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Shadows: Janet van Eeden enters the dark side with author Joan De La Haye

Janet van Eeden - 2011-02-16

Title: Shadows
Author: Joan De La Haye
Publisher: Generation Next

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Review by Janet van Eeden

Joan De La Haye’s first novel, Shadows, delves into the very depths of the human psyche in all its guises and fulfils the demands of the horror genre to the full.

The protagonist of Shadows, Sarah, begins to have apparent hallucinations soon after her father’s funeral. An evil-looking apparition materialises next to her while she is waiting for her boyfriend Kevin to come out of the 7/11 store. Once she realises that the horrific figure isn’t actually real, Kevin persuades her that the vision has been triggered by the trauma of her father’s suicide. Sarah is not so sure that her vision is a result of post-traumatic stress. She fears that perhaps she, too, is suffering from the apparent mental illness which drove her father to suicide.

Kevin doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on Sarah’s fragile mental state. He has his own agenda, after all. He pacifies Sarah as best he can so that she will be lulled into a false sense of security. That leaves him free to pursue his own obsession, whose name just happens to be Denise. She’s a classic femme fatale who delights in stringing Kevin along, not because she cares for him, but because she has her own plans too. And these involve Kevin as well as his gay sister, Carol.

The web around these four characters weaves ever tighter as three of the four selfishly pursue their own desires above all else. Sarah doesn’t know who to turn to, and when her fragile mental state begins to crumble completely, she can’t even trust those who are supposed to care for her, even less than she can trust herself. Intrigue, betrayal, sex and yet more horror spill out of every action-driven page as Shadows screams towards an inevitably dramatic conclusion.

This novel is a racy read in terms of pace, action, horror and sex. The story reminded me of Basic Instinct, with its ruthless antagonist similar to the heartless Denise. And Sarah’s dissolution into apparent insanity resonated with the very recent film Black Swan.

All this is to say that Joan De La Haye has written a very current story, with trendy characters and a story jam-packed with all the ingredients that horror lovers will enjoy. Read Shadows if you like your novels intriguing, dark and full of delicious horror.

Q&A with Joan De La Haye

Joan, is this your first foray into writing a horror novel? If so, what made you lean towards this genre? It’s a very specific and narrowly defined form of novel writing. Doesn’t this make it a quite limiting art form, or do you find the narrow constraints liberating in a way?

Shadows was my first foray into horror writing and I have to say I don ’t find horror limiting as a genre at all. In fact, in comparison with some genres, it’s rather liberating. I ’ve found writing crime thrillers to be far more limiting. In horror, your imagination really can go wild and into depths and depravities not imagined in other forms. What is limited is people’s perceptions of what horror is or is not. These days horror isn ’t simply about vampires, werewolves or blood and guts. There ’s a whole spectrum of tropes just waiting to be explored.

Could you tell LitNet readers what your background is in writing? Have you written any other novels before? Do you plan to write any other genres of novels or are you going to focus only on horror in the near future?

Shadows is my first novel published, but I started writing when I was in primary school. I wrote a fairytale called The Wonderful World of Candyfloss and forced every member of my class to read it. I ’ve written a few short stories, most of which are horror and available online. I ’ve just completed work on a thriller called Requiem in E Sharp, about a serial killer on the loose in Pretoria. I ’m currently working on a horror novella and a follow-up to Shadows, so it looks as though horror will be keeping me busy for a while, but I ’m not going to count out working on another thriller or two in the future.

Horror seems to be a constant favourite with the younger generations, whether in the form of films or novels. There are a few that I like, but they are usually the ones that add an element of satire to their format. Sean of the Dead is still one of my favourite films as it spoofs so brilliantly the zombie movie/story genre. Why do you think the younger generations especially are drawn towards horror stories?

I also love the more satirical films like Zombie Land. I still have to see Sean of the Dead. (You must! It’s so funny. JvE)

To be honest, when I was younger I was not a horror fan. While others were reading Stephen King, I was turning my nose up at horror and reading Jane Austen and Alexandre Dumas. It was only when a friend of mine told me to stop being such a literary snob and handed me a copy of Stephen King’s Misery that my perception of it changed. I couldn ’t put the book down and have been fascinated by the genre ever since. I think it has to do with our very human fascination with the macabre and the unknown, the things that go bump in the night. However, I think the current teen obsession with vampires has more to do with fantasy rather than an interest in horror as a genre.

Shadows follows the apparent mental breakdown of your main protagonist, Sarah, but the characters around her also share the main stage on occasion. I noticed you slip between first person narration to third person and back again, depending on whose point of view you’d like to showcase at that moment. Each character’s story is quite outrageous in many ways and full of twists and turns. Did you find it difficult to maintain your focus between your very demanding characters’ voices?

