When writer Aliya Whiteley’s novellas The Beauty and The Arrival Of Missives were published in 2018, both came with bonus short stories. So it’s not surprising that she’s now releasing a collection of short stories called Fearsome Creatures (paperback). Though what’s also not surprising, given how close together those novellas were released, is that she also has five other books coming out in the coming months. In the following email interview, Whitely discusses how Fearsome Creatures came together, and how it differs from her forthcoming second short story collection, From The Neck Up, and all of the other books on her release schedule.
Fearsome Creatures is a small collection of short stories, and part of Black Shuck’s Shadows series, but is there a common theme to yours, something that connects these stories?
I love Black Shuck’s Shadows collection. They are wonderfully focused examples of different writers’ voices. So when it came to putting one together, I really wanted to find a strong idea upon which to showcase my style. I started looking through my stories and came across one called “Day Of The Dog,” which was first turned into a podcast by The Drabblecast a few years ago, but had never been printed. It’s my take on zombies, and I remembered how much fun I had using those classic monsters to say something unexpected. At that point I decided I wanted to revisit some other monsters, particularly the ones that first scared me when I was young, in Hammer horror films or storybooks or local legends. So there are stories in Fearsome Creatures about vampires and a mummy and a few other recognizable monsters that I really enjoyed bringing back to life.
So did you write a bunch of new stories for this collection, or did you have enough in your archive already?
I was surprised to find out just how many monster stories there were in my archive. I didn’t even realize it was that much of an obsession for me. I really wanted to add new material, too, so I wrote two new stories. It was a great opportunity to tackle some of my favorite monsters that I’d never quite found the courage to write about before — vampires and The Big Bad Wolf — but the idea of the collection spurred me on, and I tried hard to be inventive, but also true to the aspects of those monsters that scared me in the first place.
Were there any stories in your archive that didn’t really fit, but you saw how they could with a little work, so you rewrote them for Fearsome Creatures?
I’m not a fan of changing lots of things about a story once it’s in my past, but certainly I’ll polish and tinker with them to get them to a state I’m happy with. I think because the idea for Fearsome Creatures sprang from the act of looking through my older stories and searching for similarities to make a coherent collection there really wasn’t a lot of work involved. They naturally seemed to be a good fit together, though they’re very different beasts, and styles.
Are there any writers who you think had a big influence on any of the stories in Fearsome Creatures but not on anything else you’ve written?
One of the stories is called “Luisa Opines,” and I suspect it’s heavily influenced by the Brothers Grimm. I wouldn’t say I usually set out to write fairy tales — and I don’t think the story reads like one — but I felt a strong pull towards the imagery of that big bad wolf knocking on the door of the small house in the deep woods. It leaps off in a modern direction from that point.
How about non-literary influences; were any of those stories influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
“Day Of The Dog” owes more to John Carpenter’s films than to any written work, I would say, at least in the opening sections. If I could send out a CD of Carpenter-style synthesizer soundtrack to accompany it, I would.
In addition to Fearsome Creatures, you also have a story called “Midsummer Eve” in Black Shuck’s anthology, Great British Horror 5: Midsummer Eve (hardcover), in which every writer had to write a story called “Midsummer Eve.” So, what is yours about, and where did you get the idea for it?
I loved the idea for this. All the stories are called “Midsummer Eve,” which could lead to some confusion. But each one has a subtitle as well, I think. My story starts off being about a woman who lives in a big old house with members of her unusual family. They all have different demands of her, small tasks that she strives to complete before the sun goes down on the longest day of the year. The tasks get weirder and weirder, and time always seems to be on the brink of running out.
What made you want to contribute a story to an anthology that was all horror stories with the same Shakespearean-sounding name?
It was just a fascinating challenge. I was really drawn to the concept, and the first thing that came to mind was The Wicker Man, which is a film that haunts me. I thought I was going to write some sort of pagan sacrifice story, but as soon as I started writing I knew that wasn’t where it was going. I’m so happy when an idea comes out of nowhere and takes me by surprise. “Midsummer Eve” was a great prompt because it allowed me the room to find my way into my own interpretation.
Along with Fearsome Creatures and Midsummer Eve, you have a second short story collection called From The Neck Up coming out next September. What sets From The Next Up apart from Fearsome Creatures?
From the Neck Up had a more organic beginning, which is fitting because loosely the theme is natural / unnatural growth, featuring so many strange plants and flowers and the weirdness of the biology of life, human and otherwise. I didn’t realize so many of my stories had that focus until I started reading through my archives and found it has been present in so many of what I consider to be my strongest stories. I dug them all up and replanted them as a collection, and I think they really work together.
