Asking “What If?” & Exploring the Unknown–A Final Word on Writing Horror

Kristen Lamb, WANA, We Are Not Alone, WANA Commons

Debbie Johannson WANA Commons

Fear is the most important tool in any writer’s toolbox. Fear is the beating heart of conflict, no matter the genre. Fear of death. Fear of losing love, not finding love, not recognizing love. Fear of change. Fear of remaining the same. In Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novella The Road, the story was less about a fear of death and more about the fear of survival at the expense of one’s humanity. In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan explores the fear of continuing generational curses.

In Winter’s Bone, Woodrell examines fear of family, what it takes to possibly betray family and risk death by turning on kin. In Virginia Woolf’s classic Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf probes the fear of being meaningless. Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World explores the fear of government, the tendency of the masses to devolve to mediocrity, and the dangers of society that only exists to seek empty pleasures and instant gratification.

Suffice this to say that I believe all great works (even outside of Horror) tap into our deepest primal fears, probe them, open them, expose them and maybe even (if we are fortunate) give us a glimpse of a cure.

Kevin continues today with a final word about horror.

****

We’ve discussed many things in the past few days about why the horror genre is important, why writing it is important and hard, but I’d like to offer this final thought: if we expand our definitions of horror past chainsaw wielding maniacs and human centipedes, we find that horror, at the root of it all, is often about a quest into the unknown.

As I’ll detail in one of my workshops at WanaCon, almost all the horror plots involve some level of discovery, penetrating the unknown. So horror exists not only because of mankind’s universal fears and a desire and NEED to deal with those fears, horror exists because there exist those special folks – horror writers – who are consumed with the desire to KNOW things, to ask questions that others would never think of asking, or, as the case may be, never dare ask.

I’d like to leave you with this final thought from Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, about why some of us blessed (cursed?) folks are drawn to writing horror:

“As you get ready to leave, think about this…or brood upon it:

Unknown.

Unknown.

The Story of “Little Miss Nobody”

On July 6th, 1944, the Ringling Brother and Barnum & Bailey Circus was giving a performance in Hartford, Connecticut, before 7,000 paid customers. A fire broke out; 168 persons died in the blaze and 487 were injured. One of the dead, a small girl thought to be six years old, was unidentified. Since no one came to claim her, and since her face was unmarred, a photograph was taken of her and distributed locally and then throughout the U. S. Days passed, weeks and months passed, but no relative, no playmate, no one in the nation came forward to identify her. She remains unknown to this day.

The job of the fantasy writer, or the horror writer, is to bust the walls of the tunnel vision we develop as  adults, bust it wide for a little while, to provide a single powerful spectacle for the third eye (our imagination). The job of the fantasy-horror writer is to make you, (the reader), for a little while, a child again.

And the horror writer himself/herself?

Someone else looks at that item about Little Miss Nobody – still unidentified – and says, “Jeez, you never can tell, can you?” and goes onto something else. But the fantasist begins to play with it as a child would, speculating about children from other dimensions, about doppelgangers, about God knows what else.

It’s a child’s toy, something bright and shiny and strange. Let us pull a lever and see what it does, let us push it across the floor and see if it goes rum-rum-rum or wacka-wacka-wacka. Let us turn it over and see if it will magically right itself again.

In short, let us have our Fortian rains of frogs and people who have mysteriously burned to death while sitting at home in their easy chairs; let us have our vampires and our werewolves. Let us have Little Miss Nobody, who perhaps slipped sideways through a crack in reality, only to be trampled to death in  a rush from a burning circus tent.

“It’s the best set of electric trains a boy ever had,” Orson Welles once said of making movies; the same can be said of making books and stories. Here is a chance to bust that tunnel vision wide open; bricks flying everywhere so that, for a moment at least, a dreamscape of wonders and horrors stands forth as clearly and with all the magical reality of the first Ferris wheel you ever saw as a kid, turning and turning against the sky.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Greg Koenig

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Greg Koenig

“Someone’s dead son is on the late movie. Somewhere a foul man – bogeyman! – is slouching through the snowy night with shining yellow eyes. Boys are thundering through autumn leaves on their way past the library at four in the morning, and somewhere else, in some other world, even as I write this, Frodo and  Sam are making their way toward Mordor, where the shadows lie. I am quite sure of it.” ~Stephen King, Danse Macabe

This is the best way to end my series, I think. I’ve tried to say some very noble things about the importance of the horror genre, and how it’s just as valid as any other genre, and why writing good horror is just as difficult as writing the next Great American Novel.

