What Scares You, Letitia Trent?

Letitia Trent is the author of Summer Girls, available for pre-order from Agape Editions, Haunted Doll House imprint. Her other work includes the novel Almost Dark and the poetry collection Match Cut. Her poetry and short stories have most recently appeared in Biscuit Hill, Figure 1, and Smartish Pace. Her short story “Wilderness” was nominated for a Shirley Jackson award. She lives in a haunted Ozark mountain town with her family and works in the mental health field. She can be reached via her substack Tell Me Something Good or Bluesky. 

Do you have a recurring nightmare?

Ever since high school, I’ve had dreams of losing people in a crowd or waking up in the morning and finding myself alone in the house with my parents. The one about waking up alone wasn’t much of a horror scenario (sometimes), but my relationship with my parents has always been rocky. Losing people in a crowd, though, would really rattle me. This became a recurring dream after I got married. In this dream, I’m always at a party where I feel uncomfortable or alone (not an uncommon real-life experience). In the confusion of people, my husband drifts away from me and gets lost in the crowd. When I realize he’s not next to me, I look for him and see him from a distance. I end up following him from room to room, unable to ever really get to him in the press of bodies. In my panic, I bump into people, knock over drinks, and am generally rude. I follow his retreating figure out the front door, where I rush to catch up, but when I go out the door, I find the street empty and him gone. 

Have you ever had any paranormal experiences or premonitions?

I’ve always wanted to see a ghost, or a UFO, or something anomalous, but the closest I’ve come is when I used a Ouija board with a friend a few months after I had my son. I’ve rarely ever found a friend willing to use Ouija with me, and my husband is too scared from his Southern Baptist childhood and 80s horror movies, but I was raised by a lapsed Catholic and daytime television, so I’m up for anything. I’ve never gotten one to work on my own, but my friend and I got the planchette moving. At one point, when we asked who was here with us, the board spelled out “I hear the baby crying,” which was pretty freaky, because my baby actually was crying. I am still completely baffled by this today, though I can’t say this made me afraid, since I’m still not convinced we weren’t somehow manifesting the movement unintentionally–it did feel like an outside force). I’m still waiting for somebody who is willing to do the Ouija again with me to see if I can repeat the experience, but I live in Arkansas now, where Ouija board fear is roughly equivalent to the fear of copperheads and the air conditioner breaking during a heat wave.

“The board spelled out, ‘I hear the baby crying,’ which was pretty freaky, because my baby actually was crying.

What is your greatest fear as a writer?

I’m afraid that I’ll never quite get my ideas on the page exactly the way they feel in my brain. Every time I finish a novel (and now I’m wondering, have I ever truly “finished” a novel or do I just stop when I have to?), it’s on to a new challenge, one that always feels just out of my reach. I just finished a novel, Summer Girls, where I challenged myself to write something more in the domestic suspense genre. As a writer who struggles with plot, I enjoyed the process of seeing how a more genre-oriented novel gets filtered through my brain that leans more literary and horror, and what I learned is that I constantly felt at the edge of failure. I’m happy with the outcome and incredibly grateful to my editor and early readers who helped guide my way, but I truly didn’t know what I had until the end of the process. I love that surprise, but I also feel like I’m going to mess it up every time. My next novel is a kind of supernatural crime horror, a genre mashup that feels completely out of my dreamy, atmospheric wheelhouse. I can’t say I’m intentionally leaning into my fears as much as following my obsessions right down into possible disaster, but at least I’m never bored. 

What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever written?

