Why horror is a writer's dream, not a nightmare
Published: September 30, 2005
|Here is a conversation I've had a million times.|
"So, you're a writer?
What do you write?"
"Oh my God, how could you write such junk?"
And if I'm only asked if I know Stephen King (I don't), I've gotten off lucky. Generally, I get questions like, "Well, do you think you'll ever write a real book?" or "Why don't you get an MFA and really learn to write?" Then there's my mother: "When are you going to write something I can actually bear to read?"
But I write horror for one very good reason: I consider it the most expansive of genres, encompassing everything from those lurid paperbacks at the drugstore to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. Cheap scares are one thing, but the best horror also makes us think. When we look at the extremes of the human experience, we find out what we are made of. You'll find it in the immortal work of Shakespeare, Dante and Poe.
If you're a writer thinking about giving this genre a try, or if you have little concept of the genre and want to learn more, consider my article both a primer and a defense. As a new horror writer whose work has combined genres (historical fiction, Beat poetry, literary fiction, satire) and as a member of the Horror Writers Association, I think you might benefit from my unusual point of view.
I first learned what horror was in grade school. It wasn't from the bullying or the everyday challenges of growing up in the rough Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst in the 1970s. It wasn't even from the Son of Sam killings that seemed to be everywhere, though I do remember a cousin of my mother's coming to visit us with a turban wrapped around her head, because one of the theories of the day was that Berkowitz was targeting women with very dark brown hair. It certainly wasn't from horror movies or from Stephen King, who was just then coming into prominence.
I learned what horror was when, for a school assignment, I read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. I had never before read anything where anguish and the moral implication of the reader in the death of the protagonists were the goals of the story. Not that I was so sophisticated that I understood the effect; all I knew was that if everyone over at the United Nations would just read Remarque's novel, we'd have no more war, as the world's leaders would finally know what they were putting the world through.
Two decades later, I've never been to war, but I'm still naive enough to write horror, the most debased of commercial genres. Unlike romance and crime fiction, horror doesn't even have the saving grace of popularity. Sure, there's Stephen King and Dean Koontz and Anne Rice, but horror's midlist was eviscerated a decade ago. None of the Big Five publishers has a dedicated horror line; instead they only market occasional titles, often labeled "thriller" or "dark suspense." Smaller mass-market paperback publishers such as Dorchester and Kensington, and a burgeoning group of small and specialty presses, take up the slack. But it doesn't matter. Horror is everywhere.
Writing horror is like cooking with Tabasco sauce. You can put it on anything. Writers of romantic suspense and paranormal romance know that the tension between love and fear offers plenty of dramatic possibilities. Science fiction and fantasy delve into horror, when technology goes mad and when monsters bedevil the questing hero. There are also close connections between mystery/suspense and horror-the bloodier police procedurals, books that explore the personality of a serial killer, the darkest noir, it all counts. Even the literary mainstream can effectively adopt the tropes of horror fiction, as Sebold's novel and the gory satires of Chuck Palahniuk show us.
Horror is so widespread, if diffuse, because it is one of the most effective ways to explore character. Anyone can be a nice, sympathetic person under normal circumstances, but circumstances aren't always normal. What makes Shirley Jackson's famous short story "The Lottery" frightening? It is the fact that everyone in town is happy to lift a rock, simply because stoning someone to death is the done thing in town. It's easy enough for us to imagine ourselves on that North Bennington field, deciding to throw down our stone and save the day with some inspirational speech, but-and this is a big but-how many times in life, when confronted by some moral choice, do we actually just choose to go along to get along?
The everyday is amplified to absurd and terrific heights through horror. In his recent novel The Overnight, horror grandmaster Ramsey Campbell explores the everyday terrors of working in a "big box" bookstore, which he did for several months in 2000. (I told you horror's midlist has collapsed; when even Ramsey Campbell needs to get a day job, horror isn't selling.) After the mysterious and not-quite-accidental death of a firebrand bookstore employee named Lorraine, Woody, the manager of Texts, a fictional bookstore chain, calls a meeting of the grieving co-workers with an alternative to the staff's suggestion to close the store so they can attend Lorraine's funeral. "I've thought of another way we can remember her. Each of you and everyone that isn't here just now get to take charge of half an aisle of Lorraine's. That way we don't need to hire anyone else and it's like saying she can't be replaced, which she can't be, am I right? ... Everyone will need to work the overnight shift ... why don't we think of it as a tribute to Lorraine?"
