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Christa Carmen Interview

Estranged sisters. An isolated island. Family secrets. Christa Carmen’s The Daughters of Block Island is a subversive new gothic novel you won’t want to miss. Blake Bronson feels like the heroine of a gothic novel when she first steps foot on Block Island. But her fantasy is cut short when Blake is murdered. Now, it’s up to Blake’s sister, Thalia, to figure out what happened before the buried secrets of the island can claim her life, too.

Read the full interview below.

I love the idea of introducing Blake as a gothic heroine only to flip the script. It reminds me a lot of Marion Crane’s arc in Psycho. How did you come up with the idea of starting with Blake and shifting to Thalia?

Oh, wow, I never thought about it before, but it IS a lot like Marion Crane’s arc in Psycho! What a great observation (and I love Hitchcock’s work and that film in particular).

The first iteration of this novel was a short story told in epistolary format, and the idea was to construct the narrative as a one-sided series of emails, sent from Blake to Thalia, with the story ending on a cliffhanger, suggesting that Blake had been killed for whatever she’d been looking into on Block Island. I thought it was unsettling and unnerving to keep the emails one-sided, so the reader never knew what Thalia’s reaction was to Blake’s revelations—did she believe her? worry for her? plan to get in touch with her once she was off the island?—which, of course would have dramatically narrowed the scope of the story.

This flattening of the narrative scope was, ultimately, why I reimagined the story as more of a ‘passing of the torch’ type of tale, to include both sisters’ points of view. Blake was unable to get to the bottom of what happened in her past, so she reaches forward in time—unbeknownst to her, since getting the envelope addressed to Thalia into the White Hall letterbox ends up being the last thing she does before she is killed by the mysterious Mulberry Maiden—to incite Thalia into taking up the investigation.

One last thing on the shift from Blake to Thalia: the seed of this story came about from my interest in the Twa Sisters murder ballad. In the ballad, one sister attempts to drown the other due to her jealousy over a man; in some versions, the sisters are being two-timed by a suitor. I was interested in the idea of one sister dying because of the actions of... well, I suppose I won’t say anything further to avoid potential spoilers, but suffice it to say that I wanted to play with the concept of sisters being wrapped up in a nefarious plot, but—despite being separated physically—uniting over a common goal in solving the mystery that led to the first sister’s death.

The Daughters of Block Island has been recommended for readers of Ann Radcliffe, the Brontës, Barbara Michaels, and Simone St. James. What are some of your favorite gothic influences?

Definitely every one of the authors you just mentioned, as well as Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, Angela Carter, Jennifer McMahon, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Sarah Waters (The Little Stranger was a HUGE influence on my early writing career), and Elizabeth Hand.

How did you decide on Block Island as the setting?

I wanted something not just remote but sparsely populated, set in Rhode Island (I love writing settings that are intimate to me, and there’s no better way to do this than to set my novels and short stories in my home state... also, conveniently, the smallest state), and that became even more isolated and unforgiving in the winter months, and Block Island fit the bill.

I had originally plotted out the first, short story version of The Daughters of Block Island (then titled The Dreadful Wind & Rain) on Martha’s Vineyard, but I’ve never been to Martha’s Vineyard (which is kind of wild, seeing as I’m a born and bred New Englander and lived here for much of my life), and I didn’t love the idea of setting something so dependent on place in a location I wasn’t familiar with. As soon as I discovered White Hall, which was a real mansion built on the island’s southern shore in the late 1800s by architectural designer Edward Searles (you may recognize this name, as Edward Searles turns up as a character in The Daughters of Block Island), I knew I’d picked the perfect setting.

An island is such a remote location. It’s absolutely perfect for the horror genre but it also plays a huge role in the narrative. Is there any research you had to do to bring the island to life that you hadn’t anticipated?

I’d say most of my research done in hopes of bringing the island to life was on the subject of White Hall as opposed to the culture and layout of Block Island. I felt I’d been to the island enough times over the course of my life to write about it reasonably accurately. Of course, I’m never going to get any place one hundred percent right, one hundred percent of the time, not even my hometown of Westerly, RI, because mine would just be one experience, one perspective of a place. So I didn’t stress too much about local landmarks or taking liberties with restaurant names, etc. I did, however, feel like so much of the tone and atmosphere of the novel sprung from my digging into the history of White Hall. Ethel Colt Ritchie’s book Block Island Lore and Legend, and Vincent P. de Luise, MD’s website, A Musical Vision: Essays and thoughts at the nexus of music, art and medicine and the transformative power of the humanities on the healing of the body and spirit, were indispensable to my writing of this novel, and while I thank them extensively in the novel’s acknowledgments, I’m not sure it’ll ever be enough! Their descriptions of the mansion, the individuals involved in its creation, and their photos of the stark yet ethereal structure, like a ghostly ship rising from the sea, swam like dogged minnows in my mind throughout the penning and editing of Daughters.

