If recent events—razor thin elections, deadly global pandemics, an economy on pins and needles—have your nerves on edge, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Mama never told us there’d be days like these either.
On the other hand, maybe you happen to be one of those trauma junkies who love when the tension gets ratcheted up. Maybe you like to chase tornadoes and jump from airplanes. And maybe, just maybe, you’re daring enough to read terrifying books that cause you to keep all the lights on at night and peek under your bed to check for monsters.
If so, we have a serious spine tingler for you, featuring one of the most creative plots we’ve seen in a long, long time. Polly Hall’s The Taxidermist’s Lover introduces Scarlett, a mischievous monster creator who conjures up all manner of diabolical creatures and encourages her taxidermist husband to indulge her fantasies. “She wants to see badgers with wings, crows crossed with rabbits, and other artistic perversions,” Claire Foster writes in her review for Foreword’s November/December issue, and imagines ‘the body of a red fox, its flame-orange fur contrasted with the angelic white of a stork’s wingspan; a flying, majestic vixen.’”
But as is wont to happen when you mess with the natural order, “the lovers’ transgressions invite nightmarish payback … they’re haunted by disfigured creatures.”
Intrigued and a bit unnerved, we asked Claire to follow up with Polly so that we all could better understand how a great horror story comes together.
Claire, take it from here.
The Taxidermist’s Lover is such a unique, startling novel. Its images of imagined taxidermy—combined creatures’ bodies—are stunning. Were you interested in taxidermy before, and how much research did you need to do?
Taxidermy has always fascinated me because you are witnessing a living creature in a freeze frame, up close. The best taxidermy can be found in museums like the Natural History Museum in London, where the animals are captured in poses that accurately portray their living essence. It’s not easy replicating nature in its perfection. I admire the skill involved.
I remember visiting Walter Potter’s Museum of Curiosities in Jamaica Inn, Cornwall, when I was a child. The famous kitten’s wedding and the rat’s gambling den being raided by police rats were my favourite taxidermy tableaux. The animals were dressed in human clothes to mimic scenes like a cricket match or a tea party. There were also deformed, pickled creatures that floated in jars of liquid. I think I was an odd kid!
When I was researching The Taxidermist’s Lover, I was lucky enough to meet a traditional taxidermist who had trained to create and restore museum exhibits. His workshop was nestled in the woods and was so full of stuff I didn’t know where to look. Shelves full of jars and fixing adhesives, pots of paint and glue, wood wool, wire, plaster mounts of deer heads, skulls, skins, branches, and moss, and a whole wooden cabinet of replica eyes.
I believe there has to first be an interest in the natural world when fascinated by taxidermy, a reverence for that living creature, a means for future study. Some of the exhibits in existence today are of extinct species so their taxidermy is actually their legacy—they live on in 3D form.
I have a lifelong passion for wildlife, especially in my home county of Somerset. The old inns and stately homes often display taxidermy mounts: deer, foxes, badgers, squirrels, stoats, game birds, and some more exotic species from British Colonial past.
My mum’s cousin ran a pub called The Bear and he had a life-size grizzly bear, a jackalope, and shrunken heads along with masses of cool collectibles in his bar. It was like something from Indiana Jones. All these things must’ve influenced me as a writer. You store it up until somehow it taps you on the shoulder and says, “When are you going to write about me?”
In The Taxidermist’s Lover, Henry diversifies from traditional taxidermy to hybrid taxidermy, like his rival, Felix, where different animal parts are combined to make new imagined creatures, often mythical or fantastical. I was aware of this art form and discovered some brilliant artists online. One of my favourites is Thomas Grunfeld and his Misfits series. I admire famous artists who use taxidermy in their work: Polly Morgan, Sarina Brewer, Julia DeVILLE, Iris Shieferstein to name a few.
Lover hearkens back to epistolary or diary-entry gothic novels like Dracula and Frankenstein. What were your literary influences for your novel, and do you think gothic horror is making a comeback?
My childhood reading was dominated by Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and Dick King Smith. They wrote about talking animals, enchanted forests, witches, and dubious characters. Dahl’s macabre adult stories are still some of my favourites. I immersed myself in Paulo Coehlo for spiritual comfort. I devoured Stephen King novels in my teens, James Herbert too for chilling horror. I remember reading The Rats before I went to sleep and checking under my bed, just in case!
I always return to gothic horror for its satisfaction value. What I mean by this is that when reading Frankenstein or Wuthering Heights, for example, you know there is scope to infinitely recreate and adapt the stories. Look at the number of films, comics, art, poetry, cartoons, fan-fic that has been inspired by Dracula alone. Isn’t that the mark of great fiction?
