Kate Maruyama’s Harrowgate is a novel that is finding ways to intrigue audiences across multiple genres in that the novel takes a different direction in horror than has been the dominant trend in the genre over the past decade. Harrowgate holds a unique advantage in modern genre fiction by Maruyama’s re-modernization of a classic sub-genre, the Gothic horror novel, a form that many writers within the genre have abandoned of late, in that the driving market trends have favored urban horror, paranormal romance, and splatterpunk.
The horror label is a genre distinction that’s at once all-encompassing and a bit misleading. Harrowgate, like many other literary works of horror, relies more on terror than horror—the psychological element over the physically graphic, to the effect that the suspense of the narrative’s terror is there to delight the reader, rather than shock them—Ann Radcliffe famously summarized this distinction as: “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”
Maruyama’s Harrowgate—a classic Gothic horror story, written in a post-Twilight world—is in the rare position of having an audience that is receptive to the novel’s narrative, and an audience who is willing to expand their horizons in terms of expectation—Harrowgate is a decided break from the dominant genre trends, and as such, Maruyama is modernizing a classic form and re-introducing it to a whole new generation of horror readers. Maruyama has stated that Harrowgate was not originally conceived of as a horror novel; rather, when Harrowgate began, Maruyama believed that the finished novel would be more akin to a Romantic tragedy—which, understandably, makes Harrowgate’s transition to Gothic horror one that seems natural. Harrowgate, a novel that seems at home amongst titles such as Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches sagas, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and fellow AULA alumna Lara Parker’s Dark Shadows novels, feels poised to take the horror genre in a new direction, by modernizing a classic form.
Lunch Ticket’s Miriam González-Poe sat down with Kate Maruyama in the weeks before Harrowgate’s official release, to discuss the origins, evolution, and future of Harrowgate, which Maruyama has excerpted for Lunch Ticket readers to enjoy.
Miriam González-Poe: Where did you come up with the idea for Harrowgate?
Kate Maruyama: I don’t exactly know when things start from a compulsion of writing, but I’d written a screenplay several years ago and at the end of it, the punch line was: ‘His wife and kids are really dead.’ It was a terrible screenplay, and I put it down; but, the one thing that wouldn’t leave me was about five pages in the end. ‘Cause the thing is: Your wife and kid are dead. What do you do now?
MGP: Do you believe in ghosts?
KM: I actually have a site, Harrowgatebook.tumblr.com where people can go and share their haunted stories, because everybody I know has one… Growing up, we never talked about ghosts at my house, but even my very practical mother posted a story on the site about being visited by an apparition that floated over her bed in an inn in Scotland. When she went downstairs and asked, ‘Have you been having trouble with the room, because last night it suddenly got very cold,’ they responded, ‘Oh I see you’ve met the vicar!’ My favorite kinds of ghost stories are those, the ones that are very matter-of-fact.
As for me, it’s one of those things—I was talking about this with my son recently—where I don’t believe, but I don’t disbelieve. This is the area of life where damn creepy shit happens because there are those things that are unexplained.
I don’t think that any book knows what it is when you start it out, though. I think it has to be written; the story has to be all the way told, and then you can start classifying it as one thing or another.
MGP: Did you always know that you wanted to write horror?
KM: No, and I actually never thought of myself as a genre writer. It’s funny, when 47North, my publishing company, bought the book, I was actually kind of surprised. They’re all horror and science fiction, and I’d always thought of Harrowgate as a literary novel with spooky elements, a love story, but there’s actually a lot of evil creepy stuff that happens in it. It turns out that it’s definitely a horror book.
I don’t think that any book knows what it is when you start it out, though. I think it has to be written; the story has to be all the way told, and then you can start classifying it as one thing or another.
MGP: How did Harrowgate evolve from Romantic tragedy into a classic form of the horror genre?
