Monday 28 February 2022

The Unexpected Woman in Horror

I recently had an interesting and fun chat with a group of fellow female authors (we share a mutual publisher) about the whole subject of women in horror. Perhaps not surprisingly there was a lot of common ground between us. Why aren't there more women horror writers? What can we do to attract more of them? Over half an hour, we debated the subject from many different angles. One conclusion we reached was that there is no single answer to either of the aforementioned questions but one thing is certain. The perception that horror is not something that nicely brought up young women should be writing is definitely still out there. Alive and kicking its sexist little claws.

We shared our own experiences of the reactions we had received when we told friends, family, or even strangers what we write. Speaking for myself, I have had many double-takes, raised eyebrows, quick changes of subject... I must look like a romance author, or maybe an author of children's books (well I did dabble once, many years ago) or perhaps my late mother's preferred option, "Why don't you write a nice crime story. Like Agatha Christie."

"Like Agatha Christie", eh? Now there's an interesting concept.

You see we all think we know what Agatha Christie wrote. Those wonderful, apparently simple but actually quite intricate stories featuring that nice old lady from St Mary Mead - Miss Marple. (Joan Hickson was by far my favourite screen version). And that funny little Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (David Suchet is my preferred performance). Let's not forget Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, Ariadne Oliver (said to be modelled on Christie herself), oh, and Parker Pyne. Then there's Harley Quin - but here is where we move into a somewhat different dimension.

Those who have read up on her a little will know she also wrote romance novels, under the pen name Mary Westmacott.

But back to Harley Quin for a moment (not to be confused with the DC Comics character Harley Quinn). Here we have an entirely different person. The mysterious Mr Quin appears as if from nowhere in a flash of coloured lights, just at the right moment so that he can lead his friend, Mr Satterthwaite, to solve crimes. Quin possesses uncanny insight, seemingly supernatural abilities. He was also, apparently, Christie's favourite creation.

Agatha Christie's fascination with the supernatural dates back to her childhood. Her mother, Clara, took such matters seriously. The young Agatha loved to read Poe (among others) and took to writing ghostly short stories at a tender age. It was a theme she would return to repeatedly throughout her writing career. The Sittaford Mystery features a seance and table-turning. By The Pricking of my Thumbs, a Tommy and Tuppence Beresford mystery, ranks as one of her creepiest and most macabre novels.

Her short story collection, The Hound of Death, first published in 1933, contains some wonderfully scary tales. Try The Last Seance, The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael, The Gypsy, and The Call of Wings. All of these would earn their place in any anthology of horror stories published today.

So, yes, Mum, I love to write supernatural, scary, Gothic, ghostly horror. Just like Agatha Christie!

Of course, back in the 1930s, 'horror' was not a 'thing'. In fact, until relatively recently, there were few categories - or genres as we now call them - and it seems some women writers would prefer not to be associated with that word as it often conjures up images of a male- dominated slash, torture, zombie-esque bloodfest of flying body parts and buckets of Kensington Gore. Ask your average person (who insists they don't read 'horror') if they read Stephen King and many will respond with an enthusiastic, "Yes!" But then, I don't think Stephen King describes himself as a horror author these days. Understandably, as much of his later work has moved into the realms of sci-fi, thriller, mystery, and coming of age territories. But his earlier books? The ones everyone associates with him? Carrie, The Shining, Salem's Lot, Pet Sematary, Cujo? They're horror, folks.

Ask anyone to name a female horror author and they soon run out after Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson, with possibly the late Anne Rice gaining a well-earned mention. But there are many wonderful female horror authors out there writing today. Some prefer to describe their work as 'dark fiction' and, indeed many excellent female writers in the genre use descriptors such as 'suspense', 'speculative fiction', 'dystopian', in order to distance themselves from the overtly graphic horror which pushes itself well and truly to the fore.

