Friday, July 27, 2012

A Report On Writing Horror Fiction


It's funny:  I've been known for writing 'sci-fi/horror' lyrics in punk rock bands over the past two decades.  However, as I've been trying to make the transition into prose writing these last few years, somehow I didn't actually expect that I might write some horror fiction of some sort.  I guess it just goes to show how often we don't know ourselves – even what should be obvious to us!  But, as I say, the fact that I’m writing some horror fiction comes to me as something of a surprise.

From the time I was young I think I always thought I would write science fiction and possibly some ‘heroic fantasy’ (a la Lord of the Rings).  I now know I almost certainly will never write either - I haven't the capacity for them.  I still love s.f. as a genre or idea and some of my favourite authors and books will always be from this 'camp'.  And I do think I have a penchant and capacity for writing things of a fantastic nature, even if not of the heroic or ‘high fantasy’ variety.  But hold that thought for a moment.

Now, add to this that in the past decade I've come to greatly appreciate some 'non-genre' fiction (sometimes called 'mainstream' or 'straight' or 'literary' fiction).  The great Southern writers Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy are probably the main culprits, all of whom, admittedly, come near genre fiction in being mythic, Gothic, and even sometimes slightly science-fictional.  I also love mainstream modern 'classics' like Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, Steinbeck's The Pearl, and Golding's Lord of the Flies.  Yet again, each of these tales has a mythic resonance, so we're still not a million miles away from my first love of fantastic genre fiction.  (Another of my all-time favourites from the 'classics' of English Literature is Milton's Paradise Lost – and if any written work is an epic science-fictional and fantastical tale, that certainly is!)

So this allegedly more 'realist' sort of fiction has crept into my bones as well now.  This has the result that when I think of writing, I think as much of everyday tactile details and settings and characters as I do of the fantastic and strange.  (S.f. and fantasy writers of course have always thought about these ‘realistic’ details, but I mean I’m interested in them in the same way many ‘straight’ fiction writers are – not only to build up the verisimilitude of the world you’re creating but for their psychological and social interest and implications, which have not always been of interest to s.f. and fantasy writers.)

What happens then when you mix this 'mainstream' tradition with a proclivity to also write of the ‘weird’ – i.e. the strange events and entities that occur in and occupy the mysterious and preternatural places our imaginations are free to roam and encounter?  Well, nowadays you have this whole explosion of 'urban fantasy' and 'magical realism' and their endless permutations:  steampunk, mythpunk, 'slipstream', the 'new weird', 'noird' (noir detective fiction meets weird fiction), dark fantasy and so on.

But before the occurrence of this contemporary profusion of the fantastic-realist hybrid, possibly the main writers doing this sort of thing were horror writers.  Stephen King is the most ready-to-hand example, of course.  His uber-famous 1970s novels like Carrie and The Shining were about detailed realistic contemporary settings and characters infused with paranormal powers and events and atmosphere.  And really, the reigning master of horror before Stephen King – H. P. Lovecraft in the 1920s and 30s - also wrote in painstaking realistic detail about his then contemporary New England settings, in which took place his horrific wonders 'from beyond'.  Lovecraft didn't do nearly as much characterisation or social commentary as King, but his creeping terrors were firmly framed in an everyday setting that was at that time ‘modern’.

My point is that horror fiction and its fantastical offshoots and cousins are the natural place a writer with both everyday 'realism' as well as the supernatural or magical boiling in his or her soul may find a writing home.  At least, for a writer like me who has always deeply loved monsters and terrors and the dark and Gothic as well as other themes of wonder and fantastical imagination (such as space, future technology, and aliens in s.f. or ‘ancient realms’ of magic and fabulous creatures in high fantasy).

Now, when I consider my own take on horror fiction as I begin to try to write it, I realise there are distinctions and shades even within this genre.  One element of horror that a reader or viewer might well be expecting when they come to a work labelled as such is the horror of violence, gore, and very scary and twisted human evil and murder – ‘slasher' stuff, I guess.  On the other hand one might be anticipating supernatural terror in its many varieties:  ghosts, vampires, or what have you.  (Of course, there is also the possibility of non-supernatural monsters too, such as 'scientific abominations' or surviving prehistoric monsters or the monstrous effects of a passing comet and so on – but I think it's crucially important to note that these latter sorts of more 'naturalistic' monsters still have nearly the same aura of the hauntingly inexplicable and preternatural hovering over them as do more overtly 'supernatural' entities.)

