Part 6 of On Writing Horror is titled “Tradition and Modern Times”, a series of articles covering horror tradition and its place in our modern literature.

No More Silver Mirrors: The Monster in Our Times, Karen E. Taylor

Taylor addresses how the old monsters can be made new again.  She’s got some good advice, and I’ll get to that in a second, but there’s something she says early on that is direct opposition to what at least one other author claims in this series of articles.  Taylor states:

…modern readers are more sophisticated than their parents and grandparents.  Today’s readers also require credible premises and explanations; they want things to be scientifically possible.

I added the emphases.  Compare this to what Winter states in section 5:

But today, explanation, whether supernatural or rational, is simply not the business of horror fiction.

Again, I added the emphasis.  Who’s right?  What’s going on here?  At first blush, they do seem to contradict one another.  But, based on the advice Taylor goes into, I think they are consistent with each other.  I took Winter to mean that the modern story itself need not necessarily address the reason for the events it contains.  To me, he’s speaking to whether or not the internals of the story must link to an external reason.  Taylor, on the other hand, is speaking in terms of internal consistency.

She first addresses the question of consistency and the rules of your story.  She suggests that, unless you as the writer know the rules for your ‘monster’, you cannot meet reader expectation and deliver a believable story.  So, whether you start with a vampire or a werewolf, you must first understand and commit to the rules of the trope.  And then, you can decide which ones to break.  But, when you break the rules, you must remain internally consistent.

The other two bits of advice she offers are to spend time in characterization of your monster and to know your reader.  I don’t recall the first being addressed in any other articles, and it’s good advice for the modern horror writer.  It seems that a generalization of the horror genre is the stupid, lumbering, unstoppable force of the monster, a thing to be reckoned with rather than a person to interact with.  She suggests taking the time to provide the reader with your monster’s point-of-view, and that by doing so, you can help the reader better understand the internal and external processes that make this monster a possibility.  Again, the explanation lies not in locating a foundation in reality, but in creating an internally consist world where that monster can and does exist.

The part about knowing your reader is common advice, but no less important.  In the context of the article, Taylor is emphasizing that in order to create and maintain the consistency while using the venerable monsters of old, you must as a writer address the reader’s expectations.  You don’t have to meet the expectation, but if you’re going to violate an expectation, you must create the internal consistency that will help the reader accept your violation.

Fresh Blood from Old Wounds: The Alchemist Meets the Biochemist, Joseph Curtin

I personally did not get a lot from this article, I think primarily due to its subject matter.  Curtin describes how the modern horror writer can leverage current-day science to enhance or refresh old tropes.  He cites how Dean Koontz refreshed Frankenstein in his series of books, and how Michael Crichton refreshed The Lost World with Jurassic Park.  These story achieved a freshness by enhancing the old story with current scientific thought on how the ‘monsters’ could be produced.

He also talks about the modern social fear is in Biotechnology, and relates that to the Cold War terror of the prior generation.

To me, this is an advocation of explaining the beast and tying it to an external plausibility.  It’s good advice, but for me, it’s not necessarily relevant.  My current interest and focus is in leveraging myth as a basis for horror, not leveraging science.  If and when I change focus, I’ll be sure to come back and revisit this article to prime myself.

More Simply Human, Tracy Knight

Knight’s article gives some great insight into characterization of personality and mental disorders.  He cites some common errors in representing these and a list of reference material that writer’s can use to validate or help ensure that they’re portraying these things accurately.  He also clearly states that he’s not advocating the use of mental disorder, but just wants to help make sure that it is done accurately.

  • Aside from the reference material, Knight goes on to clear up a few common misconceptions.
  • Current psychotherapy goes well beyond Freud.  Know and make use of contemporary techniques.
  • Take care not to stereotype based on the reference material.  Not everyone has every symptom.
  • People who are unbalanced are, in fact, less likely to be unpredictable due to the nature of mental illness.  People with personality disorders are more rigid, predictable, and inflexible than the rest of us in terms of their perception and interactions.
  • The behavior of people with mental disorders is not without goals.  Every behavior has a goal, and they are coherent and consistent with how each of us views the world.
  • Everyone does what they believe to be their best.

Some of Knight’s advice, particularly the last two, I think demonstrate that people with mental or personality disorders are still human like the rest of us.

