Karen Runge writes the kind of edgy, gritty realism I really enjoy. Her intensive character portrayals of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances always take you just a step further than you are willing to go, leaving you unsettled and uncomfortable at the end of her tales.
Her work has been published by Grey Matter Press, Books of the Dead Press, Shock Totem and others. Her first collection of short stories released earlier this year Seven Sins is a grisly and captivating collection which ventures deep into such themes as betrayal and deception, sexuality and the loss of innocence. Her stories touch on the unspeakable – miscarriage, incest, necrophilia – against a backdrop of domesticity and romance.
I was excited to have a chat with Karen about her work. I knew she wouldn’t shy away from the ugly and beautiful truth of things.
VMN: Hi Karen, welcome!
What attracts you to writing horror and dark tales? Why do you think horror is important as a genre?
KR: Thank you, Veronica! Horror – particularly psychological and trauma horror – is important because in a world where many choose to bury their heads in the sand, it’s the one place where we can explore dark realities in a safe setting. It allows us to experience vicariously the worst that humanity has to offer. This is important because if we don’t face an issue, we have no way of dealing with it with empathy or in fact finding any way of reaching something close to understanding. I once heard a writer – unfortunately I forget who – say something along the lines of, ‘Don’t be scared of the horror writers, it’s the romance writers who should really terrify you.’ How true! At least, in that those who are open to stepping into the darkness through their art are not in denial of anything. Horror offers a balance to the realities it describes. Not so much true in other genres, I can’t help but think. (I now hear a horde of Fantasy fans simultaneously unsheathing their swords… sorry, guys!)
VMN: That’s a hilarious quote, and quite true, some romance writing is utterly terrifying!
I like your notion – that horror fiction provides us with a way to deal with the reality of darkness in our lives.
As a woman writing horror do you feel you face any particular challenges or difficulties that male authors do not?
KR: Yes, unfortunately. As a budding horror fan, I noticed often that when I talked about horror films or novels that I’d enjoyed, scenes of carnage that gripped me, anything in that vein really, the male reaction I got was often one of amused disbelief. Like horror is a ‘boys club’ or something, and my interest in it was somehow entertaining to them, and not to be taken seriously. And that’s just on a fan level. As I started writing my own stories and sharing my own thoughts on the genre, I hit this at another speed. One that was often pretty condescending. I’d like to temper this by saying it wasn’t all the guys around me, it wasn’t every male horror fan I struck up a conversation with – but it was many. Female genre fans and creators have to step up higher, shout a little louder, to be sure that we’re actually being noticed and listened to – that our love of the genre isn’t seen as some quirky, cute attempt at getting male attention by faking our interests. But then, we know why we’re here. And what woman doesn’t like a challenge, right?
VMN: For sure and it’s great to see many emerging women horror and dark fiction writers stepping up.
The depiction of female adversaries and villains in our popular culture mythology really fascinates me. In many ways I think we rein in and limit our ‘bad’ female characters more than our ‘good’ female characters. The female protagonists in Seven Sins are original and unpredictable and allow the reader an intimate insight into the complexities of being a woman. What inspired and motivated you to create the women in Seven Sins?
KR: Me, too! It was exactly this same fascination that motivated me to create the female characters in Seven Sins. Stereotypes regarding the nature of the female tend to divide into two specific, predictable groups: The Madonna and The Whore. Women are either soft little angels who can do no wrong, or they’re sly, conniving temptresses. As a woman, I don’t much appreciate either representation. I’m sure not many do. People – male or female – are far too complex to be boxed in like that. It’s not just Seven Sins; I take this on to some degree in any of the stories I write. To me it isn’t even necessarily a conscious exercise. I try to create characters that come across as real, and in doing so their complexity knits itself together as a matter of course. No ‘good’ woman is entirely a Madonna, just as no Whore is by definition heartless. My female characters in this collection are not necessarily bad people. They’re misguided, damaged, pushed. No matter how repulsive their actions, not one of them started out with the intention to do evil. And isn’t this the way it most often works in life, too?
VMN: Their flaws are intriguing and depicted without resorting to clichés, it makes the characters very relatable.
What ideas of femininity did you aim to portray and/or challenge?
KR: I wanted to portray that a mother’s love is not necessarily unconditional. That there’s nothing to say women are more capable of mercy than men. That a suffering woman will not by default retreat to graceful tears instead of lashing out. I wanted to challenge our natural assumptions on these points because they are more than a little suspect as it is, and yet I see them consistently showing up in films, TV shows and books. I think this kind of unreality in the way we stereotype the female is actually pretty dangerous. Again, let’s throw a little blood over the Madonna. Let’s give the Whore a halo. There’s plenty of evidence clear in life that what we assume and what transpires are under no obligation to match up, and yet I don’t see close to enough of these realities portrayed in fiction. I would like to see more. Count Seven Sins as my own coin tossed into the hat. My own attempt at tilting the scales back to a place a little more true to life.
VMN: Many stories in Seven Sins revolve around birth and children – the loss of children, the abandonment of children, the desire for children. Motherhood is contentious ground of female experience. So much of a mother’s inner world still remains taboo and not discussed openly, things like post natal depression for example. What are some of the ideas around motherhood and birth that you wanted to write about and explore?
KR: I think I had it in for the Madonna with this collection. You’re right – shades of the ‘motherhood’ dilemma show up in many of the stories here. We know it’s not only men who abuse children; we know not all mothers automatically love their kids. But we assume this so strongly that when we’re faced with real-life stories that show the opposite, it’s a helluva shock to us. I’m just as shocked as the rest of us, and yet I’m the first to try flip the thing around when I approach these subjects. These ideas are deeply ingrained, even though they really, really shouldn’t be. I wanted to show that a mother’s love can warp itself into devastating shapes (My Son, My Son and The Orphanage), or not exist at all (The Philosopher). But I wanted to do it with empathy, because of course there’s so much more going on than simple bullet point acts and consequences.
