V.E. Schwab on the Beautiful Horror that Lurks in the Halls of Gallant

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V.E. Schwab on the Beautiful Horror that Lurks in the Halls of <i>Gallant</i>

Too often, when we think of horror, we think of things that are not often considered beautiful: Gory murders, decomposing bodies, ghosts with clanking chains, and zombies trailing rotting bits of flash behind them. Horror is supposed to be frightening and, generally, we consider the things we’re afraid of to be things that are also ugly. (Unless they’re vampires, I guess. Then all bets are off.) But the horror genre is also the rightful home of the weird and the odd, the unexpected and the ambitious. Things that, if looked at in the right light, can be strangely and compellingly lovely, even in their blood and decay.

Such is the case with V.E. Schwab’s Gallant, a story of a house haunted by ghosts both literal and figurative and the cursed family that inhabits its walls. A dark fairytale that runs the gamut between cautionary reminder and atmospheric field guide, it’s easy to get swept up in the lush descriptions of both the real Gallant and its dark, foreboding twin, a building on the other side of a garden wall that divides two very different worlds.

“For the first three years I was working on [this book], I thought it was a fairytale. I thought I wanted to tell a fairytale. I had the house. I had the garden wall. I knew there was a wild space beyond that garden wall, but I always just kind of was like, “Well, that’s where the woods are. That’s where the Fae spirits are’,” Schwab explains. “In someone else’s hands, that’s what it would be. I’m a huge fan of authors like Holly Black, who handles the Fae so well. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t me.”

Instead, Schwab ended up writing a story that is grounded in a dark reflection of our own world, one in which a ragged corpse holds court over a dead house and a rotting garden cries out for fresh blood. It’s horrifying and strangely beautiful by turns, eternal and decaying all at once, a story that primarily exists in the in-between of life and death, and whose images will stay with you long after the final page.

“I’ve always loved liminal spaces,” Schwab says. “Usually, I have to keep them [restricted] to metaphor and motif. For this, I was dealing with a physical doorway and I remember having just an absolute moment of clarity three years into the creative process on this book. I remember watching Stranger Things and I just thought, ‘Instead of a forest beyond that wall, instead of a wild place, what if it is a different version of Gallant itself? What does that mean?’

The story of Gallant is, on the surface, fairly straightforward: Young Olivia Prior longs to find a place to belong. An orphan forced to live at the drab and institutional Merilance School for Independent Girls, she’s often shunned by the matrons and frequently tormented by her classmates because she is mute. (The fact that she alone can see the ghouls that haunt the property doesn’t exactly help make her any friends either.) Her most prized possession is a journal that once belonged to her long-absent mother, scribbled with writings and drawings that don’t shed much light on who Olivia is or where her family came from.

Naturally, when a letter arrives from an unknown uncle inviting her to join his family at their mansion, she jumps at the chance. But when she arrives at the eponymous Gallant, Olivia learns that her uncle is dead, no one remembers inviting her to stay, and the cousin who greets her orders her off the property as quickly as possible. That she doesn’t go shouldn’t surprise anyone, nor should her determination to unravel the mysteries of her family and its history. After all, she’s always been able to see ghosts—what’s a few more? Particularly if she might actually be related to some of them. Plus, there’s something about Gallant and the strange garden wall that her cousin seems to be working himself to the bone to maintain—that he’s sometimes literally bleeding to feed—that sparks Olivia’s curiosity.

“I was very taken with the claustrophobia of this house. The disrepair and the decay,” Schwab explains. “I think the common thread in all my books, is an examination of mortality and the idea of taking life and death from a one-way street into a two-way street. I’m really interested in the porousness of death.”

Schwab reserves her lushest and most descriptive prose for her shadow world, a grim mirror image of ours that for once actually perfectly matches up with the description disseminated in Gallant marketing materials (Crimson Peak meets The Secret Garden). From its delicately rotting surfaces to its hushed, threatening quiet, this dark world within a world is beautifully rendered: half-dream and half nightmare. The unnamed villain at the center of the piece is both horrifying and desolate, a “grotesque” reminder that as much of this is a story full of vibrant life, it is also a tale of the inexorable, inevitable—and necessary—nature of its end.

