Mid -February already? I hope you’re all doing ok and managing to get through lockdown with some positive experiences. It’s tough but I hope you’re keeping well and reading lots! This week I have the good fortune of having author Helen Matthews here to talk about what scares her, and also what doesn’t…..
Thanks for inviting me, Anne-Marie. I’m a trespasser on your blog because I’m not actually scared of anything ghostly or supernatural or of dead people. I live in a 200-year-old house and I find the thought of all the people who have lived and died within these walls comforting not spooky. The things that scare me are connected with real life and, in particular, the thought of any harm coming to my loved ones, especially my children.
What movie/book scared you as a child?
I was more disturbed by the sad parts of movies – Bambi’s mother dying in the Disney film or horses being whipped and mistreated in Black Beauty. I didn’t find wicked witches very convincing. Old movies and tear jerkers used to make me cry and I remember watching them with my younger sister who would position herself so she could watch my face and jeer at me when tears were about to spill over.
What was your biggest fear as a child?
When I was young we lived in an inner city of Cardiff which was quite run down and moved to the suburbs when I was seven. The suburb had sprung up around a village and was on the fringes of the countryside where my friends and I, from a young age, could go off, with no grown ups, and wander all day, exploring fields and woods, climbing trees, tramping alongside canals and over hills and investigating old quarries. I absolutely loved the freedom but my mum, who’d always been a city dweller, hated the countryside it and, as she didn’t have a car, she felt trapped. She was always threatening we would move back to the city and I was constantly anxious she’d persuade my dad and carry out the threat.
Do you like scary movies? Which one is your favourite?
I do like scary movies but I think the old ones, such as ‘The Shining’ or the version of Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’ starring Sissey Spacek, are way better than recent ones. Scary movies should rely on suggestion and a light touch to frighten the audience. I still remember how the audience collectively leapt out of their seats at the end of ‘Carrie’ but that particular scene has now been copied to death. I saw the latest version of Stephen King’s ‘IT’ and was practically in hysterics of laughter the whole time because it was so incredibly bad. Those bouncing clowns’ heads – OMG. Nothing was scary. It was like bad pantomime. It makes me sad that the current generation of film goers have been so desensitised by seeing way too much blood and gore. It seems film directors believe they have to put every gross detail in the audience’s face to provoke a reaction.
My go to for scares has always been ghosts. Have you ever had a paranormal experience in real life?
I don’t believe in ghosts but I’ve often sensed something in the atmosphere of a room in the hours immediately after someone has died. I’m not religious but I’d call it spiritual. Both my parents have died, my mum died quite recently and my sister and I stayed at her bedside in a hospital side room for three days, sleeping on the floor. It was hard to see Mum battling with death, though we knew she was tired of living and ready to go. When she passed, the room seemed to fill with peace as if her spirit or her ghost was trying to reassure us.
Has a book ever really scared you?
I write psychological suspense, which is classified within crime but in the sub-genre where you have flawed characters and unreliable narrators and good people doing bad things. You don’t have explicit descriptions of gory murders or decomposing bodies because the fear and suspense comes, not from external forces, such as a serial killer, but from within. It’s no less scary, especially in domestic noir, because the characters are likely to be trapped in a domestic setting where they should be safe.
I occasionally read mainstream crime and the author whose novels have terrified me the most is Mo Hayder. I read ‘The Treatment’ and ‘Birdman’ in a state of jaw dropping shock. I was stunned at the gross and terrifying scenarios she dreamed up for her victims, but even more amazed that she had written it because I’d be – like – I don’t think I want my mum/dad/boss/neighbour to read this. I couldn’t write those sort of scenes but I’m impressed that she can.
Can you share with us an example of fear in one of your own novels?
This is an extract from my novel ‘After Leaving the Village’. It’s a suspense thriller that deals with dark and gritty theme of human trafficking but it’s pitched at a human scale. We walk in the footsteps of seventeen year old Odeta, who comes from a remote village in Albania where she works in her father’s shop and thinks nothing interesting will ever happen to her again. And then a man called Kreshnik, who she thinks is her boyfriend, tells her about the fun she’d have, and the money she’d make, if she travelled with him to London. This scene is when they’ve just arrived at the airport in London.
From ‘After Leaving the Village’ – chapter 6
“Wait here,” says Kreshnik, leaving Odeta with the luggage trolley. He strides through the hall, swiping at his phone and punching in a number. He’s no longer the tallest man in the crowd. There are black guys and blonde Nordics, who are practically giants but still he stands out. He stops in the middle of the concourse, engrossed in his phone call and blocking a thoroughfare so couples have to break apart and pass either side of him.
Odeta notices a thickset man, wearing a leather jacket, step down from one of the café stools and stand for a moment staring out into the crush of people. This man, too, is holding a mobile phone pressed against the side of his head. Kreshnik’s eyes are still scanning the crowd and the other man spots him first. His eyes narrow and his face sags into a scowl. Now they are striding purposefully towards one another, slipping their phones back into their pockets.
