It’s interesting to think of Runge’s debut collection Seven Sins in these terms. If it were a baby, Seven Sins would be the sort of child to keep you awake all night, in fear that it might be coming to destroy you. This is a very dark collection of stories, and deliberately so.
Karen has always loved dark fiction. She blames her brother who used to try to torment her with tales of ghosts and ghouls – but instead instilled in her a lifelong love of horror. As a six-year-old, she was obsessed with werewolves. She wrote as soon as she was able, and says that as a child she couldn’t wait to start writing.
But there are no literal monsters in Karen’s stories; only humans. She has been criticised for calling herself a horror writer because she doesn’t write about the supernatural. But, as Karen says, there’s nothing more chilling than the horror that humans themselves are capable of. She’s wary of labels and making anything too clear cut. Good people do bad things, and bad people do good things.
“I get very annoyed reading newspaper articles where they just blanket these stories,” Karen says. “They make the villain and they make the good guy. And life isn’t like that. It’s not that simple. It really isn’t that clean cut. And it bugs me, you know. And I thought, okay, let’s think of some of the most dreadful, awful, terrible, vile things that one person can do to another, and show the reason for it in a way that other people can maybe relate to or empathise with, even if they don’t agree. I’m not saying to condone what they’re doing, but to understand a little bit better, that when people do bad things it isn’t always because they’re bad people. There’s a whole soup of stuff going on in there that might push someone to make a decision that’s really, really evil.”
“there’s nothing more chilling than the horror that humans themselves are capable of”
The first story in the collection is ‘Sweet Old Man’ which was published in Structo 10. It’s an appropriate opener, exploring as it does both youth and old age. Karen is keen to break down the assumptions that we have about old age, about disability and about women.
“I don’t like this idea of people saying, oh that sweet little old lady and that sweet little old man. Just like I don’t like the idea of people assuming that because someone is disabled they must be an absolutely lovely person because they’ve gone through this horrible experience. And likewise I’m not mad about the idea that all children are all divine little angels either. I mean, I’m not trying to say that these people are evil. I’m just saying that that’s not necessarily the case. Someone who is disabled, yes, they’ve gone through a lot. But you don’t actually know how they’ve processed that, and how it has changed them. And it isn’t always nice. Likewise, with old people, you’re looking at someone who is 80-plus years old. That’s a lot of living. That’s a lot of years to do things. And not all of them nice.”
Karen was careful in her collection not to focus on the ‘deadly seven’. Those sins have been done to death. Instead she focused on the actual brutalities that we are capable of. The collection moves through the life cycle: pregnancy, childhood, sexual awakening, child-rearing, and finally – as this is a book – exploring sin, punishment.
“When these deeds have been done, what happens? What is the difference between punishment and torture? I wanted to explore that. How much punishment is too much? When you’re really angry with someone, when someone has really done something really, really evil, when does your empathy kick in? And when do you have mercy? Do you have mercy? Because that in itself is a sin, you know, not having mercy.”
Karen is an admirer of Stona Fitch’s work, and contacted him (“I fanmailed the guy, like a stalker.”) to say how much she enjoyed his work. From there a correspondence grew, and eventually publication with his publishing house Concord EPress. She is absolutely effusive about the experience of working with Concord.
“I’ve said it 16 times, I’ll say it 16 thousand more. Concord Free Press: amazing what they’ve done. Just incredible. The stops that they’ve pulled for me, for this book. They’re just amazing. And they’re all volunteers. How do they find the time?”
Karen is also very proud of having been published in Structo. “A horror writer in a literary press!” And of course, as one of our Structo alumni, we are thrilled with Karen’s success.
In the immediate future, Karen is continuing to work on promoting her ‘baby’ Seven Sins. She also has a novel forthcoming with Grey Matter Press and is working on a novella.
Something of that six-year old obsessed with horror still remains. “One fine day,” Karen says. “I’d really like to write a really good werewolf story. But not now. Right now I’m too interested in the human monster.”