The Earth Is a Haunted House: A Conversation Between Stephanie Feldman and Andy Davidson

By Stephanie Feldman, Andy DavidsonOctober 29, 2022

The Earth Is a Haunted House: A Conversation Between Stephanie Feldman and Andy Davidson

Saturnalia by Stephanie Feldman
The Hollow Kind by Andy Davidson

STEPHANIE FELDMAN’S Saturnalia and Andy Davidson’s The Hollow Kind are two very different horror novels — one is an occult thriller about secret societies clashing in a near-future Philadelphia; the other is a horror tale about a Southern family trying to escape abuse and confront their forebears’ sins. Both authors, though, find that it’s impossible to write horror without considering nature and place. Here, the authors discuss how rural and urban environments embody our fears, how Southern and Mid-Atlantic Gothic differ, and how climate change and the pandemic continue to influence their work.


STEPHANIE FELDMAN: The Hollow Kind begins in the 1980s, when Nellie Gardner learns that she’s inherited a Georgia turpentine estate from her long-lost grandfather. Thinking it’s her ticket out of an abusive marriage, Nellie packs up her 11-year-old son, Max, and heads south. But when they arrive at Redfern Hill, Nellie and Max discover their problems have only just begun. Something evil is waiting for them in their new house and the old woods surrounding it, something born out of Nellie’s forebears’ sins against the land. I love The Hollow Kind. On one hand, it’s a tense thriller, but it’s also an investigation into power and capitalism and patriarchy, all embodied by monstrous nature.

ANDY DAVIDSON: Right. And these are the very same themes Saturnalia grapples with, even though your novel is set in a fantastical, near-future Philadelphia. In Saturnalia, Nina is also running from abusive men and power structures, and monsters that arise from powerful people meddling with nature. More than running, though, she’s fighting back against them! Only instead of old decrepit forests, her story unfolds against the backdrop of a massive winter solstice festival, where elite social clubs are seeking riches through alchemy, and, oh yeah, the climate apocalypse is closing in! It’s a wonderfully tense, breakneck-paced novel.

SF: We took such different paths, but both ended up in the thick of ecohorror.

AD: Man attacks nature, nature attacks back.

SF: But The Hollow Kind is also an intensely personal story, about a woman and her son just trying to survive this horrible husband and father. How did you decide to use nature and land to tell Nellie’s story?

AD: In the South, the past and the land are two sides of the same coin. I grew up in pulpwood country in Arkansas, where every town was a paper-mill town, or a lumber-mill town, and every tree was slash pine — which meant the forests were on a 20-year cycle of being grown and cut, so whole swaths of the landscape were constantly being razed. Today, I see the same thing here in Georgia. It’s a cycle of violence between industry and nature, one we’re all caught up in. And we can’t break free.

There’s something of that in Nellie’s plight: she’s bound up in this bad marriage to a cruel man who is also the father of her child, and she’s wrestling with the idea that her boy, Max, would be better off without his father. Can she break free from Wade Gardner’s grip? When she inherits a 1000-acre turpentine estate in Georgia, she decides to make a run for it. All she wants is a place of her own, a place to hide away and raise her son free from the terrors of her husband. But what she discovers is that turpentining has decimated most of the old-growth pines on the property, and so there’s this natural kinship Nellie feels with the land; both have been hollowed out.

SF: In returning to the woods, Nellie situates this story in the American Gothic tradition. Tom Hilliard has observed that the first American literature was gothic literature, rooted in a Puritan fear of unfamiliar wilderness, and Bernice Murphy argues that contemporary American narratives are haunted by the “wilderness-that-was” — persistent fears about the landscape, however changed it may be. What are the fears and sins that persist in The Hollow Kind?

AD: Historically, there’s the original sin of exploitation: “Man attacks nature.” Not far from where I live in Georgia, the woods were once chockablock with longleaf pine. After the Civil War, Northern lumber companies swept down and gobbled up the land for pennies on the dollar, then stripped it of these great 1000-year-old trees, which brought on a 50-year land war between the locals and the “carpetbaggers.” We’re talking court battles and revenge killings. Even today, old families around here remember whose blood was spilled. So this corner of Georgia is very much haunted by the “wilderness-that-was,” which, of course, is partly why “nature attacks back” in the novel. The monster in horror is almost always a metaphor, right? Here, it’s a metaphor for the consequences of man’s sins against the natural world.

As a young girl, when Nellie’s on her grandfather’s land, she feels this immediate connection to the woods. She falls in love with their mystery. Later in life, she’ll come to recognize that kinship — that she and the woods were both wronged by men. But when she’s a kid, she knows that Redfern Hill is not home, so she has to leave to find herself. The irony, of course, is that she won’t truly know herself until she’s returned, until she allows herself to face the past — the sins of her grandfather.

In Southern fiction, these broken, small-town worlds are the ultimate gothic trope, aren’t they? We leave only to return.

SF: Philly folks famously never leave, or don’t leave for long. I lived in New York City for almost 10 years, but I couldn’t break the spell, and found my way back.