In order to maintain the integrity of their different voices, I first wrote Sarah ’s story line and then focused on the other viewpoints. The reason I wrote Sarah ’s in the first person and the others in the third was that I wanted readers to feel closer to Sarah and to relate to her more than to the others. I wanted hers to be the main voice and to stand out from the others.

Shadows also explores the idea that what is mental illness to one person is sometimes complete sanity to another. Did you consciously choose to explore this theme and is there a reason behind your examination of the flaws of psychotherapy?

Shadows first started off as a way for me to exorcise a nightmare I ’d had. As I wrote it, it became more and more obvious that it was so much more than that. After the first few scenes I was consciously exploring it as a theme, but didn ’t want it to define how the story developed. I think most people have moments where they question their own sanity. Or look around at society at large and question everybody else’s sanity. I think it ’s important to question the confines and the rules of society that dictate what is sane and what isn ’t. Society has a tendency of putting people who think differently in a box and then drugging or forcing them into thinking like everybody else. One person’s sanity is another person’s madness.

Did you find it difficult to tap into your psyche to find the horrific monsters which torment some of your characters? They were quite threatening to me as I read about them alone in a tent in the bush. Is there a sort of freedom to allow yourself to explore fully the darkness of your own psyche in a genre like horror? Did you find it difficult to leave the monsters behind when you had to go to sleep, for example? I know I would find that quite hard to do that myself.
I fully admit that I am rather dark. It ’s far harder for me to go to that light and happy place. I find it harder to write a romance with a happy ending than a dark, thought-provoking horror or thriller. I find it very freeing to explore the darker aspects of myself. I get to say things in a novel that I would never get away with in reality. It can be so much fun!

It was hard leaving the monsters behind; as a result I ended up waking up in the middle of the night with another messed-up way to torment my characters. Having those voices in your head for any length of time can be disturbing.

The horror genre seems to need to be written with broad strokes. Were you aware of this when you were writing or were you merely following the conventions of the genre? Somehow it has struck me that the prose in horror stories has to be very much driven by action, as opposed to the more prosaic prose (pardon the pun) of, say, a historical novel, for example. How does this fact dictate the progress of your story? Do you have to stop yourself getting sidetracked by any flights of fancy which may not directly serve the plot while you are writing? Or is there no question of random subplots when the medium becomes the message?

I didn ’t even think about that when I was writing Shadows. I don ’t really stick to conventions when I write. I have a story to tell, and that ’s where my focus is. I don ’t worry about the rules that others have decided on. I make my own rules up as I go along and then end up breaking them somewhere along the line. I don ’t think horror has to be action driven. There are some writers who are very much prose driven. It depends on the story that ’s being told and the characters’ voices whether it ’s action driven or more prosaic. There are no absolutes in the genre.
I must admit, when I ’m working on a story I ’m very single-minded. I have a specific story I want to tell and that ’s what I focus on. I very rarely get sidetracked by random subplots.

Your novel is fairly short in terms of standard novels. Was this a conscious choice or is this just the way your story evolved? Or did you have a young adult audience in mind when you wrote this novel?

That ’s just how it turned out. A YA audience didn ’t even cross my mind while I was working on it. I have a very sparse writing style and often end up having to add rather than take out.

Shadows has been published as an e-book as well as in hard copy by Generation Next. Could you tell the readers of LitNet a little more about the logistics of e-publishing? Is it a viable option or even a preferable one in our computer-literate world? What are the advantages of e-publishing and would you recommend it? Is it any more lucrative than hard-copy publishing?

In this day and age it ’s important to have your story out in both formats. We need to give readers as many options and ways for them to read our work.

E-books have so many advantages, in that e-book readers are able to hold about 400 books at a time. You don ’t have to pick and choose which books you want to take on holiday with you. You can take your entire library along. The production of e-books is incredibly cheap. It doesn ’t cost the publishers anything to put them out. They ’re available immediately. You no longer have to wait for printing and shipping. E-books are also incredibly cheap to buy – or at least they should be. Some publishers are unfortunately being stupid and pricing the digital version at the same price as a print book, which is rather narrow-minded. They ’re shooting themselves in the foot. If it ’s done right, e-books can be very lucrative.

What else do you have up your sleeve for this coming year? Are there more horrors for readers to look forward to?

I ’ve just completed work on my thriller Requiem in E Sharp and am now shopping it around, looking for a home for it. I ’m also working on a novella about zombies, which was rather a surprise to me. I honestly never thought I ’d do zombies. But it ’s a fun project. After a lot of requests from fans, I ’m also working on a follow-up to Shadows.

Where can readers get a copy of your book?

The e-book version is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords. The print version will be released shortly and will be available from most book stores.