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Northern chills: conversations on Canadian horror literature

(illustration: Louise Reimer)

(illustration: Louise Reimer)

Andrew Pyper


What do you consider the essential Canadian horror novel? It’s a pretty short shelf. Something that isn’t horror, strictly speaking, but has nevertheless influenced me, is the work of Alice Munro. I think it’s more Gothic than many people see it. On one hand, Munro is praised for this kitchen-sink realism, but there are frequent interruptions that are dangerous, violent, unforeseen, highly disruptive, and even sometimes frightening. There’s a thrum of threat through those stories. Another book like that is Marian Engel’s Bear.

Why don’t Canadians gravitate to horror as strongly as Americans? We have a lot of mythology in Canada that is “real.” There are First Nations stories, like the wendigo, but books tend to mostly be non-
fiction or ethnographic studies of First Nation myths. We still treat mythology as the study of a narrative as opposed to employing it in the present as a fictional mechanism.

Is there a difference between the horror of each country? America has an enormous head start. It’s always been a part of their literary tradition. But that puts us at an advantage. Canadian authors who are writing scary stories are essentially defining something new, and it’s thrilling. It’s a start-up, and I think that’s really cool.

What are some of the early markings of difference? There tends to be greater restraint in Canadian fiction, and it’s more about character than events. Typically, the small town, the wilderness. In my stories, one way or another people end up in a lake, because that’s hardwired in me. I think there’s something evocative about lakes, frozen or otherwise. Contemporary Canadian horror writing is echoing and taking leaps off texts like Margaret Atwood’s Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, and using the dichotomy and dual relationship between the urban and the rural.

When you started writing more unapologetic horror, what did you discover about the genre? I didn’t expect it would provide such a fertile opportunity for emotion. You have characters that feel real to you when they encounter the fantastic and the horrific. The way your characters react to that horrific thing can be surprisingly moving. – Alex Huls