It’s the holidays, so why are we talking about horror? Well, 15 minutes at my family reunions could answer that, but in short, horror authors aren’t all blood, guts and gore. In fact, the horror legends do what ALL authors should do…they probe the human soul, peel back falsehood and reveal the authentic human condition for better or worse.
Whether we pick up a Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Edgar Allen Poe, or Rod Sterling story, what surfaces almost immediately is these authors understood people when creating these tales. Writing great novels requires we become masters of exploring the psyche, of using what makes humans weak, greedy, vengeful, callous, vain or jealous. Human frailty is the lifeblood of story—CONFLICT. Whether one writes thrillers, romance or YA, we must be able to delve deep and go to those uncomfortable places, because THAT is why readers turn pages.
Today, Kevin continues his series about horror, to help demystify the genre and show us it’s more than slasher flicks or B-movies. Great horror is timeless (Telltale Heart, anyone?). Great writers grow into their unique greatness by studying masters who came before, even masters from different genres. We infuse our own work with the genius inspired by others, so today Kevin will offer more insight and a reading list like none other.
Take it away, Kevin!
Some writers don’t necessarily “fit” into what folks think is “horror.” In other words, because they don’t write about monsters, vampires, zombies, werewolves, serial killers or serial killing mummified zombie vampires, they’re not considered as “horror” writers by horror fans and young, fledgling horror writers like I was a few years ago. Or, even worse, they suffer from the opposite problem: they have “horror” slapped on their books but really their work is much bigger than just horror, and those who don’t like “horror” end up missing them entirely.
Or, maybe a writer has written so many other things that their “horror” hasn’t gotten as much attention. Maybe they primarily operate in a different genre – like science fiction – but have written some “horror” or stories possessing “horror” elements. For me, at least, here are some authors I initially missed simply because they didn’t fit into neat categorizations.
Ray Bradbury certainly needs no introduction to anyone. His work is adored by legions, but most of the attention is (in my experience) focused on his seminal works: Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Martian Chronicles & The Illustrated Man. However, Bradbury’s earliest work definitely lived in the weird/horror genre, much of it published in the original Weird Tales magazine. His first collection, Dark Carnival – which became The October Country – is full of weird and strange and uniquely disturbing little bits (like “The Jar” and “The Scythe” and “The Small Assassin”) that only Bradbury could’ve written.
Russell Kirk is probably more well-known for his essays on conservatism, (and not the Tea Party version of it) than his fiction, but when I ran across his short story “Lex Talionis” in one of the WHISPERS collections (we’ll get to those, trust me), I had to find more of his fiction. He specialized in ghost stories and occult detective tales, and as a devout Catholic, his fiction managed to be both uplifting and spooky. His collection Ancestral Shadows is a wonderful tome of ghost stories which, quite frankly, I enjoyed more than I did M. R. James’ work. Maybe not necessarily horror, but certainly well-written stories pondering what happens after death, and the spirits left wandering because of it.
Manley Wade Wellman was a giant in the science fiction/fantasy field, and for years I missed his work until I first encountered one of his main characters, Silver John the Balladeer, once again in a volume of WHISPERS. Though again not necessarily “horror,” you had to love Silver John: a traveling bard roaming the Appalachian mountains and countryside, a veteran of war who wanted peace, a wise man of folk and occult knowledge, carrying with him a guitar strung with silver strings.
He encountered demons, spirits, monsters, witches’ familiars…just about everything under the sun. Even centuries-old aliens bent on infiltrating and taking over humanity. Who Fears the Devil? And After Dark were my introductions to Wellman, and he’s also well-known for his other occult detective, John Thunderstone.
Rod Sterling. Wait, what? Rod Serling? Yes. Shamefully enough, for the longest time I considered him just a talking head before I realized how many of the Twilight Zones he wrote himself. And, you can read many of them in collections – Stories from the Twilight Zone – some of them original paperbacks, as well as new Kindle versions, and we can all agree that one of the shows most adept at straddling the genres was the Twilight Zone.
Two contemporary authors that don’t fit into neat little categories and whose work definitely transcends the “horror” label are Mort Castle and Rio Youers. Mort Castle is one of the most “literary” horror writers out there. He’s been nominated for numerous Bram Stoker Awards, (winning two last year for his collection New Moon On The Water and his role as editor of the Ray Bradbury tribute collection, Shadow Show), but he’s also placed his work in literary venues and has won a Pushcart Prize as well. He’s a writing instructor at Columbia College Chicago, and his collection Moon On The Water is one of my favorites, boasting stories that run the gamut, from literary fiction to horror, including zombie mash-ups long before they were popular (in “The Old Man and the Dead”).
Rio’s work can often be dark, disturbing, introspective…but it doesn’t necessarily fit into the neat little niche “horror,” though he has written his fair share of genre tales. “Speculative fiction writer” best fits Rio, but really, he writes deftly and eloquently about what it means to be human. End Times and Westlake Soul may be tales of the fantastic – but they’re also tales about what it means to be human, and all the joy and suffering that goes with that. That’s why Westlake Soul has been optioned for film. Also, his collection Dark Dreams; Pale Horses offers some of the finest prose and stories I’ve ever encountered. Rio’s work transcends the horror genre; he will be the “next big thing” someday.
Tomorrow, we’ll look some more writers that could be considered “jacks of all trades,” but “masters of all…”
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 NOW AVAILABLE from Crystal Lake Publishing.
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