Striking fear into the hearts of her readers is of the utmost importance to S J (Sharon) Bolton. The author of five successful thrillers—the latest of which, Dead Scared, is published by Bantam Press in April—her aim is to terrify: "I love scaring people. For me a book will work if, from the very first page or two, the reader is on edge. If you've created that atmosphere of doom, that something is going to go horribly wrong, you can almost feel those fingernails scratching down the windowpane," she explains, when we meet in her cosy kitchen in a village on the outskirts of Oxford.
Bolton carved out a distinctive niche with her 2008 début Sacrifice, the first of three thrillers (followed by Awakening and Blood Harvest) often described as "rural gothic". Each was a standalone, set in a remote rural location or a picturesque small village: "I see a particularly beautiful part of the country and think: 'What's lurking beneath?'" she says with a smile. The peaceful setting was combined with a compelling plot that delved into the dark side of English folklore and ritual. The central characters were professional women (an obstetrician, a vet and a psychiatrist respectively) using their intellect to solve a crime that at first might appear to have a supernatural element, but "at the end of the day it's just human wickedness that's going on".
"My heart was always in horror," Bolton explains. "I love the old creepy stories of Stephen King. That's what I set out to write many years ago, but at the time nobody wanted to buy it, it just wasn't fashionable." She recalls an agent telling her straight: "Stephen King could get away with it, but nobody else."
Rather, she was told that what the market wanted was crime—"hardboiled, gritty, realistic police procedural crime. I've never really enjoyed that sort of story and I knew I couldn't write one and make it realistic. So I thought: 'Is there a third way? Can I marry the two? Can I write something that does stand up against the realistic crime stories, but brings in the element that I've always loved, which is the dark, gothic creepy stuff?'"
When she started to write, Bolton found her business background—working mainly in marketing and communications—made her "very aware that the market has to want the product that you're supplying". This was helpful "because if you're writing in an ivory tower with no idea of what's going on, you might come up with a work of sheer genius, but if it's not right for the time..."
Her fourth thriller, Now You See Me, marked a move away from the rural gothic. A gritty police procedural set in London, it featured young policewoman DC Lacey Flint at the centre of an investigation into a copycat Jack the Ripper. Although Bolton says she is naturally inclined to write standalones, by the end of Now You See Me she realised she hadn't finished Lacey's story. So Flint, and her superior officer DI Mark Joesbury, return in Dead Scared.
At the beginning of Dead Scared a spate of violent suicides among undergraduates at Cambridge University has attracted the attention of the authorities—particularly Dr Evi Oliver (the psychiatrist from Blood Harvest), who counselled many of the victims before their macabre deaths. She knows that student suicides are not unheard of, but the rate and circumstances of these deaths indicates that something suspicious is going on.
Flint is sent in to work undercover, posing as vulnerable student Laura Farrow. Soon she is experiencing the same symptoms reported by the students before their deaths; excessive tiredness, nightmares, and worse as the tension ratchets up.
Bolton says that she was very conscious of suicide being a controversial subject to write about in popular fiction: "It's a very sensitive subject to deal with, so I wanted to feel sure that I'd put the background work in. I did read a great deal... I'm always conscious that people suffer in real life the sort of stories that I'm using as entertainment. That's always a difficult thing to come to terms with."
She's now working on the third in the Flint/Joesbury series, which will be set weeks after the events of Dead Scared, with Flint questioning her future in the police. The plot involves the murders of young boys, who are left to die on the south bank of the Thames, and one young boy who believes his father is the killer.
For Bolton, the challenge of writing is "all about the plot," she says. Specifically, creating one that is "complex, that has all the twists and turns and surprises, and that is as watertight as I can make it. I don't like pulling rabbits out of hats. I like to leave enough clues along the way that when the reader gets to the end they think: 'Ah, I should have seen that!'"
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