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Courtney Gould explores grief and loneliness in hotly anticipated sophomore novel

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Courtney Gould — Photo courtesy of the author
Courtney Gould — Photo courtesy of the author

Nothing is more frightening for an author than the dreaded "sophomore slump." Horror writer Courtney Gould was warned by friends and colleagues about the difficulties that come after producing a successful first novel.

"'Second book syndrome' is what everyone calls it," Gould said. "I knew going into Where Echos Die that that was a thing people had tried to warn me of. The second book is the most difficult, and you should try to write something before the first book comes out, so you're not battling the post-publication stress of drafting a new book."

While Gould did try to draft the manuscript for her second book before her popular debut, The Dead and the Dark, hit shelves, life got in the way before she could finish edits.

"The drafting process, when you already have a book out, does become more difficult," she said. "You're balancing more feedback than you've ever gotten back on a project before with having to go back to drafting. I had to find what I like about [my] books and what I don't like about [my] books and just tune out the rest."

After nearly three years and several deadline extensions, she finally released her book in June.

Image courtesy of Wednesday Books  

The role of queerness
Fans of Gould's first will find many of the same mysterious elements on the pages of Where Echos Die. While set in a different part of the country, the story still takes place in a remote small town filled with strange characters.

"I've always had this affinity for strange small towns, and I love those small desert towns," Gould admitted. "I wanted it to have the vibes of the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, this small, strange town in the middle of nowhere that functions [by] its own rules and doesn't engage with the outside world."

Unlike the rural Oregon setting of The Dead and the Dark, the home of Gould's second novel is less impacted by prejudices and homophobia. "They are untouched by the general culture. They've established their own thing, and it is both enticing and dangerous," she said.

Gould found the inspiration for the fictional town of Backravel while driving from Tacoma to Phoenix, Arizona, in 2020. "We were driving through the desert stretch from LA to Phoenix at sunset, and I was looking out at the sunset thinking, 'Okay, this is where I want this book to be set,'" she said.

While the town in Where Echos Die is less caught up in the prejudices of rural America, Gould believes queerness plays a different role in her horror novel. "In this one, I would say that queerness is not necessarily essential to the plot like it was in The Dead and the Dark," she said, "which was much more focused on homophobia and the impacts of homophobia on rural America. Because Backravel has those elements of a utopia, I never wanted queerness to be an issue [there], that it would be something that Bec had to hide."

While the story's protagonist, Bec, isn't ostracized for being a Lesbian, she still faces struggles unique to her identity. "There is this feeling of loneliness in the Lesbian community sometimes, this sense of not feeling connected to the people around you and wanting to have that sense of camaraderie and empathy from another person," Gould explained.

"I've seen texts about the Lesbian experience with loneliness versus other identities. I wanted that to feel very present in Bec's story, even though she's out and people know that about her. She still doesn't feel like she has a real connection with other people. She feels like a floating piece that can't find a place to land."

Deeply personal
Where Echos Die was a deeply personal project for Gould. The book became a way for her to work through her real-life grieving process on the page.

"The dedication in this book lists five people. They're all members of my family who, unfortunately, passed away between the time I started this book and the time I finished it," she said. "I wanted to write something I felt could help me with the process of grieving."

While it was difficult to work through such raw emotions, Gould has found that her latest book resonated with the right audience.

"The most touching messages I've gotten about the book have come from people who also lost a family member," she said. "They were able to find comfort in Bec's story and understand how essential it is to move on and how unhealthy it is to linger in the past. At first, it was just something I wanted to make sense of for myself, but then I found that other people in that process have also found comfort."

What's to come
Gould's fans won't have to wait three years for her next book. Her third horror story, What the Woods Took, is slated to hit shelves in the fall of 2024. It follows five behaviorally challenged teens sent to an outdoor therapy program in Idaho. When something happens, the kids must band together to survive the woods and the monsters that lurk within.

"I'm super happy with it," Gould said. "It was a lot of fun to write, and I feel like it brought some of the fun back to writing after working through some difficult processes with Where Echos Die. I hope readers have as much fun reading it as I did writing it."

Gould is also participating in a horror anthology titled The House Where Death Lives. Each short story in the collection is written by a different horror author and takes place in a different room of the house. "I am the attic story. It will be fun. I'm really happy with that short story and how it turned out," Gould said.

Gould is quickly amassing a reputation for her clever horror stories, centering the Queer experience and exploring complex concepts of grief, isolation, and resilience. Her latest book is a testimony to the pain of those left behind and the courage it takes to choose to go on.

Where Echos Die is available now.