Mo Hayder was born in Essex, England, and took a circuitous path to becoming a writer. She ran away from home when she was just fifteen and moved to London, where she worked in the bar scene. After a brief marriage, Hayder bought a one-way ticket to Japan while in her twenties, thinking she might become a geisha. Instead, she worked as a hostess in a Tokyo nightclub, where one of her coworkers was beaten and raped. This set off a chain effect of death it seemed to Hayder. “After my friend was raped, I went through a phase where I kept seeing people die,” says Hayder. “The first time, I was sitting in a coffee bar when someone at the next table died of a heart attack. A week later I saw a workman fall to his death from a high building. Then I saw a young boy die of a snakebite.”
Shortly after this, she moved to Los Angeles to study film, but again she ran into problems—this time dealing with people. For film projects, Hayder found she couldn’t speak to people, so instead she made fanciful works using Claymation. “There was one film where this couple go to bed together and then he pulls her head off and eats it and throws the skull out of the window,” says Hayder. “I won an independent film award for that, but the local TV station wouldn’t run it with the other category winners. I got this apologetic note saying, ‘We’re really sorry…but on this channel we don’t agree with cannibalism.”
Hayder was inspired to write her particular brand of gore after becoming upset with psychological horror and thriller writers who wouldn’t go there. “There was a time when I became suddenly very cross with P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, because you read their books and never see the reality, you never saw the shit and blood and vomit. Or any of the mess the killers made,” says Hayder.
The daughter of a scientist and English teacher, Hayder’s approach to horror reflects this as she gives minute details of viscera and gore in her writing. For her first novel, Birdman, which took three years to write, she displays a clinical approach to her description, but that coldness adds to the horrific imagery: “The corpse’s scalp had been peeled from the skull down to the squamous cleft of the nose, and folded over so the hair and face hung like a wet rubber mask, inside out, covering the mouth and neck, pooling on the clavicle. Krishnamurthi lifted the intestines out and slopped them into a stainless-steel bowl.”
Hayder got lucky with Birdman. She sent her completed manuscript off to five agents with the intention of getting a little writing help, not selling it. Hayder says, “I’d had little formal education having left school at fifteen and didn’t know a soul in the writing business. I was also incredibly naive. So when four of the five agents I sent the manuscript to wanted to take it, I was understandably delighted.” This novel ended up setting off a bidding war at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where she scored a two-book deal for 200,000 pounds.
Hayder explains that her love for gore “is a kind of obsession. I have this kind of compulsive need to wriggle my toes in life’s gutters. I’m sure a lot of people think it is a prurient interest, which is a bit destructive, but for me it is about getting rid of ghosts.”
Doing so much research on sexual violence, corpses, and serial killers, Hayder has become inured to death. “If I drove past a car crash now, I wouldn’t be frightened,” she says. “Before I might have been nervous about what I might see. But now I’ve seen pretty much everything. On the negative side, having read so much about sexual crime, I realize how we are always, always at risk. Since writing, I’ve become a kind of cave fish. I won’t go anywhere. I sit at home with big bars on the window. I’m exaggerating slightly, but I do now find it difficult to be on my own.”
Some object to Hayden’s portrayal of such graphic violence, but she’s not bothered by this, saying, “If people don’t like the blood and violence in my books, fine, they can always close the cover and put it aside and maybe read a romance instead.” In fact, she finds much of what she sees in the real world more bloodcurdling than what she’s written about. “Compared to some of the real-life crime I’ve researched,” she says, “a lot of that is so gruesome you couldn’t fictionalize it—it would sound ridiculously over the top.”
Hayder thinks she has such an audience for her writing—particularly women—because there is something cathartic in her horror and violence. She says, “I think readers, particularly in this genre, read because—whether they admit it to themselves or not—they are scared on some level and are looking for pointers. They’re scared about some unidentifiable threat out there, and they’re searching for role models to help them cope with that violence. If they read about a character who is subjected to a violent experience, they’re very often finding clues in that character’s response to the violence and maybe even preparing themselves in case it happens to them. I think a lot of women walk around thinking it could happen any day and wondering what they would do.”