In terms of structure, epistolary provides a closeness and personal element to the story. It grounds horror in the familiar. In Frankenstein, I find the monster’s account so moving when he realises he will never have the opportunity to feel close to another: “Unfeeling, heartless creator! You had endowed me with perceptions and passions and then cast me abroad an object for the scorn and horror of mankind.”
Not forgetting Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was only 19 years old, at a time when women were not offered such equality in the arts or any other profession.
Did gothic horror ever go away? In film it has been well represented but in literature my favourite contemporary writers are Michael Andrew Hurley (The Loney, Devil’s Day, and Starve Acre), Susan Hill, Sarah Waters and every day I discover new authors I want to read. I return to Daphne du Maurier often.
I’m also a fan of contemporary poets like Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage. When you hear poems read aloud it is like listening to music; when you read good poetry it seems to condense a moment, a feeling, an idea into something so perfect you think it is written just for you. I admire anyone who can do that.
My current author crushes include Delia Owens, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Oyinkan Braithwaite.
In the book, Scarlett and her twin Rhett share a deep connection; there are twins, or pairings, throughout the novel. Why are those relationships so important?
It felt natural to have the siblings, Scarlett and Rhett, as twins because of their shared birthday with Henry (31st October or Halloween) and the pseudo-sexual connection they share. I’m intrigued by twins as I’m sure many others are. Even when physically separate they seem to be able to sense each other, a kind of USP pre-empting their conversations, interactions, and experiences.
I would hope that the connections in The Taxidermist’s Lover go far beyond personal relationships. For example, the relationship between man and nature, past and present, timelines, beliefs, and all the richness of experience we as humans live through.
When I was interviewed for a place on the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University they asked why I wanted to write. I answered, I want a reader to remember the experience of reading my books. I’m not apologising if a reader finds their heart ripped out by the last page. This sounds brutal but horror ain’t pretty. You are not going to want to meet Scarlett or Henry in a dark alleyway. In fact, I’ll be honest and say most of the characters in my book are undesirable but do characters need to be likeable? I don’t think so, as long as they are interesting or intrigue you enough to want to read more. Differences can be much more compelling than similarities.
I’m not going to tell readers what connections they need to make when reading The Taxidermist’s Lover. Their wonderful peculiarities will do that. I’d like to think they will find layers and take from it what serves them best. After all, the biggest compliment for a writer is if readers want to discuss your books with others and ultimately want to read the next book.
For those who aren’t familiar with the English countryside, the descriptions of the landscape are especially beautiful. What are some of the places you returned to in the novel?
The Somerset countryside resides in every cell of my body and having grown up there I’ve witnessed the seasonal changes, wildlife, landscape, and man’s relationship with the place. It is world famous for its wetlands and marshes, birdlife, tidal rivers, coastline, moors, and customs. It was my intention to make the county of Somerset a central character in The Taxidermist’s Lover, so it was important for me to include annual events such as the wassailing ceremony, Glastonbury Festival, and the Winter Guy Fawkes Carnival.
I walk every day in the fields and woods or marshes near my home so it wasn’t a case of revisiting, more of reminding myself and consolidating my perception of the rural environment.
There are some incredible nature writers and eco-warriors who can make you feel you are part of the places they write about and bring awareness to the effect we, as humans, have on the natural world. Now, more than ever, I feel we need to reconnect with the environment we live in. It’s not separate from us, we are part of it, and it’s going to endure long after our demise.
Weaving together the myths and history has been fun—people love to tell stories about the place they call home, what is familiar to them. If you think of where you grew up, you’ll have your own bank of memories including scents, sights, music, sayings, folklore, vibes. For me, Somerset means crushed apples, scrumpy cider, cheddar cheese, peat-filled marshes, winged creatures, rivers and ditches, reed beds, willow trees and the ethereal mists settling over the moorland.
My interest in the natural world converges with philosophical musings about our existence and purpose. Comfort can be found in the impermanence of nature; it’s a source of endless inspiration and beauty.
I like to think the characters in The Taxidermist’s Lover are complemented by the cast of wildlife: badgers, hares, starlings, buzzards, deer, amphibians, herons, swans, tits and finches, migratory species, non-native animals, and the imaginary hybrid creature that Henry creates.
