Mercedes M. Yardley, the Bram Stoker Award–winning Las Vegas author who has been called a female Joe Hill, is running late. She explains it’s because after taking her children to school, she saw, hanging over the Valley’s north end, a giant rainbow. She says she was curious to know if she could see its end.
It’s the perfect metaphor for Yardley’s storytelling approach. Despite the tight structure of her two new novellas—Detritus in Love (co-authored with John Boden) and Little Dead Red (for which she won the Horror Writers Association’s Stoker in May 2016)—the wife and mother of three takes readers into creepy, psychologically complex places. For Yardley, a story begins with characters, and she isn’t afraid to let them determine what happens next.
“I don’t plot,” she says matter-of-factly. “I just sit down and write. But I’m getting better at cutting away the excess. I start with a concept of the character, but the way a plot develops is always a surprise to me. It’s something new every time.”
Another thing that surprises Yardley? The feminist symbolism some readers discover in her work. For example, in Little Dead Red (a haunting retelling of the “Little Red Riding Hood” fairy tale), the male characters are wicked, while the female protagonist, struggling to solve her daughter’s murder by gathering the killer’s DNA, falls victim to a conspiracy.
“Yes, it’s something I even notice in my work,” she admits. “But I don’t bring an agenda. When I think of victims, I think of women and children. I believe men are inherently good, and I don’t believe in superiority but equality. I found that, for a serial killer and for the purposes of the story, a wolf fits the profile of a man.”
Yardley’s knowledge of evil derives from firsthand experience. At 21, after graduating from college with a sociology degree, she worked as a counselor in a home for sex-offender teens, all males, not much younger than she was at the time.
“Everyone there had been a victim, but they were also perpetrators,” she recalls. “It was interesting to see how emotionally nuanced they were. I’d see their raw fear, but then I’d see they had adult processes to deal with their problems.”
The darkness of that experience was formative. Yardley acknowledges that she draws from that time in her life to round out her child characters and to shape her adult villains, who sometimes redeem themselves—until they can’t.
“That job helped me, scarred me. And when it was done scarring me, it helped me add depth to my characters.”
Yardley’s prose brings to mind Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, a chilling tale about boys coping with an uncanny carnival that comes to town. Similarly, in Yardley’s universe, what children believe in is often more real and deadly than what grown-ups can accept. What rings most true, though, is what her young characters fear—namely being abandoned and abused by adults.
“My parents did a good job protecting me,” she says. “But I have friends whose parents failed them; it shows. I think my brand of horror is true [and] realistic, even when I include
She can’t look at blood and guts. She watches horror films through her fingers. What scared her as a kid—what scares her now—is lying awake at night and thinking about what’s going on next door. When not chasing rainbows, Yardley pursues the darkness of reality.
Commercially speaking, novellas are a hard sell in today’s market. But her talent for writing short novels (and very short stories) sets her apart from her horror-penning peers.
“I do well in a leaner form,” she says. “And I like trying different things. I like the shorter form of the novella, because it allows me to explore a theme and move on.”