So this is mean: In her Gothic fantasy novel Small Angels (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Lauren Owen ruins some nice couple’s wedding. Why? For that, you’ll have to read the following email interview.
Photo Credit: © Grace Owen for Grace Pictures
To start, what is Small Angels about, and when and where does it take place?
The book is set in an unnamed Suffolk village, deep in the countryside. It begins in a pub, The Albatross, where a young couple named Sam and Chloe are celebrating their upcoming wedding. Sam grew up in the neighborhood, but Chloe is a stranger. She has fallen in love with the place, especially the little church near the woods where the wedding is to happen.
The party is joined by one of the pub’s regulars, Brian Last. He tells Chloe that she’s doing a reckless thing, celebrating a wedding in that church. Small Angels (as the locals call it) has a dark history.
The church was at one time the territory of a family called the Gonnes. They were a strange and reclusive bunch, and there were a lot of them: four sisters, a father, and two grandparents. Small Angels was at the center of the family’s oddness. The Gonnes used to visit regularly, at night, and no one in the village liked to speculate what they did there.
Eventually, the church was also the scene for the funeral of the grandfather, Paul Gonne. It was on this particular evening, Brian says, that something terrible happened…
Brian is interrupted here, and doesn’t get a chance to finish his story — the party atmosphere is restored. But Chloe’s problems are just beginning.
Where did you get the idea for this story? What inspired it?
An early starting point for the book was the wood, Mockbeggar, which is the setting for a lot of the novel’s most important scenes, and casts a long shadow over the lives of the Gonne sisters.
Woods can be beautiful, but they can also be terrifying — it’s so easy to get lost, to be cut off from civilization and the person you are in the everyday world. The wood is a great place for a story, and there are a number of fictional woods which inspired me. Possibly the most important was the Wild Wood from [Kenneth Grahame’s] The Wind In The Willows. As a child I loved the chapter where Mole gets lost there. There’s a wonderful build-up of tension as night falls and Mole realizes he’s completely out of his depth.
So, is there a reason why you set this in a small English village as opposed to a small Spanish village or a small American town? Or, conversely, a large English city?
I was inspired by a number of elements which belong to this country in particular. For instance, I drew on local legends like the demonic black dog, which is said to have attacked the Suffolk churches of Bungay and Blythburgh in 1577. The story goes that you can still see scorch marks which the dog left behind on the church door at Blythburgh to this day.
The book always had to have a rural setting — I was drawing on the sense of isolation which you get in the countryside. (There’s isolation in the city, of course, but it’s of a different kind.) I love how dark the country gets — if you go outside at night, you might not be able to see anything at all. Or you might be able to see the stars very clearly. It’s sometimes alarming, sometimes wonderful.
And is there a reason why things are set in motion by a wedding as opposed to a birthday party or some other kind of gathering?
Weddings are such good terrain for stories. They bring different generations together, and often involve the wider community. (Two families are being knitted together, whether they like it or not.) They’re shot through with old traditions and superstitions, and they’re ceremonies which are inherently transformative. With a birthday, you get older whether you celebrate or not. But with a wedding, you walk in unmarried, and walk out married. Also, a wedding is a piece of drama — it’s a time when people take on stock roles like bride or groom. I like all this weight of significance, this storybook quality.
Small Angels sounds like a Gothic horror story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I would definitely describe it as a Gothic horror story. I think I’d also describe it as a romance, in the sense that events are picturesque and dramatic, rather than strictly “realistic.”
Now, Small Angels is your second novel after 2014’s The Quick. Are there any writers or specific stories that had a particularly big influence on Small Angels but not on The Quick?
I think that my childhood reading had a bigger influence on Small Angels. Growing up, a lot of my favorite novels were very conscious of the natural world: [L.M. Montgomery’s] Anne Of Green Gables and is sequels, or [Richard Adams’] Watership Down. I was remembering not only what I used to read, but how I used to read. As a child, I found it easier to be absolutely engrossed by a story. Acting out a scene from a book or a TV series came quite naturally in those days. In depicting the Gonnes’ childhood, I was trying to get back into that mindset for a while.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Were any of those things an influence on Small Angels?
Music was a huge influence on Small Angels. I was fascinated reading about murder ballads — the way that a real-life killer could be transformed into the narrator of a song which was then performed and bought in printed form by a murder-loving public. The song which, in the novel, describes the death of Harry Child, is slightly based on “The Ballad Of Maria Marten.” This ballad was based on the real life “Red Barn Murder” in 1820s Suffolk, and I took inspiration from both the song and the crime itself.
In the time between when you wrote The Quick and Small Angels, you completed your PhD in English Literature. First off, congrats.
Second, how do you think your studies influenced Small Angels?
My studies definitely had an influence on Small Angels. My thesis was focused on what Dracula and other vampire stories show us about our relationship with literature. If you’ve read Stoker’s novel you’ll know that the book is obsessed with the act of writing — we get telegrams, diaries, phonograph diaries, newspaper articles, and more. That was my starting point for thinking about a “Gothic” depiction of literature in Dracula — the uncanny or supernatural elements in the novel’s relationship with text.
Small Angels focuses more on oral storytelling (and the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves) than written records, but there is a common thread in the idea of a story as a supernatural force, potentially dangerous but with the ability to change the world.
It sounds like Small Angels is a stand-alone story…
It is, though I think in some ways it works well as an answer to The Quick. I would love to write something else in the same universe, though — I think there are stories still untold. (I’m sure Brian Last would have a few tales to tell.)
Earlier I asked if Small Angels had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Small Angels could work as a movie, show, or game?
I think Small Angels would lend itself well to a TV show. I feel like the story could fall easily into a series of episodes with a few nice cliff-hangers. And TV might be a good medium for handling the different time periods that the book is set in.
I also love the idea of a Small Angels game. I don’t have enough knowledge to suggest how it would be devised, but I feel like something that allowed you to explore Mockbeggar could be wonderful. I feel like there are a lot of parts of those woods that haven’t been exhausted in the novel, and it would be amazing to see something that allowed players to explore / create / participate. Maybe add their own stories.
So, if someone wanted to make it into a TV show, who would you want them to cast as Chloe, Brian, and the other main characters?
I am so terrible at putting together fantasy casts together! (It’s my own fault for watching the same few shows in a loop instead of trying new things.) However, in my head, Lucia looks a bit like [Game Of Thrones‘] Natalie Dormer, and the Esquire video on YouTube, “The Principia of Natalie Dormer,” makes me think she would be fantastic playing her.
So, is there anything else you think people interested in Small Angels should know about it?
I think the theme of siblinghood running through the book is a very important element. I wanted to consider what it means to grow up with someone, to have so much of your history — your sense of who you are — bound up with a person who is like you and yet unlike.
Finally, if someone enjoys Small Angels, what Gothic horror novel of someone else’s would you suggest they check out next?
Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter is the horror novel I recommend to people most often. It’s the story of a scientific expedition in the Arctic that goes hideously wrong. I love how skillfully Paver accomplishes the gradual, inexorable separation of the hero from safety and human companions — leaving him at the mercy of a terrifying, hostile presence.
I’d also recommend M. R. James’ Collected Ghost Stories. Technically not a novel, but I had to include this. James’s reputation as a master is not in the slightest bit exaggerated. I would particularly recommend “Lost Hearts” and “Casting The Runes” for delicious chills.