The Horror Tree Presents… An Interview With Karen Runge

Liz – Please welcome author, Karen Runge! Karen, tell us a little bit about your side of the world?

Karen – I currently live in Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s a large, eclectic city that captures a lot of extremes. Wealth and poverty, sincerity and superficiality. The crime rate is high, so you need to stay on your toes around here. As a city, it has its own unique beauty. If you’re bored in Johannesburg, you’re doing it wrong.

Liz – It sounds intense! Were you born there?

Karen – Actually no, I was born in Paris. My father was a diplomat, and our family was stationed in France for six years. We then lived in Gabon for about eighteen months before returning to South Africa when I was still very young.

Liz – France! I’m envious…You also lived in the Far East for seven years – whereabouts?

Karen – I spent three years in Harbin, a city in China’s northeast that is just a few clicks down from Siberia. I then spent four years in Beijing before I packed up and returned home.

Liz – What prompted the change of scene? Did you find it a culture shock?

Karen – Having been raised in a family that moved around a lot, ‘culture shock’ doesn’t seem to hit me as hard as it might others. I was born into the idea, at least subconsciously, that no place you put your feet down on is necessarily going to be your permanent space. I’ve always felt it’s important to remember that the world is far, far bigger than just the tiny corner you might know. Or think you know. When I get sick of a place or feel I need a change, for some reason I don’t just reach for my bags—I grab my Passport, too. I’m settled in Johannesburg for now, but I won’t be surprised if in two or three years time I catch myself scouring maps and researching exit strategies.

Liz – I’m intrigued to see where you end up next! You are fluent in Chinese, and can swear in Russian – which language do you prefer? Did you find it difficult to learn a new language?

Karen – Wow, you’ve done your research! Yes, I can swear in Russian. And say a few other, less colourful things, too. In South Africa it’s kind of weird to only be able to speak and understand one language. Most people are operating on a minimum of two over here. And even if your second language skills aren’t exactly at full fluency, you can still get by with what you do have. I think being exposed to many languages from birth does a lot to help you if you decide to learn a third or fourth language later on in life. Your brain already understands the necessary gearshifts and is open to accept new grammatical structures. That said, I found Russian much harder to learn than Chinese—which is why I ultimately gave up on pursuing it past a few basic grammar structures. That and also, since I was living in China, proficiency in Chinese was much more of a priority. But swear words—hey, those are useful in any language! Even if you’re not going to use them yourself, it always helps to know when someone else is slagging you off!

Liz – Haha! That’s very true! You have a tattoo of a black dahlia that holds special meaning, can you tell us about it?

Karen – Wow, you’ve really, really done your research! Sure. When I first found out about Elizabeth Short’s (aka The Black Dahlia) brutal unsolved murder in 1947, I was completely captured by it. The beauty, the tragedy, the mystery. Something about her really resonated with me. I read up on it, watched documentaries about it, you name it. I was horrified to see that YouTube documentaries show up with thumbnail images of her corpse. That struck me as beyond sick, and so horribly unfair. This beautiful girl’s mutilated body is now on display to the whole world. I find that despicable. How would she feel, to have that final dignity taken from her? We don’t know too much about her life: She was a starlet with high ambitions, and there are hints that she might have been dabbling in the sex industry to get by on the way to achieving her dreams. She was sweet and trusting, navigating a dangerous world: an easy target for a psycho. I got the tattoo as a way to try and pull something beautiful out of something brutal. Forget those hideous, degrading autopsy photos—let’s look at the dahlia. For me, the black dahlia as an image represents the beauty in tragedy. Further to that, you could say I got it in honour of abused and victimised women around the world.

Liz – I think that’s a beautiful tribute. I’ve long found her murder both fascinating and haunting. It’s still horrific even seventy years after the fact…

You describe yourself as a ‘goth in recovery’ – how so?

Karen – My older brother nurtured my musical tastes from a young age. We’re talking Iron Maiden, Metallica, then Nine Inch Nails, Rammstein…. You get the picture. I was that weird girl in high school who carries Stephen King books around with her and hides from everyone, then gets home and locks herself in her room blasting heavy metal while she writes terrible poetry. Yep. That was me. But you have to grow up sometime and mainstream yourself at least a little. Take out the piercings, hide the tattoos. My tastes have since diversified a lot, too… but I still like to wear black. The day you see me wearing pink, you’ll know that whole Invasion of the Body Snatchers/Stepford Wives thing might well be going down.

