John Palisano, a Bram Stoker Award-winning author and president of the nonprofit Horror Writers Association (HWA), finds horror to be an empowering genre. When challenged, he cites the case of The Walking Dead fan Terra Newell, who used self-defense techniques she remembered from the TV drama to fight off her violent stepfather after he attempted to kill her in a California parking lot.
“Horror gives people tools to cope with fears about what to do if they’re attacked and what to do if there’s a home invasion,” Palisano says. “They realize, ‘Well, I can take care of this if it happens.’ A lot of people find comfort and empowerment in that realization.”
Since 1985, the HWA has given tools to professional and emerging professionals working in horror and dark fantasy. Founded by Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon, Joe R. Lansdale, and others, the organization hosts readings and signings by horror authors, offers a blog and an active members-only section of its website, organizes the annual StokerCon convention, and sponsors the yearly Bram Stoker Awards for remarkable achievements in horror literature.
“We’re an organization made by our volunteers, and what we do is reflective of their work,” Palisano says. “Our goal is to serve our writers, who are not just beginners but also veteran writers. We have a lot of programs for writers at every level.” He notes that after authors called out the Stoker Awards a few years ago for a lack of diversity in recipients, HWA launched focused efforts to expand programming and opportunities for all.
“We have to make this more inclusive,” he notes. “We had our first Pride celebration last year, and we [commemorate] Indigenous Peoples Month, and Jewish History Month, and Indian History Month. We had our first trans Bram Stoker Award winner this year, and we’re seeing such a diverse group of writers making it to the finals. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.”
What you’ll learn
Palisano explains that there are various ways new writers benefit from a membership in the Association. “We have a mentorship program where we pair a veteran writer with a newbie, and they review the work and talk about the philosophy behind the work and talk about how to make connections and where to find agents in this genre,” he says.
His own favorite part of working with HWA is meeting writers new to the horror writing space. “It’s insanely fulfilling, and it’s inspiring for me. Helping people and seeing them succeed and fulfill their potential is unquestionably the best part of being president.”
In networking and attending events, members may also discover subgenres of horror writing that they didn’t know existed. One of Palisano’s current favorites is spiritual horror. “It explores the fear of spirit, or the lack of spirit, or what spirit is,” he explains. “And what are the different kinds of spirits in the universe? How do we contend with the spirituality of people beyond a Judeo-Christian kind of environment? Those are amazing horror stories.”
Members might also be interested in learning more about body horror fiction. “In these stories, the horror is our bodies changing or doing things we don’t want them to do,” Palisano says. “The Fly is a great example, if kind of gross. If you think of it as a metaphor for aging – you know, he’s no longer handsome, and his hair falls out – it’s profound. Body horror writers use the monster as a metaphor.”
How to participate
Those interested can choose membership at several levels. Horror lovers who haven’t yet published professionally can become Ally members. Associate Allies are non-writing horror professionals such as librarians, teachers, editors, and literary agents. There’s a membership level for horror academics, for writers who’ve published a few pieces, and for established professional writers and editors.
If you long to become a member, but you’re short on cash, you can apply for a sponsored membership. “We know that students and people just starting out usually don’t have the money to join the organization at the start,” Palisano explains. “We don’t want to have that barrier. We just want you to join us. If you have any questions, don’t be afraid to write to me. My door’s always open, and I’m happy to talk with people.”
The Association has a robust scholarship and grant program available to members and non-members alike. They offer diversity grants based on (but not limited to) gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and neurodiversity for writers, editors, reviewers, library workers, and others. There’s a scholarship for teen horror writers, as well as the “Young Adults Write Now” endowment for libraries needing support for new or established writing programs.
The Association also offers scholarships for those working in poetry, prose, and nonfiction. “We had a member writing about Stephen King’s film adaptions, and they got a grant to help write that book and do the research and go to the film libraries and all that,” Palisano explains.
To those naysayers who dismiss horror storytelling as Count Orlok hilariously waking up from his coffin in the 1922 cult classic Nosferatu, Palisano has this to say: “A lot of people hear the words ‘horror fiction,’ and they think of the silly or campy elements. But in this day and age, it’s been transformed. It’s given a lot of people a lot of tools for how to cope with this crazy world.”
For more information, visit Horror Writers Association at horror.org or email [email protected].
Contributing Editor Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens. melissahart.com