Spooky House Press Author Series: Interview with Elizabeth Davidson
“I’m a sucker for great folk horror, and Residents of Honeysuckle Cottage nailed it. Elizabeth is such a wonderful talent, and this was so different from so much I’d been reading. The book has such a strong seventies vibe to it that I fell in love with it right away. I knew I had to publish it.” – Robert P. Ottone, Publisher, Spooky House Press
Jacque Day: There is so much about Residents of Honeysuckle Cottage to savor. Beautifully written and characterized, an idyllic setting, the mysterious folklore (but is it?) rooted in a rural community. A couple, Laura and Monique, retreat from the city to Honeysuckle Cottage with their cat, Amelia, for a fresh start in life. We’ll come to their relationship, the setting, and the folklore in a moment. But first I’d like to linger on the opening scene, which begins with a soft warning from a local, Dougal, who tells them, “It rises like water, see, over your feet and into your shoes, and the cold starts.” This eerie sensation of cold contrasts with the heat of a bonfire: Laura and Monique are burning the history of the property they’ve recently acquired, including, as we soon learn, Dougal’s grandfather’s armchair. Why was it important for you, as a storyteller, to enter the story in this place, in the presence of chill and fire (and, in the subtext, erasure), with these specific words from Dougal?
Elizabeth Davidson: Thank you for reading, and for your kind comments and questions!
When I wrote that beginning line, I was imagining the sensation when you stand on marshy ground and the weight of your feet makes the water rise up over your shoes. What if the water keeps rising and never stops? I was already playing around with some ideas, people and settings, but those specific words from Dougal are kind of what sparked the story into life because I immediately understood how Dougal spoke, and the fear he had.
I wanted to start with the three main characters meeting, and decided that a bonfire made for an atmospheric occasion. There’s always something mysterious about bonfires—I like the way the rising heat distorts what we can see, like we could pass through a veil into another dimension. There’s something primal about sitting ‘round an open fire, an experience that goes way back in time. As this bonfire takes place at dusk, it makes the darkness deeper. In this scene, I wanted to make Dougal mysterious—is he real? Is he alive? Where has he come from? Could he be from a different time? I wanted Laura’s first meeting with Dougal to have an ethereal quality.
In this scene, as you mention, they are burning rubbish and old stuff they’ve found in the farm buildings, and one of these things is Dougal’s grandfather’s armchair. They are literally burning a relic from his past in front of his eyes. The burning armchair, I hope, shows Dougal’s deep ties with the area. He’s from ‘round these parts. Laura and Monique are not. But I was also thinking about what objects mean to us and the mythical value we ascribe to them. Laura and Monique are horrified when they discover what they’re burning—they immediately think it has sentimental importance to Dougal. But maybe to Dougal, it is just an old bit of rubbish that’s been thrown out? Similarly, two people who move somewhere new have no way of understanding what emotional significance or cultural value is attached by the local community to objects, places, or events that they come across. Laura and Monique have moved to an isolated, remote valley where everyone seems to know things that they don’t. It is a tight, almost suffocatingly close, community. The couple are welcomed, but what is expected in return? That’s what they are trying to work out?
JD: We see the story through the eyes of Laura, whose relationship with Monique has, we are to understand, endured its share of bumps: among them Laura’s break with a job and her past abuse of alcohol. In spite of their evident affection for one another, it’s also clear from the beginning that a kind of chasm exists between them. This disconnect shows itself at the bonfire, when Dougal is giving them the lore of the local boogeyman, Wiley, and Laura notes with some dismay that Monique isn’t reacting. The deeper I journeyed into the story with Laura as my sole guide, the more unstable I felt, until I began to doubt everything I saw and experienced. How reliable is Laura as a narrator, and how do you use her relationship with Monique and relative reliability/unreliability to pierce into a place of deep emotional horror?
ED: I wrote the story in third person but closely identified with Laura. She’s not an unreliable narrator per se but she is prone to misinterpretation. Everything is seen through Laura’s eyes, yet at the same time she is sometimes selective about what she chooses to notice, the value she places on certain matters, and the views she forms about people and their intentions. The source of unreliability in Laura’s narration is always her fear, which pushes her to interpret events in a certain way. But sometimes we should listen to our fears! Could it be that Laura fears the wrong things? Or is she being gaslit by those around her? Could she be right all along?
I was conscious of Laura’s fears all the way through writing the book. Laura’s biggest fear is not being listened to, of having her warnings ignored, of being the lone voice among more confident detractors, and of failing to sound the alarm. In this story, she is living and breathing her worst fears! There are hints that she has sounded the alarm before and has either misjudged it badly or ended up making matters worse. Laura has experienced her share of difficulties in the past, including, it is hinted, depression. This experience has made her more alert to danger and keen to protect others but also caused her to doubt herself. Boundaries have become distorted a little, which makes it more difficult for her to settle in. She second-guesses herself and she also jumps to conclusions, unable to definitively categorize situations.
Monique doesn’t react in the same way because she has learned, in her life, always to maintain a calm, poised exterior. Laura needs Monique but also gives Monique too much power—Monique is the driving force in their relationship. Because of this, Laura has a tendency to be paranoid about Monique leaving her for someone else.
Monique is very much her “home,” and they have left everything familiar to move to an isolated, remote setting where different norms and social rules appear to apply. What if your partner fitted in and you were left as an outsider? What if your partner chooses the new people over you, leaving you behind?
For the structure and pace of the book, I had Ira Levin’s classic The Stepford Wives in mind, where a couple moves from New York to a small town. Obviously, my story was completely different but I wanted to achieve the same clean, fast pace. I looked at the way Ira Levin paces his books, always keeping the story moving—he just says what needs to be said then jumps forward to the next thing, and it never jars on the reader.
