Whether one likes Horror or doesn’t, as artists, we can ALL learn to be better writers by studying what great Horror authors do well. Powerful fiction mines the darkest, deepest, grittiest areas of the soul. GREAT fiction holds a mirror to man and society and offers messages that go beyond the plot.
Though not, per se, “Horror”, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot is an excellent example. The Spawn recently fell in love with the movie and I’ve seen it 78 times in the past week (and am oddly okay with that). I, Robot isn’t just a story about a guy battling robots. There are so many messages about society—the costs of relinquishing personal responsibility/accountability, the dangers of blind faith, the real price of being totally “safe”, the ugly price of “convenience,” prejudice, and even the nature of the soul.
This story is SO GOOD because it is deeply, viscerally terrifying. Yet, it isn’t “Horror.”
And it could happen.
Stephen King is one of the most legendary authors of our time, and not just for scaring us. I feel King’s ability to see and relate the dark aspects of human nature and society is what makes him an author in his own league. The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, and even Stand By Me weren’t horror stories, and yet they are some of his finest works.
THIS is one of the main reasons I pursued a Horror expert to guest post and to teach at WANACon, because no matter which genre we write, the core tenets of good Horror are masterful guides to connecting to and affecting the souls of our readers.
Take it away, Kevin!
In my last posts I shared why I think horror is one of the most important genres, because – maybe more than any other genre – it has the potential to comment deeply on the human experience. In the right hands, horror can hold up a very unflattering mirror and show us what we really are: broken, scared creatures flawed and cracked, a species tragically ruled by fear, prejudice, insecurity, pride, anger, selfishness and cruelty.
And in the right hands horror also shows our better selves rising above our flaws.
Horror plays out supernatural battles between good and evil in the flesh; horror serves as a litmus test for a society or a nation’s conscience. What we truly fear reveals so much about our character, our true natures; as well as how we face those fears and either rise to meet them, or succumb to them.
That is why horror is – or SHOULD BE – hard to write. Emotionally, as well as spiritually.
That’s not to say that writing horror shouldn’t be fun or enjoyable. By no means. I’m not one of those folks you’ll see lamenting on Facebook about the awful “burden of being a writer,” that I’m a “slave to the muse” or that I “wish I wasn’t compelled to write.”
No, I get a kick out of making things up; especially making up stories about ghosts and ghoulies and monsters and those who face them. I feel immensely blessed to have the opportunity to contribute whatever little I can to the horror genre.
What does it “mean” to write horror?
But more and more, as both a writer and an editor, I’ve come to ponder what it really means to write horror, and the difference between a story that invokes that emotion we call horror and a story that merely utilizes horror tropes.
A clarification, first: I am not an elitist. I love reading and stories of all kinds too much to be a “story snob.” And stories utilizing horror tropes can be just as well-written as anything else. Excellent craft – prose, dialogue, characterization and character development – should be present in ALL fiction, regardless of genre.
A paranormal romance or zombie thriller can be just as well written as a wrenching ghost story about a father mourning the loss of his only son.
And also, I truly feel we are called to write certain stories. I’ve always thought writers experience a form of socially-acceptable multiple-personality disorder. A multitude of voices clamor in our heads for attention, characters who want their stories told. Some of those stories are horror stories. Some of them are not.
Some of them are quiet, creeping tales of unnamable dread, others are highly-charged, emotional, personal stories and still others…well…go splat a little more than the rest.
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King makes the distinction between three types of stories – tales of terror, (which he calls the finest emotion), tales of horror and tales of revulsion. Tales of terror never really shows you that thing that’s on the other side of the door.
Our reaction to it and how our fears change us and rule us is far more important than the actual thing itself; our imagination doing all the work. Two excellent examples would be W. W. Jacob’s classic tale “The Monkey’s Paw” and Shirley Jackson’s seminal novel The Haunting. A really wrenching, emotionally-charged modern version of “The Monkey’s Paw” is found in “Forever,” the 17th episode in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5.
The second tale Stephen King references are tales of horror. The only difference between the two, according to King, is that horror shows us what’s behind that door, and let’s be brutally honest, here. Sometimes we NEED to see what’s behind that door.
I adore Lovecraft’s work, but after awhile, I really need to see that unnamable horror, need to glimpse what that thing is.
An excellent example of a novel that shows us without sacrificing its power is Hell House, by the late Richard Matheson. We are shown the horror in that book. Boy, are we shown, and to devastating effect. Also, the movie “Se7en” – staring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman – has become a classic film that’s been poorly imitated for years, and it succeeds by showing just enough (though it’s ultimate triumph – where its imitators fail – is never showing us what’s IN THE BOX, but that’s okay, because we KNOW. And that’s worse than seeing.)
The final tale is that of revulsion. In this tale, almost everything is secondary to that revolting image, serving as a means to that end and nothing more. Stephen King references the old EC horror comics here; I’m going to reference The Human Centipede.
Almost everything in that film serves only to deliver us the image of three people sewn together, mouth to anus. Prepped by the trailers for this, the audience is waiting for that moment, and when it’s delivered halfway through the movie there’s nothing left to wait for, the rest of the film becoming more of endurance test than an actual story.
However, revulsion still has its place and can be used effectively. In his treatise on the horror genre, The Philosophy of Horror, Noel Carroll asserts that part of horror’s true power lies in its violation of the natural order as we know it.
Revulsion used well (think of that X-files episode with the cannibalistic, inbred redneck family whose sons keep impregnating the bed-ridden mother), confronts us with a violation of what we know to be the natural order of things. An EXCELLENT recent example of this type of revulsion can be found in Kealan Patrick Burke’s acclaimed novel, KIN.
Another good example: William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Because sometimes grief pushes us over the age into violating the natural order of things. Let’s admit; it’s hard to let go of a loved one.
Even when they start to smell…
Another clarification: as a writer, I’m just like all of you – struggling toward that elusive goal of refining my craft. I’ve written my fair share horror trope stories, and I’d like to think they’re good, solid stories. AND, I believe that writing horror trope stories is part of a horror writer’s natural development. But more on that next time ;)….
Thanks, Kevin! What are your thoughts on all this? What stories (horror or not) have horrified, terrified or repulsed you? I know the recent Tom Cruise movie, Oblivion kept me up almost all night (and it’s sci-fi).
Why? Because I kept thinking, This could happen. And not necessarily from aliens. Technology-wise (I read Popular Science and Popular Mechanics) we are about 3-5 years from perfecting similar drones.
What if this technology landed in the wrong hands? With universal health care and the current trajectory of law enforcement, we could easily have a record of everyone’s DNA on file by 2020. What if our DNA could be programmed into a drone that could scan us and mark us friend or foe?
“Foes” get to be a red mist, btw *shivers*. As I said, TERRIFYING.
I LOVE hearing from you, and I know Kevin will, too. Ask him your questions. Tell him your fears. Comments for guests get double weight in the contest.
To prove it and show my love, for the month of September, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Kevin Lucia has worked as an Editor for Shroud Magazine and a Submissions Reader for Cemetery Dance Magazine, and is now an Associate Fiction Editor for The Horror Channel. His podcast “Horror 101” is featured monthly on Tales to Terrify and his short fiction has appeared in several venues. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English at Seton Catholic Central High School and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles and his first short story collection, Things Slip Through is forthcoming November 2013 from Crystal Lake Publishing.
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