KM: It started with a basic romantic tragedy problem: She’s dead, he’s alive, and it’ll never work. But as I started to ask questions about their world—why is Sarah here? How does her being dead affect the day to day? How does a kid who was never living grow? The horror emerged. I had questions for Greta, the meddling doula as well. Why is she here? How is she involved in Sarah being here? As I started answering those, it became a bit more apparent. And once I recognized where I was—dancing around in this horror world—I could play with it. That also became a challenge. How to avoid the usual tropes, to keep things terrifying without having scenes we’d read or seen a thousand times before. I had to avoid, “Dr. James explains it all to you.” and I had to avoid, “Supernatural battle with the bad guy.” Not only because I wanted to avoid redundancies, but because they didn’t serve the story. But I had room to play with some horror conventions as well—define this supernatural world in which my characters exist and explore with how it messes with time, how the living are affecting the dead and vice versa.
MGP: You mentioned earlier that you had first qualified Harrowgate as a love story. Love and the loss of love are dominant themes in both Romantic tragedy and Gothic horror—how did your previous work as a writer influence how Harrowgate evolved?
KM: I wrote romantic comedies for a long time. I think I am always looking at different natures of love; when it works and when it doesn’t work. Love is sort of my favorite thing to poke at. And I’ve done it in a lot of different ways. That’s always the constant.
I can say that through the course of telling this story, I was able to touch on stuff that came up personally for me, too, because I was very much coming from a place of just having had a newborn. All the things a woman goes through; all the things that a couple goes through. The alienation a father feels at seeing the bond between a mother and a newborn. How a family just completely changes when a baby comes on the scene. It’s very isolating and weird. So in getting to know my characters, I was able to channel a career woman and how life completely changes when she has an infant—except that in Sarah’s case she’s dead.
I had a shrink friend say, “This is actually about boundaries.” And I said, Yes, it is! Because the bad guy is a very intrusive doula named Greta and everybody is always stepping over each other’s boundaries. The main character, Michael, is setting up something to keep borders up between himself and the outside world to preserve them; trying to see how long they can stay together.
MGP: What obstacles did you encounter with regards to the market trending towards paranormal romance, and how did you finally place Harrowgate with an agent/publisher who saw the merit in publishing a horror novel that went against the market trend?
KM: I’m no market expert, but I can say that this book took a while to sell and I’m deeply grateful for my tireless agent, John Silbersack, who believed in the book itself all along. I got my agent through a dear friend who knew the pitch would be up his alley—he asked for the MS immediately and read it and responded over the weekend. I realize that is an insane kind of luck, speed and kismet and I feel for my friends who are in the submission process for agents. It can be endless. When the book went to market, we got a lot of positive responses from editors who just couldn’t get it past the brass. This book is an odd bird: it’s a romantic story that has a male protagonist. It’s a horror novel, but doesn’t necessarily follow the same tropes as other horror novels. It’s a book that might have needed to spoil itself to sell itself. But John stuck with it. It had been out there for a year and had several passes and I met with him, terrified he was going to say, “Well, I tried, that’s it.” But what he said was, “I really like this book, I think it’s a good book and I think we will eventually find a home for it.” I am deeply grateful that Alex Carr from 47North took a shine to it in such an enthusiastic, whole-hearted way and here we are.
MGP: Harrowgate relies more or terror than horror to build suspense, keep the reader engaged, and to reveal Michael’s character throughout the narrative. How did not setting out to write a horror novel help or hinder you as the story progressed and you realized that you had a different story to tell than the one you’d initially envisioned?
KM: Ah! I didn’t really envision this as not a horror novel, so much as I was in the middle of writing the story as more and more horror elements came into play. So it wasn’t a hindrance as the horror elements emerged organically. This is a normal, loving couple, but something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. When I was close to draft, I read, The Time Traveller’s Wife and I was thrilled because I thought, “Here’s a book that’s done well that’s in my genre.” I hadn’t been able to define the genre yet.
I think of the horror elements as magical realism in a way. People in their ordinary lives, but as two of those people are dead, some weird-ass shit happens. Sarah and Michael have to be practical—they have to try to make things work as best they can, so they are going on trying to be normal. I mean, what would you do? But it soon becomes clear they can’t be normal as their situation is extraordinary—things don’t work right in this world. Michael’s in hot water and things around him get more and more uncomfortable and weird—I’m hoping this makes the reader increasingly uncomfortable as well. The absurdity of his situation, the crazy stuff that runs through his mind is what kept me moving through his story.
When I’m in the middle of the book, I’m asking more questions about story and character, What would they do? How does this work? than my duty to a particular genre. We have to serve the story first and the story is its own animal.
