The Heartbeat of Horror: Interviewing Cassandra Khaw

With a body of work that includes poetry, games, and stories, Cassandra Khaw spins out dark tales that capture their readers from the moment you step into their stories. Their fiction has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Lightspeed, Tor.com, and more, they have a forthcoming novella from Nightfire (Nothing But Blackened Teeth) later this year, and their previou work has earned them a place as a finalist for The Locus and British Fantasy Awards awards. With two books slated for release later in 2021, I was really grateful that they had a moment to chat. 

We discussed their influences, Nothing But Blackened Teeth, and horror, of course:

Aigner Loren Wilson: Disconnect (Motherboard, 2014) and What the Highway Prefers (Lackington’s, 2015) are two of your first published pieces. While Disconnect reads as pure Grade-A science fiction, What the Highway Prefers strikes out into the dark and nasty world of horror with an unyielding voice and original talent that foreshadowed your current success in the field. What is it about horror that makes your prose take on a life and spirit of its own? 

Cassandra Khaw: Oh, geez. That is such a kind statement to make. I don’t know about being successful in the field. I think I’m just too stubborn to ever stop trying to get my weird little stories published. But as for your question, I think it’s because horror is… a little bit alive for me, a little bit of its own thing, something that lives under the dark of your skin. 

It is protean, it is different from one person to another. What might scare someone might get someone else laughing hysterically. I’ve eaten far too much food while watching things like Hostel or Saw, and I’ve definitely unnerved a few people by loudly going, “Oh. Come on. That’s not how a ruptured stomach should look.” But jump scares? Jump scares, even when telegraphed from a mile away, freak me out. My door buzzer scares me every time it is pressed.

And something about its impossible nature makes me want to capture it over and over again, stake a version of it onto paper, hope I’ve captured some aspect of it. And, at the cost of sounding artsy and pretentious, it’s something I want to keep doing even though I know I’ll never succeed.

ALW: I’m always curious on how authors found their language of horror. For someone who writes poetry and stories that are so heavily steeped in their themes, what people or stories led to you discovering your voice and horror style?

CK: So, when I was a lot younger, like under the age of 10, my parents used to insist that I watch horror movies with them. The Blob, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Critters, all that old-school goodness. They wouldn’t let me close my eyes through any of it. I still have nightmares about certain scenes from Freddy Kreuger. And I have this nagging suspicion that is precisely why I often veer towards such a gore-filled style; I’m still exorcising the images from when I was a kid.

As for my voice, huh, that’s an interesting one. I don’t know, per se. There are a whole lot of possibilities here. I grew up in Malaysia and that was a country steeped in ghost stories, in legends about otherworldly things that might, because they felt like it, pop all the bones from your body and lay them neatly down beside your shrunken corpse, in the idea the dead were there, minding their own business, utterly disinterested in you except when they’re not, and god help you then. I suspect some of the musicality of my work comes from that because good ghost stories always have a certain bit of rhythm to them, you know?

I know John Hornor Jacobs’ Southern Gods cemented that: that book taught me to listen to the heartbeat of horror. Richard Kadrey’s Butcher Bird was another formative influence too, the Black Clerks in particular. I loved them. I love how calm, passive, and cordial they are, in stark contrast to what they did. I loved their bargains. The way it was all okay until it wasn’t.

And the work of the Pang brothers! All the Asian horror movies I’d watched as I got older! Shutter! The Eye! The comedic ones and the terrifying ones! Those all tie into my writing today, I think. They’re why my horror is rarely about triumph, no matter how grim, and more about surviving just one more day.

ALW: Speaking of influences, are you reading or watching anything now that is having an effect on your horror writing?

Photo by the author

CK: Does the Canadian winter count? I don’t have any active influences at the moment. Nothing, at least, I can rightly point to and say, “yes, this is the thing that is giving me life.” 

