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Today’s guest is speculative fiction writer Alexis Henderson! Her first published novel, The Year of the Witching, combines the horrors of mysterious witches in a spooky forest with the atrocities occurring in a puritanical society—and kept me riveted, even when I was having difficulty focusing in 2020! The Year of the Witching was also a Goodreads Choice Awards finalist in both the Best Horror and Best Debut Novel categories last year.

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson - Book Cover

Writing Dark Fiction: An Exercise In Self-Acceptance

I often describe myself as a deeply anxious person. As a child, friends and acquaintances often described me as timid or “high-strung.” I often remember being moved to tears—or worse yet terrified into a state of total detachment—by sudden fits of terror. Since the very beginning of my memories, fear has been a constant companion.

So it seemed strange that as I grew older, I chose to devote the bulk of my creative endeavors to the exploration of the horrific. As a person to whom fear is a kind of chronic condition, I didn’t understand why I repeatedly chose to engage the things that frightened me most. I would like to say that writing horror was some triumphant attempt to prevail over the anxieties that plagued me. But I’ve come to realize that’s not entirely true.

On the good days, writing about the things that I fear most is an exhilarating, and yes triumphant experience. On the bad days, it can be painful and even triggering. While writing my own dark stories, I often ached for some reprieve or escapism. I began to question whether or not I have the mental stamina required to excel in my trade of choice. In comparison to the masters of the genre—the Shirley Jacksons and the Stephen Kings—I felt like a pitiful farce. They had learned to prevail as champions over fear while in turn, I floundered, consumed by it.

Over time, my anxiety worsened. My fear took the form of a small demon that lurked behind my ribs, gripped my lungs in its claws. At night it filled my mind with worst-case scenarios that kept me awake until the wee hours of the morning—What if this is the last book I ever write? What if I’ve depleted myself creatively and have nothing left to give? What if I’ve already peaked? What if I’ve broken myself beyond the barest hope of repair?  

These questions became a constant chorus. In turn, my writing began to feel less like a creative act and more like a transference of pain. I began to feel like I was monetizing my nightmares, commodifying the fear that plagued me like a kind of sickness. I tried to write my way out of this slump and failed several times before I stopped trying. Humbled by the increasingly real prospect of my own creative failure, I dragged myself to my writing desk once more. Out of necessity—or perhaps desperation—I let my fears guide my hand. I didn’t try to fight or deny it. I simply gave in, and in doing that was able to make a friend of my fears for the first time.

Through this act of surrender, I learned to form a careful kinship with the dark fascinations that once threatened to consume me entirely. At night, I allowed myself to ask all of the questions that terrified me the most, and I continued to write in spite of them. As time went on, I began to realize that the fears that I believed were a hindrance—to be dismissed, denied, or otherwise discarded—were pieces of myself that couldn’t be divorced from the greater sum of my being. Thus, through the writing of horror, I have learned not just to accept my fears but to accept myself.

Photo of Alexis Henderson
Photo Credit: Marissa Siebert at Hazel Eyes Photography
Alexis Henderson is a speculative fiction writer with a penchant for dark fantasy, witchcraft, and cosmic horror. She grew up in one of America’s most haunted cities, Savannah, Georgia, which instilled in her a life-long love of ghost stories. Currently, Alexis resides in Columbus, Ohio, where she’s learning to cope with the cold.