The Possibility of the Impossible, Tom Piccirilli

This is the first time I’ve ever really considered the close relationship between horror and humor.  Piccirilli does a great job of demonstrating how both derive from the surreal - the juxtaposition of the normal and abnormal  Combining things in new and interesting ways also provides the writer with the ability to create new and interesting metaphors.  And that is foundational to all fiction, in my opinion.  Like Taylor, Piccirilli also stresses the importance of internal logic or consistency in creating the illusion.

Take a Scalpel to Those Tropes, W. D. Gagliani

Gagliani rehashes the previously presented ideas of combining old things in new ways to innovate and altering the rules for freshness.  What I liked about this particular article is that Gagliani uses this short piece as a practical demonstration through one of his own works. Nothing new, but it serves to reinforce some very useful ideas.

That Spectered Isle: Tradition, Sensibility, and Delivery Or Ghosts? What Ghosts?, Steven Savile

While the premise of Savile’s article is about the difference between American and British horror, the real value to me is in getting yet another perspective on horror without monsters.  He gives 2 resasons for what he calls the “British Sensility”:

Britain has a long history and rich heritage that is filled with ghost stories.

Brain has a heritage of “withstanding atrocities with that stubborn stiff upper lip”.

What he lead to is that the most frightening things to the British audience are those that can’t be seen.  So, the most frightening things are those based on internals - social ills, ghosts, stuff that can’t be seen.  I think what he is driving at is that there’s tremendous value for the modern horror author in working with things less tangible than the old vampires and werewolves.   I wasn’t really getting a point from him until he brought up Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.  It works so well because it drives the reader into the head of a madman.  Aside from the gruesome acts of the main character, being inside his head adds an element of horror beyond.

New Horrors: A Roundtable Discussion of Horror Today and Tomorrow, Joe Nassise (moderator)

I don’t have much to say on this.  All four authors (Pat Tremblay, Gary Frank, Melinda Thielbar, Nate Kenyon) provide some good advice.  But it’s short, so none of them really have the opportunity to delve into any one subject.  It’s definitely a good read for new authors, as you can see that even here, not all authors play by the same rules or focus on the same things.  Here are the questions posed to the group:

  • What are the three most important skills a new writer should have?
  • What three pieces of advice to new writers do you not agree with?
  • What’s different about the publishing industry today than when you started?  What’ll happen over the next couple of years?
  • What’s the value of horror to the literary community?

Like I said, interesting questions and a variety of answers (sometime contradicting one another), but nothing that I felt helped me out.

Part 5 of On Writing Horror is titled “Horror, Art, Innovation, Excellence”.  Five articles.  Actually, 4 articles and one interesting interview with Harlan Ellison.

Innovation in Horror, Jeanne Cavelos

I’m starting to see patterns of advice in these articles, even though they have different emphasis.  Cavelos talks in terms of innovation, but starts with the foundational advice of read a lot, read both in and out of the genre.  Doing so helps the amateur writer avoid writing something that’s old under the false belief that they’ve written something new.  Fair enough, know what’s been done before so you can truly come up with something knew.

The crux of her article is that innovation in horror comes not necessarily from creating something entirely new, but like so many other professions, innovation is more readily achievable by combining old things in new ways.  She then goes on to talk about innovating in plot and innovating in style.  She gives some good fundamental advice and examples, which all ties back to ‘combine old things in new ways’.

It’s good advice, but nothing I wasn’t already familiar with.  I think popular fiction has to balance the familiar and unfamiliar (literary, not subject matter) to have a chance at commercial success.

Depth of Field: Horror an Literary Fiction, Nick Mamatas

What’s the difference between Horror and Literary Fiction?  I don’t think the question makes sense, because like Mamatas, I don’t believe the two are diametrically oppossed.  He provides an overview of the 3 main literary genres: Literature (Classics), Realism, and Postmodernism.  He also provides great examples of horror in each.

