The New Queen of Horror Has Seen the Real Thing Up Close

The American writer Alma Katsu

Source Getty Images, Composite by Ned Colin

Why you should care

Because horror is making a comeback in these horrible times.

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Alma Katsu spent more than three decades witnessing horror. It was part of her job: Katsu spent 25 years at the National Security Agency and eight years at the CIA. She still works as a consultant for the government, “but that’s all I can say,” she tells me with a little chuckle, taking a sip of Orangina. I want her to follow that up with “or I’ll have to kill you,” but that’s too Hollywood. Plus, I don’t want to offend a woman who spent decades clandestinely planning missions to protect our country — which left her with bouts of PTSD and a neurological disorder. We’re at a French bistro in suburban D.C. far from where she was born, in Alaska, but close to where she spent her career after growing up “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Massachusetts, near Lexington and Concord.

Katsu, 59, knows evil. In the 1990s, she ran “complex contingency operations” to stomp out mass atrocities around the globe. She’s used that knowledge to launch her second career as a popular horror writer.

“I don’t think the book is super frightening,” says Katsu of her latest, The Hunger, which was named one of the best horror novels of 2018 by NPR, The New York Times and others, and earned front-cover kudos from Stephen King, the American icon of horror and suspense.

The Horror Writers Association defines horror not as a genre but as a feeling of dread and terror. And The Hunger, historical fiction based on the 1846 expedition known as the Donner Party, is just that. Katsu twists an overlay of the supernatural into the true-story tale of cannibalism. She says her book asks: “Under what circumstances could you be turned into a monster?”

“It’s not the monsters that are scary in this book; it’s the evil in man,” says her editor, Sally Kim of Putnam. “When I first signed up the book … I loved the idea of it and her writing,” says Kim, who is also Katsu’s editor on The Deep, historical horror fiction based on the Titanic due out in March 2020, and Katsu’s first spy novel, Red Widow (working title), set for release in March 2021.

she will tell you stories that will curl your hair because she has seen true evil.

sally kim, alma katsu’s editor

She was raised by a World War II veteran father who “came from a family that had nothing” in the Great Depression, Katsu says, and a mother 16 years his junior, who was traumatized as a child by the horrors of wartime Japan. “They very much had this survivalist mentality,” says Katsu, the third of four children. “They wanted us all to be practical. They thought it was ridiculous to be a writer.”

But even from the second grade, she was always writing in a notebook, says one of her two older sisters, Diana Domings. “She was very artsy and creative.”

Katsu says what she “wanted to write were these incredibly huge characters you’ll never forget.” She gravitated toward horror short stories in her teens and early 20s.

When she graduated from Brandeis, her oldest sister — Linda, who had been to Woodstock and hitchhiked across the country — told her that to write, she needed some life experience. Linda suggested Alma apply “to this place called the NSA. She was telling me all these crazy stories she’d heard about it,” Katsu recounts. It was 1981, and though she says she’d never heard of the NSA, she applied for the experience of going through “the crazy test.” She did well, was hired and planned to stay only for a little while. “It wasn’t the life I thought I’d have,” says Katsu, who is married to a musician. (They do not have any children.)

Alma Katsu

Writer Alma Katsu.

Source Getty Images

Larry Pfeiffer, now the director of the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy and International Security at George Mason University, remembers their early days together as young NSA analysts at neighboring desks working on some “pretty stressful issues” but still joking around. Pfeiffer describes his former colleague as tenacious, and “I wasn’t surprised at all that she didn’t give up on her dream.” In 2011, while still working with the CIA, Katsu wrote her first books, a trilogy called The Taker. Katsu retired the same year.

“It’s actually fun talking to her, but it’s also terrifying talking to her,” says Kim. “Even though she’s the loveliest person you’ll ever meet, she will tell you stories that will curl your hair, because she has seen true evil and what drives people to crime and terrorism and all these horrible things in the world.”

Katsu says that while she can’t be too specific, “because these are all intelligence operations,” the genocide stories are the hardest from which to recover: “You see how easily people can be made to turn against their neighbors.” Sierra Leone’s civil war most haunts her, “when rebels went on a rampage cutting off both hands of thousands of people for not voting the way the rebels wanted them to in an election. How does a family, a town, a country cope when so many of its citizens are unable to take care of themselves — overnight? Hearing the victims’ stories was absolutely chilling. Though almost as chilling is knowing that few Americans have heard of it, and don’t understand the damage that corrupt autocrats can inflict in a very short time on a country.” 

The Deep and The Hunger dive into the kind of evil she saw and studied as an intelligence analyst, but they are also very much the character-driven novels of Katsu’s childhood dream. “She doesn’t rely on the ‘boo’ moments,” says Kim. “It’s this slow, creepy burn. … And that takes real skill. I think that’s why it can appeal to people who just want to have that experience and have that intimacy but also be thrilled and horrified and excited by a plot.”

Famed filmmaker Ridley Scott, who optioned the rights to The Hunger, seems to agree. “I think we are on the cusp of a resurgence of horror,” Katsu says, “probably because we live in such horrible times.”

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