When I received the email about a new book called Dead of Winter by horror author Darcy Coates, I was not familiar with Darcy’s work, but I immediately emailed them back because we all know by now, I am a sucker for a locked-room mystery/thriller. Let me tell you. Since reading Dead of Winter, I have been reading everything I can by her. She is now at the top of my favorite authors list.
When Christa joins a tour group heading deep into the snowy expanse of the Rocky Mountains, she’s hopeful this will be her chance to put the ghosts of her past to rest. But when a bitterly cold snowstorm sweeps the region, the small group is forced to take shelter in an abandoned hunting cabin. Despite the uncomfortably claustrophobic quarters and rapidly dropping temperature, Christa believes they’ll be safe as they wait out the storm.
She couldn’t be more wrong.
Deep in the night, their tour guide goes missing… only to be discovered the following morning, his severed head impaled on a tree outside the cabin. Terrified, and completely isolated by the storm, Christa finds herself trapped with eight total strangers. One of them kills for sport…and they’re far from finished. As the storm grows more dangerous and the number of survivors dwindles one by one, Christa must decide who she can trust before this frozen mountain becomes her tomb.
Not only is Dead of Winter a terrifying locked-room thriller, but it’s so freaking suspenseful. I can also tell you that along with spelunking and deep-sea diving, I can now add rural tours in a snowstorm to my list of “Oh, hell no.” To celebrate the release of the book, I chatted with Darcy via Zoom about the inspiration for the story, her creative process, what’s up next, and more!
Note: Since speaking with Darcy, I have also read her new one, Where He Can’t Find You, and now I’m afraid of the dark. This will be released in November 2023.
PopHorror: Well, thank you so much, Darcy. I am super excited. I have your book, I read it, I think it was back in May, and I loved it so much that I went on and read From Below, which we need to talk about later, and Hunted, which both blew my mind. I’ve been getting everything that my library has and then buying everything that they don’t.
Darcy Coates: Oh, amazing. Amazing.
PopHorror: They actually just sent me an email for your new one coming out in November, and I’m like, “Yes, please send it to me.”
Darcy Coates: Oh, excited for that one.
PopHorror: Oh yes, I am too.
Darcy Coates: I think you’ll like that one.
PopHorror: I saw it on Good Reads and I’m like, “Oh my God, November? That’s so far away.”
Darcy Coates: I know. I know. It comes up so fast though. Every single book, it’s like I’m unprepared for it. It’s like, “Oh, it’s six months away, no problem.” And then suddenly, “Oh, it’s actually happening in two weeks.” Every single time.
PopHorror: Dead of Winter was the first one I read of yours, and it really blew me away. I was very impressed. I loved it so much. What inspired Dead of Winter?
Darcy Coates: Oh, okay, yes. I’ve always just loved the idea of a locked-room mystery. Of course, a locked-room mystery is where you have a cast of characters that are in a contained area, like a room or a cabin in the mountains, and one of them is a killer, and everyone else… I just love that sort of story where both you, the reader, and the protagonist are then trying to work out who they should be wary of, who they can trust. If someone says, “I need to tell you something privately, come outside with me,” do you go with them? That kind of pressure of being in an enclosed space and not knowing who you can trust. That was really the catalyst behind Dead of Winter that I so badly wanted to tell that kind of story, and yeah, I had a bit too much fun writing it.
PopHorror: Locked-room thrillers, I think, are one of my favorites. I find that I’m drawn to cabins, resorts, boarding schools, college dorms, all of those are my jam. I love hearing you say that, describe it that way, because that is exactly what draws to me. I find that I’m reading more and more of those all the time.
Darcy Coates: Yes, yes. Me too, honestly. They’re addictive. I can’t get enough of them.
PopHorror: Yes. What did you edit out of this book? Or was there anything that you were adamant about keeping in the final product?
Darcy Coates: Great question. I did actually look over my original plot outline for it because some stories come together so slowly. Some of them, it’s months or even years. I think it was two years for the longest story, just every few months, adding a new piece to it, slowly untangling the story before it was ready to be written, and Dead of Winter was the opposite. The idea came to me all at once, probably while I was showering, I think. And I just remember this frantic running to my laptop and just writing down everything I could while I still had it in my mind before I forgot any of it, because it came all at once like an avalanche. If we’re going to use a metaphor, may as well use an avalanche metaphor.
PopHorror: That’s perfect!
Darcy Coates: Thank you. And so, I was looking over that outline and yeah, a lot of the story was there right from the very first seed of the idea, like the frostbite and this unseen person saying, “We should amputate.” That was right there from the first concept. Surprisingly, it actually took me a little bit to figure out who the killer was. You’d think that would be one of the first things I would’ve worked out, and normally it is. Most books I write, I know the ending right from the beginning. But that was one thing that took a few more days of turning over to really settle on that thread.
