The Horror Hiding in V.E. Schwab’s Bestselling Fantasy
Den of Geek talked to the acclaimed fantasy author about what makes her stories spooky, ahead of the release of her ExtraOrdinary graphic novel.
Bestselling author V.E. Schwab isn’t known as a horror writer, but once you begin looking for horror elements in her prolific body of speculative fiction work, you’ll start finding them everywhere: A library where dead people are kept on the shelves like books in The Archived. A world where people come away from near-death experiences with superhuman abilities in the Villains series. A kid who can see ghosts is dragged to the most haunted places on Earth by her ghost-hunter parents in the Cassidy Blake series. Even The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, the tale of a young woman who makes a deal with the devil to life forever and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets, has its morbid moments. In November, Schwab will be releasing ExtraOrdinary, a graphic novel. ExtraOrdinary is set between the first two books in the author’s aforementioned Villains series, and as with much of Schwab’s other fantasy work that has come before, the story’s magic comes with a dash of the macabre, perhaps more explicitly emphasized by artist Enid Balam‘s accompanying illustrations.
ExtraOrdinary follows Charlotte, a teen girl who develops the ability to see people’s deaths in reflective surfaces following a near-fatal bus crash. When Charlotte sees Villains antagonist Eli Ever as the culprit of her own future murder, she is pulled into the Villains story in definitive ways, starting both new and old fans of this darkly superpowered world a suspenseful and emotionally satisfying journey. Will Charlotte be able to change her own death, or the other deaths she sees around her? Or is she powerless to stop what’s to come? You’ll have to read to find out…
In the lead up to the November 23rd release of ExtraOrdinary and as part of this Halloween season, Den of Geek talked to Schwab about what makes her stories spooky…
Note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Den of Geek: Do you think of yourself as a horror author?
V.E. Schwab: I don’t think of myself as a horror author. And yet, if you look at my work, if you look at Gallant, my next book, it’s very horror. The Archived has horror in it, and I mean Vicious has body horror. I think what it is, is that both death and fear play really large roles in my work, and it’s hard to have death and fear without at least grazing horror. So I think it really is the fact that I like write about death and fear. And that has a Venn diagram overlap, I think, with horror.
As a consumer of stories, is horror a genre that you’re drawn to?
Absolutely not. I used to feel really self-conscious about it, but I think, because I have a really vivid imagination, horror works a little too well on me in that I’m fine with it until I go to bed that night. And then I’m lying awake.
I love creating horror because I can’t be scared by the thing that I’m making, because I’m in complete control of it. So I think I think it’s not that odd to like creating something that you are slightly apprehensive about consuming. It’s really the only caveat I think whenever I talk about ‘you better write what you read,’ and I do read horror, but I don’t like watching horror films. The seeing of it, the codification of it, is hard for me because it will stay with me. And mostly supernatural. I’m fine with serial killers and the mundane horrors of our own world. But, as soon as you get into things that go bump or shadows that move, I start to get really nervous if it’s nighttime out.
But when you write, you’re dictating. There is no ‘boo!’ moment for you. There’s no jump scare. When you’re writing something like that, because you’re creating it, you’re the god in that situation.
Which of your stories do you think is the scariest?
I think it depends what scares you, right?
It’s very subjective.
In some ways, my middle grade novels are the scariest because they deal with actual ghost stories. All of the ghost stories in the City of Ghosts series, in the Cassidy Blake books, are real. They’re all local legends. So, those are recorded urban and local lore. I think that’s pretty scary. I do think Gallant, my next novel, which is like the Secret Garden meets Crimson Peak… I think that novel is going to be fairly scary.
You’ve written for different age groups and I’m curious if you think about that when you’re writing based on the audience, in terms of the horror elements.
You know, what’s interesting is… I think I write the scariest things for my middle grade audience. Because I think kids are actually much better at dealing with horror than adults. I think that what scares them is really different. I just think, from my experience, young readers are a lot braver. I think because they don’t have a parental perspective or a generational perspective yet. So, weirdly, I never worry about making my kids books too scary, but I do think that my YA novels are usually my darkest.
