Written by Jess Peacock
For writer Alexandra Sokoloff, true horror is found in the every day. "I'm not afraid of supernatural monsters," she explains. "Just human monsters. Walking out to the parking lot alone at night. Being lost on a country road. Anything like that."
Despite what realistic bogeymen scare her, however, her debut novel, The Harrowing, tapped into the supernatural as well as the psychological to create an otherworldly force that is equal parts seducer and destroyer. "I took an actual – possibly! – poltergeist experience I had with a group of friends when I was sixteen, one that made me a bit obsessed with the question of whether supernatural events are paranormal, or psychological, or a bit of both, and I combined that experience with a very spooky long weekend I had staying over Thanksgiving break in my dorm at Berkeley."
"There really is nothing scarier than a deserted college," she continues. "The Harrowing has a very contained setting, a diverse and lively group of characters, and a lot of psychological scariness. So it was a perfect setting to explore the idea that a bunch of troubled students could attract an equally troubled spirit – or manifest one psychologically."
Both in tone and subject matter, The Harrowing draws comparisons to The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson's classic 1959 novel that tells the tale of a supernatural investigator, his guests, and the purportedly haunted house they plan to inspect. "I was especially influenced by Shirley Jackson, the perfect psychological horror writer. I don't think there's anyone better than Jackson at finding terror in the ordinary," Sokoloff says. "She's a touchstone for me in every way."
Working as a screenwriter soon after moving to Los Angeles ("Hollywood is a seductive mistress,") Sokoloff was more than adept at spinning an interesting story. "Having done so much screenwriting helped enormously with things like story structure, pacing, visual storytelling, and suspense," she explains of her transition from Hollywood scribe to novelist. "It's pretty much all the same steps to develop a story and characters. So for that first novel I wanted to tackle something I had a halfway decent chance of pulling off. I thought I could probably tell the story very much inside the POV of the young protagonist."
For her efforts on The Harrowing, Sokoloff won the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel, an honor bestowed in the past on such genre dignitaries as Clive Barker, J. Michael Straczynski, Bentley Little, Poppy Z. Brite, and Brian Keene. "The Harrowing was my debut novel, but as a screenwriter I've written psychological thrillers, horror, erotic thrillers, and mysteries. It was the story I thought I had the best chance of carrying off in my first attempt at what was for me a completely new medium. It was a practical decision most of all."
Sokoloff followed up The Harrowing with The Price, an eerie novel that doubles down on its predecessor in both gothic atmosphere and spiritual overtones. "Yes, spirituality is important to me," she confirms, citing Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time as a literary influence ("Talk about spiritual!") In addition, it is these spiritual echoes that reverberate throughout The Price as a powerful political family struggle with the seemingly inevitable death of their young daughter from cancer, and what lengths they might be willing to go to in order to save her.
"I tend to think all good horror is spiritual," Sokoloff continues. "Because it's about issues of good and evil, life after death, what is human and inhuman, what is beyond this plane of existence, and especially what is reality itself?"
With her third novel, however, Sokoloff intends to take things in a slightly different direction. The Unseen, which is due to drop in June 2009 from St. Martin's Press, has "more of a sense of adventure and intrigue. The Unseen leans more toward mystery and the unexplained than the outright spiritual. [It] is lighter in tone than both The Harrowing and The Price, [but] it's definitely spooky."
Sokoloff shares that the impetus behind the story is based on the real life parapsychology experiments conducted at Duke University by Dr. J.B. Rhine, who founded the parapsychology lab at the University (now known as the Rhine Research Center), and who coined the term parapsychology. "I'd been reading about Dr. Rhine and the lab's experiments for years. Most people are aware of the ESP experiments, but not so many know that the lab also did field studies of poltergeists."
"The Unseen is a thriller I've wanted to do for a long time," Sokoloff says, eager to share a few plot details. "A group of researchers attempt to duplicate a poltergeist experiment, unaware that all of the original participants went insane or met otherwise tragic ends."
Having carved out a nitch for herself among horror fans ("I don't see the dark going away any time soon,") Sokoloff has even found herself in the New York Times Sunday Book Review ("That's, like, a real newspaper from a real city, read by actual grownups,") being compared to the likes of Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson, creative company not shared by many writers today, whether male or female.
Through this success, however, Sokoloff manages to keep everything in perspective. "I'm proud that I've been able to make a good living at what I most wanted to do in life," she shares. "It's a huge accomplishment to be able to capture a story on the page in a way that another person can experience it. That's pretty amazing."