The Places that Haunt Us
By Dawn Ius
A dank cellar, a spooky attic, an abandoned Victorian home whose walls were once splattered with blood—these are the haunting places that fascinate Vanessa Savage, and certainly provided inspiration for her terrifying new release, THE WOMAN IN THE DARK.
Part psychological thriller, part horror, Savage’s debut is a suspenseful read that lures you into a murder house—and then immediately locks the doors, forcing you to seek comfort somewhere amid the dark and dusty corners.
“For me, it’s a natural crossover for a psychological thriller to edge into horror,” Savage says. “Beyond a look at the dark side of human nature, we get a glimpse into the unknown, and a safe way to be scared.”
THE WOMAN IN THE DARK provides tangible fear, a testament to Savage’s atmospheric prose. But the novel digs deep into the psychological well-being of its characters, tackling issues of mental health and abuse using powerful storytelling techniques. Savage leans hard on the idea of “isolation” giving “terror” a contained space in which to thrive.
“I believe tackling these important subjects opens a dialogue on issues some people find difficult to talk about, often feeling quite isolated,” she says. “Because so much of THE WOMAN IN THE DARK takes place behind closed doors, hidden from the outside world, things escalate to extremes. It’s fiction, yes, but talking about real themes that affect people on a daily basis can promote discussion and dialogue, and can make subjects less taboo.”
That said, Savage is careful not to let the underlying themes get in the way of the story. Maintaining a certain level of suspense means carefully balancing the messaging with enough clues and hints so that the reader both dreads turning the page, and is compelled to find out what happens next.
“As readers, we all love a surprise twist,” she says. “But it has to be believable. It can’t come from nowhere. Those clues have to be planted. They can be subtle and hidden, but after the reveal, the reader needs to believe in what’s just happened.”
Tension, Savage explains, rises with increased peril, but “there needs to be a rise and fall on the journey. Too much flat road and the journey becomes dull, but too much of a steep incline and the reader might find it too stressful to continue.”
These are the writing “lessons” Savage has gleaned from reading classic horrors by masters of the genre such as Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and James Herbert, sneaking novels by these authors from her father’s bookshelf before she was old enough to read them.
Her love for these writers has carried into adulthood, and she stands by her assessment that Stephen King’s The Shining is a textbook example of how to write a novel of psychological suspense—even if you took out the supernatural elements and zeroed in on the deterioration of Jack Torrence and the effect on his family as they’re trapped during an extraordinarily long winter.
And while some of the bestselling author names have shifted over the years, Savage says she thinks the genre will always have a hold on readers.
“From childhood, we’ve loved being scared by ghost stories around the campfire and at sleepovers,” she says. “That adrenaline rush of fear with the knowledge that it’s all fiction, and we can close the book and make it go away.”
For Savage, her stories have the additional benefit of an exotic locale—as a UK-based author, her books are set across the pond, albeit in a fictional town in the case of THE WOMAN IN THE DARK. And while she admits she was asked to explain some local expressions in the editing process, the story—and particularly the setting—have global appeal with British charm.
“I think there’s something particularly haunting about a seaside town out of season, free of tourists, a lot of the shops closed, the windswept beaches empty and lonely—you can imagine terrifying things happening,” she says. “The ominous sense of a town waiting—the contrast between the bright crowds and noise of summer and the cold emptiness of winter—it has its own dark beauty.”
Savage will explore another dark and haunting locale with her next psychological thriller, The Woods, due out in 2020.