So like This Savage Song—which has horror in it as well, I’m realizing—is very dark, and Gallant is very dark, and those are both YA. So I do think that, you know, I’m always writing for a version of myself, and I think I was probably my darkest self as a teenager. I was my most morbid self as a teen, and so I think I’m definitely speaking to that version of myself when I write YA.
But I mean, I think I don’t shy away from it. In any audience. I think probably my adult books are my lightest, weirdly, because I’m like, ‘oh, adults, we’re all grim and everything is awful.’ So I’m going to infuse my adult novels with hope. Yeah, my adult novels have a lot more hope in them, and a lot more like balance, whereas my YA and my middle grade novels are just scary.
I also put the younger characters through more than I put the adult characters. So even in something like ExtraOrdinary, I put a 16-year-old girl like Charlie through a horrific superpower, which is the ability to see death in reflective surfaces. I don’t know why I traumatize my teens and my children in my books more than I traumatize my adults, but I do.
Listening to you talk, I do realize I’ve been thinking a lot about how scary the world can be for kids. Things are hard when you’re an adult too, but you’ve hopefully developed more coping mechanisms at that point.
I think everything feels bigger when you’re young, like the things which are scary or hard. They feel insurmountable. Rather than shy away from that, I try and give that validation to my younger readers, like, ‘Yeah, it does feel like the end of the world. It does feel everything feels awful.’ And when you’re an adult, it can still feel like the end of the world, but at least have a little bit of retrospect and a little bit of like, ‘OK, it’s not the end all be all,’ or ‘I’ve been here before.’ I don’t think we have those things as kids. We don’t have the benefit of hindsight or experience. And I think that makes everything feel 10 times harder.
You’ve talked before about how you like to issue a challenge to yourself when you’re working on new novels. For Vicious, it was to write a book without any heroes. And I was curious if you had something like that for ExtraOrdinary.
I wanted to write something set between my books for one. So ExtraOrdinary is set between Vicious and Vengeful. And I wanted to do it without breaking my world. It had to fit, and it had to intersect only at points where it could intersect the narrative of Vicious and Vengeful without undoing anything. I didn’t want to retcon myself into a corner. Normally, I’m a planner, so I make sure that I build space for that kind of work. So, with this, it was like, ‘Can I fit the story into a framework and have it feature Eli, in a way that doesn’t break the story that I’ve set for Eli over the course of the book series?’
There’s an entry point in ExtraOrdinary for people who haven’t read the novels. Did that aspect feel new to you?
I’m not very good at it. You’re always told when writing books [series] ‘Oh, and make it so that if somebody picks this book up first, [they’ll know what happened in the last book].’ And I’m such an ornery reader, as well as a writer, that I’m like, ‘Why would I want them to pick up this book first? This is Book Three. Why do I have to pretend like it’s Book One?’
I don’t think my books are necessarily designed for that kind of audience, but when you’re changing format or medium, you do really want to try and create an avenue for new readership. And so, yeah, one of the tricks of that is setting up a world and the rules of it. And that’s kind of nice. The whole comic arc of ExtraOrdinary teaches you how the rules of the world work so that you could go from ExtraOrdinary into Vicious, or even Vengeful and at least know the rules of that world.
So, yeah, it’s always kind of an added challenge to say, like, ‘I have to reteach you again. How will I teach you differently how this world works in like three pages of a comic, instead of a few pages of a novel?’
Yeah, I don’t think of your novels as as having that element, but I don’t think of them as needing it either.
I’m so ornery about it. I’m working on Book Four for Shades of Magic—I’ve got my new arc for Shades of Magic—and my publishers are like ‘No, we need to make it so that people could start at Book Four,’ and I’m like, ‘Why? That’s not what it’s for.’ And I get it, I get it. It’s business. But it’s also hard, because I’m like, ‘But I don’t want to reward that. I want to reward the people who started at Book One.’
I happened to read this graphic novel close to when I read your contribution to Don’t Call Me Crazy, and it was really cool to see the parallels between the two. I always feel weird asking this question of authors, because I assume every character you write is probably personal, but do you consider Charlotte a very personal character?
