For those who don’t know the difference,
THIS IS A MONSTER:
THIS IS A FEMALE OF OUR SPECIES:
And yet she might
(Horror writer. Just sayin’…)
For those who don’t know the difference,
THIS IS A MONSTER:
THIS IS A FEMALE OF OUR SPECIES:
And yet she might
(Horror writer. Just sayin’…)
I just wanted to distract myself. I thought: let’s watch a favorite kitschy 1970’s Horror movie for fun…
Nice to know at my age I can still be naïve. So, so naïve…
For many of us, these times remain endlessly exhausting. It is just so desirable that we find something, anything to stop the loudness of the explosion of truths all around us. We are looking for diversion, for a moment of rest, of pause. But the truth and trouble is we shall not have it. And this is a necessary lesson because those who have borne the burden of our societal failings have themselves been denied respite.
The reckoning has come.
It’s time to not-be surprised.
What’s Love Got to Do With It: The Trilogy of Terror
For most of my life in the genre, one of my favorite films was the 1975 schlock B-movie Trilogy of Terror, which I first saw as a teenager during some late summer night horror fest on television. Maybe it was because the best offering of the trilogy was about a doll that comes to life (dolls being a chief Horror-button-pusher for me), although others might surmise that it has more to do with Grimm’s Fairy tales, gullible age, and the requisite poking around in the occult and folklore that comes with that stage of youth…
That movie haunted me and I loved it. I even bought a copy as an adult trying to recapture the mood and the fun, and despite the kitschiness of its age, still loved it…
Naivete is an amazing thing… And love (I can tell you as an older person) gets increasingly weird as time passes and you begin to rationalize bad Life choices.
Because for many years, everything that came after – including the whole possessed-doll franchise family of this decade has been subconsciously measured against the Trilogy as remembered in my mind.
I thought loving it was “safe.” I thought grabbing some microwave popcorn and tuning the world out by slipping that movie into the dvd player would make the unpleasantries of the world right now go away.
Imagine my Horror: Trilogy IS today.
Imagine my Horror part two: I have been in love with a damn dog whistle and didn’t even know it.
By the way, this is what happens when white people wake up… why we struggle to stay asleep.
We remember what we wanted (and maybe needed if there was familial dysfunction) to be there… we were swimming on the surface with sharks and crocodiles, and we felt immortal, untouchable… We “use” it now – we look for diversion from unpleasant Life all of the time; we accept what we need to be leadership because thinking gets to be hard work.
Sadly, we miss those puppet-mastered moments when we thought we were JUST being entertained when what we really miss is PARENTING and slamming the door to our bedroom with the “Private” sign on it–we really miss being mothered and assured that our world will be alright. We miss the illusion that we don’t have to fact-check every word and reveal the magician’s trick every time because that is someone else’s job. We miss the “fun” of BEING tricked, of being children because being a grown-up loaded down with responsibilities isn’t fun after all. And then we discover…(surprise!) we were being TRICKED…by something bigger than strict parents. Talk about your Freud meeting fairy glamour…
Who really WANTS to see the ugly, twisted monster masquerading as messiah? Who ever really wants to see the man behind the curtain?
The whole problem for white people is this: we have been complicit without knowing because we, too, have been whitewashed. We have been raised to not-see and not-hear the things we are conditioned to repeat which Others are meant to take note of; this was part of the plan and a place where the cigar is never just the cigar.
Freud was right. Maybe we can’t help ourselves. Maybe that is good and means there is hope for us if we can learn to see what we really think. And avert the consequences. Do damage control.
Trilogy is a perfect example to understand where we as white people do not hear ourselves.
And it is also a perfect example to explain why the burden of all of this guilt is both unabating, and doubly painful for women in the genre (white women and nonwhite women now being threatened with the additional truth that it is not our star that is or should be rising in the genre or elsewhere, but that we now risk becoming the minority’s minority… shelved again in the shadow of Something More Important – racial injustice… because it IS more important when it supplants all other forms of discrimination, when it precedes and enables all other forms of oppression. And that makes the burden of truth somehow even more heavy for white women.)
So here I am, just another (now much older) white woman dragging her bones out of the shower, mindful of what might lurk outside of the stall. And it is all Trilogy’s fault. Or so it feels good to say, because I am now realizing that this may be the exact moment I went deaf and blind… and fell asleep.
This is the summary of Amelia — the Trilogy’s best offering — from Wikipedia (which just had the best summary I could find), and THE one of the trilogy I am referring to, the one most of us who saw the trilogy misremembered as the Devil Doll one…
”Amelia lives alone in a high-rise apartment building. She returns home after a fateful shopping spree carrying a package containing a wooden fetish doll, crafted in the form of a misshapen aboriginal warrior equipped with pointy, sharp teeth and a spear. A scroll comes with the doll, claiming that the doll contains the actual spirit of a Zuni hunter named “He Who Kills”, and that the gold chain adorning the doll keeps the spirit trapped within. As Amelia makes a call to her mother we learn that she suffers from her mother’s overbearing behavior. Amelia struggles to justify her independence and cancels their plans for the evening by claiming she has a date. As Amelia leaves the room, we see that the Zuni fetish doll’s golden chain has somehow fallen off.
Later, Amelia is preparing dinner, using a carving knife. She enters the darkened living room, and realizes the doll is not on the coffee table. Amelia hears a noise in the kitchen and when she investigates, the knife is missing. Returning to the living room, she is suddenly attacked by the doll, which stabs at her ankles viciously. She attempts to flee, but the doll chases her around the apartment. In the bathroom, Amelia envelops the doll in a towel and attempts futilely to drown it in the bathtub. She later traps it in a suitcase, but the doll begins cutting a circular hole through the top of suitcase with the butcher knife. After several more vicious attacks, Amelia manages to hurl the doll into the oven where it catches fire. She holds the oven door while she listens to the doll howling and screaming as it burns and, while black smoke billows out, she waits until the screaming eventually stops. Opening the oven to ensure that the doll is “dead”, she is struck by some force that pushes her backward and from which she emits a blood-curdling scream.
At some point after that, the audience sees Amelia (from behind) place another call to her mother. In a calm, controlled voice, she apologizes for her behavior during the previous call, and invites her mother to come for dinner. She then rips the bolt from her front door and crouches down low in an animalistic manner, carrying a large carving knife. She is now seen frontally, stabbing at the floor with the weapon, grinning ferally and revealing the horrific teeth of the Zuni fetish doll whose spirit now inhabits her body.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trilogy_of_Terror#:~:text=%20%20%201%20Karen%20Black%20as%20Amelia,the%20voice%20of%20the%20Zuni%20doll%20More%20
And now after you have a full appreciation of Richard Matheson’s scary-tale abilities, let’s look at the message in its full Hollywood subtext. Let’s see what is hiding in plain view, and has little to do with the story or its author…
Of course the doll comes to life. Of course it chases a half nude young white woman around her apartment trying to kill her by stabbing her thousands of times with its tiny spear in a blatant (though little “known” reference) to an ancient Chinese torture known as Lingchi, or the death from a thousand cuts… Of course the doll is Africanized in a grass skirt and not-native looking war paint and carrying a spear, yet referred to as a Native American tribal relic (Zuni)… Here we have weaponized and slandered no less than three minorities: Black, Asian, and Indigenous Peoples… dog-whistling our way into the white suburban subconsciousness with a messaging that resonates with any white woman who has ever looked at a minority man in an elevator and wondered if she was “safe.”
Imagine my disgust when I finally – FINALLY—saw this.
Yet this is how it is done, folks. And since it is largely white audiences that this is created for, realize that the conditioning has been just as much for that white audience as it was for minorities.
Doesn’t it make you mad? It should. Because despite all of the defenses offered (including the one that says the writers were products of their times and probably ALSO couldn’t hear themselves over that ever-present whistling in their own ears) THIS is how conditioning is DONE. This is how we look at different peoples and cultures and worry about the “unknowns”… the “unknowables”… the differences between us. This is how we learn to fear each other…
And how do we navigate this in Horror, where fear of the unknown is the single greatest tool in the toolbox?
Funny things happen when you “wake up” to betrayal… First you get mad. Then you get madder. Then you make a decision to just cut this out of the heart of your passion.
This is NOT the time to leave the genre. This is the time to reinvent the genre.
And maybe that means we have to look at Chucky, too…
Child’s Play It Isn’t
How I hated this movie… Still do. And it is not because of the doll, but because of the blatant violence. Where Trilogy gave us the concept of a death of a thousand cuts (less bloody-seeming but equally fatal – if not worse in its execution if you are the victim) and simultaneously instilled some weird sense of random minority vengeance, a 1988 Chuckie in Child’s Play gives us the angry white male killing not just white women, but everyone. How is that better?
For me, even the creepy factor couldn’t save the film from all the pointless violence. And according to a 2019 Variety article, I wasn’t apparently alone:
“Something happened to horror movies in the 1980s, starting a few years earlier with films such as “Halloween” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”: The villains in brutally violent slasher movies became the heroes — or, at least, the characters audiences found themselves rooting for — which in turn created the opportunity for franchises, where these virtually unstoppable killing machines came back in sequel after sequel, like some kind of recurring nightmare, to wreak more havoc. Michael, Jason, Freddy Krueger loomed iconic in the cultural imagination, spawning a wave of imitators, of which the most surreal may well have been Chucky — a blue-eyed, battery-operated doll possessed, via voodoo curse, by the soul of a deranged psycho.” https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/childs-play-review-1203248744/
(Battery operated… I’m not saying a word.)
Yeah. And on the lower note of being a young adult Horror fan at the time, the movie just seemed stupid. Just like today, apparently the creators then couldn’t just create a possessed doll for the sake of possession or evil, but HAD to include voodoo, with later sequels including a disgruntled Chinese factory worker who tampers with the electronics… (and that sound you now hear: woof).
The plot of a mother bringing home a doll for her son who self-proclaims he is too old (if you don’t have eyes or knowledge about kids in general) and which proceeds to come alive and kill everything in reach just doesn’t seem substantial enough to make a whole movie budget worthwhile. Continues the Variety article:
“This is the new normal for horror movies: The screenplays have to seem hipper than the premise they represent, which puts “Child’s Play” in the weird position of pointing out and poking fun at all the ways it fails to make sense.”
But I do have to at least applaud the fact that the doll was at least culturally relevant to the characters. At least the doll was white and clearly modern and clearly our own invention instead of misappropriated from a culture we feel entitled to rob. Then we had to add voodoo and muck that self-congratulation all up.
So why didn’t I like Chucky better than that cultural mélange of the Devil Doll? Why did the possessed white doll instead annoy me more than scare me? Does it mean that the greater terror for me WAS the racial ambiguity? That was the message I was supposed to get, right?
I think that the subtext is there. And maybe that means I have some soul-searching yet to do. But I also think that it means that fear of the unknown in general is potent – too potent to be removed from the Horror genre. But it is certainly time for it to be redirected.
The problem is that there are so, so many ways to convey the unknown without completely leaving your own cultural context (and I tend to think that Algernon Blackwood’s short story “The Willows” is just such a tale.) Yet for Americans, that can be still a challenge. Our mistake is that we tend to look at earlier “successes” in the genre without seeing them in historical context – meaning we are unable, and educationally unequipped to discern between plots that mirror their times and plots that exploit the racism of their times. These are not the same, but both can reinforce racist messaging. And if we use them as examples of how to successfully scare audiences, then we are ignoring the truth that audiences and their fears change and should change.
So just like the creators of Chucky, we grab onto a premise, but fail to execute properly. Sometimes that is a matter of Craft, but many more times it is a more human arrogance at work. Our genre is stagnant because we are making it a mockery of itself.
Yet the “solution” of cultural sensitivity is not an easy fix (and maybe especially for white writers in the genre), because there are layers upon layers of questions. For example, being of Scots-Irish descent myself, am I entitled to “borrow” from those mother cultures? Am I entitled to remake those myths and legends for my own storytelling? Or is that just another form of racism, not having come by those stories as a native Scot or Irish person living on native soil, hearing them first-hand? Worse, does my attempt to tell such stories come off as lame, incorrect, and even worse still –make me insensitive if not just culturally wrong? Trust me, the worry is there, exacerbated by our Black Lives moment.
So then and therefore, what can I as a white American Horror writer dare write about? What part of the unknown is rightfully mine to write about? And why can’t I find it?
For minorities yet to write in the genre, this will also become an issue. As we naturally homogenize, those cultural differences handed down proudly from generation to generation will fade. And then you, too, may find yourself a kind of cultural orphan. There will be times when attempting to “write-in” the oppression of whites at the moment will be offensive and stereotypical, where whites will feel culturally assaulted.
