Out in bookstores as of August 25th, The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall is a new ghostly thriller from the mistress of dark thrillers, Katie Alender. You might know Ms. Alender from her Bad Girls Don’t Die series or from Marie Antoinette, Serial Killer. And now she returns with an all new spooky tale of young Delia, a strong-willed girl who has discovered her new house used to be an institution for “troubled” women. She is in for even more surprises though when she begins to meet the ghosts of “Hysteria Hall” and learns many of the dark secrets of the house and its former inhabitants. YE was fortunate enough to get some time with Ms. Alender to discuss Hysteria Hall, her suspenseful body of work, and her future as an author.
Katie lives in LA now, but she’s a Florida native where she attended film school at Florida State University, studying writing and directing. YE was curious about Ms. Alender’s creative beginnings in film school, and she explained how her interest in writing and her curiosity about film were all tied together: “I was a writer before I got into film. I attended an arts high school for creative writing, but because it was the Communications department, I was also exposed to video production. I enjoyed making videos because I loved to be in control–not to mention a video camera was basically a universal hall pass, so we could wander around and have a great time. When the time came to apply for colleges, I was looking at film schools.”
She then explains how her work in film/visual media brought her back around to writing: “In college, we wrote most of our own projects, and I took some writing classes outside of my major. So writing remained on my radar, although it still wasn’t something I thought about doing. I wrote all the time in college, just starts and middles of stories, nothing I ever intended to follow through on. After graduation, I moved to Los Angeles and ended up working in TV development, which is basically writing focused. So that swung me back to my roots, and that was the time at which I decided to try to write a book.”
Ms. Alender’s work is often populated with quirky, complicated, not-capable-of-being-mistaken-for-basic-bitches female characters, and The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall is no exception. Delia is strong-willed, bordering on rebellious, but also self-aware and adult enough to recognize her mistakes and attempt to correct them. “In the beginning, Delia is feeling rather persecuted, which is pretty common for teens with semi-strict parents (ahem). She’s in this weird place between maturity and immaturity–she did something wrong, and she knows that, but at the same time she sees her parents’ reaction as being too harsh because she has learned from it. She honestly would never make that kind of choice again. And as the story progresses her, she’s driven by that same feeling, this idea that something is in control of her when she wants to be in control of herself. And everything comes full circle when she has to reconcile this with her family. I think her most significant virtue is that she senses the need for a change in herself, in order to take control of a situation that needs controlling, and she gathers the strength and will to make that change.”
Many of the ghosts of Hysteria Hall, women imprisoned for being “crazy” or “criminal,” are actually less crazy and more “troubled” or “rebellious,” echoing a trend in the current media zeitgeist to be dismissive of or even discredit and demean “strong” opinionated women, “difficult” women as they are sometimes called. But Ms. Alender says she’s not looking to establish any particular cultural comparisons. “To me the theme of the book is more centered on Delia’s relationships with her family, but I make it a practice not to go on and on about my themes because I want readers to form their own interpretations. I’m always pleased if people find something in my books that resonates with them or makes them think, but I never set out to make a character a role model or an example. Certainly the issue of women being marked ‘troubled’ is one that is also at the heart of the narrative…but I didn’t deliberately set out to make the book about that. Everything that goes into my books is there because it serves the story. Story is king (or perhaps I should say queen!)”
Dark, disturbing, yet totally relatable and enthralling seems to be Ms. Alender’s wheelhouse. She’s carved out a nice little niche for herself, and she’s enjoying that just fine. “I seem to have become very comfy in this little corner of fiction. I don’t have plans at the moment to change things up. I think by now my brain would be very confused if I started writing contemporary or dystopian (which would also confuse my agent, by the way). There’s an unlimited amount of inspiration to write horror these days, unfortunately–you just have to click on a news website and a hundred horrific circumstances present themselves. And all of that can be translated to a ghost story.”
But she doesn’t entirely dismiss the idea of dipping a toe into different waters. “I may venture into middle grade at some point, because I like the challenge of writing scary books but holding back a little, but that’s just an idea at the moment.”
What precisely is next then for Ms. Alender? “More scary books! That’s all I can say at the moment, though.”
And what has been an inspiration for all of those scary books? “The Others [the film starring Nicole Kidman] is a major core inspiration for me. I think in all my books I’m trying to channel that eerie sense of dread and horror. I think my emphasis on voice in my characters was probably born from reading and loving Paula Danziger’s books [acclaimed children’s author] as a teen.”
Among other favorites, Ms. Alender cites the vampire/werewolf mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows as an obsession. The film is written and directed by New Zealand comedian Jermaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords and is full of some very high end smarmy horror genre commentary, and it’s just plain hilarious. “It’s probably my favorite movie from the past five years. Definitely Top 5 ever for me.”
Hopefully readers will continue to put Ms. Alender’s works in their Top Fives. In fact, if you enjoyed getting to know Katie here, in addition to The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall, check out some of her other works including Famous Last Words and her Bad Girls Don’t Die series.