I mean, in a way, you are right. All of my main characters, to some extent, are very personal avatars for me in different ways. It’s interesting because I always was Victor in the [Villains] books, so giving myself to a different character feels kind of like adultery. But whenever I’m writing a teenager, a teenage girl especially, it’s a version of me. Like, somebody who’s feeling on the outside or feeling not at home in their skin…
I had this, and I still have it, a morbidity complex, especially about my family. Like just being I remember being like 10, 12, 16, 34 and just being paralyzed by the fear of something happening to them. I had a kind of god syndrome about it where I became convinced that, if I could just be there and be hyper-vigilant, then I could stop something bad from happening to them.
So, in that way, Charlotte’s a really interesting juxtaposition, an interesting kind of avatar to live through, because she can actually see what is happening. Now, there’s a question [in ExtraOrdinary] about whether or not you can change what you see, and that’s something she’s obviously trying to figure out over the course of the comic, but, yeah, I mean, I think in that way, it’s kind of a weird wish fulfillment, isn’t it? I needed the power taken out of my hands, right? I needed to know that I couldn’t always be there to stop everything.
I think it’s a terrible power to have, one of the worst powers. But, at the same time, is there a sense of liberation or obligation in having that power? Do you fight it? Or do you accept that? I think I would have handled her power differently than she does, if that makes sense. At the same time, I definitely experienced that fear. I would play out worst-case scenarios in my head for everyone that I cared about. So, in this way, she’s only seen like one version, but sure, yeah, there’s definitely similarity.
I think of one of the conventions of horror as being a recognition of how much is outside of a character’s control or your own control, but I think your writing often is set in the same kinds of spaces, but it gives more agency and control to the character.
You write a lot about this… I don’t want to call it a line between life and death because I feel like you create a space…
You know, what it is is the dotted line. It’s a porous threshold. We’ll call it that.
When I was like I was looking for horror elements in your work, it just popped up in everything. Villains, City of Ghosts, The Archived, Addie. But I don’t think of your work as repetitive like at all.
I once heard an author, I think it was Melissa de la Cruz, say that we are, most of us, as authors, dealing with the same theme over and over in our work, like we’re almost using it as therapy. We are finding some catharsis in the creating of it, not just in the reception. And I think if there is a theme that I am constantly drawn to and exploring, it is the porousness of that boundary because, again, as someone who was very afraid of losing people, I think there’s a comfort to be had in the idea that it’s not a one-way street.
So I think it’s just it’s the thing that intrigues me most. And it’s the thing that compels me and kind of swallows up my thinking. And so I think writing about it and envisioning different interpretations for it is an act of agency. Like it’s taking control and imposing it on a situation where I have none.
Do you think your relationship to that theme has changed over the course of your career?
I don’t know. I obviously haven’t finished with it. I haven’t gotten away from it. I haven’t gotten tired of it. Obviously, there’s something about it that has still got its teeth in me. And I do try to explore it in really different ways in each book. I’m not sure it’s a thing I’ll ever be done with. But I’m interested to see how it changes in each work.
In some ways, my upcoming book, Gallant, is probably one of my most on-the-nose about it, like the literalness of a threshold. It’s about a door and a garden wall, right? So there’s a very physical threshold there. Sometimes, it’s a lot more metaphorical and sometimes it’s a lot more literal.
But I don’t know. Now, I’m working on Threads of Power [the new Shades of Magic arc]. And it’s not really… actually, no, totally wrong. Yeah, one of the biggest themes in Threads of Power, which I’m writing right now—and I suppose it could change—but it’s not so much about life and death, but about haunting and what stays behind?
So I think maybe I’m exploring the terrain of my theme a little bit more and looking to either side of it. And so, obviously, you have the line between life and death, and then you also have legacy and what remains and heritage and echoes and things like that. So I think maybe I’m just expanding my purview.
Yeah, I do think you have expanded the theme so much. I haven’t read the Near Witch…
Because that’s the first one. Yeah. And also about life and death and about lineage. I think they all do in some way. Obviously, things set in the Villains world, like ExtraOrdinary, deal with it a very codified way. You literally have to touch that line between life and death in order to obtain those superpowers. There is no way to obtain those powers without blurring the boundary. And so, in that way, their near-death experiences are the catalysts for the entire narrative. Yeah, so it is very rarely as codified as it is in the Villains books.