Liz – I read my first Stephen King book at ten so definitely understand carrying around his books – and I feel the exact same way you do about wearing the colour pink, haha! Where do you do most of your writing?

Karen – These days, usually at my desk like any civilised scribe! I converted a room in my apartment into a dedicated studio for any and all art projects. Sometimes I take a notebook out onto my balcony and work on stuff out there. My balcony is usually reserved for writing terrible poetry. (Yes, I still write terrible poetry. And more often than not, I’m blasting dark music while I’m at it. How little we ever really change!)

Liz – You’ve had ‘Shellfish’ and ‘Exile’ published in the Double Barrel Horror chapbooks from Pint Bottle Press – Can you tell us about chapbooks? Was it challenging to write for this format?


Karen – Chapbooks are really just short stories, published as stand-alones. I write a lot of short stories (the short form is still easier for me than novel-length works) so when Matt Weber got in touch with me about submitting for his Double Barrel Horror project, I was easily on board. It’s a great concept, as it helps readers taste-test new authors. And overall is just a boatload of fun. Pint Bottle Press has done a fantastic job with these—from the calibre of authors showcased right down to the pulpy, slapstick cover art. They’re just gorgeous. I would love to see more publishing houses run projects like this.


Liz – It’s a great idea! ‘Hope Is Here’ and ‘Angeline’ were published in the Suspended in Dusk anthologies – can you tell us about these?


Karen – The Suspended in Dusk editor and champion, Simon Dewar, has been a long-distance pal of mine for a good few years now. We met when we were both on the cusp of taking this ‘writing thing’ seriously. It’s been great to watch each other grow, and incredible to look back and see where we were when we first crossed paths. Suspended in Dusk is his baby—as a relative nobody, he solicited, edited, and housed the first anthology to startling acclaim. He even got Jack Ketchum to write the Intro. (The guy’s got super powers. That’s all I’m gonna say.) Simon very kindly asked me if I’d like to write a story for SiD, and I was lucky enough to get my tale ‘Hope is Here’ in the ToC. When he announced SiD2, I wrote ‘Angeline’, a story inspired by the PJ Harvey song of the same name.


Liz – You describe your short story collection, ‘Seven Sins’ as an ‘exploration of the darker aspects of love and nurturing’ – can you elaborate?


Karen – I’m always interested in using art to bust people’s expectations. Old people are ‘sweet’ – says who? Women are ‘nurturers’ – always? Nurturing is only ever a virtue – wanna think about that again? Children are angels on earth – are you actually serious?! You get the picture. If you look at life in real terms, there’s a lot of stuff going on in this world that turns these socially accepted assumptions right onto their shallow, box-shaped heads. Seven Sins came about when I pushed myself to think a bit harder about why people do things that shock us. Why are we shocked? What was the motivation and psychology of the perpetrators? I picked seven, absolutely awful acts and created stories that explored them. Concord Free Press took the collection on, and put an amazing amount of work into getting it out there, including securing blurbs from writers like Paul Tremblay and Stephen Graham Jones. Concord were awesome to work with. I was very lucky to land my first solo effort with them.


Liz – I love the concept! Human nature certainly can’t be categorised into boxes. How long did it take for you to write your collection?


Karen – One or two of the stories in there were written before I had the idea to create a themed collection, so it’s hard to pin down the start date. But I do remember very clearly sitting at a packed bar in Beijing one night, completely ignoring my friends while I scribbled down the existing titles and new concepts I thought might work together. That list, scrawled in a slightly less than sober state, became my guide through the whole process. I guess you could say from there it took about a year to get the rest of the stories together.


Liz – Do you have a favourite story from ‘Seven Sins’?


Karen – Yikes, that’s a tough question. I guess it would probably be a toss-up between Sweet Old Men and The Killing Machine. I was exploring lean, stripped-down formats when I wrote those, and was pretty happy with the results.


Liz – Which authors have inspired you over the years, and why?