MGP: Did not setting out to write a horror novel play a part in allowing you more room to explore the genre the way you wanted to, by removing the genre’s set of expectations from the back of your mind? Or was it intimidating, once you realized that you were writing a work of literary horror?
KM: When I’m in the middle of the book, I’m asking more questions about story and character, What would they do? How does this work? than my duty to a particular genre. We have to serve the story first and the story is its own animal. I like how Steven King in his craft book On Writing, compared writing a novel to excavating a dinosaur skeleton. It’s already there beneath the surface; it’s up to us to get it out of the ground whole. That belief that the story is already there, that you need to ask it questions and find its length and breadth is exactly how I proceed. While I was working on this novel, Rob Roberge, a brilliant writer and an amazing mentor told me, “If you sit quietly, and work hard enough, the book will make itself apparent to you.” That struck me and that blind faith is what keeps me sitting down at the table even on shitty writing days. So I imagine that maybe this was always a literary horror, I just didn’t have the words to define it yet.
I think that all of us are world building, from sci-fi to horror to urban fantasy to literary fiction. Even if you’re in the midst of a realistic family drama, you have to think of how their world works—how each character affects another, how events in their past and future inform everything that happens. There are rules in a family, such as the father would never do this, as he served in WWII—or the mother would not be able to react in a certain way because of…or the kid couldn’t possibly have this piece of information. There are rules in the society of a town that will also affect what happens in this family. Sarah and Michael’s rules just worked a little differently.
MGP: Do you think you’ll re-visit writing in horror again? How did the process of writing Harrowgate differ from writing traditional literary fiction?
KM: My next novel—now at market—is a literary novel. I didn’t sit down and say, “Enough of this horror stuff! I need to write something literary,” it just happened to be the next thing I got to. And it came from one moment in a breakfast nook with my friend Toni Ann Johnson in which she said, “You love classic movies so much. You should write about that.” And I was off to the races. If you can call three years a race. And the book I’m working on now, it’s too soon to talk about. To go back to Steven King’s simile, I know there’s a dinosaur in that rock anywhere and I might have a piece of a tailbone…
But yes, I’d love to re-visit horror. I have to wait for the right story to make itself apparent.
MGP: So, what does a typical day of writing look like for you?
KM: Well, I have two kids. I write any time I can, because again, having two kids, the time gets small, and I also teach writing at a few places and do editing work.
So, schedule is everything. And schedule can also mean just that time you find around the edges. Leonard Chang says that if you sit down for an hour a day and you write only one page a day, you will have 365 pages by the end of the year. That’s a good thing to remember. As long as you are chipping away and moving forward it’s a good thing.
MGP: What was the writing & revision process like for Harrowgate?
KM: Every book can always use a re-write! When I was in my last semester at Antioch University Los Angeles, what I most wanted to do was a revision of the entire manuscript of Harrowgate. That was the second draft, out of what ended up being 12 or 13 drafts. I got an agent in November of that year and he made me re-write the book three times.
MGP: How did you know when Harrowgate was finished?
KM: Well, my Dad is a painter and he says, ‘You’ve got to know when it’s done. Just take your paintbrush off, because you’ll ruin it.’ I don’t think that’s always true with prose. Sometimes I’ve had students who take out good stuff because they are just panicked and are constantly changing. I do think you have to know when to put down the computer and stop for the day, but I think that you can always find other things that you would like to change. That always goes on. You have to come to a balance. I know many writers who aren’t writing because they get stuck by that inner critic. Their inner critic says Why are you writing this? This is stupid. Those are the demons you have to put aside for that first draft. You have to let that go. You have to be content to know that it may be a pile of shit at the end of the day but it’s through the revision process that you’re going to turn it into something worthwhile. I know so many professional writers now who are doing quite well, who are still contending with the same demons as first year graduates. They still have these voices in their heads, but the difference is they sit down and work anyway. And that’s the difference between the successful writers and those that aren’t—that daily conquest.
You have to come to a balance. I know many writers who aren’t writing because they get stuck by that inner critic. Their inner critic says Why are you writing this? This is stupid. Those are the demons you have to put aside for that first draft. You have to let that go.
MGP: I’m going to do a little James Lipton here and end by asking you what your favorite swear word is?
