Meet Hatchet Girls, Just in Time for Halloween
Diana Rodriguez Wallach (COM’00) taps into that Lizzie Borden vibe for her new YA novel
Author Diana Rodriguez Wallach’s 12-year-old daughter came to her book launch event a couple of weeks ago and told her afterward that she “slayed.”
Just in time for Halloween, Rodriguez Wallach (COM’00) published her latest YA novel, and first hardcover, this month, the creepy thriller Hatchet Girls (Delacorte, 2023), where a group of high schoolers run afoul of an ancient evil in the woods. The action plays out just about this time of year in Fall River, Mass., infamous for being the home of a young woman named Lizzie Borden. Things get more than a little Type A negative.
“You can’t have a book with a bloody ax on the cover and not follow through,” Rodriguez Wallach says cheerfully.
She grew up in Pennsylvania and lives in the Philadelphia suburbs, but her recent success as a novelist actually goes back a long way and to another of the Bay State’s spookier spots. On a vacation visit to Massachusetts circa 2002, she stopped in to see a Salem (Witch City) psychic as a lark. Not only did the psychic peg her as a writer—OK, she was a hotel-business reporter—but as an author of children’s books.
When Rodriguez Wallace entered that Salem psychic’s shop, she was already thinking about shaking up her career. Hotel and real estate journalism was fine, but not her true calling. Then, like many people, she began to rethink her priorities after 9/11—the twin towers were five blocks from her apartment. By 2003 she had moved back to Philly and taken a job with a nonprofit. And in 2004, when she began to dream (literally) of writing fiction for kids and teens, her soon-to-be husband reminded her of their visit to Salem.
Her first novel got her an agent, but never got published, in part because of the highly specific art of writing for young people. It was a middle grade book told in a YA voice, she realizes now. But after that she published paperback YA romances (now out of print), followed by a trilogy of teen spy novels, and finally Small Town Monsters (Underlined Paperbacks, 2021), about a girl whose parents are demonologists, and a boy whose mother seems to be turning into something strange…
Kirkus Reviews named Small Town Monsters one of the 13 Scariest Books of 2021, YA or adult.
“I think horror sometimes gives you the opportunity to say something about society without being an After School Special,” Rodriguez Wallach says.
“I have a cult in Small Town Monsters, and it’s loosely based on some real life cults like Nexium, which was in the news recently,” she says. “Not to get political, but for me the actual inspiration was that idea of following a charismatic leader, even if everything that they’re saying is counterintuitive to you. Breaking bad is really just a choice you make inside yourself.”
Small Town Monsters made a strong enough impression that her new book is a hardcover from Delacorte, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Hatchet Girls centers around siblings Tess and Vik Gomez, recent transplants to Fall River, and Vik’s girlfriend, Mariella, who’s from a wealthy family that may not approve of Vik. When Mariella’s parents get whacked just like Lizzie Borden’s, which is to say bloodily, Vik becomes public enemy #1. But Tess knows that her brother could never commit such a brutal crime. And to prove his innocence, she’ll have to venture into that spooky forest…
The gruesome death of Mariella’s parents is the first time Rodriguez Wallach had written that kind of murder scene, with some fairly, um, vivid detail. She decided to go all in. And she looked to the masters for inspiration.
“I consider reading Stephen King my education in the genre,” she says. “I picked up his Misery, and I went to the scene in the book where she actually cuts off his foot, versus the movie, in which she just hobbles him. I went to that scene to see how far it went, and I went to a couple of other books that included violent scenes to see how far that they went, and based on that, I decided to just go for it.”
Reading King and some others helped her figure out how to make an impact on readers.
“I would be like, okay, why am I scared?” she says. “And I would highlight the pages, and I would notice that they slowed it down and used a lot of vivid sensory descriptions. All five senses, and that’s how they scared you. So whenever I get to one of those scenes, I spend a lot of time on the descriptions. Which is why it gets, you know, vivid and graphic.
“Honestly, it’s one of my favorite scenes in the book. It was actually kind of fun to write.”
Tricky stuff to write for the YA market? “In my experience, especially with schools and teachers, that [stuff] won’t get me banned, not nearly as much as if I included something political or something sexual,” she says.
“I did a signing event [for Small Town Monsters] last year in the Bible Belt part of Pennsylvania, out in Amish Country, and I’m one of a couple of young adult authors. The teachers were asking me about the book: Is it appropriate? And they were specifically using the word, is it clean? And for them, they really meant, is there sex in it? Sex or drugs. I said, well, it doesn’t have that, but there is demonic possession, and that was fine. They picked up the book and bought it.”
Everyone in Fall River knows about Lizzie, of course. Mariella’s parents live in a mansion that in real life is the home of the Fall River Historical Society. It’s about a mile from the Lizzie Borden House, which is now an inn as well as a museum. Rodriguez Wallach stayed in the inn as part of her research.
You can’t have a book with a bloody ax on the cover and not follow through
“The tour guide coincidentally had been a paramedic in his previous career, so he answered most of my questions about blood spatter,” she says.
“He had so many stories of having been the emergency responder at a [crime or accident] scene, and he knew a lot about the blood spatter of the Lizzie Borden house too. And there are some questions, if you look at the Lizzie Borden scene in photos, especially around like her father, there isn’t enough blood on the walls [as] you would expect. He had some interesting theories about all of that. So he helped me with making that scene even a little bit more vivid.”
In many YA novels, the real evil is not supernatural, but all too human—bullying of one form or another, be it because of race or gender or sexuality. And that first book Rodriguez Wallach wrote, which remains on her hard drive, actually was inspired by her own victimization in junior high. She wasn’t bullied because of her Puerto Rican heritage—her father is from Puerto Rico, but she says she doesn’t fit any Latina stereotype—but straight up mean-girl stuff.
While she might like to take another crack at that topic some day, in mid-October she signed a two-book deal with Random House for additional young adult horror novels. Both will be stand-alone novels, and the first will likely come out in late 2025.
It’s definitely a happy ending to this story, although “the first book will be set in the Philadelphia suburbs,” she says, “and is inspired by a real abandoned girls reform school.”
Hmmm, couldn’t be anything spooky there…