Exclusive Interview: “My Darling Dreadful Thing” Author Johanna van Veen


Having a character be a liar is a common tactic in stories.

But Johanna van Veen explains in the following email interview about her new novel My Darling Dreadful Thing (paperback, Kindle), this sapphic Gothic horror / historical fiction story really came together when she decided that a character wasn’t lying…

Johanna van Veen My Darling Dreadful Thing

Photo Credit: Wijnand Geuze / LINK Fotografie


To begin, what is My Darling Dreadful Thing about, and when and where is it set?

It’s set in the 1950s in the Netherlands, and is about Roos Beckman. Ever since she was little, her mother forced her to host sordid backroom séances in order to make money from the bereaved. Though the séances are largely fake, they’re not a complete lie: Roos can see spirits and has a spirit companion named Ruth, a bog-body-esque spirit of a young woman who died centuries ago.

Everything changes for Roos when Agnes Knoop, a rich young widow, attends one of the séances and makes Roos an offer to come live with her in the dilapidated estate she has inherited from her husband. We know something terrible happens there due to the case notes of Dr. Montague sprinkled throughout the story. He’s a psychiatrist hired by the police to examine Roos and determine whether she’s fit to stand trial. But what happened exactly, and who is responsible?

Where did you get the idea for My Darling Dreadful Thing?

This is always a difficult question because there’s rarely just one thing that inspires a book. Originally, I set out to write a historical psychological thriller focusing on spiritualism in the 1950s in the Netherlands; the séances Roos hosts would be completely fake, yet Agnes still asks Roos to come live with her. Roos suspects that Agnes knows the séances are not real, which then begs the question: If she knows Roos isn’t really being possessed by the ghost of her dead husband, why does she want Roos near her? It would be this cat-and-mouse game where you could never be sure of anyone’s intentions, a novel you could read in multiple ways depending on whom you decided to believe. However, at the time, I didn’t think I was a good enough author to pull that off, and so, after having written around 15k, I put the manuscript away.

Then, roughly a year later, inspiration struck: What if it wasn’t all a lie? What if Roos could see spirits, just not the ones she supposedly channeled during the séance? What if she had a spirit companion who was always with her? I could keep certain plot points and themes the same, yet at the same time, the addition of Ruth drastically changed the story. It gave me a huge burst of inspiration, and I managed to write the remaining 70k of the story in roughly three months.

As for more clearly defined points of inspiration: I was definitely inspired by the works of Daphne du Maurier (particularly Rebecca), Shirley Jackson (how can you read anything by her and not come away inspired?), and Sarah Waters (her lesbian storylines are always so beautifully haunting and her writing gorgeous, profound, and, at times, very sexy).

Is there a reason you set in the 1950s as opposed to the 1900s or the 2020s or the 2050s?

This was partly done for pragmatic reasons: I had researched the Netherlands in the 1950s quite heavily for a previous project, so I wanted to use all that hard work, and partly because I felt this particular time period just made sense for the story. In the 1950s, the Dutch were very actively trying to forget and move on from the trauma of the Second World War. This tied in neatly to the main story, because Roos, Ruth, and Agnes (and many of the other characters as well) are all dealing with trauma sustained in the past.

My Darling Dreadful Thing has been called a Gothic horror story, though it sounds like it also might be a ghost romance as well…

I think My Darling Dreadful Thing defies easy categorization because it’s a lot of things simultaneously: it’s a Gothic horror story, yes, but also a sapphic romance, a psychological thriller, and a work of historical fiction. I call it different things depending on whom I’m talking to and what I think will appeal to them most, though I most often call it a sapphic Gothic horror story because I think that’s a pretty accurate description.

Now, My Darling Dreadful Thing is your first published novel, but I’m sure it’s not the first thing you’ve written. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Thing, but not on anything else you’ve written? You mentioned Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, and Sarah Waters earlier.

Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw was a source of inspiration for this particular project, though I haven’t consciously drawn on his works before or after.

What about non-literary influences; was My Darling Dreadful Thing influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?

A big influence was Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. I thought the ghosts in that movie were so well done and interesting because they didn’t look like what most people expect a ghost to look like. This movie is visually stunning, the music is gorgeous (the soundtrack is often my music of choice when I’m writing), and the story itself is a brilliant work of Gothic fiction that manages to stay true to the spirit of the genre whilst also subverting a number of tropes.

And what about your dog, Teuntje? What influence did she have on My Darling Dreadful Thing?

Teuntje’s a cross between a Gordon Setter and a Cocker Spaniel, and in general a bit of a drama queen who loves hunting pheasants almost as much as she loves to be cuddled.

She didn’t have a direct influence on the book — though she did on my next project — but she did contribute to My Darling Dreadful Thing in another way: when I was working on the first draft, she was still a puppy and had the tendency to wake up very early, usually around 6:00 AM, though often earlier, sometimes even as early as 4:00 AM. Because I didn’t have to be at work until 9:15 AM and my commute only took around 20 minutes, that meant I had a lot of time left in the mornings to write.

I did usually try to get her back to bed so I could sleep some more, but she’s a dog with loads of energy, so those efforts were usually in vain.

A moment ago I asked if My Darling Dreadful Thing had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think My Darling Dreadful Thing could work as a movie, or a TV show, or a game?

I think My Darling Dreadful Thing would work best would be a TV show because it would allow whoever is making it the time and room to explore the story to the fullest. We could get an episode focusing solely on Agnes and her backstory, for example. I also think the current episodic format of the book (which consists of two or three chapters of Roos’ story, then some case notes from Dr. Montague, then some more Roos’ chapters, etc.) lends itself well for a TV show.

And if someone wanted to make that show, who would you want them to cast as Roos, Ruth, Agnes, and the other main characters?

I actually don’t really have a preference. There are many brilliant actresses out there who no doubt can do these parts justice.

The only thing I have really given some thought is how I’d like Ruth and the other spirits to look. I think the best way to go about that is by using practical effects enhanced with CGI; if you only use CGI, I fear the spirits might look laughably dated within a few years, and that would be a waste, especially because the spirits play such a vital part to the story (this is another reason why I strongly believe Crimson Peak will still be watched decades down the line, by the way).

So, is there anything else people need to know about My Darling Dreadful Thing?

It’s a strange, dark little story — of course, since it is Gothic horror — but that doesn’t mean it’s bleak and depressing. It’s a story about survival, about finding hope and happiness even after horrible trauma. At its heart, My Darling Dreadful Thing is a love story.

Finally, if someone enjoys My Darling Dreadful Thing, what ghostly Gothic romantic horror novel of someone else would you suggest they check out next?

Though not ghostly, Camilla Bruce’s You Let Me In deals with a lot of similar themes.

In it, a reclusive writer named Cassandra has disappeared. She has left her house and fortune to her niece and nephew on one condition: they must first read a manuscript she has left for them, in which they will find the code word that will grant them to access their inheritance. Cassandra is no stranger to controversy and tragedy: she has been held responsible for the death of her husband and, later, those of her father and brother, although there was never enough proof to convict.

In the manuscript she has left behind, she finally presents her version of events. Just like Roos in My Darling Dreadful Thing, Cassandra claims there are otherworldly forces responsible for what happened, though in her case, it isn’t a spirit who is responsible, but a faerie lord.



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