Normal author dishes up terror with Twilight Zone-esque tales
Retired librarian Sue Rovens is all smiles when she sits down to discuss her recently published book, Sanctum. She has a quick sense of humor and an easy laugh that makes talking to her a genuine delight.
But there’s a reason an old horror trope tells us to beware of the nice ones. With their combination of suspense, horror, and eerily relatable characters, Rovens’ stories will chill your blood.
An Illinois girl, the author grew up in Park Forest and Hazel Crest but has called Normal home since 1982. She worked in Milner Library at Illinois State University for 30 years before retiring just a few years ago. For a long time, Rovens, now 59, thought she would wait to fulfill her dream of writing until after she retired, but her mother’s death in 2009 spurred her to start early.
“We always liked to watch One Step Beyond and Twilight Zone together when I was a kid,” said Rovens. “I was right there when she passed away, and it changed me. It’s like, if you want to do something, do it now. Don’t wait. It was the impetus to look at life in a different way, to appreciate things.”
Rovens started writing that year, and three years later she completed her first book of short stories: In A Corner, Darkly: Short Stories to Horrify, Shock and Disturb. The collection has won praise. The story When the Earth Bled won second place in the Support Indie Authors short story contest, and Coming Over inspired a short student indie film by the theater department of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.
Like the classic sci-fi and suspense shows she loved, Roven’s writing leans into the psychological horror arising from society’s darker corners. There are bits of gore scattered throughout, but the author uses an atmospheric creepiness that would fit better with the classic horror films of the 1930s than the slasher flicks of the 1980s. Chills arise from character and plot, leading one reviewer to say her anthology was “like the Twilight Zone meets the Midwest.”
Readers will find the Midwest makes frequent appearances in Rovens’ works. Her second novel, Track 9, a troubling tale about an abandoned railway depot and a series of strange premonitions, is partially set in Bloomington/Normal. The book received a starred review in the May 2018 issue of Publisher’s Weekly.
Rage, Rovens’ 2021 release, also uses the Midwest as a backdrop for mingled stories of depression and alcoholism. It even starts with a character standing on the roof of a building on the Illinois State University campus.
Rovens says she writes about the Midwest because she knows it well, but her ideas come from everywhere.
‘if I could write it, then it’s not as scary because it’s coming from my own head’
“When I sit down, I have a very loose concept, a character in mind, or just a thin idea. I write my first drafts during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I sit down on Nov. 1, and I don’t know what’s going to come out.”
Her book Buried, in which a hoarder’s dog digs up something from the cemetery, came out of a reality television show she watched where a person took a body pad from a funeral home and kept it in their house.
“After that episode, I was like, this needs to be a story. It’s weird because I was scared of that, but I thought it was fascinating. And if I could write it, then it’s not as scary because it’s coming from my own head. It’s like you deconstruct it.”
Staying scary busy
In May of this year, the author published her fifth novel, Sanctum. She introduces retired corn crib operator Ed Thackery, who becomes a real estate agent, only to find that his first listing is a haunted house.
“All the places that are supposed to be safe are chaos for him,” said Rovens. “That’s why I came up with the word ‘sanctum.’ It’s supposed to be a safe haven, a place to be who you are. And every aspect of his life ends up in turmoil.”
Slowly Thackery, and the reader, become aware of problems within the haunted house and also problems within the town. Thackery’s boss is evasive. His wife and her church group don’t like Thackery showing the house to a lesbian couple. The book reflects on how society can be just as terrifying as the paranormal.
“I started this book two years ago, so it just happens to be connected to what’s going on,” she said. “I wanted to write something a little out of my wheelhouse, but I wanted to be respectful. I also wanted to give realistic perspectives. I’m trying not to make a judgment call, but, with no spoilers, it tests the boundaries of everybody in the situation. I think it’s a good story. And I think it’s very poignant. I wanted to show both sides, so I hope I captured it and did it justice.”
Sanctum … The book reflects on how society can be just as terrifying as the paranormal
When she isn’t working on a new novel, Rovens keeps herself busy. She’s the executive producer for the indie horror film, Let’s Do Things that Make Us Happy, and a writer and co-host of a horror podcast with Carol M. Ford called Ye Olde Terror Inn. Set in a fictional haunted tavern in the English countryside, the podcast welcomes weary travelers to be entertained with frightful and disturbing tales.
Rovens is a member of The Chicago Writers Association and the Alliance for Independent Authors (ALLi). She runs a blog where she interviews other creative people and keeps her fans up to date on where to find her for book signings and author readings. Her books can be found online and in local bookstores, including Bobzbay Books in Bloomington.
For more information about Sue Rovens and her books, or to book her for author readings, visit her website at suerovens.com.