Mamatas supplies some excellent reasons to strive for creating ‘literary horror’: it sells, it gets reviewed, and it’s significant.  All are things I know I strive for in my writing.  I’d also argue that horror as a genre is much more narrow than need be.  As emphasized in many of the other articles, at it’s core, horror is an emotion.  While the genre is always aligned with Science Fiction and Fantasy, I’m more prone to consider it a close cousin to romance.  It’s about the feeling of things, the deep emotional responses human beings can evoke and invoke.  Nothing about that is at odds with Literary Fiction, and in fact, taking a literary approach is one of those things that might help a writer innovate in terms of style.  I love the way Mamatas sums up:

Horror writers should consider changing their focus occasionally.  Characterization, artful language, and grammtical fancy-dancing, socially relevant themes - stuff of literary fiction - are just as worthy of horror’s attention as blood and brand names.

There’s nothing wrong with writing about yucky, scary, oozing stuff, and there’s nothing wrong about doing it in an artistic way at the same time.

Splat Goes the Hero: Visceral Horror, Jack Ketchum

The Girl Next Door is one of the most disturbing books I’ve read in the past few years.  I absolutely loved it because it made me squirm the in uncomfortable ways that I haven’t experienced in a long time.  This article helped me understand why.

The book has nothing supernatural in it, no ghosts, no psychotic slashers.  Most of the characters are children - around ten years old or so, if I recall correctly - with a few parent figures.  It’s primarily about abuse.

So, why did it make me squirm so much?  Because, as Ketchum suggests in this article, visceral horror is all about not looking away.  In his book, the reader isn’t allowed to look away.  He lays it all right out, raw and bleeding, with nerves exposed.

Ketchum talks about pain in this article, and how to make it real for the reader.  He suggests a few points to help:

  • Dress it up in everyday clothes.  This goes back to what some of the other articles have said.  Keep things as close to normal as possible, so that the juxtaposition of normal and abnormal are drastic.
  • Know all about the details.  If things are inconsistent or just unrealistic, the reader will know and get distracted.
  • Engage all the senses, and make sure the pain has the character’s subjective view to it.  These are supposed to be human beings, make that humanity part of the pain.
  • Make the reader care about the characters.  Anything else is like reading the obituary of someone you don’t know.
  • Give meaning to the suffering.  Ketchum thinks t the most fundamental level, pain is about or involves loss.  I completely agree.  When violence happens, we share in the pain best when we also share in the loss.

Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction, Douglas E. Winter

I like how Winter starts.  He says there is no recipe for success, but there are principles that provide guidance.  Again, he repeats items found elsewhere, but I think that’s okay.  I think it’s more than okay, actually.  The repetition is a demonstration of the truth, and for all of these writers to say the same thing should indicate that it’s advice worth taking.

Winter offers the following principles:

  • Originality is unachievable if all you do is imitate.  Be familiar with the genre, admire other authors, but don’t try to write like them.
  • Originality cannot be taught.  Is is something we each much discover.
  • Horror is an emotion, not a genre.  Study across genres and look for horror in other places.
  • Readers must have an emotional stake in the characters.  Make the reader care.  Give the reader the characters’ perception.
  • Juxtaposition of normal and abnormal is much more effective when the normal, or ordinary, is the more pervasive.
  • Everyday life may be mundane, but it is also the mystery at the core of humanity.  The fundamental questions we all ask have no answer.  Likewise, modern horror is not about the explanation.  It is about the mystery itself.
  • Know the boundaries between good taste, bad taste, and taboo - not to stay in one and out of the other, but to make the boundary crossing a conscious decision.  A good horror writer will cross the boundaries.  (I like this one.  I like crossing boundaries and showing people what’s on the other side.)
  • Concentrate not only on shock, or not on shock at all, but on the emotions.  Being suggestive can have more impact than being explicit.
  • Don’t be afraid to add social commentary or subtext to the story.
  • Be subversive.  Conformity as salvation is a thing of the past, modern horror sees conformity as ‘the ultimate horror’.
  • Great horror is rarely about monsters.  It is about us.
  • The ending must payout as well as payback.  I think that means the ending must survive the cynical sensibilities of the modern reader.  It’s not enough for some neat and tidy solution to wrap things up any more.  Endings can be messy.  I like what he says about the conclusion: “…it is the vehicle by which the reader is awakened from your nightmare and returned to his workaday world.”

Writing horror is a forward-facing activity.  We can build on foundations, but as writer’s we should be aware that horror lies not in the tropes, but in the emotions those old tropes used to evoke.  How do we go about invoking those emotions in the modern-day reader?  That’s a question I’ll probably be asking myself the rest of my life.