“Not to be the morbid writer who’s like, ‘Death is beautiful’,” Schwab laughs. “But fall is my favorite season. I do think there’s intense beauty in the cycle and the idea that in nature, things have to go through death in order to come back again. I’ve always been attracted to the fact that there’s so much beauty that comes from that part of the circle.”

The foreboding feel of Gallant also reflects something of the personally dark period in which Schwab wrote the book.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking at this story in retrospect, I can see a lot of the themes, the pieces [I] was working with and how it informs what you’re doing,” Schwab explains. “It was a very claustrophobic year. I was at my parents house in France, and they live in a small village and we were, for the first eight months of the pandemic, not allowed to leave the village. We have to have paperwork to go beyond a kilometer. And I was writing Gallant. It was a dark season.”

Given that environment, it’s not surprising that the author managed to so vividly craft a decrepit mansion, full of decay and teeming with literal ghosts.

Gallant is also rather remarkable in that it contains so little actual dialogue. There’s plenty of communication—and as readers, we’re treated to a birds-eye view of what Olvia, our narrator, is thinking—but there’s not much in the way of spoken word. So Schwab had to find other ways to allow Olivia to “speak”.

“I knew when I set out to write the story that Olivia was going to be nonverbal. Which is terrifying as a writer for whom dialogue is always a kind of crutch,” Schwab says. “But I think it plays well into isolation and the claustrophobia of the story.”

Throughout Gallant, there are scenes in which Olivia is desperate not just to communicate, but to be understood in the specific way that has been so often denied to her throughout her life. And, for her, part of finding a place to belong is inextricably connected to finding a place where she’s heard.

“It was really important to me that—there’s no magical cure for [Olivia’s] situation,” she continues. “[But the story] is not about giving her a voice. She absolutely has a voice. It’s just about what happens when you don’t have the kind of voice that the people around you have, and so it’s taken for silence.”

Instead, Schwab explores other avenues of storytelling and communication throughout the book, from music and journaling to the actual illustrations that appear throughout the physical text, which serve various purposes throughout the story and provide important clues about how the world of Gallant works.

“I had done comic work before, so I knew the beauty of collaboration, and I knew that [illustrations] could be such an additive experience to the narrative,” she explains. “But I wanted illustrations in the meat of the narrative. And I don’t see many stories for which the illustrations are [this] integral. [Here,] they’re one of the voices of the book.”

Schwab describes being “terrified” about not finding the right illustrator for the project, otherwise “whole pieces of the narrative” would have had to be structured differently. Happily, Manuel Šumberac’s creepy, haunting drawings more than do the trick, adding a strange beauty to the edges of the text we’re reading, while still playing an important role in the story Schwab is telling.

While, technically, Gallant is categorized as a YA novel, and its protagonist is very clearly a young girl, the themes of this book, like so many of Schwab’s other works, speak to readers of all age ranges. (In fact, the author refers to it herself as her first “all ages” novel.) However, after the runaway success of her more recent fantasy, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, readers may find themselves surprised by the more overt horror elements of Gallant.

“For me, I’ve always been the kind of person who what you don’t see is so much scarier than what you do,” Schwab says. “The mind’s own landscape is so ripe for horror. I’ve always been more attracted to the stories that force you to be alone with yourself because I think what scares me about horror is not when I’m actually consuming it. It’s when I’m lying in bed that night, and I have nobody but my own thoughts to deal with whatever it is that I have consumed.”

Schwab still doesn’t consider herself a horror writer, though she clearly has noticed the trend in her own work.

“I never think of it as horror, but as I look back over my books, I’m like, ‘There’s definitely fear and the macabre’, she laughs. “But here’s the other thing I find really interesting: I guess I like writing it because when you’re writing it, you’re playing God. The whole thing that makes horror scary is to be on the receiving end of it.”

Gallant is available now.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.