‘Stories don’t protect us, but they do prepare us’ – Kirsty Logan on why we return to horror
2020 has been a year like no other. Dangerous political polarity, racial injustice, species extinction and a pandemic – it’s unsurprising, then, that newsfeeds are filled with apocalyptic memes. Dystopian films are streamed in the millions, as images of mass protests and burning cities continue to proliferate.
In Kirsty Logan’s writing the worst can, and does, happen. Her 2015 book, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, won the Polari First Book Prize as well as the Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection. Her latest collection, Things We Say in the Dark, was published 1 October with Harvill Secker, and has been shortlisted for another award with Polari. The book is ‘imbued with shimmering menace’ and examines domestic claustrophobia, desire and violence.
I spoke to Logan about the universality and adaptability of horror, and why, after publishing six titles, she still chooses to scare herself – to wallow in ghosts and monsters.
How did winning the Polari First Book Prize in 2015 affect your personal or professional development? And what does it mean to be shortlisted for another Polari Prize this year?
Here’s the thing: I like to be a queer writer. Being a writer is a part of my identity; being queer is a part of my identity. I don’t know that they’re the most important parts – but they’re important to me.
Every writer wants their work to be read on many different levels. I want people to read my books and enjoy the stories – just on a surface level – and to be swept up in the narrative and transported somewhere else for a while. I’d also love it if readers enjoyed the language, the nuance and the meaning, and yes, the queerness.
Winning or being shortlisted for an award for LGBTQ+ books is important because it can bring my books to more queer readers who will hopefully enjoy the stories and the language – and will appreciate and connect with the queerness. There’s queerness of character (as in the characters in the stories are clearly and specifically LGBTQ+) and there’s also a larger queerness of narrative. Even when my characters aren’t explicitly LGBTQ+, there’s a lot of queerness in the stories.
The best thing for me is new queer readers; the almost-equal second best is the pride I feel in being alongside the other shortlisted authors. Way back in 2015 it was incredibly legitimising for me to be considered a ‘proper writer’ – shortlisted alongside other, more experienced, more valid (to me) authors. That feeling has never faded. Now, five years and five books later, I look at the other authors on the 2020 lists and I feel a whole new sense of pride to be alongside them.
Things We Say in the Dark is your sixth title, taking its place alongside your mermaid love stories, floating circuses, lascivious queens, flooded worlds and clockwork hearts. When did you begin writing the collection and how does it differ from your other books?
I feel like Things We Say in the Dark is the start of the next stage of my writing. My books before this (two novels, The Gracekeepers and The Gloaming; two story collections, The Rental Heart and A Portable Shelter; and one memoir, The Old Asylum in the Woods at the Edge of the Town Where I Grew Up) are, in my mind, a group. They could be described as queer love stories; they’re all coming of age stories. They’re magical and fantastical and although they go to some dark places, they ultimately bring the reader into the daylight at the end – they have happy, or happy-ish, endings.
Things We Say in the Dark – spoiler – doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s horror, and horrible things happen. It’s not a love story, it’s not magical, and it doesn’t turn out okay at the end. I’m currently writing an original audio novel for Audible, The Sound at the End, a ghost story set in the Arctic; after that I’m working on a novel about medieval witches, and after that I’ll be starting a modern gothic novel set in Glasgow. These books are, in my mind, a new group. They’re dark. They’re not love stories. They don’t have happy endings.
The strange thing about it is that when I wrote those earlier stories, I was going through some hard times: deaths, breakups, illness. Now things are much easier and brighter in my life, and my writing is getting darker. I don’t know how long this stage is going to last, or what’s coming next – but I’m enjoying wallowing in fictional horrors for now.
If you want to know more about how and when I started writing the book, those details can be found in the frame narrative of the book, which is about a writer called Kirsty Logan starting a new book of horror stories. It’s (mostly) true.
