Sarah Pinborough grew up living in a lot of different places—Syria, Moscow, India, and Sudan—since her father worked as a diplomat. When she moved back to England at eight, she started attending British boarding schools, a setting she has used in some of her writing. She wasn’t very happy there and spent a lot of time on her own, searching the backs of cupboards and wardrobes, looking for the entrance to Narnia. But to her classmates, she was seen as the jokester, the class clown.
In her last years of boarding school, she discovered acting after being chosen for the lead role in the school play on her first day at Edinburgh Academy. After that, she decided that she was going to be a great actress, but things didn’t go as planned.
She had a series of “adventures” in her twenties, and after hating school for so long, she found herself a teacher when she was thirty. Pinborough liked teaching and interacting with students, telling kids that second place meant they were “first loser,” and she became the head of English after only two years. She taught in total for six years before focusing exclusively on her writing.
Pinborough had written a little here and there and came to publish her short stories when somebody read a few that she had accidentally left out while babysitting. Before, when she was twenty-three, she had submitted a story and was told that “I was terrible and an incompetent writer and I’d never be a writer!”
After she published a few short stories in her late twenties, she married and was living in Devon when she decided that she wanted to write a horror novel—a natural fit after being influenced by Stephen King, Daphne du Maurier, and others. She wrote The Hidden about a woman with amnesia who is trying to get on with her life, but dark forces beckon to her from behind a mirror. While she was on vacation, she saw novels in the airport from Leisure Books and decided to send them a synopsis and her first three chapters. The publisher requested the rest and then bought her novel, and for the next six years, Pinborough published a novel a year with them. Pinborough says, “When I wrote The Hidden for Leisure, they didn’t edit your books. I handed my book in, and they would change ‘got’ for ‘gotten’ and that was it. There was no copyedit, there was no line edit. I just got page proofs. There was no learning curve.
“I only started learning and being edited properly when I started at Gollancz. It was great being edited—just stupid things like sentence construction, learning clauses, and things like that…I think horror writers tend to get a bit caught up in it, because you have to make people suspend their belief so much, so you overdo the description. But I learnt to pare it back and learn that less is more.”
While writing a movie based on her first novel The Hidden, she revisited the work and wasn’t happy with some of the writing she found there. “I look now at the dialogue and think, Jesus Christ, what was I doing?” she says. “I think dialogue is the hardest thing for novelists to get right because it can be a bit stilted, particularly historical or fantasy. It can go a bit, ‘Where art thou?’ When I was a teacher, and you teach kids to write stories, they will very often avoid dialogue because it is quite hard to do it naturally.”
In 2013, Pinborough published a trilogy of dark tales based on classic fairy tales—Poison, Charm, and Beauty—and Murder and Mayhem, two books in a supernatural series, exploring serial killers that come after Jack the Ripper in Victorian England. She’s used serial killer characters often in her work.
Pinborough says, “If horror and crime are cousins, then the serial killer is their love child. He fits so perfectly into both genres (I chose to use a serial killer in A Matter of Bood and had also used one in a horror novel). The serial killer is the embodiment of every boogeyman under the bed or monster in the closet for those who are too grown up to believe in such things. I look at films like Seven or The Silence of the Lambs, and I can’t decide whether they’re crime thrillers or horrors.”
“The serial killer is the adult’s nightmare, in the way ghosts and vampires (the old-school sort, anyway) should scare children. So maybe, in a lot of ways, the genre of crime is for grown-ups who like horror. Certainly more women write crime than they do horror, and the whole world knows we’re the more grown up of the sexes! Also, the women writing crime are writing some quite horrific stuff—I visited a friend of mine yesterday, who told me he’d been reading a Karin Slaughter novel. He paled slightly and said, ‘She doesn’t pull any punches, does she? That is some really graphic shit.’”
While doing research on the Victorian era, Pinborough discovered that women numbered among serial killers, too. She wrote in The Big Issue, “Women were not to be outdone by their male counterparts, either. Mary Ann Cotton was suspected of the murder of twenty-one people by arsenic poisoning by the time she went to the gallows. The baby farmers, like Amelia Dyer, hanged at Newgate in 1896, promised to find homes for children of the poor but took their money, murdered the babies, and then dumped their bodies in the river. Only charged with one death, Dyer was suspected of murdering up to four hundred more.”
Pinborough no longer considers herself strictly a horror writer, but her novels are hard to classify as one genre. They jump from sci-fi to fantasy, young adult, and now crime, but they all share one thing—she agrees—they’re dark. “I write stories with dark elements. I do have a penchant for the darker side of life…you’d never guess!”