But all those comments come from my critical, analytical side (where I live every day as an English teacher), and all my own noble and worthy writing goals have become very rooted in my subconscious. What really pushed me toward the horror genre to begin with was the eternal, burning question: Why? and its inevitable follow up: What if…?

And for me?

The horror genre, the genre of the fantastic and strangely beautiful wonders and horrors, simply offered me the most room to play in. I could write a story about a father mourning the loss of his son, and, gripped by guilt, how he goes and sits next to a pond to watch the ducks, and maybe somebody rides by on a bicycle, and then through some heavy exposition – or through the symbolism of a burning sunset – our grieving father works through some resolution, gaining closure as he finally forgives himself.

But that’s just not me.

Cause I really like the idea of his dead son being on the late night movie, reaching through a very special and strange television screen….

Somewhere deep in my own little Twilight Zone.

******

THANK YOU, KEVIN! *does cabbage patch dance* Cabbage Patch Dolls. Talk about creepy (and yes I had them anyway).

What are your thoughts? Do you find yourself holding back in your own writing? Afraid to go to the dark places? What other works (horror or not) do you think did a really fabulous job of exploring our fears? Why did they rattle you? What made you uncomfortable? Did you find relief at the end?

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. Btw, I will announce September’s winner next week. Too slammed with WANACon right now to do it properly. Ah, the contest…

Which is…

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 novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Horror Author Kevin Lucia

Horror Author Kevin Lucia

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 ChannelHis 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.

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

WANACon is THIS WEEKEND!!! Day One and Day Two are for sale separately so you can choose if you only can fit part of the conference. Just a note: A LOT of major authors sacrificed time for no or little pay to pay it forward and offer an affordable and easily accessible conference for those who need one and WANA is extremely grateful to have them.

WANACon, the writing conference of the future is COMING! We start with PajamaCon the evening of October 3rd and then October 4th and 5th we have some of the biggest names in publishing coming RIGHT TO YOU–including the LEGEND Les Edgerton. 

AGAIN, THIS WEEKEND!!!! Get PajamaCon and BOTH DAYS OF THE CONFERENCE for $149 and all recordings for anything you miss or need to hear again. Sign up today, because seats are limited. REGISTER HERE.

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  1. #1 by Shea Ford on October 1, 2013 - 1:04 pm

    Hmm, I like the concept of an idea being like a child’s toy for me as an author to play with. I’m getting ready for my first NaNoWriMo, and while I had planned on a historical fiction/adventure, I can kind of see (after reading this horror series), how I can “play” with my idea a little more and possibly write my first horror novel instead. We’ll see what happens when my subconsious starts screaming ideas at me because I’ve turned off my inner editor.

    Thanks for the great posts Kevin!😀

  2. #2 by cynthiagrstacey on October 1, 2013 - 2:58 pm

    Wow fantastic end Kevin…Mwuah ha ha…I am thinking evil thoughts as I writer this! The demise of the horror writer by his own imagination…oh wait I think Stephen King already did that! Anyway it was a treat reading your posts and you have me thinking. So thanks to both of you.

  3. #3 by cynthiagrstacey on October 1, 2013 - 2:59 pm

    Reblogged this on Cynthia Stacey and commented:
    Awesome post by Horror writer Kevin Lucia, guesting on Kristen Lamb’s blog.

  4. #4 by sharonhughson on October 1, 2013 - 3:15 pm

    I have to admit that horror isn’t my cuppa joe because I give myself nightmares. Aliens…jumped at shadows and slept with the lights on for a week (and I was 19). I do think that fear is a foundational motivator though, so I appreciate further insight into that vein of thinking.
    Looking forward to WANACon. Hope to “see” you all there.

  5. #5 by Nora on October 1, 2013 - 4:03 pm

    I’m learning my writing craft and bookmarked three of the stories you’ve mentioned on your blog. I am to learn from them.

  6. #6 by Tausha Johnson on October 1, 2013 - 4:50 pm

    Great posts! How many zombie dreams I’ve had since following them! I am convinced horror has a tremendously important place in literature, so thank you Kevin (and Kristen). By the way, I think there’s a story waiting to be written about Little Miss 1565. The mystery girl has been identified as Elanor Cook, but why it took 47 years for her family to claim her is a real horror story. You can read the LA Times article about Little Miss 1565 at the link I’ve included below. Thanks again!
    http://articles.latimes.com/1991-03-24/news/mn-1291_1_circus-fire

    • #7 by Kevin Lucia on October 1, 2013 - 7:35 pm

      Interesting! Danse Macabre was originally published in the eighties, so it’s interesting that that mystery has now been cleared up. Thanks for sharing!

