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Rae Knowles Interview

Merciless Waters is a new sapphic horror novella from Rae Knowles, author of The Stradivarius (which debuted a few months ago in May). Set at sea, Merciless Waters follows the all-female crew of the Scylla. Jaq is happy with her relationship with Lily, but tides begin to shift when they rescue a man adrift in the water. Jaq is determined to remove this interloper and restore order to the ship. But with the stranger come memories of life before the Scylla that threaten to upheave the entire crew. And Jaq must decide the cost at which she is willing to hold fast to her love.

Read the full interview below.

I love tales of the sea! There is something fascinating about the inner workings of a ship, the microcosm of the crew—the way the ocean functions almost like its own character. What was it like bringing the ship to life and developing crew dynamics?

My vision for Merciless Waters was to bring folk horror out of the woods and onto the sea. When I thought about the key elements of folk horror: isolation, an insular community, strange habits and rituals that develop as a result of that isolation and an unusual belief system at the heart of it, I felt like a ship on open ocean could accomplish those features in a fresh way. That said, I thought more about dynamics of an insular group than about a ship’s crew, per se. What kind of history do these women have together? What conflicts have occurred among them, and to what extent are those resolved? Who are “true believers” and who are ambivalent, or cleaving to the group for selfish reasons? Unlike a traditional pirate book, there is no clear goal at the outset of the story for the ship and its crew. It functions more like a floating village. Because of that I primarily studied folk horror classics and did just a bit of research into piracy.

Sea jargon is absolutely fascinating and almost a language of its own. Are there any unfamiliar terms that really surprised you?

Oh, sure! All the terms in the book for the parts of the ship and the jobs to sail it were new to me. It was really interesting researching ships from the late 1700s and learning how they functioned. One of the most fun facts I learned in my researched was that homoerotic relationships among pirates were fairly common. I don’t include a ton of sea-faring jargon in the book, but the brig does play a significant role (no spoilers!).

The ship is named for Scylla, a legendary female creature from Greek mythology. Did you know from the beginning this would be the ship’s namesake or did you do some research before settling on it?

The name of the ship came from my very early stages of research into the lore I wanted to include in Merciless Waters. I was fascinated by Scylla, this feminine creature with multiple heads and serpentine necks, devouring everything within her reach. While I don’t feel I’m the best person to tell a story steeped in Greek mythology, I wanted to pay homage to this wonderful beast, and I think the hint of her works well with the Slavic mythology the book focuses on.

The Scylla exists outside of time. Was it difficult to craft that atmosphere or did it feel natural to the isolated setting of the sea?

I believe that women are connected through generational rage. That’s a big thing to say. Not everyone will agree, and that’s fine. But for the women aboard Scylla, time is unimportant. The connective tissue between them is the present they have co-created, and later in the book, the shared rage that comes with their remembrance of their individual histories. It felt natural to blur time because Scylla’s crew is stuck in a sort of purgatory.

Feminine rage is a key element in this novella and it’s one that really resonates with readers. Do you remember the first time you saw a work of fiction explore that and how it made you feel?

Not the first time, but the time that stands out is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I have a deep affinity for damaged and flawed female characters. When I see them weaponize the tropes meant to subjugate them, there’s very little more compelling to me. The way Amy uses patriarchal assumptions about women to punish her husband and evade consequences felt triumphant, a brutal strike back at ideas meant to make women seem less than whole. The delicate, pregnant woman. The picture-perfect daughter. The cool girl. Amy essentially says, ‘I’ll show you all these things, be them perfectly, and when you buy into this picture, you’ll realize I’m the nightmare you never expected.’

Every movie I’ve ever watched about a ship talks about it being “bad luck” to have a woman onboard. But Merciless Waters flips that on its head. The man is the outlier here. I’d love to see that in a film. So, my rather fanciful question is: who would you cast if the novella were adapted for the screen?

This is a wonderful question! What writer doesn’t dream about seeing their characters brought to the screen? My dream casting would be: Amanda Seyfried as Lily, Ruby Rose as Jaq, Lupita Nyong’o as Lucinda, Sophie Turner as Yinka, and the late Alan Rickman voicing Ambrose.

You’ve worked with Brigids Gate Press on both The Stradivarius and Merciless Waters. Can you talk a little about what that’s been like and your relationship with the press?

A. Heather and Steve of Brigids Gate are marvelous people. I challenge anyone to find more caring, thoughtful, and kind individuals to work with. It’s been a pleasure collaborating with them on so many projects.

The cover is absolutely gorgeous. The hair in it might be my favorite shade of green ever. Who designed the cover art and what was your first impression when you saw it?

The incredible Daniella Batsheva did the cover art, and she exceeded all my expectations. Even the early versions took my breath away, and she was a top tier professional in fine tuning it to bring the vision to life. Highly, highly recommend her as a cover artist. You can find more information about her work here:

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

Merciless Waters will be my last long form release in 2023, but Lies That Bind—a coauthored erotic horror novel by myself and April Yates—is coming out February 2024, and Scissor Sisters, an Anthology of Sapphic Villains we are co-editing, is coming in January 2024.

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

This year I discovered the work of C.S. Humble and have devoured six of his books since. I’ve even managed to pester him into letting me read work that is not out to the public yet, which I consider a massive honor (and win)! Humble constructs characters in unexpected and deeply wrought ways, and the message in his fiction is one the world desperately needs. I highly recommend the Black Wells series and That Light Sublime series to any and all within screaming distance.

More specifically, I recommend starting with The Massacre at Yellow Hill, which is the first in his weird western series. If you hurry, you can catch up in time for the release of the third book in the series, The Light of the Black Star, which is coming November 28th 2023 from Cemetery Dance.

Thank you so much for talking to Frightful!

Merciless Waters hits shelves on November 14, 2023.

For more about Rae Knowles, visit...

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