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Cults and Stirring an Emotional Cauldron

The Big Thrill Interviews Rachel Harrison

By Mindy Carlson

Vesper Wright is trying to escape her childhood. And who can blame her? Raised in a cult by her horror-movie scream-queen mother, Vesper turned her back on her restrictive religion and unfeeling mother and joined the real world. Or she tried to.

However, the world outside the cult isn’t as welcoming as Vesper hoped. So, when the invitation announcing the wedding between her ex-boyfriend and her best friend arrives on her doorstep, she decides to rekindle her family ties and maybe get some answers about the weird things happening around her.

Vesper’s mother, Constance, is cold and emotionally withdrawn from her daughter, which stands in stark contrast to how her best friend Rosie and the rest of the cult treat Vesper. Their eager warmth begins to draw Vesper back, especially since the “real world” is just as cold as her mother. Yet, Vesper can’t ignore the unhealthy dysfunction swirling around her, and she is caught between love for her family and what’s best for her.

Rachel Harrison
© Nic Harris

BLACK SHEEP is a complex and multi-layered discussion of family. The Big Thrill was pleased to sit down with Rachel Harrison to talk about cults, family loyalty, and finding your own path.

How did you come up with the idea for BLACK SHEEP?

In many ways, it’s a pandemic novel—being in my house for three years inspired me to write it. It felt like everyone was saying, “Oh, it’s the end of the world and…this is the worst anything’s ever been.” There was a lot of hopelessness and cynicism. And I’m not saying it wasn’t warranted…but I was kind of stuck in those feelings. I wanted to press on that bruise.

Also, during the past several years, a lot of us have been forced to reckon with differences of opinion with family members. It’s kind of jarring to see our people in a different light [on social media] and wonder, “How am I related to this person? They’re so different from me.” I was reckoning with all of that. Then, it was a matter of finding the right protagonist and the right horror vehicle to channel all these ideas into.

Your previous books, Cackle and Such Sharp Teeth, feature witches and werewolves, respectively, and follow your protagonists as they come into their power and a realization of self. How did you balance the fraught emotional cauldron of the pandemic along with the theme of empowerment in a supernatural horror novel like BLACK SHEEP?

Frolicking at the George Eastman House in Rochester NY

I love “fraught emotional cauldron.” It’s the perfect way to state what was happening during the pandemic. What I’ve learned so far in my writing is I can have a really cool concept, but if I don’t find the right protagonist or voice to tell that story, it doesn’t matter how cool the concept is. It doesn’t work.

If you took all the supernatural elements out, BLACK SHEEP would still work. Vesper’s grounded in reality. With everything she’s feeling, people can find something to relate to. The supernatural stuff feels more like frosting on the cake versus “this is what the story is about.” BLACK SHEEP’s about family. It’s about identity. It’s about belief.

What cults did you study to build Vesper’s family?

I didn’t do any specific research. I didn’t want to take too much from any particular group. I do watch cult documentaries. Wild, Wild Country was one of my favorite documentaries. Heaven’s Gate is fascinating to me. When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by the Manson family.

I also took a lot from my own experience growing up in a religious family. I was looking back on my childhood. A lot of beliefs that we have—whether it be religious or just about the world in general—we get from our families, and we get from our parents. As I got older, it was difficult to separate their beliefs from my beliefs.

With an advanced copy of BLACK SHEEP

Cults are belief to the Nth degree. We want to put our faith in people, and that makes us vulnerable. All of us crave belonging, and I think that’s what makes me so fascinated by cults. I’m not fascinated by the cult leader. I’m always fascinated by the people who are looking to belong and how all these inherently good things about people wanting to connect and having faith can be twisted against us.

Vesper is very cynical and doubtful, while her best friend Rosie is all sunshine and unicorns, as well as being a true believer. They were pretty much raised by the same people, and yet they’re so completely different. What can you tell us about their friendship?

I think that’s a very natural phenomenon. I’m totally different than my siblings. You can be raised by the same people in the same environment, but you’re still two different people, and your experiences are still going to be different.

Rosie is a perfect foil for Vesper. I think at one point, Vesper says, “It’d be nice if you could change yourself to fit into whatever environment.” You want to belong and…it’s painful to wish you belonged and [feel like] you have a choice here. Do I change myself and my nature to fit? Or am I true to myself?

Vesper is lured back to the cult after an invitation to the wedding of her best friend and her ex-boyfriend lands on her doorstep. Homecomings after an estrangement are always emotional, and her uneasy joy at being back with her family works to ramp up the tension. Was this intentional or a by-product of writing Vesper’s authentic emotion?

Reading from Such Sharp Teeth at Soho House in NYC

Both. I think it’s fun to [have] a prickly, hard character like Vesper who believes she’s tough, and yet she has a soft core. She just doesn’t want to believe it. She tells herself, “I’m going to this wedding out of spite.” But that’s the lie she’s telling herself. She’s there because she wants to see these people. She misses them. The tension’s there because Vesper doesn’t believe she’s in danger, but, as the writer and the reader, we know that she is, and that’s super fun.

What’s next?

My next book is called So Thirsty. It’s like Thelma and Louise with vampires. There’s no official publication date yet. I’m shooting for fall 2024. Trying to deliver for spooky season.


The Big Thrill Interviews Rachel Harrison

Mindy Carlson
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