This is the curse of finding equality at the cost of individualized culture (formerly buffered by racism into “safe” islands of the oppressed). White people are there, which is why we are all River Dance fans. We ALL start looking backward – to the Good Old Days when we knew who we were even if it was because we were pushing against the weight of the rest of the world.
Native American writer Sherman Alexie has already seen this happening:
And it isn’t just Americans going through this – especially as we embrace a world devoid historical reference and emphasize self-aggrandizement. We are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, divorcing ourselves from the ancestors who were probably a lot more like ourselves than we are ready to admit, yet having this weird obsession with rewriting a history-flavored reality.
How can we reconcile the modern world with future Horror? How do we keep racial and cultural identity safe and a source of pride without admitting we don’t want to surrender those rich details in order to be the Majority – so big and so anonymous all else is lost?
What is clear is that we cannot look to modern Horror to tell us much. But that is what writers like Stephen King and Clive Barker get so very right in the genre: the sense of folk belief without mimicry. They write Horror that is about us, about now… It feels like the Old-Country stuff, but it is built of our own times and our own fear of the modernized unknown. Race just doesn’t enter into it in the same misappropriated ways.
And we clearly need more of that. But as most writers can tell you, we are victims of our own times. Things are moving too fast to keep ANY of us relevant in our own stories. Increasingly our older writers in the genre – like Stephen King – seem slightly off-step, knocked off balance by the kind of change that makes today obsolete by tomorrow. This is an accelerated normal, and we are supposed to be having new writers ready to step up and lead the genre. But here we have been felled by both these publishing-challenged times, and a lot less effective leadership from within the genre’s elite. So we are stuck in a kind of time capsule, looking for our way out. And that leads right back to these chaotic times.
This is a lesson that is not going to go away with any resolution of Black Lives. Will we only learn it when we are completely homogenized? Or will that kill the messenger of so much Horror?
That Devil Doll haunts me. Trying to understand if the racist accoutrement of the doll made it more scary also haunts me. Because like so many other white people today, I so don’t want that to be true. Yet we have to admit it: we have been conditioned to believe certain things, and this is a danger even minorities on the brink of becoming a majority are facing. We have been made to believe in conformity down to our immediate emotional reactions…Power corrupts.
Why else do we have to stop to ask, “but did he (or she) do something to deserve it?”
Why else do we ask other people as women how we “look” or worry how we dress because we don’t want to be blamed for our own rape/robbery/murder?
Why else do we worry about “good” neighborhoods? “Good” schools? “Good” jobs?
We need to start really looking within ourselves – not for the purpose of confession, but for the purpose of absolution and healing.
We need to exorcize whatever demon made us create that Devil Doll…and then made us like it.
A Cautionary Tale for Future Writers in the Genre
Being not-awake is a lot like death: it’s peaceful, and we can fantasize about what it is or will be all we want – even thinking we miss that sweet promised peace: but death is still being dead. It just seems stupid (and quite vain) to “miss” those times when we thought we were at peace, but were really just dead.
Being woken up roughly feels like waking up old every day: it takes a lot longer to get your bearings, everything hurts, and you miss the days you could bound out of bed in seconds ready for a new challenge.
Today is not those days. Today many white people feel the weight of guilt-spawning centuries we know we weren’t present for, but whose legacy is responsible for all of this mess nonetheless. We cannot divorce ourselves from it; and we just don’t know how to respond. Expecting white people to call themselves racist is wrong. But calling ourselves institutionalized racists is not. We are because we have been. But we, too, must have hope for a better future.
Yet why do I still kind of like Trilogy?! I want to tell myself it is because I find dolls creepy to begin with. Dolls coming alive is extra freaky for me… and a doll with a secret history and rules of carnage is even more scary. I want to tell myself it was a great story concept, and it was only in the details of Hollywood production that things went horribly awry…But I also now realize that we should have been able to tell the tale without stigmatizing Others. This is what waking up means.
We are not directly responsible for our horrible underbelly of history, but for its edification, for believing that the ends justify the means, for whitewashing the unpleasantries. We are not obliged to self-hate, but to just. Stop. Endorsing by silence or inaction…the INJUSTICE.
(Every Horror fan knows EXACTLY where that leads, and you don’t have to be wearing a flimsy nightie to KNOW it…)
What we are responsible for is what we do in this life; we do not owe our ancestors disgust, but an awareness that they may not have gotten it right even on their best days, that our actions have had consequences, that in a crowded pool, some will be drowned by accident, and some on purpose in the rush for oxygen. Now that we can see that trajectory for what it is, we need to take appropriate action. Just action… motion…movement.
So now that white people have been somewhat rudely awakened to the nightmare that has been playing in theaters near you for hundreds of years, what will you do with the new reality?
The future looks different for all of us, but really we can and should be on the same page. We should not feel threatened if we are white or are white women or minority women. This “awakening” is not about guilt (which is what dog whistlers want you to hear) but it is about taking responsibility for what we have collectively done or enabled.
It is about ending the insanity and valuing everyone’s contributions (including our own).
It is about hearing the dog whistles that we didn’t even know were going off everywhere and making darn sure we don’t accidentally repeat them.
Two wrongs never make a right.
Make it right.
Do New Horror better…
And take us all with you.
Horror changes when you stop just being a reader of Horror and instead choose to write it.
Not only do questions arise about who you choose for characters and how they are depicted, but questions take shape around the relevance of plots and the potential for constructing a Literary message that might emerge from your once-invigorating first draft. We often aren’t yet thinking too seriously about the Bigger Picture – the one that suggests we might be writing Horror in a bubble. We don’t notice we are picturing an editor who looks like us, and instead we occupy ourselves with the worries of most novice writers – worries about craft and relevance, about choosing just the “right” marketing venue. We are just writers writing. Or so we think.
We never really worry that we might be judged by too many assumptions, although if you are a woman in Horror you are always aware that both you and your work are being measured against a predominantly white male history, specially conjured and mindfully tended for the last several decades of American Horror. But something is happening here, now, in this country. And it would appear that we are starting to really wake up to a lot of truths we never really saw as coexisting with us… the real Monster under the bed.
Now in this age of Covid 19 and Black Lives Matter, the Horror genre finds itself forced to gaze at its reflection in the mirror and ask a seminal question: where do we go from here?
Where do we go from all of those Lovecraft anthologies? How do we pierce the thin skin of that bubble we have been suffocating in? And who, exactly, will we take with us? How do we stop being so darned white, and what do we do if as a writer we just…are?
The Princess Epiphany (Fix Yourself a Drink. Don’t Lose Your Shoes.)
Being white and a writer of Horror, these past seven months of Covid 19 and Black Lives Matter has been a rude awakening. Sadly, I thought I was awake before, but just like a scene out of Nightmare on Elm Street, I discovered I had only dreamed I was awake…
We all wake up in different ways. For me it has been about searching for minority voices in Horror, and learning that most of my youthful favorites are no longer “recognized” as being Horror writers (as though re-categorizing their writings would preserve some “purity” of the genre). It came as a disappointment to realize that what so many of them had in common was simply not being part of an homogenous set – they were often from another race or culture, or gay, bisexual, or transgender writers… and it did not matter how good they were. They were simply made gone, cast into other genres for a “better Literary fit.”
Then I began really thinking about what I was hearing drip from the essays of genre Establishment and even from Critics, asking what they are always asking for, how do we push the genre out of the rut it is in…and then I began wondering why can’t we seem to talk about anything other than Lovecraft tributes?
But then all of …this… happened. And it was my Freddy moment. Say what you will, but I have never been so ashamed of being White, as if being made to be ashamed of being American wasn’t bad enough these last four years.
Watching endless hours of Real-Life horror on the television screen, all of that news coverage of inexcusable and seemingly shameless killings of so many African Americans right now when the world is watching… it all got me thinking about the prolific tenacity of racism in all of its forms – the most insidious of which for me is institutionalized racism – a racism slipped in your drink at the bar, when you are having a good time and not thinking about who is around you or their motivations.
It is everywhere. Lie to yourself all you want, you know it is true. It has been in Horror a for decades. And foolishly, I have let myself believe that it was only in the choices of who we allowed in the genre… I had never considered it from the standpoint that it also was about what we have the audacity to actually SAY we want in the genre, or what we SAY is in the factual HISTORY of the genre. Then there had to be yet another Lovecraft anthology…
(Surprise! I was feeling like the only one who was guessing up til now…)
The following is my epiphany of how institutionalized racism moves in Horror. This is how we as writers outside of the Sacred Realm of traditional publishing and its editors have been complicit.
The First Rule: Edify the Writers Who Reinforce the Narrative
New or under-published writers (often referred to as novice or amateur writers) often stand wide-eyed before the high priests of the Establishment and offer their prose souls in eager anticipation of discovery or helpful advice. They read editorial essays and devour the critical comments about staying in-genre and writing original traditional Horror all without a single word or reference as to how to do so. “Write what you know” we are told, “be original,” “Lovecraft is the height of perfection…”
It does not occur to us that we might be just one more obedient and compliant white writer in the herd of the unpublished masses. It never occurs to us that there is anything but a loose history written of the genre because no one in the Establishment endorses any writer of (or writes themselves) said history. We just accept the kool-aid in its enticing cups of promise. We fall all over ourselves hoping to ingratiate our way into print.
So we feel unanchored, unmoored… and we flail about. We are white, so we do as we are told and write what we know – whiteness. But it echoes in empty chambers because we do not live in a white-only world. And it seems our writing bears only slightly more than a passing resemblance to older white writers – writers from decades ago, in styles that are antiquated. And we are again rejected. We are rejected until all we hear is phrases that include “Lovecraft anthology” and “Legacy Collection…” and how we are STILL not writing original work…
Confession: writers write for an audience. The audience inevitably looks like ourselves. Writers – Horror or otherwise – don’t get out much.
The Second Rule: Don’t Get Caught…
We have all heard the mantra “write what you know”… it is kissing cousins with the one that says “don’t write about people and cultures you don’t know.“
What becomes the startling discovery is how hard it is to follow that advice – especially as a modern person living in contemporary American society. We are surrounded by people and cultures, by color… vibrancy… unknown differences. The temptation to use those differences in our worst imaginings is only reinforced by what is held out to us in the genre as all but “perfect” Horror – Lovecraft.
We are rejected again and again until we learn the hidden lesson: it’s not the cosmos, the monsters, the syntax. It’s the subtext. And it’s so obviously the subtext, I now wonder if the editors and the Critics even hear themselves, because thinking that they do is just plain….scary.
In Horror – especially the kind inspired by H.P. Lovecraft – differences and unease around the unknown masses surrounding us feeds the atmosphere we have been groomed to believe belongs in Horror. The exotic unknown provides the magic, the mystery, the sinister imaginings that stalk us…it is so easy to ascribe a monster to some unknown culture, some obscure religion or cult, to create an imaginary group of monster-worshippers with secret powers and ancient, unknowable deities. Worse, we feel endorsed if not pressured to create these mystery stand-in peoples, to flirt with Fantasy and Science Fiction world-building by making up a whole culture in the pretense we are not referencing the very ones living around us. This way, we can have our cake and eat it, too…
Who could possibly be offended? How could this be wrong?
It takes some doing to hear the dog whistles…
The Third Rule: Don’t Spook the Herd…
But it also leaves white writers in the genre with a conundrum: try to include our growing racial diversity and or risk getting it way wrong and being accused of “entitled profiteering,” or sticking to writing exclusively about other white people and being called racist or tone deaf.
And this is why we really need to learn and study the history of the Horror genre itself: the history of American Horror is a mirror of American history, and as long as we are pressured to ignore that, there will be a lot less Literature happening in the genre.
In his book Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession With the Hideous and the Haunting, W. Scott Poole states: “Something wicked this way comes when we look into the historical narrative…Belief and ideology, the social realities produced and reproduced by the images of the monster, turn into historical actions and events. It is not enough to call these beliefs metaphors when they shape actual historical behavior or act as anxious reminders of inhuman historical acts, a cultural memory of slaughter. How limp and pallid to use the term ‘metaphor’ for cultural structures than can burn the innocent to death, lynch them, imprison them, or bomb them. The monster has helped make all of these things possible in American history.” (25)
Yet, this isn’t really discussed –not in class, not in genre. We are directed to metaphors. And there we languish on the beach, seashells whispering sweet nothings in our ears…
Yet we cannot separate ourselves or our writing from our history as we live it — at least not honestly. And neither can the writers who have gone before. And as we edify certain writers over others, as we hold them out as near-perfect, we lean in… we study with hungry eyes and untold ignorance…and then we mimic. We do not see a difference because the difference is not there. We are still living in Lovecraft’s world of fearing the Other.