KM: Fuck. I would say the most overused one for me would be fuck. But, I swear so much I can’t even keep track.
The following is an excerpt from Kate Murayama’s Harrowgate. Enjoy!
Michael’s wife Sarah and child Tim are dead, but living with him in his apartment as ghosts. The family is trying to make things work, but time is slippery and a creepy doula named Greta has wormed her way into their existence, claiming to be the key to keeping them together. Every time anyone comes over, Sarah disappears to a dark place where time slips for her. A few hours of Michael’s time can mean weeks for her. His mother is coming to visit, which is unavoidable as he is meant to be grieving.
He tries to cheat bedtime. Around five, he takes advantage of Sarah’s hazy grasp on time. He starts yawning and stretching. He could let her disappear when his mother comes, but he hopes that if he can get her to sleep, she won’t go. If she doesn’t go, Tim won’t go, and there won’t be any danger of time slipping.
In the living room, Tim’s in the Pack ‘n Play, which is the modern version of a playpen, with padded edges and mesh sides. Sarah got tired of chasing him and the boy seems to be content sitting and playing with stacking cups. He can’t stack them yet, but the brightly colored plastic cups make a great noise when clacked together.
Michael watches him for a moment before interfering. He’s such a big boy already. Michael smiles grimly, remembering that parents always say time slips away when you have children. His case is the extreme version. One year in a week.
Michael crouches near the Pack ‘n Play and gets his face down near Tim. He says, “Hey, buddy.”
Tim shrieks happily when he sees his father’s face. Michael moves his chin to rest on top of the playpen and Tim gets up to meet him. “Dada. Dadadadadadadada.”
Second word. Michael sees a look of unadulterated joy in Tim’s eyes as he squeals and pats his father’s face with his soggy paws. “Dada. Dada. Dada!” He starts bobbing up and down with little grunts and his diaper ruckles as he does so. He knows Michael. By name now. The love that wells up in Michael for this little slobbery creature of intelligence is too much for him.
His voice cracks. “Hey, buddy. Dada.” He grins, pointing to himself. “Dada.” He points to Tim. “Timmy. Timmy.”
Sarah says, “Hey, when did he become Timmy?” She’s looking at them, smiling that smile, the one that came with the baby.
Michael reaches into the playpen and picks the boy up, raising him high in the air. He feels dizzy from the motion and brings him quickly down to his chest again. He breathes deeply, but tries to sound normal for Sarah. “Timmy. Don’t you see it?”
“Dada. Dada. Mama. Mamamamamama.” Tim looks from Sarah to Michael. He grabs his father’s face in both hands, looking him soberly in the eyes, making a declaration, with gravity, “Dada.” Michael stirs with pride as if he’s been named or knighted or blessed, and he pulls Tim to him and hugs him, rocking him back and forth. If he could hug him into his chest, fill his body with the boy, he would. He struggles to remember that he had another agenda.
He says, “Time for your bath, little man.”
Sarah says, “Already? He’s only just eaten.”
“Time slides by when your baby is talking and playing and, how did he get so big?”
Sarah smiles proudly, but a look of worry flickers across her face. Michael knows that when these thoughts come, it’s best to have a change of scene. He hands the baby to Sarah, saying, “I’ll run the bath. You get a towel and some jammies.”
Michael and Sarah are in the bedroom, propped up on the bed reading books, when there’s a knock on the door. All the yawning and stretching he could muster would not persuade Sarah to turn off the light. Tim’s sleeping, safe in his room. Sarah looks up, alarmed. The temperature drops. Michael has to try.
He says, “You…I don’t know how much control you have over it. But you don’t have to go. It’s only my mom. I couldn’t send her away. She’s brought dinner. Then she’ll leave. Please don’t go. Whenever you do…” He should stay away from details. But he doesn’t want Tim to age, Sarah to feel lost. The tea was supposed to help. Maybe if he’d given her another cup before bed.
She’s gone. The room is empty. Like that. The air becomes warm again. This should be comforting, but Michael sees the book, the frost thawing off its cover where Sarah’s hands held it. The rumpled sheets. The dent in the stack of pillows where she was leaning is rising back into place, filling the void.
She was reading Wallace Stevens. In life, she always read poetry when she was troubled. It calmed her.