And, of course, these 'slasher' and 'monster' varieties of horror are no doubt often mixed – indeed, there is almost guaranteed to be a strong amount of gore or macabre in a tale about monsters.  But the violence of the encounter between the human and non-human, the natural and the supernatural or extraordinary, is to me far different than the violence of a human to human encounter – two very different kinds of scary to me.

Furthermore, it seems to me that these two sorts of horror tackle two different things:  'slasher' horror faces head-on the suffering, brutality, pain, evil, and terror we bring upon ourselves as the human race, in person to person encounter.  It chronicles the way humans can become inhuman and the horrific plight of the victims of this grim reality.  It explores in its uniquely visceral way the seemingly obvious fact that we humans are physically made of skin and blood and guts and that these intricately woven bodies of ours can come shockingly, wrongly apart.  At the same time it explores the way our souls can correspondingly come shockingly, wrongly apart – a psychologically gory mangling of our 'insides' into something equally gruesome and deformed and disgusting as that of our mangled ‘outsides’.

'Monster' horror faces head-on something different.  (I know these labels are misleading – ‘slasher' stuff is very much 'monster fiction' in that the psychotic killers are a classic example of 'the monster'.  I'm just trying out this shorthand for the time being.)  'Monster' horror explores the human encounter with the truly mysterious - usually sinister and always dangerous, but that which is darkly and bizarrely extraordinary and inexplicable.  It imagines the hardly nameable stuff that lurks around in the deep, muddy dark of our dreams - really frightening and freakish possibilities that we 99% of the time don't even remember that we've ever contemplated, or that we have only ever intuited at a subconscious level that has never seen the light of day in our waking thoughts.  It's probably a realm many feel is better left ignored and buried.  But horror-merchants of this monstrous variety take a perverse delight in dragging it all out before our eyes to make us shudder and scream.  And hence we have monsters – exquisitely weird and horrifying physical and spiritual combinations of form and function calculated to make our skin crawl and our minds recoil.

And yet, and yet... monsters also somehow calculated to pique our interest, to make us peep between our fingers for another morbidly curious glimpse.  Indeed, for many of us, after the initial chill and repugnance is gotten over, some of these monsters can become our occasional companions, hideous pals that give us a certain grotesquely piquant key of company that just can't be had elsewhere.  So monster horror isn’t just about the recoil – it’s also about curiosity and fascination with the Other.

'Monster' horror then is largely, to me, a certain dark sort of sense-of-wonder fiction.  It explores what we humans do not know and how we choose to live with that unknowing.  It explores the fact that our hearts respond so very strongly to what is apparently not even real or possible and what this experience might be trying to hint at about reality.

All this is prefatory to saying that I've discovered my own burgeoning horror writing is very much of the Monster and not Murderer class.  I write about the creepily inexplicable, the darkly fantastic, not about serial killers and the like.  When I write, I delight in the way realism can either subtly or disruptively break into the weird – or, more often, be broken into from the realm of the weird – violated, or just visited, by dark strangeness.  To be perfectly honest, though, most of the writing I’m attempting in this vein is probably better described as ‘dark urban fantasy’ or some such thing as it’s not really aiming to achieve a classic horror effect.  It just naturally gravitates into that realm in varying degrees.  (Then again, in my reading of Stephen King, for example, he’s very much the same – he’s known as the master of horror, but half of what he writes, despite scarifying book covers and blurbs, just aren’t really horror at all – they are fantastic and supernatural and so on, but only have tinges of classic horror and are really just a form of modern fantasy writing set in everyday scenarios – but more on that in another post.)

This is my report from the land of horror writing thus far.  I shall send another missive when I have reached a point further North in my explorations.  Until then… be afraid, be very afraid.