“On Writing Horror” – Part Five

David | Oct 9, 2009 min read

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.

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