It takes all of his strength not to open the nursery door to check on the boy. He tells himself that it doesn’t matter if Tim is there or not. If anything, opening the door might make Tim vanish, if he’s there at all. And it’s not something he can control.
Sarah didn’t want to go, she tried not to. When he said, “Don’t go,” she looked at her Wallace Stevens and repeated to herself, “Kiss, cats: for the deer and the dachshund are one. Kiss, cats: for the deer and the dachshund are…”
It wasn’t enough. She was gone. The Dark isn’t as scary as last time. She doesn’t know what brought her here, but she feels that she’s here in a more concrete way. She scrapes her feet along the stone–like floor and they make noise. This is hopeful. She holds her breath, listening in the dark and hears a sleepy mumble. She senses Tim is here. It’ll be okay.
The tree is oddly in an autumn phase, its gold and red and orange leaves blowing in a breeze she can neither feel nor hear. Something else is off and it takes her a moment to see that the leaves are falling up. Back onto the tree. She cannot think about what it might mean. It makes as much sense as her not being able to see Tim. Or the existence of this place at all.
Kiss, cats: for the deer and the dachshund are one. She wishes she’d memorized the rest. It would be something to do. She gets down on her knees and, listening for Tim, makes her way toward him.
When his mother leaves, Michael can’t find Sarah. Or Tim. And all the fears come back and the certainty that he doesn’t know anything about this world. Should he go see Dr. James since she’s gone anyway? Last time it didn’t affect time that much. He opens the door and looks down the hall at the doctor’s door. Last time. But the time before, it had taken months away.
He remembers the promise he made himself, to stay in the apartment until the funeral. He closes the door. It’s eleven; too late to call, anyway. He wishes the doctor hadn’t taken his books with him. At least he could read. He could read until she returned, and at least feel like he was doing something for her, or about her.
He goes to the fridge; it’s still full of food and, thanks to Mom being Mom, he now has about three days’ worth of leftovers. He doesn’t need to order groceries. He finished paying the bills and chucked them down the mail chute earlier. He has a pile of paperwork to get through in his office, but it seems that any time he even thinks about going over the statistics from his last trip, he goes back to the last trip, and missing her call, and coming home, and the fact that he wasn’t here. He can’t face it now. It’s late, he should go to bed.
He checks the nursery. Twice. He paces the hall for ten minutes in a fevered vertigo and catches himself on a wall before he realizes that he isn’t helping anyone. Finally, he does go to bed, curling himself around Sarah’s pillow that no longer smells like her. Maybe there’s time for a little grief.
It’s been too long in the Dark. Maybe Sarah’s being punished because she tried to cut Greta out.
Tim has started talking. Simple nursery rhymes. Small sentences.
It’s been too long in this place. She knows from watching the tree. All of its autumn leaves re-stuck to its branches, turned dark green, then light, then shrunk to a bare froth of green fuzz before shrinking to red buds. Time in reverse seems longer. Only clearly it is moving forward at the same rate for Tim.
They sit in the Dark. Sleep in the Dark. Sometimes Tim toddles off, but he finds his way back to her. She’s beginning to think he can see in this place, where she cannot.
Tim likes games of repetition. This is supposed to be typical for a two-year-old.
He says, “Dark, Mommy, Mommy, dark, Mommy, dark.”
She says, “Yes, Tim, it is dark.”
They’ve been here too long. Maybe Greta’s punishing her.
Then he gets into the rhythm of the words for the fun of saying them: “Dark, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, dark, Mommy, dark, Mommy…”
It’s maddening. She thinks of every nursery rhyme she can to entertain him. Pease Porridge Hot. Roses are Red. Pat-a-cake. But after fifteen rounds of Three Little Kittens, Sarah’s ready to scream. Only she can’t. It would scare Tim. She tries to tell him stories, but he’s not old enough to understand and he grows impatient and interrupts or wanders off. She loves him so dearly, but he’s no conversationalist. She misses Michael. She misses grown-up conversation.
Greta’s definitely punishing her. Sarah’s beginning to hate her, but Greta is human contact and she has the power to pull Sarah out of this place.
This place. Is this worse than death? Could she and Tim be happy together in some sort of heaven now?
“Dark, Mommy. Dark.”
What has she done to her boy?