The Fourth Rule: Mindless Recitation Becomes Truth
There is systemic and institutionalized racism in our modern version of the Horror genre. We do not admit many writers of color, we do not admit writing that does not conform to an accepted narrative that most of us have not been taught to SEE in its sub-textual proliferation. We are convinced because it is the preferential truth that we are done with all of that. We just “innocently” repeat it because we see it as a requirement, a harmless convention of the genre. We don’t question its presence or its function. We don’t question the success of our own publication, because it doesn’t occur to us that we don’t deserve it, or that someone might deserve it more. That is the very definition of systemic racism…
We have ALL been snowed. We have all been lied to. And worse, we have all been groomed to continue the tradition, with the punishment of manuscript rejection or banishment from the genre to keep it “traditional.” But who defines what is “traditional”? Who IS this Horror cabal in charge of our genre’s narrative?
Do you not find it interesting (if not coincidental) that at the exact time in our history that the Black Lives Matter movement arises in response to a rise in white supremacy and nationalism, that a movie like Get Out! gnaws at the fringe of the Horror universe currently packed with finger-wagging editors seeking more Lovecraft?
And while minorities might think it must be easy-peasy for white writers in the genre to get published, do they know that only white writers ghostly imitating the white patriarchal style of the 1940’s are rewarded, along with “Other” (including female) writers only if they very mindfully write un-offensive stories that do not overtly threaten the status quo?
The Fifth Rule: Rewrite the History to Support the Narrative
You want to know why there is so little Literature happening in American Horror? We aren’t allowed to talk about things that Establishment editors don’t want to hear… not child abuse, not child sexual abuse, not sexual harassment, not rape, not health issues, not homelessness, not job loss, not disenfranchisement or disillusion… and sure as heck not politics or race.
Instead the cry for allegedly “traditional” Horror is deafening… Yet the truth is that “traditional” Horror addressed exactly those issues. We have reinvented the term “traditional” and hijacked it to reflect the monsters as white males designed them. Period.
Is that where the ghost story (the vehicle of discontent for women and minority writers historically in the genre) went? Is it a coincidence that it has been “determined” by some that between Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James (two white males) all of the worthwhile and legitimate ghost stories have been told? One wonders… Because isn’t that a little too convenient?
Is also it an attempt to rewrite our history to the exclusion of what is known about Horror in order to favor a very white, very male patriarchal “success story””? And doesn’t that remove the “teeth” from monsters in general?
It is that history of interacting with ourselves and Others that we bring with us and hide under our beds, importing select suspicions when not directly transplanting whole belief systems onto new soil. Says W. Scott Poole: “Our monsters…are not simply delusions, whether they slither toward us as folklore, urban legend, or popular entertainment. Nor are they simply mirrors of social fears or expressions of social anxiety, the catharsis interpretation of the horror tale. They are so embedded in the way Americans talk about class, race, gender, and social structure that they offer a way for people to mark, comprehend, and just as frequently, misunderstand their world.” (xix)
Yet we continue to pretend that monsters don’t exist, all while they frolic in the shadows and dance naked in the sunlight in full view.
Again Lovecraft is the example. Is it any coincidence that perhaps the single most racist writer in the genre – H.P. Lovecraft – is now the genre’s premier Golden Child? Or that the demand for “original” Horror comes with… tentacles?
“Original” is a code word.
“Original” does not mean “different” or “other”… It sure as heck does not mean “new” … It means “differently told, modern” Lovecraft stories.
Can you say censorship and “traditional” in the same sentence?
Lovecraft is often given a “pass” because he is so clearly an institutional racist. Like ourselves, he believed what he was raised to believe and what society reinforced. And when he tells his stories it is not with a conscious purpose to “convert” but is an example of that simple-yet-horrendous assumption that his readers will “get” the terror in ways we may not today interpret it. And this means that modern readers may not pick up on the racism alluded to, but that being presumably, eternally white, we would simply gather in the general atmosphere of imminent dread and make of it what we will. The problem is, we are internalizing that narrative in order to mimic it. How often do we say it, and read it, and edify it before it starts to make some kind of weird sense?
Literary Criticism digs deeper than that first reading, that fan-driven desire for frisson… Criticism looks at subtext. And this is yet another reason why Literary Criticism needs to be introduced to readers in high school – right when Horror becomes a rite of passage.
Look, Lovecraft can be enjoyed, and reading or liking his work does not make you a racist. But I am saying that the longer we emulate and praise the narrative, the more likely we are to become numb if not deaf to the subtext that says Others are scary and are out to end us all.
If a Horror reader is and prefers to remain a “surface dweller” then Lovecraft is fun and kitschy and an awesome representation of British Horror done American style. Nothing has to “change” as long as we clearly identify subtext for what it is: a marker of a moment in time… But isn’t it interesting that we don’t quite know what to do with things when the truth comes out, when we look beyond the surface? The experience is jarring, because when you first fall in love with Horror, the surface is what you fall in love with – the idea of being scared. We do not start out in Horror looking for hidden messages…
So what do we do when we find them? It is a certainty that there will always be subtext – consciously or unconsciously inundating our writing – because we are human and we cannot always stop ourselves. And as time passes and history moves past the moment, we Freudian-slip onto the stage naked. But there is a difference in discussing subtext and how it found its way into our subconscious and conscious behaviors, how it dictates social currency and acts.. and endorses or excuses it.
The fact is, there is indeed an unsavory if unconscious subtext in Lovecraft. And if we are asking for more of that in the Horror genre, what are we really trying to say?
Yes, We Are Waking Up: And We Were Promised a Handsome Prince…
If we are going to fix the problems we have in the genre, then we have to stop trying to avoid responsibility for where we are. This doesn’t mean we must go through and purge offensive writers or racist ones. It doesn’t mean we should write with future Literary Critics in our heads, either.
However it does mean we have to acknowledge as white gatekeepers of the genre, we have let the genre be pixie-led down a dead-end path where a racist and sexist narrative has been used to limit our growth and originality. White writers have also been victimized by this narrative. And no, it is not our duty to apologize to all Other writers, to hang our heads in shame for being somehow complicit.
We have ALL been manipulated and lied to, some of us being more willing to buy into the fairy tale than others. But we must also consider the cost to the genre… Horror is not meant to be spoon-fed to the masses, but to leech into their comfort zones through the skin. And now that we have been roughly awakened, it is time to acknowledge the total absence of the prince.
We simply need to acknowledge that this love affair with the carefully constructed and insulated world that Lovecraft wrote from within is not a sustainable or defensible (let alone healthy) relationship to have with our genre history or its future. To do so is creatively limiting.
And to demand more of the same is a love song to fan fiction – not genre writing.
What we do going forward in the Horror genre is going to matter, and it is going to hinge on how we treat subtext in writing, how we identify monsters. But it also means demanding that history remain in its context, and that we in fact and practice live and write in the time we are in. That means hearing all voices, fearing none, welcoming the envelope-pushers, and redefining what Horror is by providing agreed-upon criteria.
Horror in America is still white, because we choose to do little more than briefly mention (and then ignore) the fact that at the precise time in American Literary history that Horror flowered on our shores, we were in the cold embrace of white male elitism, of racism, of misogyny. And then we insisted on telling ourselves a beautiful mythology full of shiny objects to distract from intolerable truths. People do that when they need to believe their own delusions…when the truth is so terrible that the guilt alone would melt us like a Martian ray gun… when the night terrors torment our American Dreams.
How do we get out of this? Be careful how we wake up… and don’t expect a prince.
Says Natalie Wilson in her book, Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21st Century Horror, “…monsterizing the Other was – and continues to be – one of the primary ways to maintain power and shore up existing hierarchies. One such endearing hierarchy, that of East/West, lies at the heart of colonialism and conquest. While denigrating the Other has spanned history, the Western world, as Partha Mitter puts it, ‘forged a monopoly on this’ (339). Importantly this monopoly is linked to the emergence of race as a concept…thus laying the groundwork for the concept of monstrous races.” (6)
We cannot hope to change things if we refuse to change our trajectory of accepting what institutionalized racism continues to do in its currently unchallenged, understated state of being.
It means that we have to start seeing Horror where Horror is… and that means right here in the ordinary lives of ordinary peoples. It means we have to start talking about all of those things editors have said they want to hear no more about, because out here in the Real World, people are living those things, THOSE Horrors. And they — we – deserve the acknowledgment of the struggle it is to be a decent human being in this world of subtext. We all have a story to tell.
Horror is not Fantasy, it is Horror.
And we have had enough of the Fairy Glamour.
Take your spells and be gone.
Poole, W. Scott. Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. Second ed. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, c2018.
Wilson, Natalie. Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21st Century Horror. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., c2020.
I am standing at the foot of his ICU bed, huddled with weeping family members and his soon-to-be widow, who has already lost her fourteen-year-old son just years ago to a drunk hit-and-run driver… The nurses have silenced the alarms and turned off the ventilator.
I look at his face, the one with a smile that we will never see again in this life, and see the reflection of his deceased father, and that of my own husband…And I know now the family will look to him to see the both of them, for he is what is left to remind them in this country. It terrifies me to know this could have been my husband, that it could be in some nightmarish future… And I know and dread the horror that Yolanda must be feeling… there is nothing we can say to ease her agony… or that of their two daughters…
I am standing there… and all I hear is an Elton John song replaying over and over in my head….
Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane
I can see the red tail lights heading for Spain
Oh and I can see Daniel waving goodbye
God it looks like Daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes
Daniel is 57 years old…two years younger than me, and I cannot help but see how much more he has lived life. Watching his family gathered near him, each by turn saying goodbye in a language I have not mastered, but understand enough of to realize that this is how you say farewell to someone you love, that this is how you live a life that will be remembered and cherished. It is hot in the room, and I feel faint.
They say Spain is pretty, though I’ve never been
Well Daniel says it’s the best place that he’s ever seen
Oh and he should know, he’s been there enough
Lord I miss Daniel, oh I miss him so much
Daniel is the oldest of eleven children; and like all eldest, has earned the respect of his siblings by being the first to do a lot of things, and keeping himself in charge of shepherding a large family that often seeks his advice.
Touching his hand, I feel the rough callouses that a life of hard work has made, a gentle hand that held his grandchildren as tenderly as his own.
He was the one I knew I had to impress when my then-future husband brought me home to meet the family. I liked him instantly. And because I no longer have relatives, I considered asking him to walk me down the aisle – but then I knew I couldn’t, because his place was next to my husband as best man…His son Rickie – the one killed just years later – was our ring-bearer….
Oh oh, Daniel my brother you are older than me,
Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won’t heal
Your eyes have died, but you see more than I
Daniel you’re a star in the face of the sky
We wait with dread for the moment we know he will leave us. We know he no longer has a choice; but we also know he defied everyone’s doubts he could fight Covid long enough to test negative so we could all be with him. It is a testament to his character, to his spirit, and to his love for his family that he put up with months of the ventilator and a trach tube until we could all be there, until he could give Yolanda and his daughters one last gift of his presence… We all crumbled when his breathing slowed, and then with a slight rasp…stopped.
Oh oh, Daniel my brother you are older than me
Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won’t heal
Your eyes have died, but you see more than I
Daniel you’re a star in the face of the sky
When we drove home in the dusk of the day, barely visible in the dissipating storm clouds, we could see a rainbow. I have never seen one under such dim light before. And it occurred to me that it looked like it was over Daniel’s house, not far from the intersection where Rickie died, not far from where Yolanda will have to figure out how she will make a new life for herself when it is the old one she wants…the old one she needs….
I keep hearing Elton John in my head. I keep seeing all of the things that could have been were it not for this horrible disease.
I feel so ruined and weary, so fearful for everyone in this family of immigrants I have come to love so much…And I see Daniel waving goodbye.
Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane
I can see the red tail lights heading for Spain
Oh and I can see Daniel waving goodbye
God it looks like Daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes
Oh God it looks like Daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes
Songwriters: Vladimir Cort, Elton John, Bernie Taupin
© Universal Music Publishing Group
In the example of Bram Stoker we see how a writer makes sense of a pandemic when he or she is a witness to the event. With King and Matheson, we saw how a writer imagines living through the event. But what if pandemic actually claims someone you love?
Horror has two prominent writers whose lives were touched by such a personal loss in profound and painful ways, tearing at their very souls to the point that they did not so much choose to write about it, as much as they were tormented into doing so.
Both Edgar Allan Poe and Anne Rice lost close family members to the unthinkable: Poe repeatedly lost the women in his life to disease – most commonly tuberculosis, a pandemic that seemed unstoppable and endless in his lifetime. And Anne Rice lost her daughter to a new kind of pandemic: the kind that goes undeclared because the contagion of it is not that of more familiar viruses and flus, but because they ravage our population as silent killers, misunderstood and curiously accepted as they pick us off one by one. With Rice, we are talking cancer – not your typical pandemic disease, but one which by its numbers seems to indicate an undeclared epidemic, one with multiple yet universal origins. But just in case you were wont to dismiss it in the face of the coronavirus, understand that no less than eight viruses have been linked to causing or contributing to the development of cancer.