I found myself questioning if there are any true wild places left on earth. Most of Somerset moorland is sculpted by man, a careful management of water flow, land drainage, and systems to stop the land from flooding. It’s not without peril living below sea level and Somerset has had its fair share of flooding in recent times. I chose to include a fictional flood in the novel but the floods in the area are still in living memory; they devastated homes and livelihoods and the wildlife that makes its home there. Although it’s known as the Levels, it is not that level. As well as the main ridges of the Quantock and Mendip Hills, there are quirky mounds such as Burrow Mump, Brent Knoll, Nyland Hill, Glastonbury Tor, Crook Peak, the Poldens, and beacon points that raise up out of the mist on autumn mornings.
Lover takes place over the course of a year. What’s the significance of that time frame?
One year with its full seasonal cycle seemed an obvious choice, a full solar return. The plot covers one year but Scarlett is recalling events from one day, Christmas Day, so in a sense it is a circadian novel too. There is also the progression of a relationship through all its milestones and anniversaries over one year and Scarlett is speaking directly to Henry recalling their journey through the past twelve months.
There’s a line in The History Boys by Alan Bennett that sums this up: “There is no period so remote as the recent past.” Our perspective is skewed and none more so than a character who is narrating from such a solipsistic viewpoint.
I’ve always kept a daily diary and I found my entries useful when writing The Taxidermist’s Lover because I tend to describe the weather a lot! This helped to ground each month’s seasonal signatures such as daylight hours, outside temperature, plant growth and decay, animal behaviour, and earth rhythms which are a large part of the atmosphere of the novel.
A lot can happen in one year, love and loss, achievement and disappointment, pain and healing, desperation and hope, birth and death. Think back one year ago in your life, where were you? Who didn’t you know then? Where have you been since? What have you done? Reflection on one’s life can be sobering but also a positive reminder of how resilient and adaptable we are as a species.
What is next for you? Will we be hearing more about Scarlett and Henry, or is their story finished?
I didn’t intend The Taxidermist’s Lover to have a sequel but never say never!
I’d love for readers to come up with their own sketches/art/sculpture/taxidermy of the hybrid creatures in the book. Perhaps a colouring-in book? Or as it’s so visual, an art installation of the actual created specimens: a swoodle, a crabbit, a cowstrich, a wallopea—all the ones created for the exhibition.
In terms of fiction I’m working on a very different novel but one in which the place plays a central role. There might be taxidermy in there somewhere—watch this space! My blog [www.pollyhall.co.uk] should keep readers up to date with my antics.
Another book I intend to complete in 2021 is my memoir about adoption and endometriosis, two big subjects that have touched my life and definitely need to be talked about.
Recently I’ve been experimenting with mixed genre/mixed media and recording lots of micro-videos which I want to turn into poetry film featuring the natural world and our relationship to it and each other.
Right now though, I’m excited to see The Taxidermist’s Lover unleashed into this crazy world of ours and want to thank readers in advance for their interest.
Creepy and sensual, The Taxidermist’s Lover is a gothic romance about a young woman who’s obsessed with her much older husband’s taxidermy practice.
Scarlett, with her lifelong fascination with dead animals, finds her match with an ultra-talented taxidermist, Henry. Henry preserves all the usuals: hunting trophies, beloved pets, and novelties for display. Scarlett pushes the envelope, acting as a muse for his creations. She wants to see badgers with wings, crows crossed with rabbits, and other artistic perversions: “I imagined the body of a red fox, its flame-orange fur contrasted with the angelic white of a stork’s wingspan; a flying, majestic vixen.” The lovers’ transgressions invite nightmarish payback, though; they’re haunted by disfigured creatures, as well as Henry’s professional and sexual jealousy.
Written from Scarlett to Henry, the book unfolds over the course of a year. Its limited perspective evokes classic, epistolary gothic novels; the text acts as a diary of the horror that Scarlett unwittingly awakens. While the story itself is short on surprises, the tension between Scarlett and Henry is riveting, especially when their private conflicts play out in the undead creations they cook up together.
Scarlett’s twin, Rhett, is a complex foil. They speak in the quirky, shared language of their private world. Flashbacks cover Scarlett’s childhood and family life, resulting in insights about her. She refuses to let go of the past; instead, she keeps reworking it, hoping to find a form that will finally be acceptable to her. Her lack of self-awareness is the real monster.
In the book’s most thrilling passages, Scarlett rides the cusp of realizing the deep inequities in her relationship, the way Henry controls her, and the destructive power of her imagination, making The Taxidermist’s Lover a luxurious, macabre romance.
CLAIRE FOSTER (October 27, 2020)