Why Writing Horror Is–SHOULD BE–Hard Part 2
First, a quick announcement. For those who’ve been waiting, my new social media book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is now available in PRINT. Yay! *happy dance* Almost 300 pages and 1.1 pounds of AWESOME. All you need to build a solid author platform and have time to do the most important part of the job—WRITE MORE BOOKS.
All right. Since it’s coming up on October, it seemed fitting to delve into the genre of Horror, and not simply for those who write spooky tales, but for the rest of us as well.
Elisabeth Kubler Ros once stated:
There are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety and guilt. It’s true that there are only two primary emotions, love and fear. But it’s more accurate to say that there is only love or fear, for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They’re opposites. If we’re in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear.
This means, the more we understand fear, the deeper our writing becomes, the more meaningful, visceral, and profound. In love stories, fear might be of being alone, of never finding “the one” or even losing “the one.” Conflict is always generated by fear. The protagonist wants something BUT THEN… The more intense the fear, the faster the reader turns the pages.
Thus, who better to teach about fear, its necessity, primal roots and tools for generating fear than the horror author? Kevin Lucia (who will be teaching MORE about this at WANACon this weekend) continues….
Here’s the thing: if you’re an ardent horror fan and budding horror writer, you’re part of a tradition. And as good fans, you’re aware of this tradition. You’ve been fed on it, raised in it, and the most natural thing for you to do initially is pay homage to that tradition in your work.
I’m not going to try and define horror here (because that could take forever, and I’d still never get close to a definition), but anyone who wants an insightful examination of the horror genre should check out Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror, or, Paradoxes of the Heart.
It’s a work that really maps out some excellent ideas about what the horror genre is and why people pursue it and this bit here made me feel a lot better about my early “trope” stories:
The creators and consumers of horror fictions are aware that they are operating within a shared tradition (emphasis mine), and this is acknowledged openly, with great frequency and gusto…the horror fiction of the present, though not lacking in energy, also refers back to earlier times, to classic monsters and myths, as if in a gesture of nostalgia.
Noel Carroll, pg. 211
So those zombie and vampire and werewolf and big bug monster stories you’ve been writing? (And the creepy evil clown ones, too?) They’re nothing to be ashamed of, really. If you’re a horror fan, you’ve been raised on a certain diet, and our earliest efforts are unconscious or maybe even conscious attempts to pay homage to the horror traditions we’ve come to adore.
But there’s a difference between horror trope stories and horror stories. I’ve come to this belief through my reading as both a fan and as an editor at several different publications (Shroud Magazine, The Midnight Diner, Cemetery Dance Magazine). And, just like all of you, I’m still trying to write authentic, personal horror stories.
And that’s the first step in writing stories invoking the emotion of horror: searching deep inside yourself and writing stories that come from your GUT, not from your knowledge of the horror tradition. Like when Bradbury made a threshold discovery – ten years INTO his career, mind you – in mining his personal childhood experience while writing “The Lake.”
I can best sum this up in the words of Bram Stoker Award Winning writer and author Mort Castle:
“The best stuff, the stuff that lasts, comes from the late-night conversations we have with our very own selves.”
This hit me hard the first time he said it to me (in an email discussing my work) because it made me realize I was writing horror “trope” stories lacking any personal value. These stories weren’t born out of my own fears and anxieties, but born out of my (admittedly) healthy knowledge of horror’s traditions.
Again – I worked hard on those stories. I believe their craft is sound, to this day. But those stories were motivated and inspired by exterior motives – a vampire story, a ghost story, a haunted house story, etc. – not inspired by my heart or soul. So even though they were fine stories that some people liked, they weren’t living up to their fullest potential.
Also, horror trope stories often lack that sense of violation, transgression or inversion that really evokes the emotion of horror. A story evoking the emotion of horror must begin in some sort of “normal world” – or whatever passes for normal in your story – and there must be some sort of transgression in which the normal world of the protagonist is violated.
What they believe is normal and safe must be inverted and turned against them. Again – as a writer you can never account for all readers. How can you possibly know if the transgression or inversion in your story is really going to impact a reader? That’s nearly impossible to tell.
But when a story begins with an immortal vampire mulling over a warm goblet of blood his plans to overtake the city in a tide of bloodshed with his vampire minions…the emotion of horror is not invoked. This is a horror trope story. It can still be written just as well as any other story on a craft level and be just as enjoyable, but it has fallen short of invoking any emotion of “horror.”
Lastly, very simply…horror at its best comments on the human condition. For horror to live up to its fullest potential, it must SAY something meaningful and of substance about the trials and pitfalls and struggles and fears and nightmares about what it MEANS to be human, living in this flawed, cracked, all-too human and imperfect world.
It’s an overused quote by now, but I’ll reference Stephen King’s comparison (or someone’s comparison, even SNOPES isn’t sure WHO said it first) of Harry Potter’s legacy and that of Twilight:
“Harry Potter is all about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity… Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”
For the record, I’m a lover of ALL types of horror stories. I enjoy the often pulpy, thrill-laced horror trope stories of Robert E. Howard and Brian Keene right along with the atmospheric, literary stories produced by the late Charles L. Grant, T. M. Wright, Ramsey Campbell and Norman Prentiss. I adore the literary, gothic sensibilities of Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz simple morality plays are a guilty pleasure.
Writers like Norman Partridge have produced both kinds of stories, and younger writers such as Rio Youers and Ron Malfi have taken the horror conventions and twisted them to their own ends. And, in the end, we need to write what’s inside us, what we WANT to write.
But it’s an important question for all horror writers – especially new and budding writers – to consider. What are you writing? Horror trope stories, or stories truly invoking the emotion of horror?
And if your aim is the latter…go deeper inside yourself. Find your fears. Take normal characters and invert their lives, transgress their natural order and say something about what it means to be a human in this mean, bad old world of ours and then maybe, maybe you’ll write some of the “best stuff…the stuff that lasts.”
I know I’m still trying.
Thanks, Kevin! Wanna know my idea of a horror story that reflects society?
All kidding aside (okay I wasn’t kidding), what are your thoughts? Questions? I DO believe that fear is essential in ALL genres and ALL great stories. As an editor, one of the BIGGEST problems I see is the writer holding back emotionally. They fail to GO FOR THE GUTS.
Guts are sticky, messy, gross and leave us conflicted. THAT IS GOOD. Fiction is the opposite of reality. In reality we avoid fear, terror, conflict, but as writers—GOOD WRITERS—we should go right for the throat. RAISE THOSE STAKES! Scare the protagonist! Have them fear personal and LITERAL extinction of themselves, everyone they love and all they hold dear. MAKE THE READER WORRY.
It is our DUTY as authors to be sadists and saviors simultaneously.
How you like that for alliteration? 😀
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.
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.