What Scares You, Helen Rye?

Fun fact: Helen and I were twins in another life. Now in this life we are almost-sisters. I’ve only known her for about three years, but she’s one of my favorite people in the world and she’s a kick-ass writer. Too bad there’s an entire ocean between us, keeping us from hanging out in pubs every night and singing karaoke. However, I’m convinced one day we’ll be old and retired and sitting on a porch drinking lemonade spiked with gin and laughing about nothing at all.

Enough sentimentality, though. Let’s get to the terrifying shit.

What is your greatest fear?

I have one or two people I just can’t imagine life without and I’m no-filters terrified of something happening to them. I’m never far removed from the raw, existential sense of all of us as a bunch of small, soft animals clinging onto the surface of a rock, alone in infinite space. I don’t really understand how we’re supposed to live day to day with the knowledge that everyone we love is going to die. This makes me a LOT of fun at parties.

But seriously, it’s a scary old life, and I think the ability to forget this has never been hardwired into me in quite the same way it seems to be for some people. I suspect this proximity to mortality and the baffling, shooting-star fragility of life is one of the things that makes us write. I know if I said this sort of thing in a pub, most people would suddenly recognize someone they knew on the other side of the bar and not come back, but writers would nod in silent recognition and get another bottle of bourbon for the table. And then we’d all get really drunk together and do karaoke and have a rare old time. Because there’s nothing like an awareness of the ephemeral nature of everything you care about to make you want to really live, while you’re here.

Anyway, in practice this translates to me worrying horribly when someone I love has a health scare and doing reassuring things like crying when they tell me stuff because I can’t bear to think of them being really sick. And writing stories about apocalypses and singing in the darkness at the edge of the world. It feels like the pandemic has kind of brought everyone else to where I am, in terms of trying to work out how to live alongside this inescapable awareness of death, and suddenly everyone’s writing about how fragile everything is. I’m a bit Get your tanks off my lawn about it, honestly.

What is your earliest childhood memory of fear?

I grew up on a ‘70s TV diet of action movies and the Dukes of Hazard. Every TV car crash I’d ever seen ended up with the car blowing up in a spectacular fireball, so when I was nine and the car we were travelling to our holiday in suddenly lost its steering, flipped over and over and landed on its roof in a field, I knew exactly what to expect. I remember the interior of the car spinning around us like we were in a washing machine, and then the next thing I knew I was standing on the other side of the field with my little brother shoved protectively behind me, waiting for the explosion and the blooming cloud of flame. Of course, nothing happened. It was a solid, ancient Volvo estate; everyone was fine, even the dog (who I’d forgotten about, and who was in the boot with a load of deadly projectiles in the form of camping gear and food cans). I was the only one to execute that classic run and dive into a protective hedge I’d seen modelled so many times. So the scariest part of the whole experience never actually transpired, which you’d think would be a lesson in not being scared of things that might not happen. It was pretty freaky, though.

What is the scariest thing you watched in childhood?

There was an episode of—I think—Dr Who I saw when I was about six in which the stones in an ancient stone circle came to life at night and pulsed and moved. The protagonists would open a door and there’d be one of these huge stones. I don’t even know what they actually did to anyone in the episode, but for years after I used to lie awake at night, terrified, imagining a ten-foot-tall stone waiting silently outside my window. 

This episode of Dr. Who looks about as far from terrifying as you can get, but don’t tell Helen I said that.

What is your weirdest fear?

This is embarrassing, but I really, really hate making phone calls. Not to friends—some of my closest friends are overseas, so we spend half our lives on video calls–but those serious, talking to the tax office, grown-up sorts of voice calls. I will put an admin call off until I’m at actual risk of getting fined or going to jail or something if I don’t make it. I can make phone calls like this for other people—I’ve done advocacy work in which it was a major part of my job—but when it’s for me, it makes me want to cry. I don’t really know why, but I know a few other people who also regard those who make normal voice calls as reckless maniacs.

 What are your phobias?