The stories disassemble and reassemble the tropes of childhood and adulthood, home, sexuality and fluctuating desire, and take inspiration from folklore and myth. In this way, your writing has often been compared to Angela Carter’s, with its ties to The Bloody Chamber. How many times can a story be retold? Is every story the same in some capacity?
A story can be retold an infinite number of times, because everyone who tells it will do so differently. Everyone has a different perspective – a different experience of geography, class, gender, race, sexuality, bodily ability, and many other intersecting identities. The story of, say, Snow White or Cinderella can (and has) been retold by many different sorts of people across different places and times. Each version will have linked elements – but will be entirely unique, as each storyteller brings themselves to the tale.
As with Carter, there are many places where disorder and decay are juxtaposed with opulence and grandeur. Images of pearls sit alongside rusty nails; glass rings against damp; death with glitter, violence with intimacy. How far are you drawn to pluralities – deconstructing the idea of opposites?
I think if there’s anything I’m trying to do across all my books, it’s to complicate the idea of binaries. The two novels in particular set up many binaries – male/female, land/sea, good/bad – and then, hopefully, reveal them not to be a binary at all but a spectrum, and place the characters somewhere in the middle. I’ve never thought before about whether I do this visually, putting pearls beside rusty nails; but I like that interpretation, I’m happy with it.
You’ve noted that your interest in fairytales comes from their universality that ‘resonates throughout time and space’, no matter what the reader brings to them in terms of their own specific circumstance or context. How do fairytales differ to other modes of fiction or storytelling? What do they offer that other forms or genres don’t, or can’t?
I don’t know that fairytales necessarily do offer more space or elasticity for a writer than other forms. All I can say for sure is that many writers do find plenty of space in them to tell their own versions. While fairytales aren’t the only form for retelling, they do seem ideal for it: I think it’s a mixture of the brisk pace, the universality of themes (death, love, betrayal), the sparseness of character and the specificity of purpose (‘there was once a young shepherd who wanted a wife; a woman had a fine garden but a rabbit ate all her vegetables; a third son, having no inheritance, went out to seek his fortune’). For me, and I think for many other writers, too, there’s also the appeal of the details; the strange, pretty, sometimes gory details: the golden pear, the dress made of moonlight; the stepsister with her glass slipper slowly filling blood after she hacked off her toes to fit.
Fairytales certainly have a lot of retelling appeal, but they’re not the only form – ghost stories, for example, have great universality and adaptability. As far as my enthusiastic but un-academic reading experience goes, there’s no culture in history without a form of ghost story. Ghosts that seek revenge; confront us with past guilt or shame; that fall in love with the living. Ghosts represent the unspoken fears of society.
There’s a good reason there are endless reworkings of The Turn of the Screw. Are the ghosts real, are they a trick, are they all in the protagonist’s mind – or all of these, or something else entirely? And again, we come back to binaries, and inhabiting the spaces in between.
Things We Say in the Dark is split into three main sections: ‘The House’, ‘The Child’, and ‘The Past’. Why did you want to separate the book in this way?
The three sections of the book represent a gradual stripping-away of identity of the protagonist – a writer, recently married, named Kirsty Logan, who is me and also isn’t me. She’s built a life for herself, and she thinks it’s sturdy – but of course, the root of all horror is that what we think is solid and trustworthy is not at all. First, she loses her wife and the home they made together; then she loses the child she thought was on the way. Then, she goes into her past and loses herself – the person she thought she was – the sturdy foundation she thought she’d built it all on. For me, that is horror: nothing can be trusted. Everything you are can be stripped away, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Houses recur throughout the entire collection – often as an extension of the body, constructed from bones, teeth and hair. The home is simultaneously a place of fear, comfort and isolation – a part of our identity that never really leaves us. How have the last few months of lockdown changed your perspective on the collection? On the definition of home?
I love this question – I haven’t thought about how lockdown has changed my idea of home, and I’m interested to think about it now.