I am going to apologise in advance for serious omissions here but if you are looking for some scary stories written by women, you will find a wide spectrum including Gothic, ghostly, supernatural, psychological, crime, paranormal, demonic, folk horror...the list is increasing all the time. Diverse authors such as: J.H. Moncrieff, V. Castro, P.D. Cacek, Somer Canon, Gaby Triana, Laurel Hightower, Megan Hart, Faye Snowden, Melissa Prusi, Stephanie Ellis, Marie O'Regan, Jennifer Soucy, Janine Pipe... The list is growing but we need more. 

Women can - and do - bring a different voice to horror. It's a fun genre where you can break rules, create worlds and scare readers in a delicious way - one where YOU write the rules. 

If you have a scary story in you, what are you waiting for? Fire up your laptop, write it, rewrite it, get feedback, and then, when it's ready, submit it to a publisher and don't let anyone tell you that nice girls don't write horror. After all, if it was good enough for Agatha Christie...

Now, click on the link below and find out what happened when four female horror and dark fiction writers - V. Castro, J.J. Moncrieff, P.D. Cacek and I - got together for Women in Horror Month:

Wednesday 23 February 2022

The Haunting of Henderson Close - only 99c! But Hurry - This Week Only


In the depths of Edinburgh's Old Town, an evil presence is released.  

Who is the mysterious figure that disappears around a corner? What is happening in the old print shop? And who is the little girl with no face? The legends of Henderson Close are becoming all too real. 

"In this atmospheric novel, Cavendish tells what happens when tour guides go from telling dark and haunting stories to becoming the haunted ones drawn into the story." - Publishers Weekly

 Exactly what you think when you think modern gothic horror” – Unnerving Magazine

“A clever, accomplished book” – Crime Review

Hooked by the first page and our first ghostly encounter... I couldn’t and wouldn’t put it down.” – Orchard Book Blog

“The atmosphere and tension build as the supernatural events escalate, really adding to the terror.” - Readervoracious

“A book for lights off, candle on, and wrapped in a duvet or blanket.” – So Many Books, So Little Time

“Chilling, atmospheric and downright creepy.” – It’s All About The Books


 “More than just a ghost story, it is the story of a battle against an ancient, implacable evil.” – Beauty in Ruins

“Top shelf historical horror. Stands shoulder to shoulder with the gothic classics”. - Cedar Hollow Reviews

This week only (23-27 February), get your ghostly fix for only 99c/99p!

Flame Tree Studio

Sunday 6 February 2022

Absinthe, Murder, Green Fairies and Me



The mere sound of the word, like a breath stroking your lips, conjures up images of decadence, revelry, hallucinations, insanity, and a mystical, mythical quality that no other drink, alcoholic or otherwise, can come near.

It is associated with murder, suicide, madness, the Moulin Rouge, Ernest Hemingway. Oscar Wilde, Picasso, and the Parisian world made famous on posters by Toulouse Lautrec. Even the way it is served - or should be served - is unique. You don't merely slop a healthy (or should that be unhealthy?) measure into any old glass add ice and water, raise it to your lips and slurp it down. No, that may suffice for its sister-born-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-blanket-drink Pernod but to savour absinthe, you must have the right equipment and engage in the proper ceremony.

You need a water fountain, the correct glasses, proper spoons, lump sugar of the highest quality. You need to watch as the iced water pours over the sugar balanced on the slotted spoon that nestles comfortably across the top of the glass. Regulate the flow of water to ensure the cube is thoroughly dissolved before you turn it off, remove your drink and taste it. Before you do, let all your senses indulge in the magical transformation that has taken the clear green liquid and transformed it, as if by magic, into a cloudy, aromatic ambrosia. Inhale the wondrous blend of aniseed and herbs. Close your eyes and allow yourself to concentrate fully as you take your first sip. Let the liquid flow over your tongue, caressing your taste buds before swallowing. Don't rush. The Absinthe Fairy doesn't like to be rushed. Besides, that way leads to madness...