Poe: Masque of the Red Death… and Everything Else He Wrote
Everything that came from Edgar Allan Poe’s pen reeks of premature death, decay, and the decomposition of life – sometimes (as in the “Fall of the House of Usher”) of culture or literal ways of life. Poe was not born of privilege, nor was he ever far from experiencing the judgment of class and condemnation of his contemporaries. Born the child of two actors (not considered a reputable profession at the time) on January 19, 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts, “a city that later in life he would loathe” (Montague 12), his was a life of struggle and loss. Disease dogged his every ambition.
Yet we in Horror hold him particularly close, especially in the United States, because he was the first to remake Horror we knew as definitively British into something local, and organically American. He translated Horror for us, and helped us see the futility in repurposing folklore without nurturing native roots. He became the most Literary and most original of our Horror writers…and he was the one H.P. Lovecraft (the presumed Father of Modern Horror) declared to be the most influential writer for him. (Montague 172)
Historically, he strikes us as a sad, macabre figure, an addict and alcoholic whose craft with language was eloquent and lyric. Yet those works we read as twisted and carefully crafted into perfect Horror in some joyous creative act was (n reality) one writer’s response to both his own grief and the poverty that served as the machinery behind those diseases of mind and body that plagued his life. It is with Poe that we see perfectly embodied the very modern argument that poverty enables premature death, addiction, and mental anguish.
And it is also with Poe that we see something else we prefer not to believe happens even today: the very public criticism and judgment of his failings – from his personal ones to his professional ones – by the very people who should have been able to rise above their own prejudices, but who (like we do right now in modern times) chose to consider themselves his moral superiors and therefore immune from death by such disease as haunted Poe’s existence.
Tuberculosis was the pandemic of Poe’s short lifetime (1809-1849) – taking his mother when he was just a toddler, and no doubt fixing in his mind the effects of that terrible wasting disease on the human body as it steadily stole away so many of the vibrant women in his life. The effect on his poet’s mind was clearly profound – inciting fears of the presence of blood, of the imminent threat to the young and old alike, to the possibility of premature burial, and the pale, vampiric presence of his contemporaries.
Poe was poor. He was born into poverty and remained there most of his life. And he is the example of what it costs us as a society to dismiss the poor to the association that it is the result of something that they have done to themselves (i.e., failure to just “do” better, to work “harder,” to have proper “ambition”) that blocks their pathway to the right to health, and the fault or responsibility of no one else. It is during his time that we cement our modern view that the poor somehow “deserve” their fate, that the poor are “dirty” and purveyors of mental illness and disease, that there is just naturally something “wrong” with them and disease is merely nature’s unfortunate way of weeding them from the herd.
With the rise of epidemics like tuberculosis, we cemented our belief that disease is caused by improper morals and “questionable” behaviors, facilitated by immigrants and undesirables filling boats that deliver them to our pristine American shores. Alcoholism and drug abuse was rampant then as now among the impoverished (even as it was “discreetly” indulged in by the higher classes). Yet by social design we intentionally disregarded the clear connection disease and addiction made between poverty and health, length and quality of life – despite the message being trumpeted by cherished writers of the time like Charles Dickens.
In fact, we have exercised our discrimination often disguised as “precautionary” action against disease – disease being something all people fear equally, and the rich and bigoted can use to exclude Others from the American Dream. We have to look only as far as our immigration practices at Ellis Island, right in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty:
“From 1892 to 1924, about 12 million people from other countries arrived at Ellis Island in New York. Those in steerage were subject to health screenings by physicians from the U.S. Public Health Service. The doctors checked for trachoma, an eye disease that often led to blindness, and watched for other conditions. The process could take anywhere from three to seven hours. Female physicians conducted some of the immigrant screenings on women who were modest and not comfortable undressing before a man…About 1 in 5 arrivals required more complete assessments, and those deemed a risk were quarantined at the Ellis Island Hospital, which closed 60 years ago and recently opened for limited public tours….Nurses cared for the 1.2 million patients suffering from heart disease, measles, scarlet fever and other conditions. Those considered infectious were placed on the wards of the 450-bed Contagious Disease facilities, on the farthest island from arriving immigrants. Those with mental illness were held at the 50-bed psychiatric facility until they could be deported. About 355 babies were born at the hospital, and 3,500 people expired during their quarantine….” http://essynursingservices.com/ellis-island-immigrant-screening-and-quarantine-is-nothing-new/
Did it pass your notice that it was steerage passengers who were subject to screening? As if the wealthy could not, would not, or were morally immune from carrying disease. Steerage was where passengers with the cheapest tickets would be kept (and that would mean simply The Poor). This was the world Poe was living in… as a poor person, an alcoholic, an addict, and one often simply thought of as “mad.” And we live in similar times now, where both the poor and immigrants are seen as the harbingers of pandemic… Do we not at times feel made a bit “mad” ourselves?
Today we still see this “screening” happening, albeit in different ways. We denounce Others as immigrants first by anticipated moral failings (“rapists and murderers”) because being likely not-Protestant doesn’t work to scare a nation torn between agnosticism and evangelicalism. But if that fails, we resort to “dirty and diseased.” Take a peek at our current immigration policy as applied to our Southern border for proof…
We have long waged war against the poor. And it is a war we are losing as we willfully decimate the Middle Class to benefit the wealthy, disguising it as the failure of lower classes to properly educate and prepare themselves. We tuck it behind the Technology Revolution, implying when not outright saying it is related to an intelligence if not moral failing that certain people are being “left behind” and that it should never be the responsibility of successful Americans to ensure the education, health, and welfare of the poorest of Americans – especially if they are of color. We remain tone deaf to a subtext that has begun to push to the surface. And we can see from the life of Poe and Stoker that this has been baking in our national culture for quite some time.
This same attitude held Poe down: his reputation took hit after hit, the name-calling was venomous, the professional and Literary Criticism relentless in its moral condemnations of his alcoholism, drug abuse, and “unsavory” character.
Poe fought back – sometimes lowering himself to his critics’ level, sometimes rising above in stunning Literary Critical essays of the quality that impresses today’s Critics…
He was accused of plagiarism by novelist William Gilmore Simms, and engaged in numerous professional battles resulting in libel suits and “scandalous rows” marked by fistfights and public scenes (Montague 130-131). He had “questionable” relationships with women. Poe, caught in the web of grief and addiction, seemed unwilling if not unable to help himself. The worst was thought of him while his personal life was quite publicly ravaged by his addictions — clearly fanned by the staggering loss of women intimate to him to disease – especially tuberculosis. Poe is not, then, the best of examples as to how to turn pandemic loss into writing – but he is most certainly living proof that when Life happens to a writer of talent, magic might well be spun from the agonies that torment the grieving mind. He was also “the first American writer to support himself entirely from the proceeds of his pen” (76 Montague)…
Poe is proof that a writer cannot turn off the words meant to define life. He is proof that even attempts to drown or mutilate the Muse will not succeed. She will, instead, haunt us until we write what we see.
That Poe saw in his poet’s mind what can be seen as vampiric women is also not so unexpected, then, because they are a natural extension of what he saw as a child and experienced as an adult (much like that which affected Bram Stoker). But they are also a natural extension of what writers of Poe’s time witnessed in the premature deaths of women, seen throughout his works like Legeia, and “The Fall of the House of Usher”… both haunted by the notions of life after death and “an emaciated, dying woman…” (Montague 59)
That constant ravaging of his life and loves by death and disease are why we have his incredible writing. Writing through his emotions his images of pale, decimated women haunt us like few others, because they are rooted in truth and genuine grief, in anger and denial, and the cruel acceptance of a life he had no control over. “He died in a hospital, on Sunday, 7 October 1849, a sad and beleaguered end to an unhappy and harassed life. He was forty years old.” (Akroyd 190)
Death of a Child: Anne Rice and Interview With The Vampire
Born Howard Allen O’Brien October 4, 1941 (yes, Howard) in New Orleans, Louisiana, the woman we all came to love as the author of The Vampire Chronicles, Anne Rice, has single-handedly reshaped the Vampire in modern Horror.
Would it surprise you to know it was because of the death of her child that all of the right questions took shape in her books to elevate a good story to a Literary one? Would it surprise you that Cancer has a root in viruses?
For many of us, cancer is not a typical “pandemic”… it does not spread by contagion. It has a “routineness,” a “familiarity” for us… an expectation of survival in percentages. For modern people, cancer is a ghostly familiar – stalking us, devouring us, yet minimized by “treatments” and our own preferred ignorance of the disease within the lottery of our lives.
Yet is has been connected to viruses in our modern research of the disease. So maybe our early human instincts to shy away from those diagnosed with cancer had some preternatural sense at play. Or maybe we were just shocked and overwhelmed by the horrors this disease can deliver – and the terrors of the first treatments we tried to defeat it.
One has only to drift back to the 1960s and 1970s to see that it is there – in those decades – that we realized how prevalent it was to the human species, how terrible, how…fatal. Because we were better at identifying it at the precise time we were environmentally enabling it… cancer felt very much like a pandemic – so much so the common person even today still has trouble really believing we can’t “catch it” from each other.
Cancer is everywhere… quietly rubbing out vast numbers of us. Our governments are silent. Our researchers…struggling in what seems like competition with every other researcher for funds to find a cure.
But for many in my generation, the most vivid memory of cancer’s emergence into our mainstream consciousness is the pure Horror of random and horrific loss.
To understand where we were during the time Anne Rice was facing her loss, movies like Sunshine, Brian’s Song, and Love Story will give you a clear picture as to where we were in cancer diagnosis, treatment, and our loss ratios.
A cancer diagnosis was so horrific, friends and family often fled. And I can tell you that even in 1997 when my mother battled cancer, her friends and family (having clear expectations of what was about to transpire from those very films and life experience) … largely evaporated… rendered emotionally incompetent to deal with her dying, fleeing like her terminal diagnosis was…contagious.
It turns out, we come by this superstition honestly. According to an article in Healthline titled “8 Viruses That Can Increase Your Cancer Risk” “It is estimated that viruses account for about 20 percent of cancers. And there may be more oncogenic viruses that experts aren’t aware of yet.”
Whether we sense this or simply fear it, we cannot seem to help ourselves when it comes to treating cancer like a contagious virus, and its victims become inexplicably feared. Virus (to most lay people) means “infectious…transmittable…dangerous.” We are unwilling to believe we have such viruses resting dormant in many of our bodies as a part of simply living. We NEED – desperately – to believe we can control “catching” something as horrible as cancer. We need to believe we do NOT contract it because we were better, smarter, more faithful – and not because we were luckier. Cancer victims remind us we are living in a duck-shoot.
And here it should be said clearly that with regard to cancer-causing viruses: “Keep in mind that having an infection by an oncogenic virus doesn’t mean you’ll develop cancer. It simply means you may have a higher risk than someone who’s never had the infection.” And keep in mind that had to be said to assuage the fear the words both “cancer” and “virus” have come to embody.
Hence, I place Anne Rice here among the more traditional pandemic writers. Rice endured the terribleness of a cancer in her child at these early times in our attempts to understand, define, and treat cancer. And with her writing we see the evisceration of a parent trying in vain to save her daughter, to navigate the roller coaster of treatment and prognosis, to bargain with God for the life of her child.
Death changes everything.
And when it takes a child the parents’ world is turned inside out no matter what the era or reason, no matter what is happening in the rest of the world. Despite the almost routine commonality of child deaths until the late twentieth century which saw the development of medicine and discoveries of vaccines (and then even more so within the developed nations where privilege takes on newer and more insidious dimensions)… the death of a child seems always wrong – inverted, out of order, unnatural…
And to any who have experienced such a loss, the profound question of “why” is perilously pushed to the forefront, dragging God and religion behind it. We start asking the deeper questions – everything from why any God would allow such a thing to happen, to what does death mean, what role does immortality play in our processing of a child’s death, and even questioning ourselves as to why we go through a stage of bargaining with God before, during and after that child’s death.
The loss of Anne Rice’s daughter to leukemia shaped almost all of her writing. She handles depictions of children, of pandemics and epidemics, of mother-daughter relationships with a delicate yet firm hand. And once the knowledge of her loss is revealed, we read her works differently… we see… we understand….
In Rice’s most popular work Interview With The Vampire, we meet Claudia – a child Vampire whose immortality becomes its own curse. Here Rice has laid raw the quandry of every parent who has ever lost a child: what would you do to get them back? And if you got them back, how would they feel about being dragged back? Does death have a necessary purpose?
