The orange October sky darkens to twilight, flirting with the silhouette of the Providence skyline. The lights above the streets in the highline apartments flicker on, while the storefronts on the sidewalks flip their signs and go dark. A fall breeze hushes through the tight streets. The bell of a shop door closing jingles distantly, once; harkening the quiet settling of night. Victoria Dalpe clicks her heels down the chilling street, drawing a coat tight around her shivering body. She is off to a local coffee shop that doubles as a bar, to read an excerpt from her short story anthology, Les Femmes Grotesque. As she passes the Providence Place Mall, she stops briefly to peer over the bridge into the murky depths of the Providence River. She imagines, against sane judgment, the fall from grace. To propel herself from the solid to the unknown, a feeling she expresses in her stories as the “call of the void,” the French term being “l’appel du vide.” Quickly, a character forms in her head, inspired by the New England gothic that haunts her writing: a Victorian woman, in a fit of insanity, thrown from the once-Biltmore building, suspended in the dark green waters of the immortal rivers that feed Rhode Island. Dalpe enters the bar; a small crowd of people wait anxiously to enrapture themselves in the uncanny fascination with the unknown that is the trademark of her stories. The dark characters of her creation stand behind her, unseen, as she begins: “Hold your breath. Keep holding it. Hold it until your chest is on fire, until you see spots, until your ears pop. Hold it even while your body bucks and begins to fight you, hold it. And when you can fight no longer, and your body takes over your mind, forces you to take that breath, let the water in. Let it fill you until you sink, let it fill you until you are dead. And then you’ll be with me.”
Victoria Dalpe grew up in rural New Hampshire with a family that celebrated all things creepy in literature. Her grandmother enjoyed stories about sorority slashers and pervert robbers, her father loved Stephen King, and her mother read Victorian gothics. In this environment, she “came naturally to horror very young. I was both fascinated and terrified by it. Like peeking through the fingers, not wanting to see but wanting to see. I loved the darker side of things.”
Before dedicating herself to her writing, she worked as an administrator at MOMA in New York, but it was just another desk job that burnt her out. When she moved back to Providence she decided to take a year off work to write, to see if she “could actually do it.” In that year, she wrote her first published book and since then her work has appeared in 40plus anthologies of short stories, taught long- and short-form fiction writing workshops, and is currently focusing on her second and third books. The horror genre “is a lot bigger than most people realize. 50% of readership is women and its authorship is 50% women. It is very much a women’s space, and it doesn’t get a lot of attention as a women’s space.”
What fascinates Dalpe about the horror genre is its use of metaphor. By using a monster allegory, a writer can be more honest about human issues and identity than they can by just using drama. To Dalpe, there is catharsis through horror. “Why are we compelled to go to haunted houses or freak ourselves out? It is exposure therapy. It gives us access to those feelings without actual murder.” Her characters are inspired by her life, whether it be from the news or from the unsettling towns and people that make up antiquated Rhode Island, her stories prove there is a thin line between reality and mystery.
Dalpe is reimagining horror literature by creating an environment that is suitable for everyone. When she was on the panel for the RI Horror Convention, she tackled the complicated legacy of HP Lovecraft. As important as the writer was to the genre, he was racist and mentally ill. She teaches people to recognize his faults and afflictions, while also recognizing the separate merits of his writing. Older horror stories mimic the kind of prejudices that are trademarks of some early 20th century writing.
“People were very afraid of indigenous people in those early settler days, [of] their [supposed] alien weirdness. But in truth, the settlers were the alien weirdos.”
Dalpe’s horror writing classes inspire writers to delve into the world of horror; if not to be published, then for themselves. “If you want to write, just write. Even if no one sees it. As long as you’re writing, and it means something to you, I don’t think it matters if anyone sees it.”
So, what terrifies the queen of Rhode Island’s horror scene? Being lost. “I have a really hard time being lost and alone in places I don’t know. I also have a fear of waking up to someone next to me being stone cold dead.” These innate fears reflect the difference between horror and terror, that something that prickles in all of us when confronted with existential strangeness. “Horror tends to be jump scares, but terror…terror tends to linger and disturb you longer.”
Learn more about Victoria Dalpe and see her upcoming writers workshops at fb.com/victoriadalpeauthor and victoriadalpe.square.site/about.