  7. #8 by conniecockrell on October 1, 2013 - 5:08 pm

    Thanks for speaking to horror fiction. I’ve never been a big fan of horror, too scary for me. Now that I know what it’s really about, I may take a closer look. Not too close though, just a little closer.

    • #9 by Kevin Lucia on October 1, 2013 - 7:40 pm

      Some recommendations for gore-free horror, with very light touches: Norman Prentiss, Ronald Malfi, T. M. Wright, Charles Grant, and RIo Youers. Nice mix of classics and modern writers.

  8. #10 by Diana Beebe on October 1, 2013 - 5:37 pm

    I’ve really enjoyed and appreciated this series. Thank you!

  9. #11 by swiveltam on October 1, 2013 - 6:29 pm

    This was a wonderful, insightful and inspiring series and you got me all fired up! Thank you Kristen and Kevin. As I was reading Lovecraft today, I came across this little gem, I think it applies:

    “A real artist [apply: writer] knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear — the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lightning effects t stir the dormant sense of strangeness.” H.P. Lovecraft –Pickman’s Model.

    I thought about this one when you were talking about horror tropes vs horror his bit about cheap ghost stories: His character goes on to say:

    “I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch — beyond life — that they’re able to make us catch for a second.” H.P. Lovecraft — Pickman’s Model

    You have given me so much to think about and try to apply. Even the way I am reading horror is with a more mindful eye. Thank you.

  10. #12 by Reviews with Andrea on October 1, 2013 - 7:05 pm

    I think the introduction about the fears identified in great books was beautiful. Kevin’s story of Little Miss Nobody was heartbreaking and terrifying. How to use something to step off the cliff and find the fear.

  11. #13 by angelabooth on October 1, 2013 - 9:21 pm

    Reblogged this on Angela's Hub On WordPress.

  12. #14 by johngee34 on October 1, 2013 - 10:51 pm

    We are not alone…oh yes we are! stop your scaring me, a fellow has got to sleep sometime!

  13. #15 by Debbie Johansson on October 2, 2013 - 12:45 am

    Like Sharon above, I jumped watching Aliens, but I love it – it’s one of my favourites.🙂 I enjoy stories that are psychological – either having unexpected twists in the end or even if the end still provides no answers, like in Turn of the Screw or Picnic at Hanging Rock. Such stories explore our fears, but still leave you asking questions. It’s good the hear the story of Little Miss Nobody has been cleaned up after all these years. Thanks Kevin and Kristen for this inspiring series and book/author recommendations, it’s much appreciated.

  14. #16 by moxeyns on October 2, 2013 - 3:01 am

    A really interesting series, Kevin – thank you!

  15. #17 by Karyne Corum on October 2, 2013 - 9:46 am

    Kevin, this was truly an exceptional series on Horror. You zeroed in on the most elusive and yet defining aspect of the genre. The Unknown. It has it’s own zipcode and it’s own peculiar scent. I think that a horror writer not only revels in the exploration of this, like a child kicking through autumn leaves, but we can obsess about details for months, even years. I saw an article in a paper about a women who died in her apartment. The police had to break down the door and do a basic investigation of her possessions to try and locate kin. What they found was something that has lingered in my mind for two decades now. A single photograph, of a young girl, perhaps the deceased, perhaps not, no one could tell. All that was written on the back was the single phrase, “What happened to her should never have happened to any human being.” My first thought wasn’t for her sad and lonely death, though it was tragic, nor was it about the fact that they never did find anyone to claim her. What haunted me and still does, till I exorcise it in a story, is the consuming need to know what happened to the girl in the photograph?
    Thanks for this amazing blog series. I so enjoyed it.
    Oh, and yes, Happy Halloween!

  16. #18 by Kevin Lucia on October 3, 2013 - 7:11 am

    Thank you, Karyne! Thanks everyone! It was lots of fun!

  17. #19 by Matthew Randall on October 9, 2013 - 8:21 pm

    Hey Kevin, great work putting this fab series together (and thanks to Kristen for tracking you down to guest). Your enthusiasm and dedication to the genre really shone through and kept me reading.

    You’ve reminded me horror was my first teenage-reading-crush and also clarified why. I’ll be checking out some of the stories you’ve cited.

    There are a lot of lessons here to take into any genre – especially going deeper into a story and pushing the envelope by asking ‘what if’.

  1. Asking “What If?” & Exploring the Unknown–A Final Word on Writing Horror | Kristen Lamb’s Blog | midnightscorner
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