Mats Strandberg, author of Blood Cruise, on losing a parent, grief and the power of writing.
My mother died a few weeks after I had finished the first draft of Blood Cruise. All things considered, we had a good last couple of days while she was in the hospital. We talked a lot. She told me she had been worried that she would become ill before I had finished writing my book. It was a very typical thing for my mother to worry about while she suffered through pains that I can’t even imagine.
And then she was gone. It was not unexpected, but still difficult to believe. I planned the funeral and my own upcoming wedding at the same time. Life was upside down, inside out. And I had the Blood Cruise script to return to. The thought of working felt completely absurd. Even more absurd to be working on a novel where I killed characters that I loved, where I let blood spray through the corridors, unleashed chaos upon people who did not deserve it. Honestly, I was afriad I couldn’t do it. That it would feel wrong, in the middle of my own sorrow and loss. Instead, the opposite happened. Horror saved me and became my refuge, like so many times before.
In a way, my love of horror has a lot to do with my mother. When I was a kid in the 1980s, horror movies were strictly forbidden in our home. Of course, this only made me more interested. Back then, I thought it was just the guys in hockey masks and the cannibals and the evil clowns that both scared me and appealed to me. But today, as an adult, I can look back and see that there were other things that also attracted my child self to horror.
In hindsight, the 80s might seem like a silly, pastel tinted, bubble gum-chewing decade. But it was also a dark and scary time to grow up; there was aids, Chernobyl, the cold war, the assassination of our prime minister Olof Palme. And the whole time, my mother’s illness lurked in the back of my mind. It made me hyper-aware of death, of how easily a body can break. Horror gave me an outlet for all these unspoken feelings. I could be scared in a way that was safe. I got an adrenalin rush, followed by catharsis.
Despite the forbidden nature of horror movies, my parents let me read whatever I wanted. I was ten when I discovered Stephen King and Dean R Koontz. Reading those brick-like novels was like staring the monsters in the face. I felt stronger and braver for each new story I devoured.
Ever since then, horror is my way of escaping from general anxiety. Horror goes straight for the reptilian brain. Makes me lose myself like nothing else. And something similar happened when I went back to Blood Cruise.
To edit is to take control of the world you’ve created. I sat there with my Excel documents on the character’s clothes, cabin numbers, favourite expressions. I searched for loose ends and tied them up. But most of all, I used my own anger and heartache and worked them out through my characters. Once again, I lost myself in a horror story. Only this time, it happened to be a story I created. Blood Cruise became my refuge. It was my actual real life that was the difficult part.
I have my mother to thank for a lot. She taught me how to read, and she gave me the courage to write. She was my biggest fan, and I dedicated the book to her.