Editing a New Wave of Uncanny Horror: An Interview with Daphne Durham of MCD Books

Horror novel covers

Recently, MCD Books has begun to establish itself as a home for some of today’s most memorable horror fiction. That’s bolstered by the recent publication of Rachel Eve Moulton’s Tinfoil Butterfly and the forthcoming publication of Andy Davidson’s The Boatman’s Daughter. To learn more about the press’s foray into horror, their aesthetic, and their future plans, I spoke with MCD Books Executive Editor Daphne Durham. Our conversation touched on everything from what constitutes literary horror to the legacies of bygone horror imprints, and includes some details of what you can expect from horror at MCD Books in the future.

Reading Tinfoil Butterfly and The Boatman’s Daughter, I experienced a host of dread from both novels, even as each one did very different things. What about these two books made them the ideal starting point for the horror works you’ll be releasing in the coming months?

Well, I’m very glad those books are doing their jobs! I’ve been thinking of these two as less a starting point than a continuation in the grand tradition of FSG and FSG Originals — think Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Jeff VanderMeer, Jac Jemc, John Darnielle, I could go on and on).

But, ultimately, I’m a passionate, unabashed fan of bone-chilling, crying-in-bed-because-you’re-too-scared-to-sleep horror. Have been since I was a kid, when I used to burn through the mass market spinner racks at the library–Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Saul, Clive Barker, Robert McCammon. I don’t remember finding many women on those racks at the time, but I do remember that it was Shirley Jackson, first, and then Flannery O’Connor who filled me with awe and made me understand the feeling of true horror. The sick dread that comes over you as you read The Lottery. The kind of delicious discomfort that creeps up on you in A Good Man is Hard to Find. By the time my mother passed along her battered copy of Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier (my namesake, in fact), I was transformed. These women dramatically changed the way I thought about scary stories—they made me see that sometimes the most terrifying, grotesque, unnameable horrors are hiding in plain sight. 

So, there’s something comforting for me in the horror genre. I love to be scared, even when I actively hate it, and horror novels and movies remind me of those days as a kid reading late into the night–terrified and thrilled and grateful I could still hear the TV in the den, which meant my dad was still awake. I think some of what I end up looking for in these books is that familiar tug of fear and comfort. 

Tinfoil Butterfly reminded me of the first time I read The Shining — that desolate setting, that feeling of relentless, creeping dread, and Rachel Moulton’s voice just blazing off the page, desperately angry and a little sad. And scary — Emma waking up in a deserted diner to a low thump outside the door, facing a strange little boy in a tinfoil mask. I loved too that it was a little tough to define, this gorgeous, deeply scary novel that’s also about love and grief, with a protagonist who’s closest kin is probably Ripley from Aliens

As for The Boatman’s Daughter, I remember being mesmerized from the first page. I had been flipping through manuscripts, trying to read quickly and winnow down my stack, but Andy Davidson’s voice pulled me up short and slowed everything down. I remember feeling like I was entering a dark fable — a spin on the Brothers Grimm, maybe — and then the story starts revving up, taking shape into a breathless, breakneck thriller. It surprised the hell out of me. 

How would you describe the aesthetic you’re looking to impart on the books published by the imprint? 

I’m drawn to dark, disturbing stories, so even if they’re not categorized as horror, I’d call them horror-adjacent. Dark, noirish crime, creepy psychological suspense, twisty Gothic fiction. As an editor and a reader, really, I’m always keeping an eye out for smart, gorgeous, propulsive writing, by writers with something to say. It’s not enough to dazzle me with a turn of phrase or terrify me with the beast under the bed, I need to see the point underneath all that beauty or horror. Ultimately, I want to help bring books into the world that deliver something unexpected. Something that helps shine a light on an issue, share a new perspective, tackle some kind of problem. Writers like Araminta Hall, Liska Jacobs, Sara Sligar, they’re all writing, on some level, about the horrors of what it’s like to be a woman in this world. Their stories fit well next to books like The Bus on Thursday and Tinfoil Butterfly because what is more horrific than feeling like you are under siege from your own body? 

What has been your impression of past attempts to create literary imprints that focus on — for lack of a better phrase — highbrow horror? I’m of an age where I look back fondly on Dell Abyss, for instance… 

I must confess to not knowing much about Dell Abyss, but wow, I know what I’ll be doing this weekend…. It’s hard for me to have anything other than a deep appreciation and enthusiasm for any effort to draw attention to horror fiction, which has felt a little like a guilty pleasure for too long. But that’s changing! Tor recently announced a new horror imprint called Nightfire, coming in 2021, which is sure to draw new fans of horror and dark fantasy. It seems as if it’s the TV/film industry that has wholeheartedly embraced horror in all its forms, and has really helped usher in a kind of horror renaissance, particularly with smart, sharp offerings that are about so much more than thrills–It Follows, Get Out and Us, The OA, Midsommar (maybe just anything by A24).

Thinking about Midsommar reminds me how much horror comes from writers exploring gut-wrenching grief — The Boatman’s Daughter is, at its core, is a book about a young woman coming to terms with the death of her father. Tinfoil Butterfly’s Emma is running away from the tragic death of her stepbrother. Pet Sematary. Hereditary. Don’t Look Now. The Babadook

Within the larger scope of MCD, there are a few other authors doing weird or uncanny lit — Jac Jemc, Warren Ellis, and Jeff VanderMeer all come to mind. How would you say that the books you’re working on fit in with the imprint’s larger aesthetic. 

Actually, I think you could drop all of those writers into the horror bucket–especially since it’s tough for me to imagine anything more horrifying than the Annihilation bear. And Warren Ellis goes full gothic horror in the Castlevania Netflix series. MCD is a young imprint, and as I’ve mentioned, we have some deep horror roots, but we’re definitely growing and changing, and I see the books I’m working on as helping to shape our aesthetic. To demonstrate our embrace of the weird and daring, of stories that take you by surprise. A terrifying novel about a woman battling cancer that is also laugh-out-loud funny. A chilling exploration of evil that is also a tender novel about love and identity. A gorgeous fable that’s also a heart-pounding thriller about finding and protecting family. 

MCD has also released a number of formally experimental works, from accelerated release schedules to novellas. Do you have plans to do something similar with any of the books you’re editing? 

We have ideas we’ve been kicking around in terms of different arenas to play in, but our plan is always to let the stories dictate the format. We seem to be building a track record for doing things a little differently, and stories that push the boundaries of genres and format have been finding their way to us–including a debut I just signed by Gus Moreno called Mask Off, in which a young man’s profound grief over the sudden death of his wife puts his soul at risk from the demon who has possessed his smart home device. That one lends itself to some obvious fun options. We also have a few genre-benders coming up, a gothic novel from Rivers Solomon that Sean just acquired, that wrestles with the tangled history of racism in America, and a supernatural thriller I just signed from Sara Flannery Murphy that imagines a world in which women no longer need men to conceive–both of which will offer myriad opportunities for us to innovate in the coming year.


Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.