It's a funny moment, but also a frightening one, as it shows how quickly and easily power can twist tragedy to its own ends. Ultimately, the staff tries to escape the cursed and haunted bookstore, leaving only a brownnoser named Greg stupidly and valiantly staying behind and stocking books in the dark under the mental control of a booming alien voice coming from the PA system. Poor Woody meets his fate with a plastered-on managerial smile, because even when confronting a hideous, inexplicable evil from the dawn of time, he's still representing Texts.
I'm not as good as Jackson or Campbell, but I've literalized a metaphor or two in my time. In my novel Move Under Ground, Jack Kerouac must save the button-down conformist world of the early 1960s from itself, as America has surrendered to master of cosmic horror H. P. Lovecraft's elder god, Cthulhu. Only Beats, bums, bohemians and the children of well-mothered families can resist the urge to mindlessly consume and produce on the command of forces beyond our understanding. If it sounds familiar, it's because that's the world we live in now, where, as I write this, the media has millions of us more concerned over the collapse of Brad Pitt's marriage to Jennifer Aniston than we are over the mounting body counts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Horror is a genre in which the novel of ideas and the social novel are still alive and well.
Of course, not all horror is as I've described. Plenty of it is nothing more than a blood-soaked light entertainment, the literary equivalent of a roller coaster ride at best, or gory roadkill in the middle of the highway at worst. Truth be told, it's likely that a majority of horror has no higher aspirations than to provide a thrill and a gross-out, but that's OK, as the same can be said for any genre of commercial fiction. Read one novel about a battle with aliens, one love story of a lusty pirate and an innocent wench, a single yarn about an alcoholic private eye and a poorly motivated murder, or the most realist depiction of an English professor contemplating an affair with a freshman student, and you've read 'em all.
Horror fails, I think, when the reader isn't implicated in the moral question the work presents. In this regard, novelist Caitlin R. Kiernan splits horror into two camps. One is "right bank" horror, which is about the middle class and moral conservatives defending themselves from unwashed outsiders.
Stephen King's material is a classic example of what she means by right-bank horror. In his novel Salem's Lot, for example, the vampires are an external menace, and the townspeople fall to the bite because of an internal corruption. Only moral idealism can repulse the outsiders and cleanse the town's corruption.
The other camp is "left bank" horror, a bohemian, anti-establishment brand of writing that points to the reader and says, "Perhaps you are the outsider, or should be one." Left-bank horror is the stuff I like. When the message of a horror story is nothing more than "Let's band together against the outsider and annihilate it to protect our middle-class lifestyles," I'm bored.
The more complex approach of left-bank horror brings us back to All Quiet on the Western Front. Any war novel worth its salt offers the reader a moment when the protagonist confronts the enemy and comes into sympathy with it. In Remarque's novel, this moment comes when Paul finds himself in a no-man's-land shell-hole with Gérard Duval, a man he fatally wounds but has neither the courage nor the compassion to finish off. Instead, he spends a long night feeding Duval muddy water and trying to bind the wounds he had delivered. Deserted by his squad and still trapped with the now dead Frenchman, Peter says to the corpse, "Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony-Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?" The profound grief, anguish and rage of that moment's realization that the world is absurd: That is why I write horror.
Sure, horror is a downer, and this could be why the left-bank stuff doesn't hit the bestseller lists, but there is still a devoted audience out there. The independent and specialty presses that cater to the horror community sometimes pay advances comparable to commercial houses, and the book-as-object is taken very seriously in the horror small press. When I first started writing, I thought I'd be long dead before any of my titles were issued with a sewn-in ribbon bookmark; instead, the limited edition of my first novel carried one.
As horror barely has a coherent identity in the trade anymore, good work can "blend in" with SF/fantasy, mystery/suspense or even experimental literary fiction. My own books have been reviewed in The Village Voice, American Book Review and Dave Eggers' The Believer, as well as in science fiction, horror and mystery venues. That wouldn't have happened if the word "horror" was on the book's spine and a skeleton on its cover.
Horror is a powerful genre for writers because it literalizes metaphors. I don't believe in ghosts, and it's likely you don't either, but I'm sure you believe in loss, regret and the inevitability of death.
The trope of the cursed Indian burial ground, at least before it became the genre's saddest cliche, isn't about a literal fear of curses but, in my view, about the omnipresent if often subconscious awareness that American civilization was built upon a genocide. In that vein, horror writing at it's best can be a reminder of our worst capabilities.
Nick Mamatas is the author of the Lovecraftian Beat road novel Move Under Ground and a Marxist ghost story of the Civil War draft riots, Northern Gothic, both of which were nominated for the Bram Stoker Award in horror fiction. He lives in Vermont.
--Posted Sept. 30, 2005