Being Harmless: James Grainger on Horror, Fiction, and Toronto

Toronto author James Grainger’s debut novel, Harmless, reveals the potential for horror in everyday life when a weekend in the country among old friends turns into a search for their daughters who’ve vanished in the nearby woods. TRB sat down with Grainger to situate his new book in the haunted landscape of Canadian horror.

TRB: How do you think horror fiction fares in Canada?

JG: It’s an interesting question. Take someone like Andrew Pyper—I’ve reviewed his books, he’s a first-rate writer—but he tends to get overlooked. There’s still a bit of snobbishness against people who write it.

TRB: Is it harder to give readers a good bone-chilling scare these days?

JG: In one of the first early reviews of Harmless, the reviewer, who really liked the book, noted how much violence, gore and pornography there is in it. And in fact, there really isn’t. I’m not saying that as a defence. For almost a three-hundred-page novel, there’s maybe seven pages [of gore] and to me, that was a good thing. One of the things I was thinking about is the characters, especially the main character, Joseph, has been inundated with images of violence and horror and sex, because he’s in his forties, he’s a media-savvy guy, he’s seen all the gory movies. And one of the questions I ask is, ‘What is the difference between seeing all of that filtered through a medium—hundreds of hours of violence and fighting that you’ve seen—and what happens when you really confront it?’ And that’s one of the things that I wanted to do to the reader, was to try to make them re-see what they think they’ve seen, and what they’ve become numb to.

TRB: Having grown up in Toronto, do you find the idea of the country—its isolation and relative obscurity—as the perfect backdrop for something sinister to unfold?

JG: Yes it is, because it’s so alien to me. I don’t feel comfortable in nature. I’ve always liked water but I’ve never particularly liked the woods. When I was a child I found them completely terrifying. My brother and I actually got lost in the woods once and I completely blocked it out of my memory; he only told me about this a few years ago. It didn’t directly influence the writing of the book, but when I was telling him about the book, he said, “Oh, are you talking about the time when we were kids up at our uncle’s cottage?” And as soon as he said it I kind of remembered it: we were lost for about an hour and a half in the woods, it was pretty terrifying. I would have been about nine and he was 11.

TRB: By contrast then, what’s scary about living in Toronto?

JG: It depends, but for me, having a daughter—she’s now 20, so I’m much less afraid for her. But when she was younger, there was a kid, a half-mile from our house, who was murdered. So you just think, ‘You’re being paranoid’ and you want to let your kids out and then something like that happens and it’s the worst thing, and you think, ‘I was right.’ The worst thing can happen. The main character thinks that because he’s in the country, maybe that’s the one thing you don’t have to be afraid of. And then his daughter ends up going missing.

One of the themes of the novel is that men fear themselves when they’re talking about their daughters or wives or girlfriends or sisters. They’re fearing what men will do to them. And that’s one of the things that I wanted to expose, that men know how bad men can be. That’s really what I’m afraid of, what other men are going to do to each other and to women.


Harmless by James Grainger launches in Toronto at The Ossington on May 7 from 6-8 p.m. RSVP at