Rice tackles all of the big questions about death and religion. She does this not to prove her Literary worth, but because she is living those questions. She is asking those questions for herself.
This is why her work has authenticity. And authenticity is why we believe her Vampires, her stories… This is also why her characters ask the same questions she herself has – making them real… and dragging behind those are the other questions we initially mistake as the theme of the Vampire novels — the very real modern issues of sexuality and gender identity, of societal and cultural mores… issues we often see first because the heaviness of religious questioning opens unwelcome chasms in ourselves.
When we as readers first read Interview, we see the socio/sexual/gender issues immediately and we think “how brilliant!”… how competently she wields the Vampire trope to expound a Literary argument… Yet any reader/fan of Anne Rice will be haunted by one single character: the child vampire Claudia. She dominates. She scene-steals. And we cannot take our Literary eyes of her… There is a subtextual reason for that, but in many ways we are clueless without the detail of her personal biography. Claudia is a big red flag that there is something else, something bigger being hinted at by its screams from another room.
Here is where two things happen for Critics. Either they have to look at the author’s catalog of works to deduce the pattern of religious questioning regarding children and death, or they have to use biography to Critically fully assess the Literary values. Fans will likely read the catalog and possibly come to similar conclusions. But Critics will likely attempt to weigh and argue everything. (Again, this plays into the modern Critical debate about the use of details from an author’s life to weigh the success of their work.)
And then we as fans stumble across Rice’s biographical detail like so many Critics, and then we also see… the scales fall from our eyes… there is something much, much bigger at work in the writings of Anne Rice… necessary to sense the ghost of something much larger moving behind the obvious prose. It is not necessary to treasure Claudia, to elevate her to being a favorite character we are content to let argue subtextually the religious questions that surround the death of a child. We are content to let Claudia as a secondary character leave the questions poignantly pregnant and unanswered as they are to most of us in reality. Because these are the most unpalatable of questions. We are content, then, to distract ourselves….
Why did Rice (like Matheson and Stoker) also choose the Vampire? Which monster is more suitable to question the existence and motives of God? And how innovative to create contemplative, empathetic Vampires!
But was it artistic vision, or simply a mother’s grief?
When we know her biography, we see Rice had no real choice but to write her story the way she did. And THAT is the lesson of writing not only honestly, but writing through grief: the tale cannot be told any other way but the way it is. This means it is not so much a conscious decision about reinventing a monster in the genre – but a necessary means to tell the story that HAS to be told. That natural comingling of need and opportunity becomes genius. One can never read Anne Rice and feel that the story is contrived, because her questions are always sincere.
In her book titled Prism of the Night: a Biography of Anne Rice, Katherine Ramsland explains: “Had any vestige of Anne’s Catholic faith survived the death of her mother, her intellectual doubt, then her emotional crisis from years before, it was utterly destroyed now. The prayers of her family had been useless, empty. There was no God, or at least not one who cared. She rejected any heaven that demanded the sacrifice of a child – especially her perfect, beautiful little girl.
“Two years later she would put this loss into words through the character Louis [from Interview With The Vampire] as he said in despair:
I looked up and saw myself in a most palpable vision ascending the altar steps, opening the tiny sacrosanct tabernacle, reaching with monstrous hands for the consecrated ciborium, and taking the Body of Christ and strewing Its white wafers all over the carpet; and walking then on the sacred wafers…giving Holy Communion to the dust…God did not live in this church; these statues gave an image to nothingness…” (Ramsland 130)
Grief, made real, begets terrible truths about our own humanity.
And we can also never see the Vampire in the same way: we have to admit that it is the perfect monster for pandemic – forcing all of the right questions to the surface, dangling our innocent and naïve understanding of what immortality is all about.
The new question is: is it the only monster that can do so? Or is there one out there we haven’t discovered yet?
The Secret of the Best Horror Writings of Pandemic
So what can we conclude from the successes of these six authors?
Each one of them did not set out to write Literature in particular – just good Horror and good stories – and they used their knowledge of, fears of, worst imaginings of, and loss from death, disease and pandemic. For each one the weaving of genre Horror and Real Life Horror involved the supernatural…each to different effect, each with different degrees. All of them could not separate religion completely from the equation, because when humanity is faced with death on a large scale, human beings start looking for the reason in it, and the purpose of our lives if such are to be cut so unfairly short. And all of them danced with the Vampire if not the question of the presence and influence of Good and Evil itself.
The trick has been to balance the Horrors of Real Life and those Literary elements with genre tropes. We still see that struggle happening in today’s Horror, where the Horror often plays a losing role. It is difficult then, to frame reality with what so often comes to feel trite.
Yet do we not love both the monsters and the victims in all of these stories?
The very best of them allow us to read a work strictly as Horror, or as a Literary offering where Something Bigger is being addressed. We see that all-important double entendre brewing.
Did you feel the difference in the three who did it best – Bram Stoker, Poe, and Anne Rice? And did you do so because you almost felt tricked into it? You read the story, thought sincerely you were just reading a genre story of Horror, and when someone pointed out the author’s histories and the possibilities of what all was being discussed, there was an Ah-ha! Moment… one that reinforced that uncanny feeling you had when reading them.
That is how a work “becomes” Literature. It starts with the author’s personal experiences and fears…it is transformed by those fears into a mirror of Real Life whose Supernatural reflection anchors it within the Horror genre.
I say again that it is my opinion that details of the lives of authors should never be the determining factor in interpreting the work. It is, however, a long tradition of Literary Critics to examine those life-details, and a current debate within the field as to the ultimate importance in examining and analyzing a work for its place in Literature. Knowledge derived from author biographies and their intimate secrets of the lives of authors should only enhance their work for a reader or Critic. Those details should contribute to a reading of a work or an appreciation of how an author creates Literature. Those details should be inspirational to common readers and aspiring Literary writers, but knowing them “going in” can only shade and distort our expectations of the work – planting seeds the author never wanted visible, but merely sensed.
We have to ask: did they do that without us knowing the intimate details – the story behind the story? Or did we need the biography to decipher the Literary elements? Can we savor just the genre if a reader wants to?
How successfully this is done determines the value of the work as Literature. Too much Horror and Critics may see it as a mishandled mockery of Literature, too little Horror and the genre and its fans shy away. It is a delicate balance –but a necessary one to identify if new writers never taught about Literature and what Critics do are to come to an understanding and appreciation OF Literature – and even more so if we are expected to create new Literature.
What these works show us as uneducated readers and writers (that is uneducated in the ways of Literature) is that the Supernatural has to be more than hinted at, more than a prop – it must have an integral and working role in the story.
Horror should never be mere decoration, draped around a story to wedge it into genre: it should fit naturally. It should breathe.
So if we are to write some great, potentially Literary-level Horror during and after this pandemic, the lesson is that there must be authenticity in both the story and the Horror meant to tell it.
Imbue your monsters with Life – like Anne Rice (who changed our ideas about Vampires for us forever). Imbue your monsters with reality – like Poe did (by wrenching our terrors from our imaginations and having his characters live them literally). Imbue your monsters with the power of death – like Bram Stoker did (by letting the slow dread of creeping disease ransom our reason in our Horror of death). Imbue them with humanity — like Richard Matheson did (by drowning his protagonist in Vampires while battling the crippling Horror of human loneliness). Imbue them with cultural myth – like Stephen King did (by showing us that who we are as people determines real outcomes in times of pandemic, and that such is choice). And don’t date your work by too much name dropping and dated material that might necessitate rewrites if not later explanation – like Dean Koontz did (by proving our ignorance of the future can cause whole new interest and eager – if not misguided – reinterpretations of our work long after we ourselves have given up on it).
Knowing these things now… won’t you re-read “classics” differently?”
And more importantly, aren’t you inspired to try to write one?
Ackroyd, Peter. Poe: a Life Cut Short. New York: Doubleday, c2008.
Healthline Newsletter. “8 Viruses That Can Increase Your Cancer Risk” retrieved on 6/25/2020 from https://www.healthline.com/health/cancer-virus
Montague, Charlotte. Edgar Allan Poe: the Strange Man Standing Deep in the Shadows. Oxford: Chartwell Books, c2015.
Ramsland, Katherine. Prism of the Night: a Biography of Anne Rice. New York: Plume, c1
Another way writers wrangle the concept of a pandemic is to imagine one.
Only a few months ago, the very idea of a worldwide pandemic – one that could stop and rearrange everything we thought we knew about the world and ourselves was, well – an idea, an event that happened a long time ago or very far away.
Now that we are faced with a reality that itself reinvents the world, that does not stop hand-delivering difficult truths to us, it seems even harder to credit Horror writers with their earlier efforts to imagine the worst and carry it off with any accuracy. We can look at fiction and see it as superfluous – perhaps even “pointless.” Because in the face of reality, fiction always pales…
But Horror is never pointless – not at its true heart. Horror is the handmaid of horrible truths. And there is nothing like pandemics gone global that deliver our failings on a golden platter.
Here we will look at three Horror versions of the pandemic – Stephen King’s The Stand (a work that rings true in both the delivery of this disease and how we are handling this pandemic); Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (a work dedicated to the personal meaning of social distancing in the book version, and in the most modern film version an echo of the fears we have had and now entertain broadly at China’s expense of science escaping the lab); and Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness (for its now-viral reputation for eerie prediction of this pandemic within a single passage. Note: it is not a book about pandemic, but it is a lesson in naivete, fact-checking, and our modern tendency to believe anything we see on the internet).
Stephen King and The Stand: When Reality Meets Criticism
When we think of modern pandemic Horror, many of us often think first of Stephen King’s The Stand. How could we not? It was one of the first King blockbusters, and is likely one of the first novels that come to mind when we think of pandemics in fiction… a tale about what a Super-flu might be like as a tool of Apocalypse – innocuous, yet savage in a world-order-changing kind of way.
Published in 1978, it happened upon the reading public just at the moment common folk were globally becoming aware of the way diseases spread and decimate… it happened when air travel proved it could deliver all manner of disease in record time and without detection… And when we had begun to realize that all governments (including our own) just might be thinking of disease again (and as we once did before) as a handy way to wage wars…if not to purge undesirable populations.
In that way, The Stand was not prophetic, but it was timely.
In the 1980’s, we first started to understand that disease could be the undoing of us all, and that fact kept The Stand in circulation for some time. All that globe-trotting and the rise of AIDS made us realize that weaponized disease could be a real and scary future for us. Coincidentally, the first step in dealing with a problem is to imagine it. And thanks to the dominance of the paperback (especially in places like supermarkets and – yep – airports), The Stand was one of our first popular modern fictional imaginings. It came at a time when we precisely needed to consider what an event like a Plague could do to a modern and mobile society.
So while some might be tempted to call it a prediction or an interesting stretch in the fictional imagination, it was already a popular discussed topic most preferred not to imagine. It was (frighteningly enough) already an expectation in the scientific community that simple influenzas were on their way to not being so simple. We were already starting to overprescribe antibiotics and see farmed animals moved to packed, unpastured communes that demanded even more frequent antibiotic use in animals.
We were calling this new, looming fear the Super Flu – “known to public health experts as pandemic influenza…which would cause substantial disruption of society and commerce” https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/news/20040826/us-super-flu-plan-reveals-gaps-in-readiness#1 . The last one by King’s novel’s time was the 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic, “which killed some 34,000 Americans” but was nothing compared to the title holder – the 1918 Spanish flu, which “was responsible for 675,000 U.S. deaths…” History aside, however, it was the newer discussions held by the scientific community that kept the fears alive and fanned the concerns over a repeat of that history. None of us wanted to go there, but by the late 1970’s it was clear that we were pointed in that direction.
Stephen King did what many of us didn’t want to do – to imagine it and what it would be like to live through a pandemic. And rather than weigh the Literary Craft questions so many are wont to do, what I find most interesting in this King mega-novel is the Literary World View questions King raised but is so often attacked for not (or not thoroughly enough) exhibiting: what does the role of cultural society play in our reaction to an apocalyptic pandemic, and what is the role of religion in our interpretation of pandemic?
Keep in mind that I am not saying King did enough with those questions considering the size of the book, but he did provide quite the interesting national portrait of our country – one which rings true with today’s pandemic as mirrored in The Stand right down to the overinflated sense of patriotism as a backdrop and the ready belief in an underlying battle of good versus evil with the United States as the only relevant battle ground… keeping in mind that today’s coronavirus is not as thorough an executioner as King’s flu.