Karen – As a teen poetry junkie, I read a lot of Sylvia Plath and Margaret Atwood. Stephen King I think goes without saying for any dark fiction writer. I also love Ian McEwan and John Fowles’ earlier novels. I’m inspired by authors who aren’t afraid to approach their material a little differently. I am completely hooked on any author who has the guts to go where few have gone before. To me these are the main markers of what makes a great dark fiction writer; at least, they are the traits I most admire. To be a little different. To be completely unafraid.


Liz – You’ve just published your first novel, ‘Seeing Double’ – congratulations! How does it feel?


Karen – Thank you! It feels absolutely glorious… and completely nerve-racking! Like sitting on a bed of needles with warm sunshine on your face. Grey Matter Press is a fantastic outfit, and I’m so honoured that they took this work on. It recently caught its first review from Dark Hall Press, where Bill Renehan described it as ‘walking the line between poetry and pornography’. I love that description. We’ll see what happens from here.


Liz – ‘Like sitting on a bed of needles with warm sunshine on your face.’ – I love that imagery! You’ve described it as ‘an exploration into sadism’ – how so? What was the inspiration behind it?


Karen – When I wrote Seeing Double, I was going through a disturbo phase. I was digging up all the old video nasties I could find and watching them with eyes wide open. I was reading every banned and/or controversial book I could lay my hands on. Everything from JT Leroy to the Marquis de Sade. And if I found a disturbing film that was based on a book, you can be sure that I was doing everything possible to get a hold of both. The thing with the disturbo end of horror is that while it’s not exactly ‘pleasant’, it gets you thinking like nothing else can. These stories and images haunt you for a good while after—and I think I was addicted to that. That journey you need to take with yourself when you’re exposed to the truly horrible. I think extreme horror is something of an unsung hero—it can go to places milder versions can only hint at. It has a point-blank honesty to it that is nothing if not admirable. It didn’t take long for me to ask myself, Can I do this? The important thing is that creating this kind of shock art cannot be based only on sadism for sadism’s sake. That’s where the ‘exploration’ part comes in. The truth is that a lot of sick things happen in this world. But it can’t just come out of nowhere, right? So, what drives it? What feeds it? What influences people to do such vicious, unforgivable things? I wanted my story to feel real. So, when I picked up my pen to start writing, it was with that idea in mind. Hold nothing back. Feel it as much as you see it. How far can you go? Pretty far, as it turns out!


Liz – It sounds like it’s going to be one hell of a read! The cover is intriguing! Who designed it?


Karen – Isn’t it just! I took one look and fell in love. The artist did a great job capturing all the key themes of the book in one powerful image. Blood, sex, and the surreal. The artist’s name is Dean Samed. You can follow him on Twitter @DeanSamed.


Liz – If you could work with any author, who would it be, and why?


Karen – It would be awesome to collaborate with someone like Jack Ketchum or Stephen Graham Jones. I haven’t done a lot of collaborative work (Simon Dewar and I co-wrote ‘High Art’ for Grey Matter Press’s Death’s Realm anthology, and recently wrote another story together that is currently out on sub) but from what little I have done, I know it can work. Jack Ketchum collaborates a lot with filmmaker Lucky McKee, and I’m a huge fan of them each, both as stand-alones as well as the work they’ve done together. Stephen Graham Jones blows me away, every time. There’s a raw purity to his voice that forms a powerful kind of poetry. It would be incredible to work on something with him.


Liz – What’s next for you?


Karen – Suspended in Dusk 2 will be coming out at some point, this time from Grey Matter Press. In the interim, I’m currently working on another short story collection. I know they’re not always popular, and are notoriously difficult to sell, but as an artist you don’t always get to pick your projects. Sometimes they pick you. I’ve written about four stories so far and I’m ankle-deep in the fifth. The goal is ten. Let’s see if it’ll see the light of day when I’m done. I’ve also caught myself researching a lot lately—something I do when a book might be on the way. I’m creatively in a great space at the moment, and trying to make the most of it while I can. Writing is very much about bumbling around in the dark—you never know what’s really going on, or where each step is taking you. You just keep going until it starts to make sense.


Liz – Fantastic! Thanks so much for your time, Karen, it’s been a pleasure!


If you’d like to check out Karen’s work, click on the following links:


Twitter: @RungeKaren


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