The house on the book’s cover sort of reminds me of the building in the wedding photo included in your website bio. Is that a coincidence?

A. Ha! Yes, it is a coincidence, though, again, a remarkable observation! The photo on my website is of the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO, where my husband and I were married seven years ago on Halloween, and from where Stephen King, almost fifty years ago, took inspiration to write The Shining.

Before The Daughters of Block Island, you were known best for your short story collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked. What’s it been like preparing a novel for publication as opposed to a short story collection?

When Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked was published, only three of the thirteen stories hadn’t appeared in print previously, so the editing process for putting out the collection was less intense than that for getting the novel ready for production. Additionally, The Daughters of Block Island will be published by Thomas & Mercer, and with a bigger publisher comes more editing steps (developmental, copyediting, proofreading, etc.). But responding to interview and event requests, preparing for events, reaching out to reviewers with advanced copies, and everything else I’ve engaged in, pre-release of Daughters has been similar to preparing my collection for release in 2018.

Your writing often explores the past and/or the natural world. Where do you think that interest comes from?

I love making connections to historical places and figures and find that these connections often to lead to passions, obsessions, and story ideas. My interest in the “last New England Vampire” led me to writing a (currently unpublished) novel about Mercy Brown. My interest in the 100-mile wilderness in Maine led me to writing a (never-to-be-published!) gothic addiction horror novel—my first novel ever—in 2014. As mentioned previously, my interest in murder ballads and, eventually, in White Hall, led me to writing The Daughters of Block Island. And without saying too much, my interest in a certain famous poet’s former residence, and in this certain famous poet herself, led me to penning the novel that will be out with Thomas & Mercer next fall, 2024, Beneath the Poet’s House. I find that writing novels with some sort of connection to the past or to an actual place fulfills me in a way that writing more free-floating stories ever could.

We at Frightful have a resident dog, so I am required to ask this: does your dog sit in the room with you while you write or roam around in search of alternative entertainment? Mine naps nearby waiting for me to be done on the computer.

My previous dog, a beagle named Maya, lied within eyesight of me for every word I wrote until, very sadly and prematurely, I had to say goodbye to her after thirteen years. My current dog, Mirabel, will stay in my office if I shut her in here with me, but her favorite thing to do is to remind me that it’s time to take a break from writing and head outside for a walk.

Walking is when I do my best “writing thinking,” like navigating through sticky plot points or coming up with new ideas that I then text to myself in a series of cryptic but ultimately helpful little messages, like fairytale breadcrumbs weaving serpentine paths through the folds of my brain. I’ve actually written entire children’s books via text while walking, using the voice-to-text mic in the messaging app and then emailing it to myself at the walk’s conclusion.

Do you have any other work coming out this year you’d like to tell people about?

I’ll have a short story, “Until the Moss had Reached Our Lips,” in a Weird House Press anthology, 13 Possessions, that will be available soon for preorder, and a story entitled, “Guess How Much I Love You?” in Why Didn’t You Just Leave?, edited by Nadia Bulkin and Julia Rios and published by Cursed Morsels Press, though that one won’t be out until 2024. I have a few more short stories poised for publication with different anthologies that I can’t announce quite yet, and I’m hoping to release my first children’s picture book in the very near future as well!

What’s your favorite recent read? Any genre or category. It doesn’t have to be horror.

I can’t limit it to just one, so I’ll tell you that the best books I’ve read in 2023 are A Haunting on the Hill by Elizabeth Hand, I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai, and The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan. I’m also currently reading ARCs of Gwendolyn Kiste’s The Haunting of Velkwood and Cynthia Pelayo’s Forgotten Sisters, and both are excellent! Additionally, Stephanie M. Wytovich’s poetry collection, On the Subject of Blackberries will cleave your soul in two.

Thank you so much for talking to Frightful!

Thank you, Emily!!! It was lovely to chat books and writing with you!

The Daughters of Block Island hits shelves on December 1, 2023.

Christa Carmen lives in Rhode Island with her husband, daughter, and bloodhound-golden retriever mix and is the Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of the short story collection Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked (Unnerving) and the forthcoming gothic thriller, The Daughters of Block Island (Thomas & Mercer). Additional work can be found in Vastarien, Nightmare, Orphans of Bliss, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, and the Stoker-nominated anthologies, Not All Monsters and The Streaming of Hill House. She has a BA from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA from Boston College, and an MFA from the University of Southern Maine.

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