Discover the allure of epistolary horror, a genre that brings authenticity to storytelling by using letters, diaries, and other documents. Lee Murray explores this captivating form in her works, including her latest cosmic horror novella, Despatches.
Epistolary Horror: Told in Despatches by Lee Murray
By Lee Murray
Ever felt the forbidden thrill of reading something not intended for you? The secret voyeurism of the kind you might experience on your daily commute when you spy a stranger’s text messages over their shoulder, or when a colleague leaves their computer unattended, and you can’t help but glance over to see who they’ve been writing to? What about the tingle of excitement at leafing through your grandmother’s dusty journal from long ago, a bunch of yellowing letters still in their crumpled envelopes tucked in the back jacket—and the anticipation of discovering some insight or adventure from her former life, perhaps when she was about the same age as you are now?
This secret desire to spy on the inner thoughts of others through letters, diaries, newspaper clippings and other media is the allure of epistolary fiction, a format that “weaves a powerful illusion of authenticity, framing fiction as real-life, firsthand surviving documentation,” writes my horror colleague Emily Ruth Verona in a recent article on Tor.Com. She says: “In the same way the warning ‘based on a true story…’ sends a chill through the spine at the start of a scary movie, the voyeuristic sense of realness sets the stage for epistolary horror to unfold. Letters, diaries, phone records, emails, police reports—these are all dated or even time-stamped in epistolary fiction, presented in very specific and sometimes extremely official-looking ways. It makes the story feel real, as if the reader is discovering an old box of loose papers that they shouldn’t be looking at—it seems excessively personal and fascinates us almost in the same way that true crime can fascinate. The reader gets pulled into the details, wrapped up in the cleverly crafted reflections and echoes of reality…”
The epistolary form has a grand tradition in literature, and especially in horror where the genres’ founding European texts—Dracula by Bram Stoker, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley—both embody this revelatory approach. It’s a form that works well for historical texts penned at a time when news travelled at a slower pace, taking months or even years to reach the intended recipient. In an example from my own work, “Edward’s Journal” (Grotesque: Monster Stories, Crossroad Press), a journal by protagonist Edward Chatfield is sent home to his sweetheart in England thirteen years after she last sighted it. Successive entries from Chatfield’s journey, recount the last days of certain grenadiers of the infamous ‘Die Hard’ regiment in the bush surrounding New Zealand’s New Plymouth in 1864, a time of high tension between the colonists and local iwi (tribes).
Epistolary approaches often appear in stories written by and intended for women. As scholar Ruth Perry describes it, in epistolary tales, characters transcribe ‘uncensored streams of consciousness’, such that they ‘think out loud – on paper’. This means that their innermost thoughts are laid bare, opinions and sentiments that women weren’t permitted to share in civilised social spaces historically—and not necessarily all that long ago. In another epistolary horror story, “Hothouse Crush” (Dracula Unfanged, IFWG), I leaned into letters and notes as a venue for marginalised voices, examining teenage lust and subterfuge in a New Zealand girls’ boarding school in the 80s—that is, back in the days when typing was still taught on the school curriculum, and before smart phones, apps, and influencers existed. In the story, a Dracula spin-off in which the vampire is re-imagined as a fae masquerading as a high school groundsman, several boarding girls secretly stay on during the school’s annual closure to pursue summer flirtations, and without their parents’ knowledge, the deception maintained through notes pushed hurriedly down the back of a radiator. Told from various perspectives—students and teachers—only the reader maintains a full picture of the horrific and tragic events.
That’s the case for my latest work too, cosmic horror novella Despatches (Absinthe Books, September 2023, cover art by Greg Chapman), which follows the observations, and the despatches, of Daily Star journalist Cassius Smythe, who tells of the characters he encounters during the WWI Allied campaign on the Dardanelles Peninsula. However, the War Office’s censorship of his work in favour of more uplifting copy means the newspaperman’s horrific discoveries go unreported at home. Underneath the story of the war and the cosmic forces at play, when read between the lines, in Despatches there is another quieter story of the character’s otherness. And therein lies another quirk of the epistolary form: the horror of missing or truncated entries on the understanding of the reader, the white space as often as eloquent as any text. Dedicated to my adoptive grandfather, Len Nicklin of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, who cared for the donkeys at Anzac Cove, Despatches is the longest work of epistolary horror I’ve attempted, and features newspaper articles, journal entries, letters, drafts, and transcripts.