PopHorror: I find that really interesting that you didn’t know who the killer was right away because there’s so many… And I don’t really know how to word it, but you lead us off in so many directions that you’re like, “Oh, is it this person? Oh no, because they were just killed. Oh, is it this person? Well, they’re dead too, so their head’s up there with all the rest.” And you really dialed up the suspense. I liked that because I had no… I had an inkling it was who it ended up being, but you got me with a lot of the fake outs of who it could possibly be.
Darcy Coates: Oh, good. Oh, it’s a real joy to hear that. That’s exactly what I was hoping for. And you never know how well that’s going to work, the misdirections and the clues and then the false clues. You never know how well that will work until people actually read it. I’m really happy it did, and yeah. I did know who the killer was by the time I started writing. There are books that are plotted, like plotters and pantsers, people who plot the story ahead of time, and people who just start with an idea and fly by the seat of their pants. I’m a solid plotter, so I always need to know my story before I start working on it. But yeah, sorry, I was heading on a tangent there.
PopHorror: Oh, that’s okay. And in reading your other works, the one that keeps coming back to me is From Below. I loved it, and I think one of my deepest fears is the bottom of the ocean, the fact that no one can save you. The recent Titanic submersible thing had me captivated and I read… I was driving people nuts because I would not shut up about it, and it reminded me of this book, and I kept going back to this book. You really tapped into some of my deepest darkest fears, and I can tell that a lot of research goes into your books. What is your creative process like and how long does it take you to research when you’re writing?
Darcy Coates: Oh, yeah. From Below was a huge book in terms of research. I think it’s the most research I’ve ever put into a project because there was the deep sea diving, there was scuba diving in general. There’s the sunken ships. What happens to a sunken ship if it’s in this anaerobic environment where bacteria can’t even grow? Anyway, it was a lot, and actually, I told myself, “Okay, take a couple of months just to research everything you need for this book before you start writing.” And then I couldn’t, I just had to start writing. And I was racing along with the research as fast as I could to keep up with the writing because it was like I was having ideas come to me and scenes come to me. I just needed to get them on paper. It was like, “Okay, I’ll figure out the details later. I’ll figure out the exact science behind it later.”
But yeah, I really loved From Below. Growing up, my brother and I had this book, Mysteries of the Unexplained, and it had all of these things in it – Bigfoot, UFOs, Loch Ness monster – just basically everything mysterious and amazing to a child. And I loved that book and the pages were falling out of it by the time we were done with it. We read it so many times. And the ones that really captivated me in that book… Well, so many of them, but especially the sunken ships and the ships that vanished without a trace. And that’s just been living in my head, these ships. The whole concept of the Bermuda Triangle, which these days we understand that the Bermuda Triangle is not this mythical thing that just swallows ships. It’s a dangerous stretch of water, and no one can even agree on where the Bermuda Triangle actually is. The edges of it keep shifting depending on which shipwrecks you want to include. It’s not really as mysterious as we thought when we were children, but as a child it’s like, “Why are you sailing through this place? This place will kill you.”
And anyway, yeah, that was one of the big seeds behind From Below, just this love of shipwrecks and love of mystery, of just wanting to know the truth, what actually happened. And you can see that coming through a little bit in From Below‘s ending where I give some answers, I give some theories that the reader can lean into if they want, but don’t necessarily tie the whole thing up in a neat bow because that’s true with real ships, with the Mary Celeste, with so many missing ships and vanished ships. It’s like, well, we have theories and they’re very plausible theories, and they’re probably right, but we don’t actually know a hundred percent.
PopHorror: And we never will because they’re all the way down there. And you’ll never find me doing that. Nope.
Darcy Coates: Exactly. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It’s like I developed a fascination with diving and especially cave diving while I was writing it. And that was right through the beginning of the pandemic, and I came so close to actually booking a diving course to actually try and get some sort of certification, but it was just a bit too difficult. I tried at the beginning of the pandemic, so never quite got there, but it’s something I would love to do and would be terrified of doing the whole time. I would not get anywhere because I would be hyperventilating two meters down, but I would love to give it a go.
PopHorror: More power to you because you will not find me doing that. Just like in Hunted, you will never find me doing that in the woods either. I guess I just have… I’d rather just read about it. I don’t need to experience it.
Darcy Coates: You have a good survival instinct. You’re the smart one. You’re the one who will survive in the horror movies. I’m out in the opening scene. I’m done for.
PopHorror: I would at least try! If Dead of Winter was to be made into a movie, who would you cast in your main role?
Darcy Coates: Oh my gosh. Oh, oh. Oh, no. Oh, no. I’m so bad with actors. Okay, I have not seen Barbie yet, but it is so high up on my list. I actually would love to see Margot Robbie… She might be a little bit too glamorous, a little bit too beautiful for Christa, but I’m a little bit captivated by her at the moment.
