Author Susie Moloney is a renowned author of horror fiction. Small-town Canadiana infuses every inch of her work, which has garnered praise from critics and the notice of major Hollywood players.
But that doesn’t mean the Wiccan community likes it. Her latest work, The Thirteen (HarperCollins Publishers), portrays a group of witches who engage in Satanic rituals in the fictitious town of Haven Falls. Wiccans aren’t pleased with the depiction their religion, but the author has no regrets over allowing her imagination free reign.
“I'm a horror writer,” says the Winnipeg-born, New York-based author, “so when I think of witches, I gleefully think about mutilated corpses and human sacrifices. (The book) is not about Wicca -sure it’s terrific it exists -but this book isn’t about that. The fact is, I'm just making shit up. It's just for fun.”
While the premise of The Thirteen may be fantastical, its roots are more earthy. “What woman would say ‘no’ if she was told she could practise witchcraft to have some genuine power? What woman wouldn't do it?” she ponders. “We would all do it.”
The Thirteen is Moloney’s fourth book and is a continuum of her previous works exploring the darker recesses of the human and non-human worlds. The book gets its American release on March 27th and readers may want to mark their calendars; few contemporary writers are so skilled at balancing the slash-and-slit thrills of horror with such a deft understanding of the human spirit, and to combine the two so engagingly. The Thirteen is a thrilling page-turner and, like her other works, leaves an impression long after you’ve put it down.
Moloney comes by her talents honestly. Years ago, she was a single mom living in a quiet suburb. Living on her block was a blend of young and older families, and widows. Moloney felt both comforted and scrutinized. “There's a sad kind of comparing that goes on, particularly with other mothers: ‘How is my mothering measuring up?’ ‘Where do I fit in this group? Am I at the bottom or the top?’ Nobody wants to be in the middle, or the bottom.”
That sense of competition colors The Thirteen. Its female characters appear to have it all: money, looks, success in their respective careers as mothers, wives, and in one case, impending national TV hosting. The pressure of being all things to all people - especially to family and nosy neighbours -is an element of The Thirteen that goes well past its horror fiction leanings. That pressure was something Moloney felt keenly while she was raising her son in suburbia.
“I was torn between doing what was briefly traditionally female and caring for a child and staying home,” she remembers. “It was this old-fashioned world I was living in... really, it can drive you batshit.”
Writing was her escape. In 1995 her first novel, Bastion Falls, was published, with her second, A Dry Spell, coming a scant two years later and earning her the highest advance ever for a Canadian novel at that time. The work received international praise, with the Chicago Tribune comparing it to the early work of Stephen King, and Tom Cruise’s production company snatching up the rights. Her third book, The Dwelling, was published in 2003; it garnered its own fair share of rave reviews, and she’s since written a screenplay for it.
Despite all the fantastical elements of those earlier works, The Thirteen has decidedly more personal roots. Inspiration arrived following the breakdown of her marriage when she was still living in Canada. “I was living in suburban Winnipeg with my son, who was quite young at the time,” she recalls. “My world became my neighbors, most of whom were women. I became friendly with the women at the library, where I made a weekly trip, too. My world was very feminine.”
As reviewer Sandra Kasturi noted at the book’s Canadian release last summer, the book is memorable for “binding the tropes of small town paranoia and cliquishness with the chokehold of family obligations and religious fervour, and the very real claustrophobia of poverty and desperation.” Moloney began by writing a short story about one of the elderly ladies who lived across the street, but hungered after a more substantial work examining “what happens to us as women when our lives are already so small and we start to slide into another world: what is that other world? Is it smaller or bigger? We were all living alone there like old crones... so what if you were really were a witch?”
The Thirteen is Canadian author Susie Moloney's fourth book.
Perhaps the most vivid character in The Thirteen is Izzy, whose efficient heartlessness and single-minded determination conceal a deeper trauma. “In this book, she's the one character people ask me about the most,” Moloney says. “A lot of women tell me, ‘I'm so glad I knew why she was like that’ -that they understood (what drove her).” When I tell Moloney I didn’t think Izzy’s childhood trauma justified her awful adult choices, she laughs a full, throaty sort of chortle, and observes I’m one of the rare women who’s had that particular reaction. “But that’s a good thing,” she adds.
Now that Moloney has been living in New York for three years, might she start moving away from small-town tales?
“The problem with an urban setting is that the scope of your story becomes so much larger,” she explains, “so it becomes difficult to contain. Say you have a haunted house in New York. First of all, it isn't a house, it's a vertical house, or an apartment. Someone is under you and someone is over you... so is it your room or the whole building or a singular residence that’s haunted? Your scope becomes much larger, which is harder to focus the horror. Secondly, if you're in a bad situation in New York, you can just move - it's not always easy to move - but you’re not stuck like you would be in a small town!”
Koji Suzuki’s Dark Water And Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin were successful urban horror books, she notes, but her own work lends itself to the author’s own small-town background. “Also, I’m Canadian, so setting is everything. Geography is destiny. That's my homeland, and other Canadians living (in New York) tend to be very homeland-ish. You find these tiny little things that connect you to home, and you notice and remember them.”
That remembrance extends itself to the current novel she’s working on. It’s set in a “Connecticut-ish” place -”close to the city, but not part of it” -and she’s using Highway 59 as the “polemic center” of her story. “It’s obviously not the actual one in Winnipeg, but it felt nice to write ‘Highway 59’ because it's so familiar. It’s where my Grandma lived. It’s a little connection to home, which is nice, because there are so few here.”