They halt an arm’s length apart; they don’t shake hands and show no pleasure in the act of recognition. It can’t be the cousin, perhaps it’s some driver. The stranger thrusts a hand inside his jacket pocket and draws out an envelope. Odeta can’t quite see, but it looks like a letter: a very thick one. He hands it to Kreshnik who accepts it with a nod. He doesn’t open it but holds it in his hand. The two men turn and look in her direction, Kreshnik gesturing with his thumb. He must be discussing her with the fat man. She blushes as they amble towards her, Kreshnik keeping pace with the dumpy stranger but not looking at him. When they reach her they stand very close. It’s an odd sensation like being enclosed by a copse of trees: Kreshnik, a lofty willow, the other man a stubby, spreading bush. She tests out a smile of welcome on the stranger.
“This man, Kostandin will take you to your accommodation,” says Kreshnik. He fiddles with the envelope he’s holding, folds it in half and pushes it into his pocket.
“But you’re coming too?” Her voice stutters and rises turning her statement into a question.
He shakes his head and examines his shoes.
“I don’t understand.” Her heart is hammering as she stares at Kostandin’s tight leather jacket, noticing how the zipper gapes open to a point midway down his chest; its vast, jagged teeth remind her of Afrim’s toy dinosaur. She winces as a hand clamps onto her arm above the elbow, the fat man has hold of her. In her bewilderment, nausea constricts her throat.
“Get off,” she jabs her elbow backwards but she can’t shake off his grip. “Kreshnik make him let go of me.”
But Kreshnik is fidgeting with his cuff. He takes out a cigarette, positions it between his index and third fingers but doesn’t light it. The other man, Kostandin peels his lips back in a grin exposing two front teeth, chipped into triangles. He spits a wad of chewing gum into his free hand and drops it on the floor.
“Kreshnik,” she pleads, grabbing hold of his sleeve and tugging. She feels dizzy, her eyes flit around without focusing. “What’s going on? Stop being so weird.” Passers-by pause to stare but they don’t understand Albanian.
“Shush,” he says, raising a finger to his lips. He leans towards her, clears his throat and speaks rapidly. “Now listen, Odeta. Be a good girl and go with Kostandin. Do as he says and everything will be fine. There’s nothing to worry about. I have business to attend to, I’ll be away for a while and, when I get back, we’ll be together. Okay?”
She stares into his face and notices his eyes are shuttered against her. His forehead is shiny, he looks pale and he’s breathing heavily. Is he ill? “I don’t want to go with him,” she claws at his arm, her voice dry and cracking. “Let me come with you. I won’t be any trouble.”
Kreshnik takes a step away from her. His expression is grim but he looks at her with a deep sadness that she’ll never forget. He does love me – she’s sure of it now – but why does he look so unhappy? Something has happened here in London; some business must have gone horribly wrong.
Tearfully, she lunges towards him, reaching for his arm but grasping thin air as he steps back. She loses her footing and stumbles. Kostandin still has hold of her arm, pulls her back to her feet and, in that moment of distraction, Kreshnik slips away. She sees him striding towards a sign that says ‘Exit’. “No,” she wails. “Come back.”
People turn and stare at her but they don’t speak Albanian and don’t want to get involved. Her heart is smashing against her ribcage as she watches Kreshnik’s figure grow smaller and smaller until it’s a tiny speck. And then he’s gone.
In real life what is your biggest fear? Do you use that when you write?
My greatest fear is the thought of anything happening to my children. I have two amazing children, who are now in their twenties, and my only desire is for them to be happy, safe, fulfilled and achieve their potential (I realise that’s quite a long list!) . A few years ago my son was travelling on a school ski trip heading for Austria when we heard on the news about a massive crash on the motorway near Cologne, involving a coach carrying a school ski group from the UK. Children were badly injured and least one was killed. It was several hours before we heard my son’s school party were safe and not involved. On that Saturday, while we made desperate phone calls , trying to get news, I felt a depth of despair I didn’t think was possible. I can only imagine the anguish of the parents of the student in that other coach who was killed.
Unfortunately for me, both my kids have chosen dangerous careers and hobbies. One is a police officer: a front line responder and blue light driver (but handy for me when I want police procedure in my novels fact-checked). The other cycles to work in London, which terrifies me. He also travelled around India alone, when he was only eighteen years old, and his main hobby is rock climbing!
Perhaps that’s why I can’t waste any energy being scared of ghosts. Worrying about my kids is terrifying enough.
Thank you so much for joining me Helen, and for sharing your fears. Totally agree with you about IT – I loved it until it got silly. But you can’t beat classic horrors like Carrie and The Shining!
This weekend you can get Facade for free for your Kindle! Head on over to Amazon on 14th or 15th of Feb and you can download it for zero pence!
My author website is at: https://www.helenmatthewswriter.com
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Checkout my novels here:
My latest novel Façade is a dark and gripping family mystery
After Leaving the Village
Lies Behind the Ruin