VMN: Your characters are driven to madness by grief or the accumulation of emotional pain. The theme of ‘feeling too much’ comes up often. Is this something you personally relate to? Do you think being an empath is a common trait, and perhaps a valuable tool, for writers?
KR: When my father read this book, he said to me, “Every one of these stories revolves around obsession.” I hadn’t spotted that myself, but when he told me this I realised it was absolutely true. Obsession is a single stride deeper in from empathy. Madness is just one big step deeper in from obsession. This is what writers – particularly dark fiction writers – tend to do. Stand on one spot, signpost it, and then get running to see where they wind up from there. I think the ability to be empathetic, to see and feel as far as you can into the other side, is invaluable to any writer who wants to create something ‘real’. And yes, the ‘feeling too much’ thing is definitely something I relate to personally. Thank God I write though, or I’d probably be just like one of my characters! From what I’ve seen and the other writers I’ve come to know, I think this particular tic is true for most creative artists. We do feel too much; we are at risk of going mad because of it. In that way, creating isn’t just a hobby or a profession. It’s a very necessary pressure valve.
VMN: I love the sexual overtones in your work, it is not erotic but more like currents of repressed, explosive desires. Some of the stories in Seven Sins are tragically twisted coming of age stories. Sex and horror are intricately linked, would you agree?
KR: Most definitely, yes. I write about sex a lot for this exact reason. It alone is such a complex thing that it provides miles and miles of material. In itself, it holds many shades of horror – the power, the force, the surrender, the slaying. And let’s not assume that it’s always the feminine doing the surrendering, and the masculine doing the slaying. There’s something brutal about sex, as much as it can be beautiful. It not only has the power to create life, but it can also completely destroy. It can be a catalyst for love – and for hate. And – get this – every living being on this planet is hard-wired to seek it out. As much as people talk about ‘love’, I’ve always felt that sex has more to do with the animal in us than it does the soul. But also, that it’s the uniting line between the two. It’s a fundamental, frighteningly powerful part of life. Suppress the need for it, and the results can be devastating. Give in to it too much, and you find yourself on another level of madness. I explored that particular angle a lot in Faces. There are busloads of potential horror stories in these simple concepts alone. It’s not about the erotic – or not only. It’s very much about the animal, and all the ways it influences the soul. Is that horror? Of course it is. Of the most visceral, relatable kind you can encounter.
VMN: So true, the most horrific experiences in life often have a sexual element, not just in the obvious scenarios, but every act of aggression, humiliation or emotional suffering relates to sexuality, I think.
Your work covers quite a range of settings, topics, landscapes. What kind of research did you do to flesh out your stories?
KR: This varied from tale to tale. A lot of these stories fell onto the page more or less fully-formed, though I recall doing way more research than I wanted to on, of all things, the anatomy of caravans when I was penning The Philosopher. It’s the dumbest details that can sometimes send you trawling the internet for hours on end, because you don’t want to describe something and then find out you’ve got its fundamentals all wrong. The Orphanage was the most challenging – that involved a fair bit of medical research, very little of which wound up in the final draft. But those long hours did at least give me the background to feel my way through what I was talking about. I’ve long wanted to meet a horror-friendly paramedic I could pitch my grisliest questions to. Trawling pages of medical text to find a single relevant paragraph often feels like a monumental waste of time. Hey, any takers??
VMN: Ha! I’d like to befriend an anatomist myself. I loved the caravan details! While reading I actually thought Wow, Karen must have spent a lot of time checking out caravans! I’m a big fan of research, those little details make a big difference, even if they don’t actually end up in the finished piece.
What are you currently reading? Which authors do you find engaging and inspiring?
KR: I’m currently ripping through Kathryn Davis’ Duplex. It’s amazing. Magic Realism set to full quirk – it reads like something from a dream. It was a gift from my mentor and editor at Concord Free Press, Stona Fitch. He knows exactly which types of books will speak to me. Generally though I’m a pretty easy reader; as a writer I’m always learning from what I read, even stuff I don’t particularly like. I think it’s important to stay open like that. Generally though, I loved Clive Barker’s earlier work (again… sorry Fantasy fans! You guys are really gonna have it in for me by the end of this interview!), and can read his Books of Blood over and over without getting tired of them. Others that easily top my list are Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Ian McEwan and Mo Yan. Jack Ketchum never ceases to amaze me. These writers tackle their stories and subject matter with a perfect balance of brutality and empathy – something I strive to emulate. It’s sheer magic.
VMN: I hear your first novel is coming out soon from Grey Matter Press, any updates on that? And what else have you got in the works at the moment?
KR: It is indeed! We’re talking marketing and cover art at the moment, which means it’s imminent (which in publishing means, give it another few months!). The title is Seeing Double, and it’s set for release early next year. I also have a new short, Angeline, which will be out soon in Simon Dewar’s Suspended in Dusk II, published by Books of the Dead Press. And there are a few other things in the pipeline that are still a touch too fresh to be ready for public announcement. As ever, we stand in one spot, signpost it, and then see where we go from there. I’m strapped in and ready for the ride. Hope to see you there, wherever I may wind up.
VMN: Looking forward to it! Thank you so much for your time Karen, it has been great chatting with you.
Karen Runge was born in Paris, France, in October 1983. The daughter of a diplomat, her family lived in France and then Gabon before returning to their native South Africa when she was a young child.
She is a dark fiction author and occasional artist, with works published in various anthologies and horror magazines from around the world. Her debut solo short story collection, ‘Seven Sins’, was published in June 2016 by Concord ePress.
She currently lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.