“On Writing Horror” – Part Six

David | Oct 11, 2009

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.

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