“Were You Scared of the Dark?” Alex North Explores the pathology of fear with Steve Cavanagh
Anybody who’s met Steve Cavanagh will tell you the same: it’s difficult to imagine him being frightened of anything. Steve has worked both as a bouncer in Belfast and as a highly-respected human rights lawyer, and he’s the author of a series of legal thrillers featuring con artist turned New York defense lawyer Eddie Flynn. The latest installment, Thirteen, has a killer pitch – “the serial killer isn’t on trial. He’s on the jury” – that the book more than lives up to; it won the 2019 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. In my opinion, his most recent novel, the standalone thriller Twisted, might be even better. Over to Steve.
- Were you scared of the dark as a child? If not, was there anything else you were frightened of?
Of course. I’m still a bit scared of the dark as an adult, but only in certain circumstances. Like being in the countryside when it’s dark. I’d rather be locked in a bar with a homicidal maniac than walk down a dark country lane.
When you’re a kid, though, random things terrify you. I was scared of nuns, the Spitting Image puppet of Margaret Thatcher, and sharks. My mum was a big reader and didn’t mind passing me dark crime novels like The Silence Of The Lambs. That book didn’t scare me. There’s a bit in Red Dragon that did, but that still frightens me so that’s for the next question. If I’m honest, nothing really traumatized me quite like Jaws. I can watch it now, but I couldn’t watch it in the cinema. Great White Sharks are pretty horrific looking creatures, so even as a young adult I found it difficult to watch a shark movie in the cinema. I can do it now, but I’d have to watch it through my fingers.
- What scares you as an adult – if anything? Do you notice any lingering fears from childhood?
My adult fears are mostly about death, dark country lanes, overdrafts and Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue Service. I recently quit my job to become a full-time writer and that scares me, but I think that’s healthy. As I said earlier, there’s a scene in Red Dragon that still haunts me. Francis Dollarhyde is working out, building his body mass so he’s truly huge. That bit doesn’t scare me. I’m a big guy, and I used to be a bouncer. Physical confrontations don’t scare me at all – I grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. What got me about Red Dragon was the scene after the weightlifting, where Dollarhyde starts chewing a rubber ball, to strengthen his jaw muscles so he can bite people harder. That freaked me out, still does. Also, Stephen King still scares me. He got me with Salem’s Lot and The Shining. I read Doctor Sleep a few years ago and there was a scene where I closed the book, got up out of my chair and made sure every light in the house was on, and every door was locked. King is a fucking genius.
- What’s the most frightening thing that’s ever happened to you?
I’ve been in some hairy situations with gangs, murderers and pretty unpleasant people. Proper shit-your-pants stuff and while it was scary at the time, I was able to manage that fear. I think the birth of my daughter was the scariest time of my life. My wife had to have an emergency C-section. They put me in a room next door while she was having the epidural, and one of the nurses handed me a cloth apron and a mask to put on so I could be in the operating theatre with my wife. I was so scared I ripped the apron in two trying to put it on. I’ve never been so scared in my life, but thankfully everything was okay, and both mother and daughter were fine. That is undoubtedly the most terrified I have ever been. If something happens to the kids, like a bad fall or something, I get really scared.
- Do you use writing to help deal with your fears and concerns about yourself or the world?
I think your fears naturally come out in your work. My first novel [The Defense] was about a father whose daughter had been kidnapped. Eddie Flynn spends the entire book trying to get her back, and that definitely comes straight from a primal fear as a father. I’m also afraid of slightly esoteric things like the American criminal justice system. The way bail is only for the rich, the corruption and the unfairness of the entire system sometimes keeps me awake at night, and of course that is a continuing part of my fiction.
- Why do you think readers enjoy being frightened?
The ultimate goal of fiction, I think, is to elicit either an emotional response or even a physical response from the reader. I want my readers biting their nails with tension on one page, and then punching the air in elation on the next page. I do like to use some twists in my novels, and again, getting a reader to gasp at a plot twist is just the best thing in the world. That’s what I love about reading. Being frightened is both a physical and emotional response. To give a reader goosepimples, or a sharp intake of breath, or even to have that reaction myself while I’m reading a book – wow, that’s awesome. It also allows us to experience real fear in a totally safe environment, with the reader creating a good deal of that fear with their own imagination. That’s magical.
- Do you personally enjoy frightening fiction? If so, what’s your favourite scary book or film, and why?
I love Stephen King. I just think he is a master of suspense and horror. Misery, which I re-read again recently, is his masterpiece. It’s a pretty good movie too, one of the best of the King adaptations. A phenomenal cast and William Goldman capturing the essence of the book for the screen. The book, however, always frightens me more. For a start, it’s a lot more frightening than the movie because the violence was toned down for the screen. I understand why that was done, but it detracts a little from the horror. The ending of the novel still haunts me. It’s slightly different than the movie, and ten times more terrifying. There’s also this writer called Alex North who wrote a book called The Whisper Man – yeah, that one gave me the chills, and also engaged me on an emotional level. Try that one too.
I admit to getting sweaty palms as I read Steve’s answer to question 3. My own answer would be almost identical: the exact same thing happened to my wife and me when our son was born, and it was one of the scariest days of my life. Before then, I might have cited the time I got caught by a current in the sea and nearly drowned, but that pales into insignificance now.
As an interesting aside, after the emergency operation, the nurses wouldn’t let me go back into the room where my wife and I had spent the last thirty six hours. Instead, I waited in the corridor as they collected the things we’d taken to the hospital. Everything was there apart from one thing: the copy of Neil Gaiman’s short story collection Fragile Things we’d brought with us to fill the time. It appeared to have vanished. And so, given the circumstances, it often felt to me afterwards that we’d swapped the book for my son – an occurrence that would not, of course, be out of place in an actual Neil Gaiman story.
I bought a replacement copy a year or so later. One day, I returned home to find a pipe in the ceiling had broken and water was pouring down into the front room. Nothing much was damaged – except that second copy of Fragile Things, which had taken the brunt of the spillage and been reduced to pulp.
I’m not risking a third.
A massive thank you to Steve for agreeing to be interviewed – and also for the very kind mention! Next post, I talk to Ruth Ware.