I used to have a really bad phobia of mould. If I opened something up and it was mouldy, I would just have to get out of the house. I’ve pretty much overcome that, although I can’t say I’m a massive fan of fungus. I’m quite scared of wasps, and have to try to pretend not to be because I’m a parent. They do target you, though, don’t they. I think they smell fear. They’re such jerks.

What is your favorite urban legend?

There’s a persistent urban/rural legend in Norfolk, England, where I live, of big cats living elusively in the wild. England is cold and miserable about six months of the year and we have no native big cats, and nobody has ever managed to produce a photograph of one of them, but there has been a steady stream of reported half-sightings for decades. Norfolk is a big, flat, sparsely populated county with woodlands and heathlands, and every now and then something eats half a sheep in a way that’s pretty savage for something like a fox. I was extremely sceptical until one night, driving home with someone else in the car, in a remote part of the county, a black, slinky shape about the size of a Labrador shot along the side of the road in the headlights and into the bushes. It was only a second’s glimpse, but we both saw it at the same time, and it did not move like a dog. So who knows. There’s also the Norfolk legend of Black Shuck, the giant ghost dog, but that’s more for folk tales and tourists. I’m pretty sure that’d have to be a lot bigger than a Labrador, for dramatic effect.

Is there anything you are terrified of eating? Why?

I can’t handle seafood: all those eyes and tentacles. I’m sure I’m missing out, and I’m okay with that.

“I can’t handle seafood: all those eyes and tentacles.”

 What scares you most about the writing process?

Whenever I’m not in the middle of writing something, the idea of starting a new story feels insurmountable. I have this secret fear that everything I’ve written so far has been a massive fluke and that this is it, now: my luck has run out and I’ll never have another idea again. Then something, or someone—a deadline, a request, a writing group prompt, a writer buddy—forces me to get over myself and just bloody sit down and do it. And it feels like the hardest thing in the world, pushing through that inertia; then a new idea begins to stretch into life, and it turns out this mad, magical thing our writer-brains do in coming out with words and scenes from who-knows-where still works. God knows how. I do think it’s a tough gig being a flash fiction writer, though—you do constantly have to have new ideas and the courage to keep believing there’ll be another one along soon enough.

Do you have any horror movie dealbreakers?

I’m really crap at horror movies. I don’t like watching bad things happening to people, which does rather rule out most of the genre. I watched The Green Mile and loved it, but I watched it with people who know me and who said YOU MIGHT WANT TO GO INTO THE KITCHEN ‘TIL THIS BIT IS OVER, and I did, so I missed whatever the disturbing part is of that. This probably gives you an idea of the level of weediness you’re dealing with. There’s a scene in Master and Commander where they have to saw a little boy’s leg off without any anaesthetic, because it’s set in The Good Old Days, and I had to go out of the cinema. I’m such a wimp, it’s embarrassing, really.

What is your favorite monster/villain?

I LOVE Villanelle from Killing Eve. She’s a completely cold-blooded assassin/serial killer and by the time you’ve watched three episodes you’ve gone from being appalled to being more completely on her side than anyone you’ve ever watched. She’s capricious and funny and brilliantly Machiavellian. Brutal, vulnerable, beautiful, ridiculously cool. I can’t imagine how straight you’d have to be not to have a crush on her. I love her.

What’s worse: being buried alive or bitten by a vampire

Vampires are sexy and cool. How is this a contest? Always choose vampires! You get to swan around in black leather and live forever. Honestly, the more I think about it, the more this seems like the solution to a lot of things.

Helen Rye has won the Bath Flash Fiction Award, the Reflex Fiction contest, and been placed and shortlisted in a number of other competitions. Her stories appear in The Best Small Fictions 2020, have been nominated for The Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and are published in many journals and anthologies. She is currently studying part time for an MA in prose fiction at the University of East Anglia, where she won the 2019/20 Annabel Abbs Scholarship. She is a senior editor at SmokeLong Quarterly and a consulting editor at Lighthouse Literary Journal. She is working on a first collection of flash fiction.