In recent years, you’ve worked in the graphic novel format and you’ve worked in live-action TV. I think of both of those mediums as much more collaborative compared to writing books. How is that aspect of of it for you?
I mean, yeah, it’s a positive and a negative, isn’t it? When you’re a novelist, you’re the god of your own world and what you say, what you put on the page is the extent of what’s on the page and the extent of what’s there for interpretation. And it’s very lonely and it’s very singular.
When you’re working in comics, you have partners, right? Who are creating their own voice and their own vision and interpreting you. And, with a TV show, you have 100 cooks in the kitchen. So, you have incredible collaboration, but you also have much less ownership. And it’s hard.
And so I think there’s a positive and a negative to each medium in which you work. I really like writing novels because I’m in control. And I really like writing comics because I feel spoiled. I get to see a professionally commissioned vision. And I like telling TV show stories because it’s an entire… not just a village, it’s a city worth of talent. And there’s compromise on each front of the collaboration. But I don’t know. They’re all just completely different games. I definitely think there’s a reason that I’m primarily still a novelist, which is that, at end of the day, I want to dictate. I want to be the god of my world.
Yeah, that’s fair. I know, at one point, you had like a Victor Vale TV pitch out there. And I’m curious if working on the TV adaptation of First Kill made you reflect on that idea?
I’m not sure. I think First Kill was a really easy experiment to have because it was based on a short story. So there was a lot less of my own creative vision at stake. Whereas like, if I had had to hand the reins of something like Shades of Magic over and then not have creative control at all, that would be really difficult.
So First Kill, you know, it was an education. And it was cool and deeply addictive. And it showed me why people want to be in television so much because I mean, there’s casting and there’s sets and there’s filming and it’s so mundane and so magical all at the same time.
I always like to refer to the TV and film industry as “the loud maybe,” and then to the the book industry as the “quiet yes.” And I think it’s because it’s really easy to get caught up in the bells and whistles and the flash and intention, but the big downside is like there’s no creative control for the author or the creator unless you’re also the showrunner and and that’s really hard. I’m not sure it’d be as hard if I didn’t come from books, but I come from a space where, if I want a coat to be red, the coat is red. Or, if I want a person to look this way, they look that way. All I have to do is write it.
The flip side is, in TV, you get to work with actors and you get to see them breathe life into characters. It’s something I’d never experienced before because, as a novelist, the only life in the characters is what I breathe into them. So there’s not that added depth. Obviously, the reader brings some of it but nothing like writing a few lines for an actor and then seeing them become that person. That, to me, was by far the coolest part of the experience and is probably the thing that is like the catnip, drawing me in.
Most of my books are in some stage of development. But, as you know, it’s so hard to get anything made. I mean Shades of Magic is just trucking along. And it’s been like five years. And people ask me, ‘Oh, is Shades of Magic not happening anymore?’ I’m like, ‘No, it’s still going.’ We’re on like draft five of the script. It just is what it is, you know? As nonsensical as publishing is, TV and film are both less logical and 10 times slower.
Yeah, it is a miracle to me anytime anything gets made.
It’s a miracle anytime anything gets made. And then it’s like a miracle of miracles when it’s good. When you like, how many cooks there are in that kitchen? How many divergent opinions and ideas? It’s remarkable anytime anything is halfway decent.
Yeah, halfway decent and also specific to the initial vision. Going to sets and listening to them talk about the vision, you’ll be like, ‘Oh, wow, yeah, that sounds great. That sounds like a great story to tell. I can’t wait to see it.’ And then you see it, and you’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s not the story you told.’ And I get why it’s so hard.
You almost have to go through the experience of both sides to appreciate both sides. But having gone through both sides, there is definitely a joy I feel when I sit back down at my computer and I just type the words I want to type. Obviously, I have to work with my publisher and my agent and my editor, but like, at least I know I’m the captain of the ship.
ExtraOrdinary hits comic shops, bookstores and digital devices on November 23, 2021 and is available to pre-order .ow from Amazon or in the UK/Europe from Forbidden Planet.