ALW: You have a forthcoming book from Tor Nightfire, Nothing But Blackened Teeth, a haunted house story brimming with Japanese folklore and a, perhaps, ill-fated wedding. Haunted houses are such a common trope in the horror scene–I’m curious as a writer and reader how you approached writing about them in a way that is both familiar and new?  

CK: I’ve always had the impression that, in the West, haunted houses were the anomaly. Some houses go bad. Others were made monstrous by the things happening inside them. They’re a thing to… conquer, explore, die in. Back home, growing up, most of us were told that there is very likely something living with you in your home, no matter where you are, or the age of the building, or anything like that. They’re just there.

Nothing But Blackened Teeth pulls from some of those old memories. The house is a terrifying place, but to me, and this might not be true of everyone who reads it, it isn’t an intrinsically bad place. It is simply inhabited by things older than the cast, things that answer to alien ideas and have their own motivations. But it is scary. 

And the second part of Nothing But Blackened Teeth asks, “What do we do when we have an excuse to be our worst selves?” I’m fascinated with that. I’m fascinated with how many of us trot around the world, unaware of how we’re also walking pressure cookers, filled with unpleasant things that might erupt if we’re put in the right circumstances. In this novella, I wanted to see what happens when you put a lot of people with every reason to explode in the same room and… push.

ALW: Are you writing or planning anything currently that you’d like to talk about? 

CK: I am writing the first of the Carrion City books with Richard Kadrey, and I’m really excited about this one. Urban Fantasy is what Richard is probably best known for, and his body of work was a big influence on my aesthetics as a writer. I can trace my ‘hahaha fuck you commonplace tropes’ policy in regards to worldbuilding to Butcher Bird, which is still one of my most beloved books. (I have a signed copy happily curled on my shelf behind me.) 

It’s a fun book to be writing with Richard because on one hand, we’re very similar in how we think and what we prioritize in narrative. But on the other? We’re very different in how we approach actual writing. His prose is lean, all gunmetal and gleam as it moves people through the plot. Mine’s baroque as fuck. So, what’s been going is we’ve been doing alternate chapters and it’s like…

His chapters are bones and metal scaffolding. He writes them, and I come over, and I dress it in meat and viscera and sensory details. Mine are… writhing little jellied clots of stuff, smeared across the walls and the floor. He shows up and stuffs the bones into them, trims out the fat.

And then we go over things again, making them feel like a composite entity.

It’s great!

ALW: Are there any horror writers you’d like to shine a light on for readers to check out? Which works of theirs do you recommend? 

CK: Zin E. Rocklyn. Not enough know about them. Their work is lush, gothic, mesmeric, and you kinda sink into their words. They write horror that lets you know early this is a place of hurt, but their work is never gratuitous. Just frightening and beautiful in the best way. 

I love the works of Premee Mohamed, too. Beneath the Rising was a gorgeous, eldritch book and I haven’t read These Lifeless Things yet, but this blog post summarizes precisely why I’m such a big fan of hers.

ALW: Any upcoming or past projects that you’d like to spotlight?

CK: I have a sci-fi heist book called The All-Consuming World coming out soon, and it features a crew of murderous queers who need to match wits with sapient AIs. There’s an intergalactic pop star. There is a lot of trauma. In a way, it’s a continuation of the conversation began with Nothing But Blackened Teeth

Like my haunted house novella, it asks questions about toxic relationships, and how many of us linger in them, giving excuses, making excuses. It touches on how we justify staying loyal to people who have hurt us over and over and over again. And how this is a thing that happens to a lot of us, and it has nothing to do with any of us being weak and everything to do with the strength of our faith that things get better. Even when it is very clear nothing will improve.

ALW: Where and how would you like people to keep up with your work? 

CK: I have a poorly updated website, which I should really, really, really do better at keeping updated. But I am on Twitter a lot!


Editor’s Note: you can listen to three of Cass’s stories from seasons one and two of Come Join Us By The Fire for free: Don’t Turn on the Lights, These Deathless Bones, and Some Breakable Things.



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