I’m guessing not, given what you said about their themes, but were there any stories where you had a tough time deciding which collection to put them in?
Once I had the themes clear in my mind it became easy to see where individual stories belonged. I did have a moment of hesitation about my rural vampire story, “The Lovers That Lie Down In Fields,” because of its connection to the landscape, but really it had to go in Fearsome Creatures. It’s about the king of horror monsters, the vampire. There had to be a vampire story in that collection.
And is “Midsummer Eve” in Fearsome Creatures or From The Neck Up?
No, it’s a totally new story written specifically for the anthology. You won’t find it anywhere else.
I have always found short story collections to be a good way to get a sense of a writer’s style and skill. Do you think that Fearsome Creatures and / or From The Neck Up is a good place to start exploring your oeuvre?
To be honest, I think everything I write is weird, so there’s probably not an obvious starting point. All of it starts strange and ends that way. If you like strange short stories you’d be in the right place with either book.
Now, along with From The Next Up and Fearsome Creatures, there’s also going to be a mass market paperback version of your 2019 novel, Skein Island. Which seems weird, given that Skein Island came out in trade paperback, but whatever. Aside from being even more portable, is there anything else different about this new version of Skein Island?
No, nothing new. It’s a very vivid, color-obsessed book and really, I’d like to see it as a graphic novel at some point, but for the foreseeable future it’s available only as a novel. There’s a bonus short story at the end, too, but that was also available in the trade paperback.
And just so people know, what is Skein Island about?
It’s about a quiet woman, a librarian, who investigates the disappearance of her mother, and ends up taking on an ancient being to free the world from a very particular form of slavery that nobody really knows has existed for thousands of years. And it’s about the nature of stories, and how they can be their own prisons.
You also have a non-fiction book coming out called The Secret Life Of Fungi: Discoveries From A Hidden World. What is that book about?
Fungi! Yes, it’s an exploration of all forms of fungi, from mushrooms to yeasts to rusts to molds. It’ll focus on the science, but will also include a look at fungal literature of the past and some personal events in my life that shaped my interest in the subject. It’s going to be a beautiful hardback book with black and white illustrations, and I’m looking forward to seeing it out in the world.
Fungus played a large part in your 2014 novella The Beauty. Did doing research on fungus for The Beauty ultimately lead you to write The Secret Life Of Fungi?
No, I was approached by an editor at Elliott & Thompson (the publisher) and asked if I would consider writing about the subject of fungi. After The Beauty was published I would occasionally get sent photos and articles about mushrooms and I retweeted them, always interested in them. And I love writing about the natural world, but I never even considered writing non-fiction about such a subject until I was approached about it. It scared me to death — I’m used to making stuff up, after all — but I found I really wanted to see if I could push through that and deliver something. I gave it a go, and luckily it all came together and led to a very satisfying writing experience.
And did researching and writing Secret Life ever make you realize that you were totally wrong in The Beauty, that fungus would never…well, I don’t want to spoil it.
Ha! I won’t spoil it either.
Actually, it made me realize that some elements that I had put down as sheer invention on my part weren’t that far from what some fungi are capable of, which was a very disturbing moment for me.
As if all that wasn’t enough, you also have a new novel out called Greensmith, though it’s only available in England, another new novel titled The Loosening Skin coming out everywhere on February 2nd, and yet another new novel, Skyward Inn, coming March 16. I don’t want to tell you how to live your life, but you do know doctors recommend people get 8 hours of sleep and 8 hours of Animal Crossing: New Horizons every day, right?
Yeah, I do feel a bit bad about the influx. I promise, I’m not some sort of writing machine. This is about three years of work that all decided to come along at the same time. Due to Covid, some titles got put back and others got moved forward, and I’ve ended up with this weird situation where everything is springing up at once. Still, it suits the kind of stories I tend to write. All looks peaceful and still, and then suddenly you’re underneath this huge growing pile of stories that’s determined to drag you down. It multiplied, that’s what happened. It’s out of control. Triffids — I mean stories — everywhere.
Finally, if someone enjoys the stories in Fearsome Creatures which of your novellas would you suggest they read next and why that one?
As I said, everything I write is strange. But sometimes I feel like The Arrival Of Missives doesn’t get a lot of love and that’s my favorite (don’t tell the other novellas I said that), so maybe seek that out if you fancy historical science fiction that starts out as a rural idyll and becomes a fight for the future of mankind via time and space travel.