Long Criticized for not really including The Rest of the World (except in an honorable-mention sort of way), King nailed our now fully-realized selfish, myopic view of ourselves. Maybe Critics did not want to believe that such a reaction would be true – especially given our cultural mythology as the “conscience and savior of the world.” But as the coronavirus has proven, King was indeed correct about our lack of interest in virtually anyone else. And what an ugly theory to be proven true…
In the novel, a Super-flu overtakes the world rather suddenly, leaving small pools of survivors, who soon realize that the pandemic is being used as the stage for the Ultimate Battle between Good and Evil. Once again — even with the religious overtone – the entire book never really concerns itself with the rest of the world. For our own egotistical reasons, the U.S. is the center of the religious universe as well as the human one. Nothing is ever mentioned about why the United States is where Heaven and Hell would choose to argue their differences, but those of us who live here – especially now with such a loud media presence of evangelicals promoting radical views that we are the envy and target of the world because we are religiously right – well, we can see this was all brewing as part of our national self-image as far back as 1978…
(Never mind what stark truths that might bring to our international relations through those same years, or what picture that might paint about a certain set of towers in New York…)
For all of the Criticisms King has taken for The Stand – and indeed there are some Craft/logic issues – what I find significant is that in the book his American characters act as isolationist, evangelical, and self-centered as we really are, and today as we are proving ourselves to be.
Have we not pushed away the World Health Organization (and their coronavirus tests, by the way) as well as any official international collaborations? Has our President not attempted to corner the patent on any vaccine discovered in the U.S. with plans to ransom it to the rest of the world if not our own lower classes?
Do we not toss religious judgment out there when large segments of our population are dying of Covid 19? Is that not the argument certain vocal pockets of the national population are arguing in the subtext of demanding the reopening of churches as “essential” businesses, as though the righteousness of being in a pew guarantees Divine Intervention and lack of virus exposure?
Are we not smirking at the sins of New York and winking at the Purity of the Midwest? Have our political parties not called each other Evil? Are we not flag-waving, belligerent, and determined at rifle-point to re-establish the government in our own image selves while pandemic chaos rules?
King called it. Just because Critics don’t want to say so, doesn’t make that any less accurate.
The fact that King reframes the pandemic as religious is an important World View statement. Perhaps we don’t have the rise of a Randall Flagg (so far as we could prove it, anyway), but all of the arguments in play today are caricatured to some degree (accidentally or on purpose) in King’s novel – right down to the common Literary Critical criticism that his characters speak in pedestrian language with lots of cursing (Joshi 79-81). Have the Critics been WATCHING the news? Have they been OUT in American cities and towns? THAT IS how we speak and act. Albeit sadly.
And clearly, a real pandemic isn’t going to change that.
Include the interesting point that King used a main character to focus on what would happen in prisons to prisoners in a pandemic and THERE is an interesting prediction. Are we not seeing a slightly scaled down version today in King’s prisoners sealed in and left to die in cells with dead guards and few in charge who care?
And are we not seeing the rise of militant groups that think we need to re-take our own government, re-make our own government, reinvent the government we have convinced ourselves once ruled gloriously in this land…
While we do have to look Critically at our genre works and admit that there might just be some Craft failings here and there, I do think that we are not giving King credit for at least hitting on World View cylinders in this one. Was it too long, too circuitous? Yes, I believe that to be true. Could editing have been better? Yes, I believe that also.
But if we are going to attack contemporary writers for mimicking older styles, then how about at least a nod toward a modern take on the genre – even if and may especially if it is told in our modern vernacular. I think it is quite relevant sitting here in quarantine at the moment.
The Stand offers an old theme of pandemic apocalypse with a modern twist, modern setting, modern characters (though lightly developed)… he employs the Good versus Evil trope, and in the course of the book shows us King’s take on how we might react to it. If we criticize it as being not deep enough, too shallow to compete with Literature, then one has to ask is not King’s audience the perfect accomplice in the book’s popularity – not because we are incapable of appreciating or expecting Literature, but because we are no longer taught how to appreciate or expect it? Is that not also evocative of World View?
This book is all about imagining that which had not yet fully gripped us yet – the threat of pandemic on an ill-prepared nation, the religious reckoning that still functions as subtext in this country, and the “pedestrian” way we are likely to handle it… pandemic drives the plot (although it feels sometimes like a tortured drive and not a well-paced one). King has, after all, described it as his personal Vietnam… and at times it does read that way. But I still find it interesting – especially in light of our current pandemic times.
Is this a groundbreaker in Literature? Probably not. King has always been the writer for the masses, the author of Adult Horror fiction for the Young Adult in all of us… If he inspires others to go longer or deeper or to just keep writing and reading Horror, I am thinking he is doing his job. And with The Stand, he has returned the pandemic to Horror as a plot driver…something not done well since Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend…
So if you haven’t read this tome, now might be the time. And if you wind up having Criticisms, start drafting a work showing how you think it could have been done differently… We’re going to need all of the examples we can get…
Richard Matheson: I Am Legend & the Rise of the Vampire-Zombie Apocalypse
Zombies. Can we not think of the beginning of the Zombie craze without assuming Richard Matheson’s first novel might be to blame? Well if you do blame him, rethink it. Hollywood changed Matheson’s Vampires into Zombies – all likely to the way we look at monsters in the modern world – Zombies being so much more like us than Vampires (or so we think), and Matheson’s pandemic so much more suitable to the Zombie mythology (since we don’t see Vampires as roaming in packs). Since its publication in 1954, the book has been made into three movies – The Omega Man, The Last Man on Earth, and the more modern I Am Legend with popular actor Will Smith. So what has been the creative seed about this novel that we cannot cease to pick at it? Perhaps it is the long shadow that a pandemic threat casts.
Yet why aren’t we bigger fans of it today? We could blame the date it was written… thinking it would be like reading older prophetic Science Fiction – a bit of a let down for some things, amusing for others. Or maybe it is because Hollywood re-shaped it as Science Fiction… Or we could just smirk at the use of Horror monsters to define a real threat of apocalypse-by-disease.
Yet what Matheson gets right is at the very least – interesting. Because the book is often considered to be one of the best in the Literary handling of the topic of human loneliness… something a little social distancing has made perfectly clear to most of us.
I Am Legend is yet another modern take on the pandemic in modern times, a mutation of a virus that leads to the end of the world. Ironically, according to a Literary Analysis from DePauw University’s website https://sites.google.com/a/depauw.edu/i-am-legend/critiques-of-the-novel “the most common theme of this novel is an emphasis on human emotion and how we interact with others”… making it timely, if not in some ways just plain accurate.
Matheson (in the eyes of modern Critics) handles the Literary concept of apocalyptic pandemic in a much more competent fashion than most other Horror writers, but was not so well-received Critically in his day. But does it really catch fire with modern masses in the same way as King? It doesn’t seem to. And maybe that is because none of us like to admit we have a problem with loneliness in particular…let alone the idea of dying a non-glorious death by disease. Worse, we are not sure what we want out of Horror today as readers. And that indecisiveness makes us…fickle.
Interestingly, he sets the novel in 1976 – The Year of the Pandemic – if what plays on protagonist Robert Neville’s turntable in the opening scene is to be believed. He incorporates the then-modern world, he weaves in the necessary Horror accoutrement – including crosses, mirrors, stakes and mallets and garlic – all to serve as Horror placeholders as he unveils the real threat behind the monsters – uncontrolled disease and the Horror of isolation. Yet the book did better once it was re-cast as almost-Science Fiction and film.
Perhaps Matheson wrote genre Horror too literally, anchoring it to genre formula inadequately rather than clearly to the Literary point. Perhaps even he did not see it… Perhaps the general population – as yet un-Kinged by blockbuster Horror – would have received it better as a scientific thriller (like Coma by Robin Cook, for example)… It just seems Matheson had a tale to tell that was bigger than the Horror used to frame it. So perhaps he chose the wrong genre to tell the story in.
Ironically, I think that the reason it appears lackluster is because Matheson uses actual Horror tropes the way they are expected to be used – to the point that they seem trite. According to one Critic (Damon Knight, 1956), “The book is full of good ideas, every other one of which is kicked out of sight…if only the author, or somebody, had not insisted on encumbering it with the year’s most childish set of ‘scientific’ rationalizations….” Yet isn’t that what one would expect when introducing a science-based story concept to a Horror audience? Are we not told to anchor our plot, to provide explanation for how a Horror comes to be?
Matheson chooses Vampires, which Hollywood replaced with Zombies – and that allows a reader to minimize the reality of a pandemic’s effect by almost mocking it with monsters. This book (after all) provided the origin (if not the inspiration) of the concept of The Zombie Apocalypse. But the most amazing thing is that it was all written in 1954 – talk about dancing with the prophetic… (and we could mean pandemic, or even water-cooler expectations of a Zombie Apocalypse…)
Matheson does with pandemic what a good Horror writer should – using the monster to define a Literary World View – that we need each other… Yet unfortunately it can also be said that because his Vampires were “not traditional enough” – not of the Polidori style and more akin to Zombies – that maybe alienation of the Vampire fan was the undoing of it in our genre… We simply fell into the two traditional camps of Horror: those who love pulp roots and demand strict adherence to established handling of tropes, and those who want innovation and Literary elements. It seems to be the undoing of many great writers in our genre… But what he did with I Am Legend is an important example for Horror writers looking for an angle on how to tell a pandemic story in Literary terms.
Clearly it involves flirting with other genres if not Literature itself. But it also means walking that tightrope between Critics and fan expectations. We have to choose. And it would appear Matheson ultimately chose right.
Pandemic and poorly loved Vampires aside, Matheson is the author of titles like Stir of Echoes, Cell, The Legend of Hell House, What Dreams May Come, and stories that went on to become television short story episodes as in TV series Kolchak: the Night Stalker, and several more episodes in Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and The Outer Limits. He was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement (1984), Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime achievement (1991) and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010. All in all, not half-bad for a Horror writer whose work often crossed into other genres…and clearly when we are talking pandemic, it pays to think outside the box.
Richard Matheson died June 23, 2013.
Dean Koontz: When Precognition Just…Isn’t
There is a rumor spinning around the internet today about a Dean Koontz thriller written in 1981. There is a passage in the thriller (about a grieving mother who believes she has seen her deceased child in a passing car and begins a grief-driven roller-coaster ride in trying to find him) which eerily predicts a pandemic – this current pandemic – right down to the year, the country and city of origin, and its origin as a respiratory affliction. Or so it would seem.
Have we entered the oft-chartered territory of Science Fiction writers in precognitive fiction?
Try not to get too excited. Even author Dean Koontz insists this is no uncanny prediction – but rather a marketing strategy that panned out.
First, a little about Horror author Dean Koontz, who we have now roundly lost to the Suspense/Thriller genre.
Dean Koontz (born July 9, 1945 in Everett, PA) is another writer who found other work in parallel genres when the Horror Boom dried up. Fourteen hardcovers and sixteen paperbacks reached Number One on the bestseller charts over the years, and most of his earlier work was part of that once-giant Horror section we once commanded as a genre. His work can also be found under pseudonyms David Axton, Leigh Nichols, Brian Coffey, and Deanna Dwyer. Awards include the World Horror Grand Master Award (1996) and the Ross Macdonald Literary Award (2003), with nominations for the Prometheus Award, the Hugo Award, and three Locus Award nominations.
For those of us who grew up Horror fans in the 1970s and 80s, Dean Koontz was a staple. I remember many of his titles being the dog-eared paperbacks we traded in high school – iconic – teen fodder – devoured. Titles like Hell’s Gate, Demon Child, Children of the Storm, Whispers, Phantoms, Strangers, and Watchers… These were the books that fed the Boom, that supplemented books by King, by Bentley Little, Peter Straub, Dan Simmons, Anne Rice, V.C. Andrews, John Saul, and Tanith Lee. These were the books so often picked up in airports and supermarkets, read to pass the time and stoke our love of scary things. For the paperback masses, his name was constant and familiar… and now –prolific as he has been – his section in a bookstore is almost as big as King’s…
But it was none of these books that bring him to my attention now. Koontz did not write a pandemic-specific novel. However, this little rumor of prognostication needs to be cleared up…
Recently, a rediscovery of his book The Eyes of Darkness has found new life on the internet – being touted by some as having an eerie set of passages about what looks like a prediction of today’s coronavirus. And while I freely admit I have not read this title by Koontz, a little research online is important to mention.
Here are the larger-than-life “coincidences” being showcased:
Yeah. Wow. Woooo.
But really, what is this all about? Are we really having a Science Fiction moment?
Dean Koontz himself says not. But even if we were and never having read this title, what I CAN tell you about living as a young adult during the 1980’s is this: the idea of pandemic used as a biological weapon by one of our rivals/enemies was an increasingly popular topic of national conversation (because the scientific threat was increasing). The rise of the medical thriller at the time only fanned the flames, and a little consciousness was all that was required to consider the plot or plot device of such a thing, and besides China and Russia, who else would be a likely cold war foil? A little research for one’s novel could easily land one in a place like Wujan, and imagine a Chinese Communist plot to overthrow democracy.