OK, we've avoided the controversy long enough. Absinthe was banned in many places throughout the world as it became linked to acts of sheer lunacy. One such urban myth had it that Van Gogh sliced off his ear following a marathon absinthe session. Not true though apparently. Yes, he lost his ear, but absinthe was not the cause.

The drink was first distilled in Switzerland as a medicinal herbal tonic in the 1700s and, by the mid 19th century had become hugely popular as a potent and much cheaper alternative to wine. Needless to say, the French wine industry wasn't altogether happy about droves of people deserting their national drink in favour of this young upstart and began to create a cult of 'anti-absinthism'. They spread rumours of an association with anything from epilepsy to murder and madness. 

This increasingly widespread belief of the negative properties of the drink was fostered by a certain Dr. Valentin Magnan who exposed laboratory animals to pure wormwood essence which does indeed cause madness when delivered in the kind of quantities he was experimenting with. But in absinthe, the quantity of wormwood was, and is, tiny. Not enough to cause any sort of damage when drunk by a human, even an over-indulgent one. Sadly, though, the reputation of the drink was wrecked.

Then, in August 1905, a widely publicised murder case stuck one of the final nails into the Green Fairy's coffin where they remained for most of the 20th century.  It involved a Swiss man called Jean Lanfray who, following two glasses of absinthe, took his rifle and shot his pregnant wife, killing her. His four-year-old daughter, Rose, witnessed what had happened so he shot her too, swiftly followed by his two-year-old daughter, Blanche, who was asleep in her cot.

What wasn't taken into account was that Lanfray was a known alcoholic who had also consumed creme de menthe, cognac, and seven glasses of wine at lunchtime, a litre of wine after dinner and a couple of coffees laced with brandy. 

All this added fuel to a growing movement that saw a widespread ban on absinthe in countries such as Belgium, France, the US, Switzerland, and Brazil between 1906 and 1914. In many cases, those bans stayed in place until well into the 21st century. The US only lifted its ban in 2007.

These days, and with subtle changes to the formula, absinthe is once again enjoying something of a resurgence. Absinthe fountains are once again being dusted off and placed lovingly on bars although there is a long way to go before we see the Green Fairy waving her magic wand down at every local pub, or even at your local supermarket or liquor store.

Now, before you go off and buy your own bottle, remember what I said about needing the right equipment and also, a word or more of caution. While it is indeed true that the minuscule quantities of wormwood (and more specifically, its constituent, thujone) won't kill you, alcohol poisoning most certainly will, and absinthe should be treated with respect, It is a highly potent spirit, typically between 55-75% ABV which is equal to 110-144 proof. To give you a comparison, a typical whisky is around 80 proof. This Green Fairy has teeth. Don't drink it neat. It needs dilution with water (known as creating an absinthe louche). And please, don't drink in quantity. With absinthe, less is most assuredly more.

You really don't want those lovely Green Fairies to turn into demons now, do you?

So, with apologies to anyone who prefers their absinthe served in another fashion, here is my husband, Colin, who got a chance to play with his Christmas presents on film... (oh, and, he meant to say '68% ABV'!)

The title of this blog is 'Absinthe, Murder, Green Fairies and Me.' Well, we've enjoyed our absinthe, read about a murder, said hello to the green fairy... And me?

Well, absinthe features in a short story of mine. Maybe it will grow into a novel one day, who knows? The green fairy isn't particularly sweet, but the setting will be suitably evocative of a time when absinthe water fountains resided on every bar, writers and artists sat around imbibing, creating their own magic, while amongst them sat someone who shouldn't have been there. Someone who did not belong in their company, or even in their time and place. Someone who... Ah, but that's for another time, isn't it?

Until then, à votre santé.

To find out more about the fascinating history and culture of absinthe, Colin recommends: The Daedulus Book of Absinthe by Phil Baker