible to adults. They believe without question that it’s possible something’s lurking in the closet, that reindeer really can fly around the world in one night, and that a scary lady could be called out of a mirror just by saying her name in the dark.
Damien Angelica Walters’s new novel takes this kernel of an idea and extends the what if of childhood to the adult world. What if those games you played weren’t just games?
Here’s the basic set-up of the story: Four girls gather together in the basement of a vacant house and tell scary stories about the Red Lady. Only, it isn’t a game to Becca—she knows the Red Lady is real, and if they can call her into their world, she’ll help Becca. Heather doesn’t believe, or at least she thinks she doesn’t. But Becca’s story has been in the back of her mind for thirty years and now, it’s coming for her.
The story is told in chapters that alternate between Heather’s current day perspective as a therapist for kids and one fateful summer in 1991 when she, Becca, and their two friends tried to summon the Red Lady. The girls in Walters’s novel are on the precipice, finding their way through a time when they are changing, growing up, realizing that the world is not always as nice as they’ve been led to believe. They are beginning to not believe in the extraordinary as ordinary anymore.
As an adult, Heather has ignored the trauma of her past, but it’s beginning to creep up to the surface, infecting every area of her life. As the story progresses, she alienates her friends and family, becomes suspicious of everyone, her work begins to suffer, and her moods are all over the place. You can’t bury the past; you have to deal with it eventually.
Though it is about many things, at its heart, this is a book about friendship, and I loved the portrayal of the bond between Becca and Heather. It is beautiful but also heartbreaking, and their story encapsulates the divide between child and adult.
This book has some serious creep-factor too: if you are here for the thrills and chills, buckle in. With the pacing and mystery of a thriller and some excellent moments of horror, I think this book will appeal to fans of both genres.
I loved the book. Get it on your list to pick up in December and in the meantime, I’m excited to present this interview with the author!
Since it is the spooky season, I wonder if you could start off with a few recommendations for great Halloween reads. What are your favorites? Some of my favorite unsettling reads are We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, The Shining by Stephen King, The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, The Grip of It by Jac Jemc, and Shadowland by Peter Straub. They all tackle isolation, albeit in different ways, which makes them sort of perfect for the changing season in my mind.
Coming-of-age is one of my favorite subgenres of horror. Like the four girls in this book, I definitely had a fascination with scary things when I was younger (let’s be honest—I haven’t grown out of it). But games like Bloody Mary and Ouija were staples of childhood sleepovers, and we scared ourselves silly telling stories. So, I felt a real kinship with Heather and her friends. Why do you think kids are drawn to scary things? Or, why is there a connection between things that scare us and that time in our lives? Adolescence is a scary time. Everything is changing. Our bodies, our emotions, the way people treat us. We feel out of control. But reading or watching something scary, saying Bloody Mary three times in a mirror, gives us control over our lives and our fear. You can fight the monster in a book or movie. You can win. Bloody Mary doesn’t come out of the mirror to grab us and pull us in.
I am a fan of strong female protagonists, and from what I’ve read of your works, it seems like you are too! How do you find your protagonists? What comes first, the storyline or the characters? It’s always a character. I may not know much about them at first but I usually see them doing something or saying something or, as in Heather’s case, receiving something in the mail. Writing that scene gives me insight into their character and then the rest of the story slowly spools out like thread.
Though I think your book takes a very different, more introspective and personal path, there is definitely no shortage of stories about dead girls, from novels and movies to true crime podcasts, and beyond. Where do you think this collective social obsession comes from? And what led you to Heather’s story? I tossed on Cold Case Files the other night for the heck of it and skimmed through several episodes. All the victims were women or girls, all subjected to unspeakable violence. I don’t think we’re obsessed with the girls or women themselves, because more often than not, they’re just faces in a picture, the names easily forgotten. We’re fascinated with the violence itself and the perpetrators. I think we hope that if we see enough monsters, we’ll be able to identify them in real life before they can get us. Sadly, that isn’t usually the case because on the surface they don’t look like monsters at all.
Though a lot of the themes are universal, this book feels very tied to a specific place (and time). I wonder, what kind of research do you do before writing? I lived near Annapolis when I wrote this novel, so there wasn’t any sort of research needed as I used places already familiar to me. I based the girls’ childhood neighborhood loosely on one in Towson where I raised my children. There were a few things here and there that I had to verify, like what songs were hits in 1991, but I did that after I’d written the story.
I feel like a lot of your work that I’ve read deals with the split between the internal and the external self—the ghosts we give life to and cling to, the faces we show the world versus the one we hide, for better or worse. Do you set about a plan to write on a certain theme? Not at all, but we bring ourselves to the table when we write, so our pasts, our experiences and feelings, are frequently added to our stories in small and large ways. I’ve never spoken of it publicly before, but my mother was an alcoholic, so I’m well aware of the public versus private face of dysfunction. This played a huge part in shaping who I am as a person so it’s not surprising that it also shapes who I am as a writer.
I loved the chilling aspect of a ghostly witch with evil intent. Is she real? Is she all in the girls’ heads? Is she a metaphor? So, I have to know, what is the story or inspiration behind the Red Lady? Is she real to you? I think that’s the important question to ask. After all, a book doesn’t belong to a writer after it’s written. To me, she’s the Schrodinger’s cat of witches. She’s both real and not, depending on the circumstances. And the reader’s perception.
I also love your short stories! I wonder, what’s the difference between writing a novel and a shorter piece? Thank you! Novels are far more complex and so much more difficult to write. Plotting has never been my strong suit so all the twists and turns a novel must take to be enjoyable for a reader is a struggle to get right. I was so grateful for Chelsey Emmelhainz at Crooked Lane because she helped me a lot with the structure of The Dead Girls Club and I now have a stronger skill set because of her.
To finish things off, if you could invite any fictional character to dinner, who would you choose and why? That’s an easy one. Offred from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. For one thing, I’d make her a sumptuous dinner and a decadent dessert. Then I’d let her talk about whatever she wanted to or read any of the books I own. I’d let her wear whatever she wanted, listen to whatever she wanted, do whatever she wanted. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite books and it’s upsetting no matter how many times I read it, so I’d like to give Offred a bit of kindness. A bit of freedom. I think she deserves that.
Damien Angelica Walters is the author of The Dead Girls Club, forthcoming in December 2019, Cry Your Way Home, Paper Tigers, and Sing Me Your Scars. Her short fiction has been nominated twice for a Bram Stoker Award, reprinted in Best Horror of the Year, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, and The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and published in various anthologies and magazines, including the Shirley Jackson Award Finalists Autumn Cthulhu and The Madness of Dr. Caligari, World Fantasy Award Finalist Cassilda’s Song, Nightmare Magazine, and Black Static. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two rescued pit bulls.
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