There’s a scene in House of Hunger that has stuck with me since reading. Well, the entirety of the book has remained firmly ingrained in the corner of my brain where unforgettable reads reside, but there’s a bit of Alexis Henderson’s work that other writers should study. You’re often told to engage every sense when crafting a story, beyond sight. Most authors are able to capture the sounds, the tactile aspects, and maybe the smell. Yet, how often are you enthralled by taste? That, my friends, is where Alexis leaves us all quite jealous of her skill. Taste is a side-effect of hunger, and hunger is the crux of this tale. You’ll surely find yourself wondering just what you’ve developed a hankering for by the book’s end.
Alexis joined me for a conversation about longing, power dynamics, the Victorian era, and her own love of food among other things. But, most important of all, we discussed all the ways women can survive the insatiable appetite of a world that seeks to devour us whole.
TheSeelieCrow: House of Hunger is about a young woman named Marion, who is living in poverty, and she makes the decision to become a “blood maid”, which is essentially a prized possession of the wealthy. She offers her blood to heal those she serves. How did Marion come about? How did her story come to be?
Alexis Henderson: I think I’ve had a fascination with Countess Bathory since I was quite young. I remember watching this Countess Bathory movie, back when Netflix was sent through the mail. I just remember being, I hesitate to use the word enamored, but just fascinated with this character who arguably is more myth than fact in a lot of ways. On the flipside, I’ve also had an ongoing fascination with the Victorian era.
I think, specifically, I’m interested in what was happening with the labor movement. England was becoming more and more industrial. The labor movement that was building at that time in response to industrialism was a point of fascination for me.
I think that Marion kind of came about in that way, where I was interested in writing about a character that’s very much oppressed by this labor system that she’s unwillingly participating in, this kind of desperation, and wanting something more. I think that’s a very vulnerable place to be in. Marion is a direct expression of that; that vulnerable position she was in, where she’s fighting so hard just for her survival, aligned in my head with this interest I had in exploring the Countess Bathory.
A lot of Marion’s character is in direct response to Lisavet and vice versa. Those two just have this really intrinsic connection in my head. They are opposites in a lot of ways. They’re very similar, too.
TheSeelieCrow: Were there other women, or historical figures that might have influenced this development of Lisavet?
Alexis: There’s certainly myth, bits and pieces. One that came to mind was Delphine LaLaurie from New Orleans. I was interested in women who are born into wealth and power, and then use that to abuse, or manipulate. What makes a woman want to do that? What makes a person do that in general? Or, how does abuse manifest differently when it’s abuse by a woman toward another woman? These are the sorts of things I was playing with in my mind. Of course, there are always gonna be vampiric overtones. There are influences of figures like Dracula. I was just fascinated with this idea of a darker, more feminine manipulator in a toxic romance.
TheSeelieCrow: In this world that Lisavet occupies, that Marion finds herself in, there’s this power in blood, literally. People have the ability to give it and receive it. I like the way that you use blood to talk about class issues, power, and freedom. Many of the characters point out that blood rules their world. What inspired you to make it the central element of your story?
Alexis: I think in general I’m so enamored with this idea of blood. I was baptized Catholic, but I was raised in a kind of more Baptist, Evangelical Christianity environment. There’s this huge symbolic significance when it comes to blood. That’s also a touchstone in my previous novel, The Year Of The Witching, the symbolism surrounding blood.
I think I always knew that I wanted to write a vampire novel, but I wanted it to be my own take and something different. So, I was thinking about what blood would represent in this world. With Marion and the other blood maids, blood represents vitality, or their innocence, their youth. Blood became a good symbol of the health and vitality they were quite literally giving away for their own survival. I was fascinated by the idea of a blood trade and an economy centered around it.
TheSeelieCrow: It really does flow through every facet of their society. To have it coming from young women with no power, versus in our religious spaces that feel almost masculine, was like flipping what our expectations might be.
Alexis: I do think there’s this perception of noble causes to bleed for, and there are others that aren’t considered noble. So, had Marion gone to war it would’ve been okay. I do think some of the discomfort in the world is that women have access to wealth and power.
In the world of House of Hunger, they’re deeply uncomfortable with the idea that women can make a sacrifice and access these higher echelons of power that aren’t available to everyone.
There are just so many avenues that I had to explore. I had a huge food fascination, so there’s a lot of consumption. I was really fascinated with Victorian slaughterhouses, but I think it was interesting to think of this whole society of people that have so much privilege that they don’t view the humans in their service as human. As a Black woman living in America, that history is not strange to me.
Read the rest of Alexis’ interview in Issue 3 of The Seelie Crow and get your copy of House of Hunger in The Seelie Crow’s very first book box!