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Horror and the human condition at the heart of supernatural tales

01 May 2022 4 minute read
Figurehead by Carly Holmes is published by Parthian Books

Jonathan Lee

The stories in Carly Holmes impressive collection Figurehead “alternate between skilfully orchestrated forays into traditional supernatural horror and modern vignettes steeped in the magic of classic fairy tales” according to Publisher’s Weekly. The collection, originally published in 2018 by Tartarus Press, has just been reissued this Spring.

Holmes, whose debut novel The Scrapbook was published in 2014, writes uncanny and occasionally eerie fiction and has many admirers for her fantastical prose. Praise for Figurehead has already been high and widespread.

The British Fantasy Society has said the collection “truly is quality literature of our modern times”, while The Supernatural Tales Blog has called Holmes “one of the most gifted writers I’ve come across in recent years.”

In addition to praise for the collection as a whole, several short stories from Figurehead have caught the eye of award judges and horror fiction editors. ‘Wich’, a wonderful piece of flash fiction, won first place in The Allingham Festival’s 2016 competition, whilst ‘Sleep’ was selected to appear in Best Horror of the Year Volume 11. The stories ‘The Demon L’ and ‘They Tell Me’, meanwhile, were both chosen for Best British Horror 2019.

The human condition

Holmes draws her inspiration from a wide range of literary sources, from the novels of Stephen King to the poetry of Robert Browning to the fairytales of her youth. Beyond the pages of fiction (Holmes describes herself as a “constant reader”), however, she also finds a rich vein of inspiration from the real world.

For about a decade she worked in social care and found the psychological responses to various situations of her clients, and the industry as a whole, start to influence her work. The human condition, the internal landscape, is at the heart of her fiction. It is this element that perhaps separates literary horror such as Holmes’ from the much-maligned pulp fiction of genre horror.

Behind the ghosts and witches and haunted houses at the forefront of these stories are real human relationships, real feelings. When horror is written well, she says, it “encapsulates those fears we all have: to lose what we love, to be abandoned and unsafe, to be lost and alone with no way back to what we know.”

Carly Holmes

A dark secret

Born on the Channel Island of Jersey, Holmes now lives and writes in a small village on the banks of the river Teifi in west Wales. Living in such a picturesque location, then, it’s hardly surprising that the natural world features so strongly in Figurehead.

“Beneath her soft skin covering,” the short story ‘Heartwood’ begins, “my mother was once made of twigs and branches. Sometimes in the autumn I swear there was a gleam of berry in her eye, a sloe-shine peep between the thorny tangle of her lashes.”

Although short fiction was Holmes’ first love, this collection actually follows her novel The Scrapbook which was published in 2014. It is a story about the dysfunctional bonds of family, the unreliability of memory and a dark secret kept between three generations of women.

Acclaimed, the novel was shortlisted for the International Rubery Book Award.

Holmes’ journey to writing has been one that has meandered around life commitments and career changes. After gaining her Master’s degree in creative writing in 1998, she worked in social care. In 2010, she left full-time work with Social Services to pursue her PhD.

Unable to write at the end of a long day working in care and tenancy support, Holmes has since found herself in a creative purple patch over the last decade, publishing both her novel as well many short stories, the best of which are collected in Figurehead.

The title story of Carly Holmes collection Figurehead will be published in Nation.Cymru tomorrow.

Figurehead is published by Parthian and is available from all good bookshops

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