I’ve written a couple of traditional horror stories, one that even appeared in the Best Horror of the Year, Volume 8, but I think my current novel is technically the scariest because it’s about something that makes me truly fearful: how vulnerable our human brains are, and how early messages about the world, ourselves, and our worth can take hold and shape the trajectory of our lives. Summer Girls features a character who joins a cult, and I find cults fascinating and terrifying because so many otherwise intelligent, educated, and functioning people can end up in them. The Chad and Lori Daybell story, NXIVN, the Mother God cult, Heaven’s Gate, Twin Flames, or even the Tik Tok dancing cult, all have various levels of harm, from actual murder to abuse both suffered and commited by members. I was interested in how this happens: how do we decide to submit our will to people with both rhetorical or actual power? How much of it is even a decision, and how much is manipulation, and how can we see outside of our own experience?  I’m using the word “we” here because I suspect many of us are vulnerable to bad ideas in the right circumstances, and that basic human vulnerability is terrifying to me because I know I have it, too. 

What’s your favorite horror movie or television series?

HANNIBAL! It’s beautiful, well-acted, deeply weird, and also disgusting. I adore it. I love how stylized and mannered it is, how everybody refers to everybody else by their full names. It’s darkly funny, too, which I caught more often in my recent third rewatch. I think the ending is perfect and wish I had endless seasons. 

What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read? Is there a particular scene that really haunts you still?

Definitely The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. What terrifies me about this book is that it’s ultimately a seduction: the house wants Eleanor/Nell, and because Eleanor is lonely, she’s vulnerable. It might be terrifying to her, and to everyone else, but it seems to know her, invites her, and ultimately feels more comfortable than the human connections she tries to make with Theo or any of the other people in the house. I relate to Nell a lot – she’s not good with people, she’s isolated, she’s had little opportunity to build connections, and she doesn’t quite know what she’s capable of. This goes back to what scares me about cults and the human mind: we are far more vulnerable than we think we are, and so we can be maniuplated without even realizing it. It’s also just beautifully written. We are in Nell’s mind, throughout, filtering the experience through her eyes, so the turn at the end feels like a gut punch.

What’s something you’ll never do because you’re too scared?

Skydiving is an absolute no for me. Even if you show me hard evidence that parachutes open 99.9 percent of the time, I can’t be sure that I’m not going to be the one person who ends up squashed like a bug. It would be an incredibly embarrassing and expensive way to die.

What’s the scariest place you’ve ever been?

This is going to sound like a joke, but I was truly scared in this situation. Once, my husband got recruited for some kind of weird MLM before MLMs were as much in the mainstream awareness, maybe around 2005. He was working at a videogame store and some very clean-cut guys who looked more like missionaries than customers complimented him on his sales skills and invited him to an “exciting career opportunity.” He agreed to go check it out and I tagged along. 

These guys took us out to the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, where we parked in what appeared to be an enormous, empty parking lot. To our surprise, they said the place we were going only had street parking, so they’d drive us the rest of the way. I had not watched as much true crime as I have now, so I did not know to never go to a second location, but I still felt pretty strange about the whole situation. They took us to a very clean, empty McMansion where we sat on folding chairs in front of a large white pad of paper on an easel. A man who had to be under thirty, in an ill-fitting white button-up shirt and slacks, came out to applause and asked how many of us wanted to be rich. This, apparently, was the “leader” of this business. I didn’t raise my hand, because I didn’t really want to be rich, just able to pay my bills. He immediately clocked me as not the right type of person for this opportunity, which revealed itself to be a pyramid scheme involving selling dial-up internet boosters to low-income communities, but the real sale was the recruitment of people in those communities to start their own “small business.” I was not exactly educated in business, but I could tell this wasn’t a viable model. Once we were released from the seemingly endless, painful meeting, we were taken from the empty house to the empty parking lot by an extremely perky woman, who at one point turned to me and asked how I liked the leader’s speech. I made some positive noises in her direction, and she said to me, beaming, “He’s such a believer.” It was a freaky moment because this woman seemed so disconnected from reality, joining an organization that was supposed to be a business on the basis of belief, and seemingly so happy in that delusion, that I started to feel like she could be capable of anything. Hell, maybe if we didn’t take the fifty-dollar starter pack, she’d slam us all into a brick wall. I have never been so excited to get back to my car before.