Iseult Murphy (41) from Louth has self-published four books and says dark and macabre stories help us confront our deepest fears
‘I’m the youngest of 10 and we’re very much a literary family. My mother published five kids’ books when I was a teenager, my sister is an author, as are some of my uncles and my aunts.
Writing has always been part of my life but there’s no one in my family who’s into horror like I am.
I remember, when I was around two, one of those old Vincent Price horror movies was on the TV and I refused to go to bed. My father tried to get me to go but I threw a tantrum and insisted on seeing the end of the film. I think that was the first time I’d seen something that connected with what was going on in my head.
When I was seven I wrote a fantasy novel and it had a lot of dark elements in it. Even as a child I would draw pictures of cats and mice with blood pouring out of them!
When I was in my late teens I started reading all these amazing horror books and that’s when I realised it was what I wanted to do for a living. I’ve since published four horror, fantasy and science fiction books.
It’s very easy for people to write off horror as visceral torture porn but, to me, it’s always been about exploring a way to navigate life. All the best horror shows the truth of a situation and provides a way to get to the light.
I’ve had a lot of health issues throughout my life and writing horror has really helped me come to terms with difficulties that I’m facing. At the age of four I went from being a very active, slim child to, practically overnight, being very fat and having low energy. It turned out to be a growth hormone deficiency but it wasn’t until my twenties that I was diagnosed.
I wasn’t getting to school very often and when I did I was really badly bullied. People would shout insults at me from outside my house. When I went shopping with my family people would follow me around the shops and say, ‘Leave some of the food for us’.
I have severe depression and it makes it very difficult to write but it certainly makes it very easy to think of horrible things. Every night I have horrendous nightmares and sometimes I wake up and I have a full story. As Nora Ephron said, ‘everything is copy’…
I’m currently working on a novella which is like a combination of my personal experiences with weight and mental health. It’s about a woman who splits into three people and they don’t really get along. She made a deal with the devil to become thin quite quickly and it results in her splitting into three, almost like the id, the ego and the super-ego.
I’m also working on another book for my ‘Seventh Hell’ series. It’s about zombies in Ireland or what I like to call ‘spiritual zombies’. They’re very important in corporations and politics and there are people who control them.
Horror has always been about what’s happening in the world and also what really scares us. There are so many things in transition at the moment, and I think that’s being reflected in horror books and movies.
Psychological horror seems to be really big right now and a lot of it plays on the fear of being controlled. That’s something people are worried about at the moment with technology and social media.
I’m also seeing a lot of books that feature body horror, which is where the character is experiencing changes that are happening within them — maybe they’re turning into something else.
The idea of the outsider has always been really big in horror. Whether you see yourself as the victim or the other way around, that is such a ripe element to be explored. And then, of course, the theme of revenge is huge too.
These days, with mainstream horror cinema, there is a lot of downplaying of the horror. The stakes aren’t that high and there’s a lot of comedy coming through. Or else you have a really unlikeable character so from the start you’re practically begging for them to be dismembered!
Yet on the other side you have independent horror which is really diving into fears of ageing or fear of autonomy.
When I started writing horror I always thought there was only the traditional publishing route. At the time I was getting some short stories accepted and I was sending books out to publishers too.
Then I did a writing course and at the end of the course they gave us an assignment to self-publish a short story.
I put together a collection of my stories that had been previously published along with a few new ones and called it Zoo of the Dead & Other Horrific Tales.
Then I started exploring self-publishing and I discovered that the resources available now are incredible. It’s a steep learning curve — you have to learn about formatting, cover design and marketing — but you control everything, you get way better money and, with social media, it’s a wonderful way to connect with other writers.
I’ve met so many big horror writers — award-winners and really bright lights in the horror world — and they’re all self-published.
If you want to read a horror book over Halloween, I’d recommend Savage by Northern Irish writer Dan Soule. It’s like a Dracula for the 21st century — it really impressed me.
For people who are a little more squeamish and who don’t want to read about blood and guts, Catherine McCarthy’s novella Immortelle is a psychological horror that really delves into grief.
People who read my work sometimes follow me online and they always say, ‘Your stuff is so different to you’. I think they expect a horror writer to be this monster!
But actually, the opposite is usually the case. I’ve connected with lots of horror writers, both in real life and online, and they’re really funny, kind, nice people. And I think part of the reason for that is that you get to work though all the darkness inside you and get it onto the page.
And I think it’s the same for people who read and watch horror. The world is scary. Life is scary. So how do you find ways to cope? How do you deal with the wolf in the forest or the thing in the darkness?
Sometimes we only think about these things when we have to confront them. But if you’ve been preparing yourself, even just in your imagination, I think it makes it easier.”
As told to Katie Byrne