Yesterday, we explored the often overlooked genre of Horror with Author Kevin Lucia. Why are we fascinated by being scared? What purpose does the genre of Horror serve? Why is Horror vital to the human condition? Today, Kevin continues as guide into the dark realms of the human condition.
No need for two gold coins for passage. We’re classy that way :D.
And remember, Kevin will be teaching BOTH DAYS at our virtual writing conference WANACon next weekend along with writing legends like Les Edgerton and David Corbett, so get your seat! All the benefits of a writing conference without the hassles.
Take it away, Kevin!
Three years ago, on our annual vacation to the Adirondacks, at Enchanted Forest’s Water Safari, I made an awful mistake that’s haunted me ever since. To make a long story short: my autistic son discovered the kiddie water tubes that summer and fell in love with them. Embolden by this, I took my son – too young to know better – down one of the big slides, Black River Falls. What I wasn’t counting on?
The all encompassing darkness.
The water, which rushed MUCH faster than in the kiddie tubes.
And my son’s screams.
Now, I held my boy in a death grip and we survived, and more than likely we were never in any real danger. But it haunted me (and honestly, it chills me even writing this) wondering what could’ve happened if I’d let him go, my two-year old autistic son who didn’t understand WHAT was going on, much less know how to swim. And of course the shame I felt at my foolish risk nearly overwhelmed me. I felt irresponsible, a horrible father.
Two summers later, Lamplight Magazine solicited me for a novella. I wrote about that incident, imagining a scenario in which my worst fears had come true, and the consquences. And to date, it is one of the hardest things I’ve ever written, and I think one of the best things I’ve ever written, because it hurt so much to write.
Perhaps one of the best reasons why horror is one of the most important genres is how it examines the human condition, by probing our worst nightmares and fears, as well as examining society and humanity – all our best and worst aspects – in close detail.
Good horror takes characters of depth and exposes them to their worst fears, watching closely how they either rise or fall…which speaks (no, SHOUTS) volumes about us as humans.
Though not strictly a horror series, this is why some of the best Twilight Zone episodes reverberate with a haunting resonance that simply won’t let us go. Episodes like Living Doll, The Masks, The Shelter, I Am the Night Color Me Black – these aren’t just freaky, weird tales that leave us feeling chills down our spines for thrill’s sake alone.
No, these episodes in particular showed us the dark, ugly side of human nature…they held up mirrors that showed us all our most unsavory aspects.
The Twilight Zone has its flaws, but this is why the series endures today in endless syndication: Rod Serling found that horror (along with fantasy and science fiction) provided an excellent vehicle for stories about social consciousness, stories he might not have been able to tell on television otherwise; and like Sterling, scores of horror authors believe their genre allows them to ask questions about that which most of us would rather not even consider:
“What I see is pain and isolation that empowers not the sufferers, but that which afflicts them. I
want a reason for this. I want a reason for babies born with cancer, for the endless supply of thoughtless cruelties both little and large we inflict on one another on an everyday basis, for old folks who are abandoned to die alone and unwanted and unloved.
I want an explanation, please, for all of the soul-sick, broken-hearted people who become so hollowed by their aloneness that they turn on the gas, eat the business end of shotgun, or find a ceiling beam that can take their weight. I want sense made of this. I want to know the reason why…and since none is forthcoming, either from above or those around me, I’ve decided to try and find an answer on my own. So far, the best – the only – way for me to work toward this is through writing horror stories.”
– Gary Braunbeck, To Each Their Darkness (Apex Publications)
Horror. One of our most important genres, because it comments on our fears and nightmares, on the things that makes us weak, holds up unflinching mirrors to show our inherent ugliness, and dares ask questions about things the rest of us would rather ignore. And, like any other genre, SO many want to write in it.
But writing GOOD horror is hard. SO hard. And even I’m still struggling, myself. But I think I’ve begun to understand the key elements to writing GOOD horror, and that’s what I’ll share next time….
Thanks so much, Kevin! Did you guys grow up watching Vincent Price and those old Edgar Allen Poe black-and-white movies? Did you cut your story teeth on Twilight Zone, too? To this DAY I hate dolls and clowns because of the ventriloquist episode (on top of “It” and “Poltergeist”).