On Horror: A Conversation With Harlan Ellison, Richard Gilliam

I don’t have much to say on this.  Ellison reinforces the idea that horror is not a genre, it’s an emotion.  There’s no conflict with writing horror and writing literary fiction.  Writers should be able to write more than one type of fiction.

To me, the most striking thing he says here is that the secret to writing is staying a writer.  That, to stay a writer, means to grow, be flexible, and recognize when the world around you has changed so that you can change with it.

Part 4 of On Writing Horror is titled “Horror Crafting”, and encompasses 7 articles on the craft.  So many articles, and much of it is advice I’ve heard before, so I’m going to keep this as short as I can.

Such Horrible People, Tina Jens

Per Jens, “Horror is about how people react when they encounter the plot.”  So to have good horror, we need good characters who interact with the plot.  That’s nothing new to me, and it’s sound advice.

Jens goes on to talk about balancing out developing plot and character, describing an initial process where you (the writer) might start with and idea, find characters to put in, jump back to plot to find the “monster’s” goal, who’s the monster up against, etc.  Then she says that, after some initial back and forth, it’s time to stop with the plotting and get to know your characters.

She outlines several things writer’s can do to develop their characters:  starting with people you know, working with picture files, developing full-fledged character sketches.  She does a good job of covering these, a good introductory source for those interested.

She continues on to say the payoff in doing all this seemingly unnecessary work is that now you have created characters that you can trust to help you develop the plot by interacting and reacting rather than just following orders.  Or something along those lines.  She sums the concept up well, “Listen to your characters.  It pays off.”

Again, a definite plus, but also pretty common advice (at least to me).  But I think there’s something much more important here than just, “knowing and trusting your characters”.

Building an awareness and a trust in your characters is a misnomer.  They’re not real.  What this process really does is help the writer develop an awareness and trust in themselves, and tune the skills of imagine characters in toto, so that as the plot develops, the writer isn’t constantly second guessing or making inconsistent decisions.

Let’s take the question of, “What would my character have for breakfast?”  Sure, who cares, but stay with me a moment.  The writer who has to stop and consider this while plotting needs to refine their skills on character by utilizing processes such as Jens describes.  But, the goal is not to produce mountains of character sketches and character data that will never be incorporated into the story.  The goal is to use the process to develop those skills internally, so that the next question that comes up can be answered with confidence and consistency.  We all have weak spots, so some writers may have to do character sketches the rest of their careers, but that’s okay.  Just as long as they keep sight of the point - build trust and confidence in your knowledge of the characters.

A Hand on the Shoulder, Joe R. Lansdale

Lansdale’s article is primarily about environment.  He raises an interesting perspective on the writer’s connection to his or her environment, and how to benefit from it.  I think his main thrust is something I’ve only recently come to recognize.  I’ve always been tempted to set my stories in exotic places with strange characters.  Who isn’t?  But, there’s an incredible benefit to using what’s around me everyday in my stories.  It creates a sense of honesty in the lie.

My environment is a part of who I am and what I know.  If I use it (the familiar settings and characters) as fundamental elements in my writing, then it shows through in both confidence and style.  Plus, when I do break from those and delve into the ‘unusual’, it has greater impact.  The normal aspects of my writing become more believable because they are real things, not imagined.  There’s no need to dream up the real world when it’s right in front of us.  Save the creative efforts for those things that aren’t real (we hope…)

Eerie Events and Horrible Happenings: Plotting Short Horror Fiction, Nicholas Kaufmann

I didn’t find much personal value in Kaufmann’s article because it’s concerned with short fiction.  I’m currently working on novel related skills, and I’ve also been working with short stories for a few years now.

That’s not to say there’s no value in the article.  It’s does a good job of covering the fundamentals of short horror fiction.  Some of the basics covered:

  • Start close to the action.
  • Every scene should be related to the plot
  • The main character must either have the most to lose or the most to gain
  • Short stories usually stick to one conflict
  • The end must tie directly to the main conflict

Definitely one I’ll use to refresh myself when I tackle my next short story.

