A More Sophisticated Horror: Alma Katsu’s The Deep
WRITTEN BY BETHANY LATHAM
Alma Katsu has something she’d like to say to readers who love historical fiction but think they aren’t interested in historical horror: “Give my books a try, because they aren’t what most people think of when they hear ‘horror.’” She’s perfectly right. I wouldn’t describe myself as innately drawn to the horror genre – I love suspense, especially psychological, and a dark atmosphere, but prefer to pass on entrail-strewn gorefests. Katsu understands this type of reader, which is why her historical novels focus on character development, with the horror elements integrated into the story, and never unleashed senselessly into gratuitous carnage.
It’s a stimulating approach: take historical events that already represent a terror-filled plight for those who experienced them, events the reader knows beforehand will end in disaster. Now up the ante with an element of the supernatural. In The Hunger, Katsu’s first foray into the genre, members of the Donner-Reed Party have the cards stacked against them from the very beginning – a late start heading West, lack of leadership and cohesion as a group, inadequate supplies. The reader already knows that these unfortunate settlers, caught by winter and isolated in the snowbound Sierra Nevadas, will be subjected to the worst America’s frontier can exact. They will break every rule of human society in their desperate attempts to survive…and most will be unsuccessful. To the dangers that nature puts in their way, Katsu adds another terrifying element: something inhuman stalks the Party, something with a ceaseless hunger that seeks not only to prey on them, but to infiltrate them. Something that may have already infiltrated them. It is a visceral yet subtle kind of horror that never overplays its hand.
It’s also an approach that works. On the heels of The Hunger’s critical success, Katsu’s next project took on a historical disaster epic in scale: the Titanic. The Deep revolves around Annie Hebbley, a young Irish stewardess on the Titanic and later a nurse on its similarly ill-fated sister ship Britannic. As Hebbley rubs elbows with the Gilded Age’s richest (the Astors, Benjamin Guggenheim, et al.), a series of strange events plagues the passengers even as they speed towards their watery fate. Something on the ship is seeking, calling – something angry…
Katsu encountered the spark for what would become The Deep after watching a documentary on the first diving expedition to explore the wreck of the Britannic. Katsu says, “When I heard there was one woman who survived both sinkings, I knew there had to be a story there!” This woman, Violet Jessop, was a stewardess on the Titanic, and later a stewardess for the Red Cross on the Britannic during World War I. “Originally, I thought she might make a good protagonist, so I read her diary,” Katsu explains. “And then I realized I’d need to make a lot of changes to her real-life story, and that would be a disservice to her.” Instead, Katsu says, “It seemed more respectful to create a fictional character to shoulder all the trials the protagonist was subjected to.” Jessop does appear in the story, but she is allowed to “be herself and provide historical flavoring.”
Historical verisimilitude being a particular concern of historical fiction enthusiasts, Katsu notes that a great many of the questions she receives about her historical horror novels have to do with her research. “I probably have a different take on doing research than most novelists, as I’ve worked as a professional researcher for over 30 years,” Katsu shares. “I try to be specific in the beginning about what historical aspects I need to research and do the deep dives there. I leave the nitty-gritty details for when I’m writing, doing spot research along the way.”
Yet even a professional can encounter hurdles: “The thing that most people seem to struggle with is figuring out which facts to trust. For The Hunger, I went to online resources for some of the more obscure things I needed to find, like who was Tamsen Donner’s first husband and where did they live. You find interesting little details from a variety of sources, particularly amateur genealogists, but often they contradicted each other, and it was hard to decide which tidbits (if any) to trust.” Katsu explains that professional researchers assign probability: probable (85% likely to be true), possible (50%) or unlikely (less than 50%). “It’s subjective,” she says, “but it forces you to define your feelings about the solidity of the fact and whether you feel comfortable using it.”
When attempting to create an immersive historical experience, Katsu offers, “The trick is to remember to question your assumptions. To remember that the world around us—what we touch, how we communicate and travel, how we live our lives—changes over time. I know that sounds so simple as to be foolish, but it’s amazing how easy it is to forget. The big challenge, I think, is interpreting a historical period for modern readers.”
That historical interpretation can also influence the feel and tone of a novel, even while staying within the historical horror genre. There is, for instance, a difference in tone between The Hunger and The Deep, even though they take the same approach of adding the supernatural to human disaster. This divergence, Katsu elucidates, “was definitely intentional, and grew naturally out of the setting and events. For The Hunger, for instance, the theme was man and monster: under what circumstances can a man be turned into a monster? The setting was wild and rustic. This combination seemed to call for a rawer, more visceral horror element. Contrast that to The Deep, which is set in the end of the Edwardian era, and is concerned with some of the issues of the day, such as women’s rights and class disparity. The times are more refined—it doesn’t get more elegant than the Titanic, I think!—and it seems to call for a more sophisticated type of horror.”
And this is a type of horror that will have wide appeal among historical fiction readers. “I find the whole argument about not liking horror a bit puzzling,” Katsu reasons, “because first of all, horror is one of the tools you can use to create drama, and secondly, the genre covers such a wide range, especially now.” The line between suspense and horror is becoming increasingly blurred in both directions, and Katsu notes that those who say they don’t enjoy horror usually have the graphic, slasher type in mind. This mentality fails to take into account that the genre of historical horror has evolved to include a much greater variety of content. Painting with such a broad (bloody) brush, Katsu notes, risks “throw[ing] the baby out with the bathwater; you’ll miss a lot of books you probably would enjoy.”
Katsu is also a fan of variety – she has also published in the fantasy genre, and plans to try something “totally different” for her next work. “My first spy novel!” she says. “You’d think I’d be able to get at least one novel out of a 35-year career in intelligence and I’m happy to say I finally did with Red Widow, slated to publish in 2021.” But Katsu isn’t abandoning the historical horror genre – far from it. “I should be back with a new historical horror novel set in World War II and dealing with the Japanese internment. There’s a lot of personal history I can draw on for this, as my husband’s family and friends were sent to the camps, and my mother grew up in Japan during the war.”
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Bethany Latham is HNR’s Managing Editor.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 91 (February 2020)