Have you ever had a similar terrifying experience like Kevin? One you later mined for a work of fiction?
As a personal aside, I know my short story Dandelion was written winter of this past year and published in the spring. As a mother, after Sandy Brook, my mind had to give resolution and make some sense of the sheer random horror of the event (for some reason, when I write NF I am very light and funny and my fiction goes DARK and Dandelion I think qualifies as a version of horror, so READER BEWARE if you check it out).
Have you ever had a piece you HAD to write because the sheer terror or emotion of it demanded action? What books, movies, shows influenced you the most as an adult?
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 now has Day One and Day Two 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.
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.
I truly enjoyed in Rod Sterling and believe he does reside in the Twilight Zone. He was way above the best. Reminds me a little like the O’Henry stories. The twist ending, very Alfred Hitchcock. Sterling was far above and ahead of his time. Reminds me of Ernie Kovaks who also was a genius. If I could dedicate my blog it would be to him. I also try for the twist.
Thank you Kevin (and Kristen for sharing him). Writing good horror or good anything is hard. The Twilight Zone comment struck a cord with me. I watched them growing up and now watch them with my children (on netflix). As I was recently writing ghost stories for a compilation I thought about how between Lovecraft, Serling, King, Bradbury and Gaiman, how could there possibly be anything left to write about. This often stops me in my tracks. Advice?
Think of this – how can we imbue all of our modern conveniences (cell phones, internet, facebook, blogs, twitter) with the supernatural, with hauntings. These are all modern forms of communication, and part of a haunting is, essentially, communication. Gaiman actually wrote a great essay about haunting and Halloween here:
Thank you for the link and comment back! I will go read this now! What fun! Love Gaiman 🙂
Me too. Hands down, one of my favorite writers.
I’ve tried to do so.
Thanks for stopping by, Ramsey. Anyone here want an excellent example of what horror is capable of, you need to check out Ramsey Campbell;s work, for sure.
I am a total putz when it comes to computers. How can I link you, can you link to me and vica versa. I have written a novel that a lady in Australia is setting up for publication so I would love for you to give insight. It is called the Record Killer and is a serial novel. I posted the first chapter on my blog. I will keep my fingers crossed to win.
I don’t write much horror, but I read it and have done so since childhood. No wonder I STILL get creeped out by a small noise under the bed… I lived across the street in a freshman dorm when Teddy Bundy attacked the sorority house at FSU in 1977. And yes, I’ve used my brush with evil in a flash fiction piece. It actually helped me deal with emotions that have stuck with me for now over thirty years.
I love reading, watching, and analyzing horror narratives. How could there be a good one that doesn’t have some socio-political angle? All the things under our cultural beds at night are political. Some theorists aver that the original formulation of the ghost as an entity trapped to haunt particular places (houses, crossroads, etc.) mark the cultural site of some gross injustice for which there can no longer be any adequate resolution–think indigenous removal and all those horror stories about things built up around Indian burial mounds. The best horror works on its own as a highly individual narrative, of course, but try out my challenge. Take your favorite horror story and ask: is there some association between the evil and a historical or political issue related to oppression?
It’s funny, I love reading horror, Stephen King is my favorite, bu I have never written anything of that genre…something to think about. You have inspired me Kevin….thanks Kristen. Great post.
I love Twilight Zone. I never found them horrifying, just interesting. I believe those episodes resonate with us even today because they made us think and examine things from a unique point of view, like the woman being terrorized by a pint-sized martian only to discover that the “martian” was really a US astronaut.
Another excellent article, Kevin. Taking your point from the Twilight Zone, Stephen King’s, The Mist, is a great story, both film and novel versions, because the horror is not the creatures attacking the group of people trapped in a food mart, the horror is what the people do to each other when faced with this threat.
I think every parent has horrible, nightmare missteps like that. In the moment, you just don’t think about the consequences and then bam, when it’s happening, it’s too late. And you’re right the guilt and shame afterwards is crippling. I haven’t used my mistakes yet for a story but you’ve inspired me to look into doing so, taking that extra step and showing/exploring what if.