“A masterclass in weaving myth into the darkest gaps in history, Lee Murray’s latest novella is at once moving and disturbing. Murray’s writing breathes life to the very human face of the Allied Campaign and conjures terrifying cosmic forces that lie behind the madness of war. Among the mud, despair, and death, there are aching moments of connection and ordinary beauty, which hold a bittersweet light against the realisation we are ultimately small and alone against the pitiless dark. Meticulously researched and vividly written, Despatches is outstanding historical horror.” —Geneve Flynn, double Bram Stoker Award-winner, and editor of Black Cranes
In a weird coincidence, also coming from Absinthe Books in September 2023 is Alan Baxter’s fabulous novella The Leaves Forget, a contemporary epistolary horror-thriller set in Tasmania, which features the last letters Olivia sent to her brother Craig, correspondence that is received months after she goes missing, the result of an incorrect address. What ensues is a race against time, with the family desperate to unravel the mystery of Olivia’s disappearance even though it may already be too late. It’s a pulse-pounding read, visceral and confronting, with a supernatural aspect that is decidedly sinister. I reached out to Baxter and asked what made him choose the epistolary format for his latest work.
“Whenever someone says something can’t be done, I take it as a challenge. I was reading a thing about how modern horror never works as epistolary storytelling and only the old-fashioned Lovercraft-era stuff was any good. So I decided to prove that wrong. The first quarter to a third or so of The Leaves Forget is entirely letters, written from a missing sister to her brother. I think it turned out really well!”
I wonder about the general impression Baxter refers to that epistolary doesn’t work for stories with a modern context, as I have also heard readers and writers make this observation—strange given the success and upsurge of modern found-footage horror movies, since the groundbreaking Blair Witch Project was released in 1999. I’m pleased Baxter didn’t take note, or we would not have The Leaves Forget, which is a triumph.
In fact, I find it surprising that we are not seeing more contemporary narratives delivered in epistolary fashion since the use of direct evidence to progress plot, character, and theme is an immersive, emotion-rich show-not-tell writing technique which allows the reader to form their own opinion of events, a style which delivers a more satisfying reading experience than traditional ‘telling’ approaches. Epistolary narratives make for fast reading too, with our modern eyes becoming more and more accustomed to scanning a series of short texts or emails for content.
Despite the reluctance from some quarters, the epistolary approach has indeed been used to good effect by modern writers of horror. Consider The Troop by Nick Cutter, Carrie by Stephen King, and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War and Devolution, both by Max Brooks. Also consider The Ghost That Ate Us: The Tragic True Story of the Burger City Poltergeist by New York Times best-selling author Daniel Kraus (Raw Dog Screaming Press), an epistolary thriller in the vein of the found-footage movie. Here, the author “pulls together strands of evidence [footnotes, quotes from news reports, analyses of security-camera footage, and crime-scene photos… and interviews with living survivors of the tragedy] to create the ‘definitive story’ of ‘the most exhaustively documented haunting in history.’” Readers should also check out Erica LaRocca’s Bram Stoker Award-nominated novella, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, where two women meet in an online queer chatroom, their seemingly innocuous communications quickly devolving into a brutal and shocking outcome.
With communication technologies advancing faster than we can blink, readers hungry for immersive, diverse reading experiences, AI technologies challenging authors to seek out innovative approaches to compete, and our universal voyeuristic impulse to take a sneak peek at messages not meant for us, I think we can expect many more epistolary horror stories, both historical and contemporary, to be mentioned in future despatches.
Despatches by Lee Murray
Daily Star war correspondent Cassius Smythe is off to the Dardanelles to report on the Allied campaign. That is, if only the War Office will let him tell the truth. But after months in the trenches at Anzac Cove, Smythe learns that it isn’t just the Ottoman who wish to claim back the land, and the truth is as slippery as a serpent…
A NOVELLA by Lee Murray
CATEGORY Supernatural Horror
PUBLICATION DATE September 2023
COVER ART Greg Chapman
Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor, essayist, poet, and screenwriter from Aotearoa-New Zealand. A USA Today Bestselling author, Shirley Jackson- and five-time Bram Stoker Awards® winner, she is an NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, a Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow, and 2023 NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize winner. leemurray.info
Lee Murray’s Despatches and Alan Baxter’s The Leaves Forget are available from 15 September 2023 from Absinthe Books / PS Publishing.
Ruth Perry, Women, Letters, and the Novel (New York: AMS Press, 1980), p. 128.
Paste Staff. The Forty best Found Footage Movies. Past Magazine. 23 June 2023. https://www.pastemagazine.com/movies/horror-movies/best-found-footage-horror-movies
Verona, E.R. Eight Incredible Examples of Epistolary Horror. Tor.Com. 23 March 2022 https://www.tor.com/2022/03/23/eight-incredible-examples-of-epistolary-horror/
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