That said, is even this information in the book correct?
Actually, it isn’t, according to website https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/dean-koontz-predicted-coronavirus/ which reveals that the original printing claimed the virus was called – not Wujan 400, but Gorki 400… and that some future editions were re-edited to list Wujan as the city of origin.
Well. Does that mean it is any less…eerily coincidental? Yes, if we want to claim it as a 1981 prediction. I mean let’s face it: as world concerns about pandemics and hostile governments with evil intentions have grown, China has played a greater, more prominent part in our fears and national security concerns. Likewise, I am certain we play starring roles in their nightmares as well, and we have only a bunch of gifted smallpox blankets to Native Americans to thank for that. With a virus research lab located there, Wujan was probably on the map for any thriller writer looking for a pandemic source.
In addition, keep in mind that during the late 1980’s the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union returned to being Russia, and for a brief time there was even hope that we would finally make peace with our former world rivals as Russia struggled to redefine itself. Russia, in the 1980’s, was not the Big Scary Enemy of the past… in fact it was just not as much a part of the national subtext as the Cold War cooled. And a book like The Eyes of Darkness would possibly benefit from a modern rewrite with a new Big Scary Enemy to keep it relevant and less-dated – and China was rising to fit the bill. Keep in mind the rewrite of this passage was meant to reorient the book, to update it so the dated parts would not turn off readers – no other reason.
While the fact-checking site does not mention when the rewrite occurred, the copyright page on a book on Amazon does show a second copyright of 1996 – and I suspect that was to include the revision.
And yes, that kind of sucks the life out of the “prediction” (which is now more like a scientific guess with lottery characteristics).
The fact remains, however, that whether this is an editorial decision to make the old novel more modernly relevant, or some spooky coincidence… anyone who does research on epidemics, pandemics, and viral spillover will smash into China, Africa, and any country that participates by necessity in “wet markets” to survive. The choice of China is convenient and somewhat inevitable as the likely antagonist if we want a political thriller element in our novel or to modernize one; that is the price of having one of the world’s largest populations and being a rising economic and military power.
So was it a strange coincidence? Possibly. Weird? You betcha. But an uncanny prediction from 1981? Nope. Just good old marketing savvy mixed with…luck.
DePauw University, “Critiques and Literary Analysis: I Am Legend/Richard Matheson” retrieved 5-9-2020 from https://sites.google.com/a/depauw.edu/i-am-legend/critiques-of-the-novel
Evon, Dan. “Was Coronavirus Predicted in a1981 Dean Koontz Novel? A Speculative Anticipation of a Possibility is Very Different Than a Prediction” www.snopes.com, 18 February 2020, retrieved 5-15-2020 from https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/dean-koontz-predicted-coronavirus/
Joshi, S.T. McFarland & Company, Inc.: North Carolina, c2001
Knight, Damon (1967). In Search of Wonder. Chicago: Advent
It should seem obvious: death is that “thing” behind the “fear” that Lovecraft used to define our genre. Yet for the most part, Horror writers seem to prefer the more visceral kinds of death – the vainglorious, the heroic, the tragic – death that glorifies the person or the plot. Therefore, Horror writers also tend to avoid the obviousness of rampant disease as their story-behind-the-story. When it comes to death-by-disease, our genre prefers to utilize the mystery of illness and disease (if not life and death) as a way to explore human nature, leaving the horrific details of unfolding pandemics to the Science Fiction genre.
But we have had writers who embraced the horrors consequential to pandemics – specifically Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Matheson, Bram Stoker, Stephen King and even Anne Rice.
So perhaps now is the time to discuss what those writers did to translate disease and death into top-rate reading experiences, and to add a few titles to your pandemic self-isolating reading lists.
As fans and readers, we might learn something about ourselves and our often-forgotten national and international histories when whole peoples are faced with the overwhelming, unthinkable effects of uncontrolled contagions of the past. But if you are a writer, you may also see a way to bend your current sense of personal trauma, your own fears and grief into something that might propel your next piece of fiction well past the inevitable crush of future publications about pandemics.
Vampires: the Undead for a Reason
I have a confession to make: I am absolutely weary of Vampire stories.
But there is something inevitable about them in our genre, and perhaps we should be glad to have them stirring things up now and again. However I admit I draw a heavy sigh of resignation to think that, well, here we go again…Because sure enough, Vampires have their origins not merely in folklore, but in premature death as dealt by disease and pandemic. In his book The Vampire: a New History, author Nick Groom states that despite those more remote folk origins:
“Many accounts of vampires associate outbreaks of vampirism with contagion, making them vectors and consequently part of the history of infectious diseases. Although the means by which illness and infection spread was not fully understood until the middle of the nineteenth century, William Harvey had, in 1628, published his theory of the circulation of the blood…Circulatory networks are the very media of vampirism: they roam, feed and infect through the circulation of blood.” (15-16)
We are indeed doomed, if only because we as humans will never completely control the versatility and lethal beauty of the biology of viruses. That fact has left many a creative door open, many plots and superstitions circulating…with Vampires to carry them into our imaginations. They nest there, never fully staying buried.
Yet if we as writers of the genre really look at what the genre did well for Critics or well for readers (often not exactly the same thing), we might perchance envision how to turn our own, more recent personal experiences into both original and unforgettable Horror. How do we turn this pandemic into something we can write about (if not within)? How do we stay the course in Horror writing?
When we think back on earlier times when science was new or nonexistent (or merely outdated and outclassed by modern medicine), what we see are the Horrors of our own making – grisly deaths marred by our own inability to understand how people pass viruses on to each other. We see theories about transmission and consequence that dumbfound and horrify us reading about them today – theories that transmission occurs by the mere glance of an ill person (resulting in blindfolded patients), by simple breath of or conversation with a sick person (resulting in a whole other kind of isolation), “venomous and infected air,” complicated “fear of standing water in ditches or sloughs or other corrupt places,” dread of decay and physical corruption, all mixed with the even more terrifying fear of it all being the instrument of Divine Judgment on a person or a people…. (Groom 16-17)
Mix all of that fear with the rush to get dead and decaying bodies off the street and underground, and the Horror of bizarre medical practices, untold suffering and the possibility of premature burial begins to surface…
From the Black Death to cholera – another disease that could be carried by infected persons up to two weeks before the exhibition of symptoms – our international history of pandemic is carried on the backs of war, travel, and commerce. (Groom 164) Yet our core fears of not only dying, but of contracting disease and being judged for it if not exiled because of it has never left us.
We have not really changed all that much from our ancestors. For example, by the nineteenth century multiple pandemics of cholera were no longer legitimately associated “with meteors or divine visitation but with barges and ships, railways, markets and fairs, and mass movements and assemblies of people – be they marching troops, escaping refugees, or crowds gathered at political rallies and popular demonstrations. In tune with the modernity of the disease, traditional scapegoats such as witches and Jews escaped blame: instead it was the medical profession who were first held responsible…” (Groom 165).
We can see today how easily we all slip into the blame-game just like those ancestors, even if we have to embrace a little superstition or magical thinking now and then to carry it off: isn’t it true even today that we cast suspicious eyes on those we presume to “know more” than we do ourselves? Are we not blaming a lab in China right now for a virus that originated in nature –no matter how it jumped species?
We are not so different than we were in those times. But indeed those times had significant differences because medicine was evolving in plain sight – not in laboratories with top secret clearances and nondisclosure agreements.
Enter the age of early medicine and body snatchers and those characters today we might find unsavory – yet whose relentless pursuit of knowledge while sometimes marred by tales of gruesome scenarios where live patients thought dead were buried or vivisected by misadventure – led us to understand the nature of disease and the frailty of human flesh. As we struggled to understand pandemics and control the outbreaks, we sacrificed some of the things that allowed us false senses of control. Our lack of control became bold-faced truths.
That we were in those times surrounded by blood – from animal husbandry to hunting to daily life and death – did not alleviate our terrors. That science was getting involved in mystical, magical, paradoxical and experimental thinking did little to help human imagination. Even now, we have trouble separating pandemics from Divine Judgment. (It just seems easier to control our own religious devotion or to game God than it does to outsmart a virus.) But then a lot more of us had no clue what medicine was ultimately about. In fact, most of us still don’t.
But that certainly has never stopped Horror writers from “going there”….
When it comes to pandemics, however, it is true that most fiction works surface in Science Fiction. Perhaps this is because we (as a general reading public) don’t really want to explore the raw, methodical, Horror of death-by-disease — let alone the dull scientific details; it can be far more entertaining and mentally engaging to dive right into the what-if scenario of apocalypse if we are looking at things as probable survivors instead of likely victims.
But that is often where Horror diverges from the rest of the genres. We do describe the ugly stuff. We do imagine or document the gritty details of death and describe them liberally. But the best of Horror doesn’t stay there… Pandemics, disease and death-by-illness are often consequences of humanity’s conscious choices and consequential collateral damage. It is our job as Horror writers to point that out – especially in the subtext.
Dracula, Disease, and Bram Stoker
Fear of disease and its evil cousin pandemic was often associated with fears of blood and decay and bodily fluids. This would be because medicine took a while to catch up to understanding cause and effect, and the rest of the world was left to care for and dispose of disintegrating flesh. Many illnesses cause the body to bleed, spew, leak and smell…not a pleasant thing to experience or suffer, but definitely a thing to fear if the word “contagion” is added or bandied about.
Says author Nick Groom, “Early theories of plague considered it to be an instrument of holy displeasure…” (16), something we ourselves do even now on a regular basis (we have only to look at the AIDS crisis to see how quickly we are willing to accept the superstitious rationale if doing so can possibly save the rest of us from contagion). Continues Groom, “Early vampires need to be understood within this sacred context. These mystical plagues were manifested through invisible forces – qualities that would come to characterize vampires – and the more radical conjectures on contagion speculated that it could be spread by immaterial means, by the words, or simply the breath of an infected person.” (16)
Toss in humanity’s groomed fears of new medicine at the time, the mysteries of death and illness, a little awkward knowledge of human biology, and a certain fever pitch of panic could be generated. This is how Dracula was born – straight out of the fears of preternatural contagion, a rich history of vampire folklore, and one Bram Stoker. States biographer David J. Skal in his book Something in the Blood: the Untold Story of Bram Stoker:
“Bram Stoker came into the world midway through a century of scientific and technological change more rapid and destabilizing than human beings had previously experienced. The tension between religious and scientific world views was especially pronounced, and Stoker’s own intellectual development and literary output would amount to a lifelong juggling act of materialism versus faith, and reason against superstition.” (Skal 7)
Does it not feel like we are experiencing similar times right now? We should then keep in mind that this was (and still is) the perfect breeding ground for vampire novels, as Nick Groom states: “Dracula is the climax to over 70 years of vampire tales…But the vampire clearly existed before Dracula as a species of Enlightenment thinking in the contexts of medical science, theology, empiricism and politics, and it was this figure that both thrived in the nineteenth century and was adapted by Stoker.” (170)
Combine that understanding with the devastation of what was happening at the time of his birth in November of 1847 – the Irish potato famine, wherein “starving and evicted tenants flooded into the city slums and workhouses, and with them dysentery, famine, fever, and typhus. Terrifying accounts reached Dublin from County Mayo, where workhouses had begun the inexorable transition into death houses.” (9-10), and the stage is set. Life in grim times has a way of feeding a writer’s imagination and Literature of the time. And while we think of popular Gothic Romances of the same period as islands of Literature, what they really were is fictionalized documentation of what was happening during the period. So would become Dracula…a Gothic Horror story reeking of its historical time.
Continues Skal, “The years of Bram Stoker’s childhood were filled with oral accounts of horrors attending the famine. Most poignant and tragic were the now-legendary tales of the “coffin ships” which carried typhus and cholera along with desperate immigrants to North America. Many never arrived alive; as many as a hundred thousand refugees were interred in one mass grave at a St Lawrence River quarantine station in Quebec. Bram undoubtedly heard these stories, told and embellished like folktales, and later could have read published first-person accounts of doomed passengers…” (22)
Thinking about that should get our attention; as of today the U.S. alone has attributed more than 74,595 deaths to the coronavirus pandemic. And just as what was obvious and part of daily life served as the backdrop for the story of Dracula, we are painting our own backdrop right now.
The fact of pandemic today is likely to influence coming new fiction for our century. Now is the time to take in the details – perhaps to journal if not to write the story needing to be born. Little details may fade if we ever get back to “normal”…But even if we don’t, this moment of transition is not unlike the birthday of Dracula. We should never forget the feel of a mask worn across the face, the suppression of breath, the inability to read faces, the heat of exhalation against layers of linen, the burn of the ears from hours of loops affixed there…the freedom of pulling it off in a car with the windows rolled up, the endless long lines and the types of things limited and the times they are limited for (including the order in which they go missing from stores). Details need to define a character and a character’s actions and available options. Don’t count on your memory. Write it down.