Thanks, Traci. I’ll talk a bit about some advice I got from a mentor in that direction in my next blog.
One thing to keep in mind, too – it’s important to harvest the emotions from real life experiences, and not try too hard to make your fictional story correlate to how it actually happened. I changed several details of the story, and kept the emotions. Author Gary Braunbeck said in an essay once: “Good fiction doesn’t give a damn how it REALLY happened.”
Great point, Kevin. About a hundred years ago, I took a college class from Bill Ransom (co-wrote a few books with Frank Herbert), and one of the favorite things I remember him saying was that the great thing about fiction is that you can take something that happened to you, and if you don’t like the ending, change it.
Right – the old “That’s the way I remember it happening, and if it didn’t happen that way, it should’ve…”
Two great posts. Kevin has the ability to look at the roots of horror and the human response to the horror tale and remind us why it is more than just “a scary story.” Horror is an emotion, and the horror story is a tool that uses that emotion and allows us to examine aspects of our reality that other types of writing can’t. Bravo Kevin.
Thanks, Tom. We’ve some more to come, too….
Kevin, your personal horror story, though short- just a paragraph here in this post- was so poignant, so heartfelt, I felt your fear, your pain and your shame. You are a talented writer…thank you for sharing such an emotional story.
You’ve made an excellent point about horror, it speaks to the human condition and can affect us on a deeply emotional level.
I’ve never thought of it that way.
To me, horror is Friday the 13th or Piranah, silly movies with little story and a lot of gratuitous gore.
But the way you started this post, with your own experience, your own terror, makes me realize that horror is so much more.
From this moment on I will look at the genre differently. It’s more complex than I’ve ever given it credit for.
Thank you for opening my eyes.
Kristen, thanks for having Kevin.
Have a great evening!
I’ve long eschewed reading horror fiction, but Kevin, you’ve succeeded in making me see it in an entirely new way. I loved this post. You brought tears to my eyes. Fantastic.
Good essay…I think that while, indeed, horror has a role to play in modern society, it’s effectiveness can vary greatly according to the genre of horror (e.g., supernatural, Gothic, atmospheric vs. slasher/gore) and the susceptibilities and identity of the reader. Good horror literature’s ability to scare generally transcends the reader’s background, though different people will certainly be affected differently by different subgenres of horror. My late godfather, a healthy, well-educated (engineer), rational and materialistic man was deathly averse to reading/watching horror books/films. One time, in my early teens, against his express wishes (as a teenager I had laughed off any objections he, as a 50-something year-old man, might have), narrated to him a summary of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror in the Burying Ground,” — he was very uncomfortable when I did so, but I guess he humoured me. I later (after his death some 35 years later) discovered from his wife and independently through a close friend of his, that it had led to him having daily nightmares, insomnia, and erratic behaviour for several months — to the extent that he had required medication and counseling. However, my father, from a similar educated, rational, physical sciences background, found the horrifying elements of horror stories rather dull (anything supernatural being “a load of poppycock!”), but did enjoy horror stories with a twist, the more clever the twist the better (e.g., Poe, Roald Dahl, de Maupassant) — he loved some of the French decadent writers (Lorrain, Huysmans, etc.) from the late 1800s and their particularly sadistic-twist endings. As for myself (a working scientist and atheist) the blood and gore horror of the last 30-40 years has left me rather indifferent, but the atmospheric horror and excellent writing of older writers like Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Vernon Lee, or more recently Robert Aickman, do far more towards giving me chills than anything by Stephen King and his contemporaries. For example, to me the unseen, barely perceived but present threat in Blackwood’s short story “The Lost Valley” — where nothing really happens, but the creepiness is palpable, is a story I’ll never forget. Though I had a fairly innocuous childhood, the films and written material which disturb/frighten/horrify me most deeply are those which depict documented cases of child abuse (the 1950s French Canadian true case film “Aurore l’enfant martyre,” comes to mind). These horrify me in a way that disturbs me for weeks, and while I never can watch them again, I can’t draw away from new ones when they appear on TV or in cinemas. I suppose you could say that different people have different needs to be filled by horror literature, that what is cathartic to some is anathema to others — and perhaps some people need greater or lesser doses.