Reality and the Waking Nightmare: Setting and Character in Horror Fiction, Mort Castle

Castle’s article carries a message similar to Lansdale’s.  Save the imagination for the places it really matters.  Good fiction must be credible, and the best way to achieve that is to keep as close to the truth as possible when it comes to setting and character.  Two quotes sum this up:

…readers are familiar with the ordinary; they live there.  Readers relate to the ordinary…


When the ordinary is invaded by the terrifyingly extraordinary, horror happens.

I like that last one, and I’m striving to keep it close to the heart.  In a world where everything is fantastic, everyone is a monster or a superhero, then the writer has to work extra hard to bring in anything with shock value.  But, if we keep things as close to normal as possible, then shocking the reader should come more easily.

“He Said?” She Asked: Some Thoughts About Dialog, David Morrell

Dialog has and is one of my toughest challenges.  At least it’s where I’ve been spending most of my focus lately.  The advice found in here is an invaluable listing of the fundamentals of dialog.  Morrell addresses the following common problems in dialog:

  • Use of tags - Stick to the basics: said, asked, and a few others.
  • Use of adverbs - DON’T
  • Use of punctuation - Stick to periods and question marks.  Emphasize through action or description, not tags or exclamation marks.
  • Colloquialisms - Extreme moderation
  • Sloppy Diction via misspelled words - Again, Extreme moderation

Worth the read for anyone just getting into dialog challenges.

Keep It Moving, Maniacs: Writing Action Scenes in Horror Fiction, Jay R. Bonansinga

Writing action is like writing poetry.  While Bonansinga doesn’t say this directly, I think it’s a fair way to sum up the first part of his article.  The point is to get the language to match the action.   Fundamentally, it’s about rhythm, establishing it and getting it to change along with the action of the scene.  Bonansinga describes various techniques that include moving from terse sentences to more free-form, abrubt insertion of all caps, and alliteration.

The other considerations he covers are:

  • Presenting through a character - action should be shown subjectively to provide emotional as well as physical response.
  • Engaging the environment - having the character interact with the environment to enhance action.
  • Details - make use of the human tendency to fixate on details during violent events.
  • Time - make time compress and expand to bring focus in on the action and expedite periods of inactivity.

I really appreciate his final words on the subject:

That’s what action is.

A human being in peril - forced to perceive.

The Dark Enchantment of Style, Bruce Holland Rogers

Rogers reiterates what I think is pretty common advice on the subject of style.  Read, analyze and practice.  But, there are two new perspectives he presents that I think are invaluable.

I struggle with style constantly, but I’ve never been certain why.  Style has always been something an author has in my mind, and Rogers says flat out that this is wrong.  In fact, he says that finding your voice is inappropriate advice.  The trick is, and I agree, to find the voice for each story.  That voice may, and likely will, be different.  Yes, a writer may have a particular style that shines through every work, but I agree with Rogers when he says:

The voice, rather, is one that is just right for telling a particular kind of tale.


A good writer suites the telling to the tale.

The other piece of advice he gives is to slow down in both reading and writing.  It’s a process he’s suggesting, one that will serve to make the writer more aware of language, and that certainly can’t hurt.

Part 3 of On Writing Horror is titled “Developing Horror Concepts”.  It contains four articles dealing with conceiving and developing ideas for horror.

A World of Dark and Disturbing Ideas, J. N. Williamson

Williamson chooses to speak in terms of “useful premise” as opposed to “idea”, and I can appreciate his working definition.  Idea’s are great, but they are largely useless if they cannot or will not be executed.  This is true pretty much regardless of profession or circumstance.  Per Williamson, a “useful premise” is:

a concept that (1) may be new or hasn’t been developed into a plot for quite awhile, (2) the writer is comfortable with, and (3) for which, it can be reasonably assumed an accessible market exists.

Great working definition, and good advice.  Ideas are great, but if it’s not relatively unique, you’re not comfortable with it, and there’s no certainty around marketing it, move on.

He moves on to talk about the “Hypnagogic State” as being an essential resource of “useful premises” for him.  As I read, I thought of a few things I’m familiar with - the concepts of Lucid Dreaming and the Akashic Records.  Williamson seems essentially to be talking about dreaming with intention, or staging yourself so that, when you fall asleep, you’re able to tap into the workings of your unconscious mind to work up your own “useful premises”.  Whatever the method or the terminology, I like what he’s talking about, and I try to utilize it myself.  It’s a controlled wandering of the mind, a release and freedom to explore that seems to be an extremely difficult thing to accomplish in today’s society - due to constant, unfettered access (email, cell phone, instant messaging) and increased demands for our time and attention by things other than writing.  I think the crux of Williamson’s article here is pretty much that you have to make time for your craft, for your mind to work beyond just “ideas” by being permitted to focus an idea into a “useful premise”.  We, as writers, have to make time to get in touch, and stay in touch, with our creative side.

Mirror, Mirror, Wayne Allen Sallee

Sallee’s article addresses ‘getting ideas’.  Personally, I didn’t find anything really new in here.  It’s a decent summary of where a writer can find ideas, though.  Essentially, he talks about finding ideas in the circumstances that surround you (like news stories, etc), finding characters by observing the people around you, and finding horrors by introspection.

There were a few things he mentioned that I find interesting, though.  In the section about introspection, he says that while terror may not be new, there is the potential for a new angle by understanding different behavioral traits.  I noted in the margins that “changes in understanding and perspective on behavior provide a fresh look”.  Contemporary psychology provides an opportunity for redefining the old tropes by allowing for different reasons and perspectives on circumstances.

The other interesting piece in here that I hadn’t considered comes in his final section.  He suggests that the contemporary horror writer is faced with greater challenge than ever because our readers are constantly bombarded with horror in a way that wasn’t possible in the past.  This is incredibly important, I think, even though it’s not about how a writer finds ideas because it’s critical in understanding which ideas are ‘useful’.  He further suggests that in spite of this, successful writing must have characters (good or bad) with human traits of affliction.  The humanity of our characters is what will help to bind them to our readers and create the shared experience we all must drive for.

Going There: Strategies for Writing the Things that Scare You, Michael Marano

One of the best ways to ensure you’ll frighten your audience is by writing about what frightens you.  I think Marano definitely has a valid point here, but I think it’s even broader.  It’s about getting the emotion into the writing in general.  If the writer believes in his own work, feels the blood rushing through his veins, his temperature rise, the cacophony and confusion that result from stress, it’ll come through in the work.

Marano poses a few ways of honing this ability.  One is the often cited means of copying another writer’s work.  The idea is that by going through the process of actually writing out scenes that move you, you learn how to write such scenes yourself.  This is pretty common advice (at least it has been in my experience) - to become a master, start by copying one.  I’m not really a fan of this.  I’ve tried it, and I always wind up getting caught up in the mechanics of the process, like a transcriber rather than a student.  It may work for some, but I’ve not felt any great personal gain by this exercise.

Method Acting is another tactic he poses a possible route for getting the emotion into it.  This is one I do draw on, but it’s more of an instinctive response rather than a planned out or focused activity.  I find myself dropping down into my characters at tense moments and trying to link their situation with some similar emotional situation in my own past.  It’s also something I find works best for me incorporated into my writing process, not set aside as a precursor to writing.

The last method he discusses is one of my favorites - that of surrounding important items with “negative space” or empty space.  This is something I also experimented with in my poetry writings - the power of what’s left unsaid.  I find that some of my more best (most fulfilling) writing often comes by giving incomplete descriptions, what Marano calls “strategic glimpses”.  There’s a powerful psychology at work underneath this tactic, one that serves to pull the reader in - the idea of the Gestalt effect.  In simplest terms, it’s the natural tendency of our minds to ‘fill in the blanks’.  By leaving strategic blanks, or divulging only glimpses of an image, you force the reader into completing the picture with what is most terrifying to them.

Honest Lies and Darker Truths: History and Horror Fiction, Richard Gilliam

I’m not all that interested in historical fiction, but there were some items in Gilliam’s article that I found interesting.  His article seems mostly geared towards helping those interested in writing historical fiction through understanding how to research and how to apply that research.  I think the most interesting part of this article is Gilliam’s discussion on accuracy and relevance.  I can agree with him that, it is the relevance of a story that makes historical fiction stand out, as opposed to its historical accuracy.  This links back to the idea of character.  If the characters in the story are both interesting and relevant to the audience, then historical inaccuracy is likely to be forgiven or ignored by most.

Gilliam also discusses a few forms of historical fiction - the “What-If” story, and the “Parable”.

He says the first is an underutilized form, and that there’s two possible problems with its use.  One possible problem is that the premise is more interesting than the story.  The other, that the subject’s personality may conflict with the “what-if”.  In the what-if, there’s a challenge of keeping an ‘honest lie’, keeping true to the character’s historical personality while changing the context.

The Parable is retelling a contemporary situation in a historical context.  The prime example he offers, which most writer’s are familiar with, is that of The Crucible as a repesentation of the McCarthy trials.

Interesting, but not all that relevant to me right now.  Why?  Well, his next section on Gothic Horror sums up why I think it’s in my best interest to steer clear of historical fiction:

Most commercially successful horror fiction has a contemporary setting.

I think my horror writing is best told in a contemporary setting, so I’m going to stick with that for now.

Part 2 of On Writing Horror, titled “An Education in Horror”, briefly addresses a horror writer’s education in four articles.

What You Are Meant to Know: Twenty-One Horror Classics, Robert Weinberg

Weinberg’s message is pretty clear - know your genre.  He suggests that, in order to be marketable, you must be original.  And, in order tob e original, you must know what’s already been done.  Aside from the mechanics of writing, a horror writer must be familiar with what’s been done.  I think that’s great advice regardless of genre, that in order to be creative - combine the usual in unusual ways - you must first know what is usual.  He lists out 21 books that every horror writer should read.  Sad to say, I’ve only read 6 and seen the movie version of 4.  I guess I have some reading to do…

Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death, Ramsey Campbell

Campbell’s message is similar to Weinberg’s - know your genre.  Rather than provide a list of representative works, though, he instead provides several guidelines to help the new horror writer.

  • Be true to yourself.
  • Read widely outside the genre.
  • Find your own voice.
  • Imagine how it would feel to be all your characters.
  • Feel involved with your writing, or else no one else will.

Good advice, but all things I’ve heard in other places.  There is, however, one additional interesting bit to his article that deals with the cliche of evil.  Campbell says:

Horror fiction frequently presents the idea of evil in such shorthand form as to be essentially meaningless.

I think his point is, that often horror presents evil as just that - an abstraction of words on the page, a mysterious force that moves people and warrants no explanation.  Rather than that, he says we need to define horror by how it relates to us (that’s “us” as in the writers).  I rather like his point.  Evil is an abstraction, and in my opinion, meaningless without context.  What’s horrific and evil to one may not be to another.  It’s important that we address and demonstrate evil in the human context - give it a face, give it a name, let it walk around, maybe even give it a few likable qualities.  Evil as something that just is, a mysterious driving force, feels like a cheat to me.  I think that not doing this, doing the shorthand form of evil, might be a way of not tackling the issue of portraying a fresh and creative view on it.  It’s a form of procrastination on the part of the writer to just say, “this happened because the devil made him do it”.  I just hope I remember not to do this myself.

Workshops of Horror (and Seminars and Conferences), Tom Monteleone

Aside from a repectable list of conferences, seminars, and workshops, Monteleone provides an important message.  In order to be good writers, we must close the feedback loop.  I know for my part, I struggled a long time trying to work in isolation to develop my craft, and it just doesn’t work.  Writing is such a subjective thing that it’s impossible to know if you’re getting any better without direct and immediate feedback from other, experienced writers (and readers).  Conferences, Seminars, and Workshops provide that feedback loop.

I went back to school for this very reason.  I participated for a year in a local workshop that provided good feedback, but I needed more.

Degrees of Dread: Horror in Higher Education, Michael A. Arnzen

Like Monteleone, Arnzen’s article also addresses the idea of closing the feedback loop.  His suggested route, though, is through academe.  He says that there’s been a significant change in the times, and that in today’s world, publishers and editors expect new writers to come to them relatively complete.  There is no more concept of apprenticeship within the industry.

Arnzen suggests that major components a new writer can gain from an academic program are process (how to write) and experience (writing).  He says it’s possible to compile your own educational agenda from the various workshops and published materials, but that the education system offers more.  In addition to teaching process and discipline, the new writer gains access to contemporary published authors in an academic program.

The rest of his article provides good guidance on locating a program.  I won’t reiterate it here, but I will say that this article is one of the many things that convinced me to go back to school.