"This Monstrous Thing" by Mackenzi Lee is a stunning riff on Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." Part alternate history, part steampunk, part thriller and gothic horror, the novel invites readers to take another look at the classic story of a man-made man.
Why are readers attracted to the horror genre?
Alameda • Readers come to horror for myriad reasons, but I think, almost universally, the genre has the ability to remind us that we are alive in the most primal sense of the word. Though most people in the U.S. have little interaction with the wild, our primordial fight/flight responses still exist. The horror genre helps those responses to, if you will, get a little exercise in our modern, well-organized, comparatively safe society.
More personally, I came to horror partially because I found more women in the genre than in, say, high fantasy or contemporary thriller fiction. Women are integral to the horror genre: Think of Mary Shelley, who penned one of the earliest gothic horror novels, "Frankenstein," or Bram Stoker's inclusion of Mina Harker (née Murrray) as a main character in "Dracula"; trace that lineage all the way through Stephen King's "Carrie," Warrant Officer Ripley in Ridley Scott's "Alien" or the overwhelming presence of female-led survival horror video games, starting with "Resident Evil" in the late '90s.
In horror, women aren't damsels in distress; they're damsels armed with wits, grit and guts. And they have to be—their white knights usually die in the first act!
Lee • I think people enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes from being scared but in a controlled way. Scared with no real danger attached to that fear — being freaked out but knowing you aren't actually in any real danger is a lot of fun. I think literature is also an important way to explore the dark side of life without actually experiencing it. We live all things — dark and light —by proxy through the books we read.
Are there any differences between a horror novel written for a young-adult audience and the adult audience?
Alameda • There are, but differences are more structural and less contextual. I once heard a far wiser author, Mette Ivie Harrison, say (and I paraphrase here), "You have one chapter to introduce the main problem in a young-adult novel, and five in an adult."
Lee • I think the main differences come from the fact that you are writing about characters in different places in their lives, so fear is going to be elicited by different things. While there are a lot of things that are universally frightening for all ages, the experiences with fear and horror are going to be different for a teenage character than an adult one.
Who have your readers been? Any surprises on that front?
Alameda • I've been surprised by how young some of my readers have been! But perhaps I shouldn't be — I was reading Michael Crichton at age 8 and Stephen King by 10, after all. In my experience, I've found that teens handle horror better than most adults do.
Lee • My favorite readers are the teens — they're who I wrote the book for, and I love talking to them about the book and hearing their reactions to it. So much of YA is no longer read by teenagers, which is super cool, and I love that it's a genre that is transcending the age group because there are so many good books within it that can be enjoyed by any age. But I wrote the book for and about young adults, so they're always the readers I'm most delighted to hear from. The most surprising readers have been mom-and-daughter partnerships who read the book together. It delights me to no end, but I never really saw this book as a mother-daughter book club pick!
What inspired you to write your particular novel?
Alameda • All my ideas spring directly from the main characters themselves and grow as I follow the characters through their trials and terrors. For "Shutter," I saw a girl fighting a great luminescent ghost with a Nikon camera. The more I watched her in my head — and the more I wrote of her on the page — the clearer her story became.
Lee • My books never have a single "aha!" inception moment. Rather, they are most often comprised of many small things piling up over the years. In the case of "This Monstrous Thing," those things were:
1. Seeing a stage production of "Frankenstein" at the National Theater that changed my perspective on the novel (as well as dispelled a lot of the incorrect assumptions about it that pop culture had given me).