I’m a homebody, an introvert who’s happier at home 99% of the time. Staying in isn’t difficult for me. My favourite things are reading, hanging out with my wife, playing with my dog, and general ‘pottering’ activities: rearranging things, making little displays around the flat: the small things. All of these are best achieved at home, or on small day trips. For me, home isn’t a place of isolation, it’s a place where those that I love the most live.
Mostly, what this time has brought up for me is that I’m fortunate to have a home at all: somewhere that’s warm and safe, has food and shelter, and can be accessed only by people I’ve chosen. I’m so fortunate, and so comfortable in my fortune, that I feel able to write several horror stories about home as a place of terror – even though I have never experienced it like that. If I had experienced my own home as a horror, I don’t think I would write those stories. I’ve realised that, quite often, horror – in the way I write it –comes from a place of complacency: when I feel secure in something, I feel able to prod at the horror of losing it.
The collection is also interspersed with questionnaires, notes, diary entries and lists. These instances demonstrate characters attempting to create some sense of order. Is control really ‘stronger than coins’?
I like to play with form because I’m easily bored. I could write all my stories the same way, in third person, past tense – but where’s the fun in that? I like to challenge myself. Am I able to write a coherent narrative in the form of a questionnaire? How about an auction catalogue, a series of funfair rides, mostly footnotes? How much can I push a form without alienating or confusing a reader?
I don’t know that this is the characters trying to create order – maybe it’s me. If I’m focusing on rising to the challenge of form, I’m not focusing on my usual myriad writer anxieties, and I can let the story speak instead.
In one passage, the narrator – who is self-reportedly writing these stories on retreat in Iceland – notes: ‘This work I’m doing, this dragging up of my worst fears. I don’t know what it’s doing to me. Maybe I’m looking for something.’ Is writing a symptom of trying to establish authority?
When I started this book, I considered it a sort of magical thinking: I will imagine the worst things that can happen to me, I will put them into stories, and then they can’t happen. It would be ridiculous if they happened, wouldn’t it? Just imagine if a writer explored a horrible thing in specific detail, and then that thing happened. Impossible.
But it’s not impossible, and this thinking doesn’t work, as much as we would like it to. We can write the bad thing over and over and it doesn’t make a single bit of difference in the real world. So really, despite my intentions, the book became a form of catharsis. It didn’t stop the bad things from happening, but it did serve a little to prepare me for them.
Perhaps that’s why I love to read and watch horror stories; perhaps that’s why we all do: because when the horror does come, at least it’s not as bad as it was in the story. Perhaps that’s why so many people seem to be enjoying stories of pandemics and the apocalypse right now. I heard that viewing numbers of the film Contagion and sales of Stephen King’s The Stand have drastically increased. Stories don’t protect us, but they do prepare us – at least a little.
There are also moments where characters actively will themselves to be haunted – to be visited or taken away – revelling in the liberation that comes from letting go or submerging themselves in their worst fears. Why do we write our fears down, and create art out of them? Who are we trying to scare and why?
The characters will themselves to be haunted, because so do I. I choose to inhabit horrors in my mind. I choose to wallow in ghosts and monsters and the worst of the worst. I don’t know why I do this. My life is nice. The people I choose to have around me are nice. I am, I think, nice. My life doesn’t contain horrors, or no more than anyone else’s.
And yet that’s where I choose to go – when my imagination is boundless, there are no walls in my brain, when I can create literally anything I want and write it down and put it in someone else’s mind. Still, with all that, I choose to scare myself on purpose. I’ve thought a lot about why – I wrote a whole book about why – and still, I don’t really know why.
Interview by Kate Simpson.
Things We Say in The Dark by Kirsty Logan (Vintage, 2020) is out now in paperback.
Things We Say in The Dark has shortlisted for the 2020 Polari Prize, the winner of which will be announced on 15 October.
For more information, follow the Polari Prize on Twitter.
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