AD: Home exerts its own inescapable gravity. To borrow Bernice Murphy’s way of putting it, we’re haunted by the home-that-was.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how Southern fiction, in general, is fixated on place. We obsessively document the place we remember as home and, in doing so, desperately hope to understand ourselves.

But Saturnalia is decidedly not Southern, and that’s part of your book, too, the idea of returning to a place that harmed you. That haunts you. But it’s the city, not the wilderness. So maybe that’s a bigger impulse in gothic fiction, in general, to understand the past?

SF: Yes, like Nellie, my protagonist Nina is confronting her past by exploring her home, Philadelphia. The past is always present in the city, even when we ignore it — or try to. Saturnalia begins on Broad Street, which was designed in 1687 and has been the heart of Philadelphia ever since. My main character travels across the city in the course of one night, and I was deliberate in choosing the places she visits. I wanted them to represent Philadelphia’s history, and especially class history.

The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan says that urban fears are all about other people: immigrants, the poor, and other, well, “others.” (There’s an implicit or assumed subject there: the wealthy WASPs are the frightened ones.) This diversity threatens the order that the built environment represents, or is meant to impose.

In Saturnalia, common wisdom is that the expensive hotels and members-only clubs are safe, while the public streets are dangerous; the university campus is safe, while the West Philadelphia neighborhood beyond is dangerous; the Quaker worship house is safe, but Chinatown is dangerous.

But really, there is no promise of safety anywhere. Nina knows that. As a woman, she faces threats in both elite halls and dark alleys — as long as there are people, or specifically men, who might prey on her. Which isn’t to say that all women are powerless. Some of them are playing the system and succeeding — there are examples in both The Hollow Kind and Saturnalia.

AD: Nellie’s grandmother, Euphemia, turns her grief into power and basically takes control of her husband’s turpentining estate. Her point of view, ultimately, is that men are fragile creatures whose ambitions break them. Euphemia is steely, resolved. She and Nellie draw from deep wells. Nina does too. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you conceived her, as a character? And her world? One of the things I love about Saturnalia is how the occult comes to hold a weird sway over humanity’s future, and Nina finds herself at the center of that.

SF: Yes, the occult is another way the characters try to gain power over the environment, which has grown precarious as the climate has changed. I originally conceived of the story as a revenge quest, my own weird Kill Bill, but as I wrote, Nina became more of a study in imposter syndrome. She was once an ambitious outsider; when we meet her, she’s just an outsider, someone who failed to climb the ladder and has lost her confidence. As she confronts her powerful former friends and the elite social clubs they run, she discovers a new kind of ambition. Instead of playing the game, maybe she’s meant to take it down. Magical knowledge is capital — specifically, the power to hoard environmental resources in a time of increasing scarcity. Euphemia and Nina both recognize that, and they have to decide how they want to use their capital.

AD: Yes!

SF: I’d love to return to the connection between horror and place. Robert Tally coined the term “topophrenia” to describe a relationship to place, or “place-consciousness,” that’s defined by anxiety, unease, or disquiet. Does this concept resonate with you?

AD: It does. Most Southern fiction, I think, embraces that notion readily. I’m thinking of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, where poverty and nature conspire against a family in rural Mississippi. Add a dash of the grotesque, à la Flannery O’Connor — the strange, the ugly, the monstrous — and you’re writing horror! Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, for instance, is both a Southern Gothic and a nightmarish horror novel, in which the Tennessee hills are haunted by a homeless, homicidal necrophiliac. (Even Faulkner, at times, incorporated elements of horror. In Sanctuary, Popeye scissored the heads off kittens!) Of course, it’s not unique to Southern fiction, this grotesque or anxiety-ridden obsession with place. Take Stephen King: IT is as much a dark history of small-town Maine as it is a horror novel.

But yeah, that obsession with place, the notion that familiar places can breed monsters, that’s very much a cornerstone of every book I write. In fact, I always start with a setting. Usually I draw maps. I sketch out the world, research the flora, the fauna. If I can, I like to visit a place. I want the world to feel real to the reader. Recognizable. And then I flip it, so the familiar contains the monstrous, the unseen, and now the world is hostile, dangerous. Put some characters in peril and let them struggle with that duality of place. That’s what so much rural gothic fiction is about, right? Place as a trap, a cage, a prison. Instead of ancestral stone castles on windswept moors, it’s a decrepit turpentine camp in the woods of Georgia, or a South Arkansas swamp, or a wide-open Texas desert.

SF: The South and New England have definitely staked out their own gothic subgenres — I’m here trying to hold it down for the Mid-Atlantic. We do have Poe, and Charles Brockden Brown …

AD: Shout-out to Wieland!

SF: That book taught me so much about writing! It’s set in Pennsylvania and helped me think about how places are haunted in particular ways. Over the last decade, my creative work has drawn so much from this region, not just the physical environment, but the history and folklore of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I set Saturnalia in Philly because that’s where I’m from, and where I live now, but I also love how it can be a kind of metonymy for American society, as the first capital and home to so many of the cultures and populations that still define us.