Yvette and Tamara – thanks. I hope in the next few days, I can recommend some different type of horror writers that AREN’Tall gore and slash.
Georges – yeah, I agree, definitely. For example – those of religious background would consider films like The Conjuring or The Exorcist frightening, when an atheist might not. Today, it’s interesting to consider that, in a world is it a remarkably LOWER “spiritual temperature” than previous generations, “body horror” or desecration of the physical self has become so prevalent, when desecration of the soul was something folks used to worry about.
I was forbidden to watch Twilight Zone, but I peeked around the door and heard the spooky music. It made the experience more scary. And that episode with the ventriloquist dummy freaked me out. Horror is a view of that which we should not see but are forced to watch…
That particular episode from The Twilight Zone is the one that I remember the most – very creepy and I’ve hated those dummies ever since. I’ve always kept well away from clowns as well – especially since discovering John Wayne Gacy. I grew up on The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock movies and Stephen King novels and have always been fascinated by the paranormal. Horror is very much an emotion; the fear of the unknown, and I agree with Braunbeck that I’m curious enough to want answers. Thanks so much Kristen and Kevin for an inspiring post.
Great job, Kevin. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s and was taken in by The Twilight Zone. Grew to be a big fan of Rod Strerlings’ works. I am also a fanatic when it comes to Stephen King. I read so many of his works, novels and short storys, that I lost count. Although his recent works have mellowed from his ‘horror’ days, he his still my idol as a writer.
And, Kristen….I just read Dandelion. You definately portrayed Jane as a mother out for revenge. It was a great piece of work.
I had to write an essay once (about 5,000 words) on why horror – and particularly supernatural horror – holds such a fascination.
While I was researching it I happened to read John Connolly’s short story “The Erlking”, and had to include this quote in my essay:
“There is myth, and there is reality; one we tell, and one we hide. We create monsters, and hope that the lessons wrapped in their tales will serve to guide us when we encounter that which is most terrible in life. We give forged names to our fears, and pray that we may face nothing worse than what we ourselves have created.”
Says it all, for me.
Excellent. I agree.
As an English teacher and horror writer, I’m thoroughly enjoying these posts.
I actually teach The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street to my high school students, and before the students read the piece I spend a day talking not only about the power of fear (what I refer to as one of the most primitive emotions) but also the Red Scare, McCarthyism and the Cold War and how those things effected not only the writer but also our country in general.
Paul, every Friday we watch an episode of The Twilight Zone – call it Twilight Zone Friday – and my students’ reactions to a fifty year old black and white show is absolutely amazing.
I have a short story I wrote because I realized based on an email mix-up how easy it was to get information about someone else. It’s pretty twisted, and never really went any where, but maybe that’s because I didn’t go far enough. This makes me want to go further with it.
All fiction on some level is a showcase for the human condition. I think there are better ways than horror to paint the human soul. Horror stoops for the base.
Rachel, I’d have to respectfully disagree with you on that one. There IS horror that stoops for the base, but there is also horror that reaches for something much higher, just like in all the genres. You just have to look hard enough and read wide enough to find it, because unfortunately, the base DOES seem to attract more popular attention. That being said, again, I’,m not arguing that horror is superior to other genres, or that it is for everyone, just that it certainly -in its best incarnations – is not inferior.
I have always loved horror and I am now writing a psychological thriller in which I put my characters through hell. Kevin Lucia, thanks so much for your insight – and you’re so right about the connection between haunting and communication. My favourite film is The Sixth Sense, not for the brilliant surprise ending but for its superb writing, consistent characters and theme of communication. Everyone is trying, with varying degrees of failure, to communicate in that film, and at the heart of the story is a boy who is unable to communicate with his mother because she isn’t ready to hear what he is going through. It works because their relationship is beautifully drawn throughout,.People think horror is trivial or exploitative, but it is profound!