JD: Wonderful homage to Ira Levin, one of my favorite authors. Now, to the lovely and haunting setting of Honeysuckle Cottage, which you write is inspired by the “spookily beautiful valley of Ettrick in the Scottish borders.” You live now in London, and grew up in the Scottish countryside. What about this place inspired you to return to it in your novel?
ED: Ettrick is a remote valley where I lived until I was seventeen, where my family still lives, and which I visit frequently. The landscape is bleak, damp, cold, vast and beautiful with fast rivers and streams and a lot of empty space. I’m biased because I’m from there but it’s quite breathtaking and can be eerie too. It’s a place that definitely sparks the imagination. The surrounding area has a wealthy history of songs, ballads and tales dating from centuries ago, with plenty of supernatural and mythical beings mixed in.
It really helped me when I was writing to know the area inside out, even though I added in various bits to the geography. I could easily imagine walking out the gate and turning right, and knew what was in front, behind, underfoot, on the horizon, and to my left and right at all times.
JD: Honeysuckle Cottage is a work of folk horror. For our readers who might wish to explore folk horror in their own work, care to share some insights from your experiences writing in the sub-genre? For instance, where did the monster, Wiley, come from? Is it a construct of your imagination, inspired by regional folklore, or some combination? And how did you, as an author, navigate the murky area between wholesale belief on the part of the locals and skepticism from outsiders to keep the suspense fresh in the story?
ED: I think folk-horror stories reach a primeval part of us that other stories don’t, whether it’s the more subtle end of the type such as British author Andrew Michael Hurley’s novel, Starve Acre, the weirder end, Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, or the unforgettable imagery of Ari Aster’s films, Hereditary and Midsommar. Maybe it’s because the supernatural creature or belief is deeply connected to the land? I love all the pagan rituals, isolated communities, weird rites and strange folks, and how it blends the old with the new, while commenting on our worst fears. The classic folk horror to me, which captures all the elements, is The Wicker Man, now fifty years old!
Wiley, the monster in my work, is purely a construct of my imagination. However, the idea of Wiley pulling its victims down into the cold, wet earth definitely emerges from the landscape of the story. If Wiley is watching you, you’re trapped. I used to have dreams (nightmares) about being pulled into peaty marshland in the hills around where I grew up, in which case the peat acts as a natural preservative. I was probably told at a young age that this can happen, and it has stayed with me since. For me, Wiley represents a fear of being dragged into the cold ground.
When writing the story, I found Laura’s inability entirely to trust her own judgment useful when treading the line between local belief and outsider doubt. I tried to combine her paranoia and confusion with events that either backed up or conflicted with her beliefs so as to throw the story in different directions.
JD: Because Horror Tree is a resource for writers, I like to throw in a few practical questions for good measure. How long did it take you to write Residents of Honeysuckle Cottage? How many drafts did you go through? How many words did you write to get to roughly one hundred pages? How long did it take you to sell it? And what was your experience working with Spooky House Press?
ED: It is about 27,000 words long and took me about eight months in total, which is quite fast for me. I have written a couple of books (unpublished) before as well as abandoned some false starts and was feeling woebegone about the impossibility of getting published. Then I saw a callout from a different small publisher (not Spooky House Press), specifying what they were looking for (folk-horror novellas, exactly what I wanted to write). There was quite a tight deadline, which galvanized me into action. My first draft of the book was shortlisted but not chosen.
I then spotted lots of ways to improve it. I did this, redrafting it again. It was now longer and had a completely different ending. Shortly after, I saw Spooky House Press’s callout for novellas, and sent it off.
Working with Spooky House Press has been an amazing experience—I’ve felt involved throughout the process and Robert P. Ottone is a very encouraging, enthusiastic person, really lovely to work with and extremely professional in everything he does. He’s also five times faster than anyone else. I’m in awe of his speed! I loved the design of the book, the cover, everything! It was a dream to open the box and see the first copies.
JD: What’s next for you?
ED: I am working on two ideas, horror books, but am still in the early stages with both. The first involves people undergoing a certain type of therapy, and I am writing the first draft at the moment. The second is about a troubled anesthetist who becomes involved with a secret sect. I have done some research into the medical side and written a bit of the first draft. I also have very basic ideas for a short film, a children’s book, and a musical but my challenge with these is that I take rubbish photos, don’t have children, and can’t sing or play an instrument, so I will be collaborating on these!
Elizabeth Davidson grew up in the Scottish countryside and currently lives in south London with her partner. In addition to Residents of Honeysuckle Cottage, she contributed the short story, “The Long Leather Boot,” to Dark in the Day, an anthology by Immanion Press, and was longlisted for the 2022 Caledonia Novel Award for Therapy Rooms, a yet-unpublished novel. She likes rainy days and all things dark and gothic, and can be found on Instagram @ elizabethdavidsonx.
Robert P. Ottone, publisher of Spooky House Press, is the Bram Stoker Award®-winning author of The Triangle. His other works include Her Infernal Name & Other Nightmares (an honorable mention in The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 13) as well as the suburban folk horror novel, The Vile Thing We Created.
Jacque Day served as the longtime managing editor for the New Madrid Journal of Contemporary Literature. Her recent work appears in the anthology, That Darkened Doorstep.
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Jacque Day writes about stuff she finds too perplexing to figure out any other way. She served as the longtime managing editor for the New Madrid Journal of Contemporary Literature, and has zigged and zagged as a magazine journalist, book and magazine editor, radio correspondent, TV producer, motion picture crew member, and occasional comedy writer and producer. Her newest work appears in the collection, That Darkened Doorstep, published in 2022 by Hellbender Books, an imprint of Sunbury Press.