But the physical environment does matter, too. I intended for Saturnalia’s setting to be the near future, with stronger impacts of climate change, but as I wrote, the world caught up to the book in many ways. While I was editing, a tornado — unheard of in this region — touched down on our street, wrecking our house, many neighbors’ houses, and our school. (We’re safe and back home now.) My fictional Philadelphia had been damaged by a tornado, but after our own experience, I made the storm a much bigger part of the story. I described how it changed the city, but more importantly, how it changed the characters.

That’s what I think of when I think of topophrenia, or how geographers recognize the fundamentally social and psychological nature of place — writers have always known this. Our characters and places define one another. Nina’s Philadelphia — what she sees, hears, smells, but also what she notices, where she goes, and what’s important to her — is not the same as anyone else’s Philadelphia.

It’s a funny-not-funny thing, then, that I couldn’t revisit any of Saturnalia’s Philly locations in the final revision and editing stages, because the pandemic kept me at home. I was a couple drafts in before COVID-19 arrived, so it’s hard to say how it influenced the premise, but I did take a lot of solace in my crowded fictional world of parties and festivals during lockdown. You started writing after the pandemic began. How did it affect The Hollow Kind, your process, and your thinking about place?

AD: I finished up the book tour for my previous novel, The Boatman’s Daughter, in early March 2020. Immediately after that, the country started shutting down. I remember the double whammy of listening to Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers on the drive to my last book event in Arkansas, and on the way back to Georgia, I heard a satellite DJ tell a story about her son, who asked: “Mom, will everything be okay?” And her answer was, essentially, “I don’t know.” That spooked me. It still spooks me: 2020 was a moment in history where the predictions of apocalyptic fiction drew perilously close to earth, like some planet-killing asteroid. For a while, I was reading more than writing, trying to take comfort in books. Early on, I reread The Talisman by King and the late, great Peter Straub. Later that summer, I wrote the first draft of The Hollow Kind, and for the historical sections that took place during the influenza pandemic of 1918, I drew directly (and weirdly) on the headlines of 2020. I hadn’t intended to even include the flu in the book, but the timeline demanded it, so I did my research and learned a few interesting facts. Apparently, over 100 years ago, portions of the United States faced the same stubborn refusal to mask up — not to mention the insane, bogus theories that circulated about the pandemic’s origins! It was an eerie parallel, but also oddly comforting. We were idiots then. We’re idiots now. We survived then. Maybe we’ll survive this time, too?

Ultimately, the influenza pandemic makes up a very small portion of the book, but like COVID-19, it became the seed of permanent change in the lives of those who survived it. The effects of that political climate are ubiquitous all over the South. People around here didn’t fly flags before 2020. Now, there’s a flag for every cracked ideology or bigoted viewpoint, and they’re all flying strong, which makes me deeply ambivalent about the place I live, a place I’ve long loved in spite of its failures and sins. It’s like I’m Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom! “I don’t hate the South! I don’t hate the South!” I want to write about that, and I don’t, you know? Some days, I think that’s all I ever write about. All I ever will write about: the horrors of home.

SF: We write about the past to write about today. In the end, Saturnalia isn’t really about an imagined future Philadelphia, but what it’s like for us now, to struggle with the challenges we’re facing.

AD: The existential dilemma of the 21st century is how to live in a dying world, right? Systemic corruption in power structures, the decimation of natural resources, pandemics, climate change — our novels wrestle with all of these. We’ve talked a great deal about how, for us, it’s impossible to write horror without thinking about nature and place, but I wonder, too, if it’s just impossible these days to write about nature and place without telling a horror story? Honestly, I didn’t set out to write an ecohorror novel when I started The Hollow Kind. I just wanted to tell a story about a woman and her son in a haunted house! Yet here we are, talking about the whole of the earth as a crumbling Gothic structure!

SF: The world-that-was.

AD: The world-that-was.


Stephanie Feldman is the author of the debut novel The Angel of Losses, and is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, winner of the Crawford Fantasy Award, and finalist for the Mythopoeic Award. She is co-editor of the multigenre anthology Who Will Speak for America? (2018), and her stories and essays have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Catapult Magazine, Electric Literature, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Rumpus, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn.

Andy Davidson is the Bram Stoker Award–nominated author of In the Valley of the Sun (2017) and The Boatman’s Daughter, which was listed among NPR’s Best Books of 2020, the New York Public Library’s Best Adult Books of the Year, and Library Journal’s Best Horror of 2020. Born and raised in Arkansas, he makes his home in Georgia with his wife and a bunch of cats.

LARB Contributors

Stephanie Feldman is the author of the debut novel The Angel of Losses, and is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, winner of the Crawford Fantasy Award, and finalist for the Mythopoeic Award. She is co-editor of the multigenre anthology Who Will Speak for America? (2018), and her stories and essays have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Catapult Magazine, Electric Literature, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Rumpus, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She lives outside Philadelphia with her family.
Andy Davidson is the Bram Stoker Award–nominated author of In the Valley of the Sun (2017) and The Boatman’s Daughter, which was listed among NPR’s Best Books of 2020, the New York Public Library’s Best Adult Books of the Year, and Library Journal’s Best Horror of 2020. Born and raised in Arkansas, he makes his home in Georgia with his wife and a bunch of cats.


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