PopHorror: That’s a good choice.
Darcy Coates: Yeah, yeah. I could see her doing that so well, and honestly, if she had any interest in doing a straight-up horror film, I’m here for it. I’d be excited.
PopHorror: Me too. Me too. And if you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Darcy Coates: Mm, good question. I would probably just say there’s so much stress in the process of writing, especially when you are beginning to write, especially the first book. I recently reread one of the very first books I wrote, and it was like, I can see just how hard I was trying, but with no idea which direction to point myself in. Having to figure everything out, having to figure out dialogue, having to figure out exposition and how to balance them, all those things that they get easier over time. And I think I would just tell younger self that it’s going to be super hard to begin with, but you don’t need to stress as much as you think you need to stress. You don’t need to be trying to match the horror greats right from book one. That’s always something you want to strive for, but you’re not going to get there and do not be devastated when you don’t get there. Books can still be good and they can still be compelling even if you don’t have the literary mastership of say, Stephen King, or any of the other really greats.
PopHorror: That’s really great advice. You go back and reread your own books?
Darcy Coates: No, never. Okay. Never normally. Sorry, bit of a mislead there. What’s actually happening, this was my very first proper story published was Ghost Camera, and that was way back in 2014, I think. And it’s the only book, when I joined my publisher Sourcebooks, that was the only book I didn’t give them because it was novella 23,000 words. It’s like, what do you do with a novella? It’s going to be awkward sandwiched between all the novels. And so that’s just been sitting mostly unpublished for years now, and I keep getting emails like, “Can we please have Ghost Camera? Where’s Ghost Camera? There’s this one book I need to complete the collection. I love completions.” That’s me as well. “I’m missing one slice of my collection. Where is it?”
And so yeah, my publisher and I talked, and so we’re re-releasing Ghost Camera. It will be in a collection with some other novellas and some other short stories. And so I reread it for that, and honestly, terrifying experience. Do not recommend. It actually wasn’t so bad once I got into it, but when I finish a book, I generally close it and unless I need to check something I wrote or there’s another round of edits or something like that, I just don’t open it again because there’s always the risk you’ll find something where you’re like, “Oh, if I’d just done that a little bit different, that would’ve been so cool,” and it’s too late. It’s out there. Can’t change it. I’d rather not know.
Our main character finds a Polaroid camera just out at the base of a lighthouse and starts taking photos with it just for fun and finds that the camera can actually capture ghosts. And not only can the camera capture ghosts, but using the camera makes her visible to ghosts in return and they start coming for her. Anyway, okay. I won’t spoil too much.
PopHorror: You’ve intrigued me. I can’t wait for that to come out too.
Darcy Coates: Thank you. Thank you.
PopHorror: And speaking of that coming up, and I know that you have Where He Can’t Find You coming out in November, but what is up next for you?
Darcy Coates: Oh, yes. I’ve got my series, the Grave Keeper series, and book four of that is coming out very early next year, and then book five, which is the final book. That’s the next one I’m going to be writing. At the moment, I’m working on the Ghost Camera collection. Once that’s complete, it’ll be the final Grave Keeper book. And I try not to look too far into the distance. I try and leave room for myself as I get close to starting a new story like, “Okay, what’s really exciting me right now?” Those are the two I know; those are the two I definitely have scheduled in though. The Grave Keeper series is on the lighter side of horror, so if you’re into the Wednesday TV series or a little bit of Scooby-Doo vibes, I plotted it as a horror book mixed with a cozy mystery. It’s very fun.
PopHorror: I’ll look for that one next. And I have just one last question for you today. What is your favorite scary movie?
Darcy Coates: Oh, no. Oh, no. Too many. Okay. Okay. I am obsessed with anything Jordan Peele puts out. He just needs to announce another movie, and I will be there first day. I don’t even need to know the name of it. I will be there. Everything he’s put out, I’ve loved. Us, especially. That is one movie that about once a year, I rewatch that. The Ring, that’s a classic. That’s another one I keep coming back to every couple of years. Really love that one. Recently… Oh, no, I’m going to forget names. Okay. Incantation is one that I don’t think that many people have seen.
PopHorror: I haven’t seen it.
Darcy Coates: No, I found it on Netflix because I’m in Australia and everything’s region, broken up by regions. We’re considered Oceanic, so we get a lot of East Asian movies, Indian, things like that, which is really cool. And Incantation is one of those and it is perhaps the scariest thing I’ve seen in a while. That was a real treat. No one’s talking about it online, so I’m a bit of a… Go and watch Incantation, it is good.
Thank you so much to Darcy for taking the time to speak with us. Dead of Winter, From Below, and Hunted, and the Grave Keeper series are available now. Where He Can’t Find You releases in November 2023.