Horror writers secrets? Who would ever have thought they had secrets?
So, how about letting these delicious morsels of mystery melt in your mouth like the proverbial cookie/biscuit.
Everyone likes to think they’re party to the inside story or that they’re in on the latest conspiracy theory. I read just the other day that Oreos are imprinted with sacred symbols, so when you eat them, you’re partaking of the sacred Knights Templar.
This ain’t so much a treatise on how to write horror. There are many who have done this better than I can. For example, check out Chuck Wendig’s post on 25 ways to up the fear quotient in a horror story.
No, this is more about what leads readers and writers to the dark side. So, hang on to your seatbelts, we’ll launch into number one:
1. Our Minds Are Every Bit As Warped and Twisted As You Think.
I very rarely dream, let alone have nightmares. I put this down to doing most of my dreaming while my eyes are open. But I do remember having them a lot before I was ten years old. Nameless entities would wander the corridors of my mind, or apparitions based on things I’d watched would dog my steps as I tried to run away on a floor that seemed greased with oil. It’s one thing to have these spectres invade your thoughts, but to actively entertain them? Isn’t that a step too far?
The majority of organised religions would say yes. God, like a celestial cinematographer, watches the film’s play out in our minds, then stockpiles the film loops for some unspecified judgement day in the future. I’m not caught up on the idea of a supreme being, convicting me of thought-crime. It begs the question—isn’t he/she just as guilty of voyeurism as we are?
The material that writers like me gravitate toward, is the sludge at the bottom of the human psyche. We dare to consider the ultimate in perversity and depravity, push back the boundaries of what is acceptable. Are we sowing the seeds of future misdeeds and corruption? So far, I’ve not committed any atrocity or been on any police wanted list. In fact, study after study has failed to find any causal link between watching or reading horror and committing serious crime, despite what you might hear about Child Play’s ‘Chuckie’ and various murder cases.
The Seattle group, Heart, had a song (and an album) by the name of Bad Animals. One line in the song keeps playing over in my mind: why these outsiders get to shock and offend. A horror writer will inevitably do both of these to some people some of the time, and there’s a term coined for such writing—transgressive. I’m not particularly interested in a label, but there’s intrinsic benefit in what can seem at first like a deliberate attempt to cause mischief. It’s that such writing, when done well, can raise awareness, challenge stereotypes, and be a force for good. That’s why I love the edgy humour of Louis CK and Frankie Boyle. They have that uncanny knack of confronting us with our insecurities and hypocrisies, and to question the limits of what we feel we’re allowed to laugh at. If you want to check out what I mean, have a look at Louis CK’s ‘Of course…But maybe.’
2. Words Carry Immense Power.
A while ago, I read Stephen King’s short story entitled ‘Obits.’ In it, a young journalist gains a reputation for writing snarky obituaries about recently deceased celebrities. One day, he writes a mock obit for his boss who has just pissed him off. Next thing he knows, she dies from choking on a sweet. He finds he can repeat the process and knock off murderers and rapists at will. Like any SK story, things go awry, but I’ll not spoil the ending for you.
Can words carry supernatural power? Sometimes it feels like that—and some people are more gifted than others. A few years ago, I read John Fowles’ The Magus in an attempt to up my quota of literary fiction. I eventually finished it at three o’clock in the morning and as I read the last sentence, I leaned back and just stared at the ceiling for half an hour or so. Such was the magnitude of emotions stirred by the author’s masterful pen.
I would love to think I could aspire to these great heights—hence the title of my blog—Writing in Starlight. It comes from a song by Ronnie James Dio called ‘Don’t talk to strangers‘. In the intro, the master of metal fantasy and darkness croons Don’t write in Starlight…for the words may come out real. Writing can certainly be addictive, it usually takes only ten minutes before I’m in the zone and the characters start writing the story.
Someone once wrote that great literature accompanies the growth of civilisation because it puts us in another’s shoes and allows us to feel empathy with individuals or groups of people in a way that no other medium can. This is even more keenly appreciated in Horror and Dark Fantasy as the emotions involved are so extreme.
I shall finish this second list item with an Internet meme: The Swordfish has few predators in the wild—except for the seldom seen Penfish, which is much mightier.
3. There’s A Part of Our Minds That Still Believes This Stuff.
Okay, cards on the table. I’m a scientist and an atheist. That doesn’t mean I look down on people of faith—I come from a very religious background myself—I understand the search by every human for meaning in their lives, and the constructs we make in an attempt to understand the universe. However, as a scientist, I understand the importance of confidence limits. Statistically, I’m 99% confident that there isn’t a spirit world out there, or ghosts or paranormal activity. I’m with Clive Barker on that one. But what about that 1%? When the wind howls and I hear that bump in the night, my first thought isn’t to invoke the laws of physics or to assume it’s wood beams or metal pipes contracting in the cool night air. No, it’s the Werewolf from Hammer House of horror, or Twisty the clown from American horror story.
Maybe it’s ancestral memory, but would I be able to imagine the things I do, if that place didn’t exist? It’s an untestable hypothesis, but sometimes it makes me wonder.
I live my life by probabilities, not possibilities, but when I want to tap into inspiration, I dip into the one-per-cent.
4. We Kinda Like the Idea We’re In A Minority.
If you want to sell a lot of books, the received wisdom says you need to be writing romance—it being the highest selling genre (along with erotica.) In fact the ranks are as follows:
Of course there are other genres less popular. Advanced bee-keeping, for example. But you know, I revel in the fact that I’m in the company of other bottom-feeders. That’s why I admire bands like Rush, who have had cult status for decades. You want to be famous, but not that famous.
The look someone gives you when you say you write horror.
5. Deep Down We’re Really Nice Guys, Not Serial Killers In the Making.
Okay, so, we’ve established that the horror writer has a mind like a cess-pit. But we’re not so bad. I have to say, my favourite writing community online (and I’ve signed up to plenty) is the horror group on Scribophile. The guys out there have been the most helpful I’ve found in encouraging, cajoling, critiquing and generally lending a hand in all my writing projects. Watch any interviews with the likes of Clive Barker, Stephen King or Neil Gaiman and you’ll be immediately be drawn in with their warmth and patience.
Like they say, it doesn’t cost anything to be nice.