Then let it bake in the imagination.
Bram and the Rest of Us
When we want to understand how an author takes the external raw facts of happenings, configures them with his or her own experiences and reshapes them into fiction, it pays to have Horror authors as examples of how it was done. Bram Stoker is just such an author, battling with something arguably more powerful and intrusive than the internet: surviving Victorian Society as an Irishman during pandemic and famine…
Here we have an example of how a writer living through times of immense change (such as now) dealt with oppressive religious mores and social constrictions. There were other peculiarities affecting the period of his youth, including being one of many photographed male children dressed as little girls and living through an ever rising tide of disease and illness accompanied by folk and fairy lore and abuse of opium and laudanum for controlling disease and the vivacity of children… Stoker himself suffered a mysterious paralysis, leaving him bedridden during his childhood (and which may or may not have been connected to period parental use of opium or laudanum), and tying him to so much post-mortem speculation about his sexuality and internal struggles with the changes in play around him – all of which consort with an imagination that could have drafted a monster like Dracula.
Says Skal, “How many nineteenth century writers, especially writers of horror and fantasy, had their early imaginings or mature productions colored and intensified by childhood perceptions of death and the experience of opium? Early death was everywhere, and laudanum use was so accepted and widespread that it may not have registered as a particularly remarkable reminiscence. But it is almost impossible to imagine Poe’s claustrophobic tales not being informed by his famous abuse of alcohol…” (40).
What are you experiencing? Are you writing it down?
When we are given such details in historically framed prose that has a distant and clinical feel, it is not then so difficult to see how earlier Horror writers have been influenced by their times. Yet it often remains a mystery to us as to how to turn the fears and dread we experience today into actual working fiction. For example, we hear fellow contemporary writers talk of the struggle to concentrate, to imagine, to construct stories; we hear about disorientation and distraction. No doubt, writers like Stoker had similar competing distractions, although not on the exact level of the loud and intrusive internet.
In those earlier times, one could shut the door to turn off the stimulus. But that doesn’t mean the imagination didn’t work, or that mass burials and the accoutrement of mass death wasn’t lurking right outside.
We should not underestimate the complexity of those earlier times with their own challenges. Rather, we should accept every generation has its own burdens to carry, that all great things take time, and all writers – even the old greats – are often riddled with the self-doubt we may feel even today as we are overwhelmed by the modern flotsam of facts and rumors. We should take heart, as even Stoker struggled to get it all down in those gritty times of his.
Says Skal, “The reason Dracula took seven years to write was that Stoker had great difficulty writing it, especially through the overload of his own imaginative clutter. The process was twisted, arduous, and constantly interrupted. He stopped to write other books. He questioned himself. He censored himself. He had second, even third thoughts about almost everything.” (306)
We have to remember that even as we are affected by and then separate from times of historic change, the way to arm our Muses is to take in the experience with all of our senses: the details will convey the Horrors more profoundly than trying to explain them. Show, don’t tell…and always, always dig deeper.
Today, when students of the Vampire look at Dracula-the-written-work, it is the details that impress. Says Nick Groom in his foreward for his book The Vampire: a New History:
“I had originally intended to downplay Dracula simply as a representative example of late-Victorian vampire fiction; but the novel is so profoundly informed by the myriad deliberations of its time on vampires, blood, science, technology and literature that all the paths of the (un)dead lead to Dracula, just as they lead away from it”(xv)
Stoker then proves that knowing the vehicle of destruction is as important as knowing the path of destruction.
And whether we like him (or her) or not, the Vampire fits the Literary bill to frame such a period of history as any ravaged by pandemic. In the Vampire we have a fear of contagion; fear of the night when death often descends to spirit away beloved souls; we have a stirring of confusion about sexuality and the role of blood in both sex and disease; we have the debate about what life and death and immortality mean; we have the rich fabric of folklore and superstition juxtaposed against new science and the efficacy of religion; we have fear of what nature can do and might have done to us, combined with dread of what mistakes in society and even nurture might have caused… Stoker’s times were loaded with internal and external battles that we can identify with if we only choose to look at them.
We can see where his inspiration came from – especially when we consider the prominence of Varney the Vampire and theatric pantomimes in Stoker’s life. But this tells us little about where the focus comes from to sit down and write a Dracula…
Instead, it tells us that we have to see a novel not as a playful hobby, a hope for a surprise bestseller, but an act of sheer will. Writing an artful work of fiction, an original, a Literary statement, a genre-changer… that is an act of work. It is childbirth – agonizing and bloody labor…
It takes conceptualizing and research, it takes feedback and beta reading, it takes revision and pause. It even takes doubt.
We have to be willing to see the Horrors for what they are. That means seeing the details of this modern pandemic for what they are… raw, unadorned and paralyzing with perspectives akin to war… We have to be willing to ride the tides of PTSD, of nightmares rooted in truth, of the dead and dying coming in endless waves without repose.
Some of us will succeed in doing this. Some of us will create Draculas. But we cannot think of Bram Stoker sitting blithely at his writing desk, wringing his hands in glee, already spending his author’s profits. He would have done no such thing. There would have been no such promise in writing a work of Horror. We must stop imagining that the greatest writers of Horror had no troubles like our own, and did not suffer as we suffer; each had his or her own demons to battle. And in truth, translating the horrors of death and illness into something like Dracula is more about the ability to take our internalized fears and marry them with the mythology and society of our day.
Do you dare look? More importantly, will you dare remember and remind the rest of us? Will you speak for the dead?
Groom, Nick. The Vampire: a New History. Yale University Press: New Haven, CT, c2018.
Skal, David J. Something in the Blood: the Man Who Wrote Dracula. Liveright Publishing Corporation: New York, c2016.
Social unrest, political distrust, unbreachable financial divides, and now a global pandemic… Has there ever been a more fertile time for writing Literature?
Yet here so many of us are, so incredibly overwhelmed by the high, swift tides of information overload, emotional distress, and outright confusion about where our place actually IS in this historical mess that we are like so many deer in the headlights: frozen in stunned silence. If you are suffering from a new and frustrating writer’s block right now, you are not alone…
Is the constant inundation of data that we accept as the price of admission for living in the modern world creating circumstances that are any different than the times writers have lived and written through before?
And does it contribute to how we interpret a pandemic as a kind of “nameless monster” that runs rampant through our emotions, devouring our creativity?
And if that is what Horror is all about, why can’t we harness the chaos?
Nature as Monster
As Horror lovers in times like these, we are forced to confront the real truth about our genre: that the best of Horror is homegrown in the soil of Real Life Horror. Every monster in our genre was spawned from the very scary realities of actually living in the world. And we should not be surprised that as a genre that revels in the macabre accoutrement of death, Horror has been influenced a great deal by plagues and pandemics, disease and human vulnerabilities.
So here we are again… starting to understand how villages of old came to fear strangers, how peculiar or selfish habits carry very real threats, how peasants were once wont to queue up outside castles with pitchforks, and how throughout the ages the threat of death remains so very personal and terrifying.
Small wonder that some of us might flinch under the weight of it all…
Disease emphasizes very powerful fears: will there be anyone left to help or bury us respectfully? Is there a God and life after death, or is this really “all there is” and “have I wasted my life”? Why me, or why not me? What will we do without the ones we love most? How will we survive so much change alone?
Horror responds to these queries with Vampires, Ghosts, Zombies, and even Mummies. To make ourselves feel powerful, to mock what we cannot control, Horror offers up Witches and Sorcerers, Priests and Angels, Amulets and Ancient Texts… And to keep the battle accessible to even the most timid of our readers, Horror provides formulas to defeat monsters like Werewolves, Poltergeists, Demons, and Maniacs with hooks and hockey masks.
By injecting the supernatural into Real Life, Horror has always mitigated and satirized Real Life Horror.
So what is stopping us now?
Why is the coronavirus the game-changer for many writers?
The answer is: because this just got personal.
Viruses go anywhere…striking in what seem like random patterns like tornadoes. They are invisible, seemingly arbitrary yet horribly specific, and potentially lethal – if not to us, then to those we love and things we need to make our lives routine and familiar enough to be safe. Worse, viruses invade those “safe” places…
Viruses as an extension of what we thought of as “domesticated” Mother Nature are exactly as Philip Athans says about Stephen King’s The Mist in his book, Writing Monsters: How to Craft Believably Terrifying Creatures to Enhance Your Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction: [it] “is as much a monster in the story as the Lovecraftian horrors it hides. It’s something that you can’t stop, can’t predict, and can’t fight – and in a very real sense it acts in collusion with a panoply of dangerous outsider predators.” (Athans 104)
Perhaps our mistake has been in miscasting Nature altogether (which is really not all that surprising or unlikely if we consider how easily we tend to miscast members of our own species, for which we have oodles of proof of unpredicability).
Native Peoples have said from the beginning that the earth is a living, breathing entity; that it demands to be treated respectfully, or it will defend itself in quite lethal ways. They weren’t being “cute,” “quaint,” or “naïve” when they said this; they meant it. And now here we are… watching a naturally born virus erupt among humanity — the biggest most harmful infestation the earth has had to endure.
As writers, we are observers. And thinkers. It is so very easy right now to wonder if we have done this to ourselves in so many ways. And guilt is yet another suffocating emotion in the Arts.
Yet is this any different that the plagues writers like Shakespeare composed through?
I say it is. And it is because Shakespeare may have had to deal with the closures of theaters, the layoffs of himself and actors, the fear and devastation of those dying around him… But he did not have media 24/7 blasting the devastation at him every waking moment. He wasn’t told to isolate in place, to scrub his doorknobs and food items like a neurotic raccoon, to love and fear his grocer, to keep seven-figure body counts in his head, to be shown on a map that there is no escape, to hear a litany of symptoms that mirror so many other less deadly diseases, to be designated “essential personnel” enough to wait on his fellow Elizabethans wholeheartedly but without the panicked, demanded-for protections of other essential personnel… Shakespeare could retreat if he was able, to write if he was able, to take the time to assimilate what the plague meant to him and his audience…to turn it into poetry…
I am not saying he had it easier. But there is a profound difference in helping your village dig a mass grave and filling with known folk to watching a military as large and “great” as our own being ordered to use heavy machinery to dig trenches in preparation… To see technology used via refrigerated semi trucks to store bodies (still keeping it distant and less real for those of us hunkered down in front of our television sets and not being able to realize the magnitude because we are blessedly protected from the reality…)
Reality is needed…even ugly reality, and there is something profoundly important about burying one’s own dead, about witnessing death.
Our country’s leaders (like so many) wonder why we don’t “get” the danger…. It is because we are being sheltered from the truth… that people are DYING. And it is not a pleasant death. It is not an attended death. And death is not at all like cleaned-up-grandpa-in-a-fancy-box-with-flowers. It is not take the beloved dog to the vet and tell the kids he’s gone to live on a farm. Death is a battlefield. Death is watching the body fight for life with a person trapped inside. It is a twisted shell left gaping, ravaged by the wounds of that battle…And it is gritty and horrible, eviscerating, emotionally devastating, and will torment the dreams of those forced to live through it.
If such a witness to this kind of devastation is a writer, much of what is witnessed is not written on the battlefield. It is written after the nightmares wake the soul and spill their truths out onto the page. Such writing is another kind of death – one with rebirth. But it very often takes time… Reality comes rife with ghosts.
Some of us as writers have already been there at one time or another…in my case, watching my mother die of cancer. It devastated my ability to write. I couldn’t abide Horror, which suddenly seemed so incredibly trite. And that drove the stake deeper into my heart and twisted it. Because writing has always been my way to cope.
Reporters can tell me a thousand times the “GOT author is writing” and all it does is make things worse. Like many Horror writers, I know I should be writing. But I can’t right now. It just doesn’t feel decent somehow.
The thing is… that’s okay.
What I learned from last time – from that ten year writer’s block – is that we have to sort through our emotions. We have to experience what we are feeling. It’s the only way to come out the other side.
Because when nature is the monster, the overwhelming properties of that monster means we are often robbed of words.
Indescribable, Unutterable Horror
Says Athans, “Every story is about something.” (75) Monsters are often used in our genre to represent the real something… Monsters are metaphors… and “some of the scariest monsters are the ones that attack our psychological well-being.” (74)
Are we not there with the coronavirus? Are we not asking ourselves if we have been the agent of cause behind the rise of this disease? Do we not question everything from morals and politics to global warming and tinkering with Mother Nature? