“On Writing Horror” – Part One

David | Oct 1, 2009 min read

Today I’m starting my journal entries for On Writing Horror, A Handbook by The Horror Writer’s Association. The book contains about 50 individual articles, divided among 8 different sections, so I’m going to match my entries up to the sections rather than address the articles individually.

Part one is called “Horror, Literature, and Horror Literature”. The three articles in this section seem to address whether Horror Fiction is or isn’t Literary Fiction. Or more broadly, the contention between Genre Fiction and Literary Fiction that seems to be pervasive, and has been for quite some time, in the literary community.

The Madness of Art, Joyce Carol Oates

Oates talks about art forms in general, and how in the visual arts there seems to be no mainstream or convention that divides the community. In music, there is almost the opposite extreme - that the classics continue to be classics while contemporary composes struggle for access to small audiences. I guess she’s not talking about mainstream or popular music, because I think if you include all the rock/pop/alternative musicians (those who get 80% of the radio coverage), then the same problem occurs as you see in literature. Pop artists are rarely if ever considered ‘serious’ musicians.

In literature, Oates says that the classics have demoted other works, that

…the elevation of “mainstream” and predominantly “realistic” writing has created a false topology in which numerous genres are perceived as inferior to, or at least significantly different from, the mainstream.

Oates claims that, in part, the difference between “Gothic” (her preferred term) work and literary work is as the difference between Plato and Aristotle - the difference between what may be and what actually is. That’s a bold way of saying, I think, that horror (and likely genre fiction in general) is the realm of imagination, an exploration of what could be, that doesn’t seem to be readily apparent in literary fiction. Okay, I’m not so sure what she’s really trying to get at with this, but what she comes to next did strike a chord with me.

She goes on to talk about the weaknesses in horror fiction, saying that any problem lies in the quality of execution. She addresses one of my favorite authors, H.P. Lovecraft, who I’ll readily admit is not always easy to read. Briefly, she said that:

“Phenomena” rather than “persons” are the logical heroes of stories, one consequence of which is two-dimensional, stereotypical characters about whom it is difficult to care.

Yup, big problem. Often in horror, you see the situation or circumstances overshadow any attention to the characters themselves, so often, when the characters struggle through circumstances that culminate in a victory or defeat, you don’t care. The kids who get slaughtered at summer camp were just fodder for the serial killer, and no one shed a tear over them. She wraps up by saying:

The standards for horror fiction should be no less than those for “serious, literary” fiction in which originality of concept, depth of characters, and attentiveness to language are vitally important.

I’ll take those standards to heart.

Acceptance Speech: The 2003 National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Stephen King

Long title and a long speech. The bulk of his speech contained thanks to those who supported him and a brief summary of his life and work. But the core of what’s important in his speech can be summed up in two words: Write Honestly.

What’s that mean? King talks about how often people talk of genre writers as being only concerned with making money. He says for him, that’s as far from the truth as you can get. He says that had he written with fame and fortune in mind, he would not have been successful because those are nothing but distraction. I agree.

He talks about how he tries to stay true to human nature, even though he writes about fantastic situations. That, when an elevator falls, people are much more likely to scream “Oh shit!” than spout out things like “Goodbye, Neil, I will see you in heaven.” That for him, staying true means writing the “Oh shit!” line because that’s how people are more likely to react. I think he sums this up really well:

We understand that fiction is a lie to begin with. To ignore the truth inside the lie is to sin against the craft, in general, and one’s own work in particular.

He wraps up his speech by talking about how we need to bridge the gap between literary and popular fiction. Popular fiction is the “fiction of one’s own culture”, and to ignore it is to ignore one’s culture.

Why We Write Horror, Michael McCarty

Not much to this one, as it’s a series of writers’ responses to the question “Whey do you write horror?” The interesting thing is, McCarty says that while a lot of genre writers get this question, when it comes to horror, the question is asked in the same manner one might say, “Why do you think this way?”

The answers don’t very too much. Several of them talk about addressing Mystery. I like how Straub puts it:

…the mysterious realm that we sometimes apprehend around us, with a sense of the numinous, with a sense of things unknown…

Several others talk in terms of honest, very similar to what King talks about in his acceptance speech and his other works that deal with writing. A few say that first and foremost, they write, and that it just happens to be that horror always seems to come out. And a few seem to say that it’s just how their wired or how they were born.

I guess all are feasible reasons. Why do I write horror? A bit of all of these, but I think the biggest reason is the mystery. The most interesting things to me are what happens when things get weird. In humans, as in physics, things bend and twist in wild, wicked ways when things go to extremes. The rules seem to change, or we learn that the rules weren’t what they seemed or didn’t exist at all.

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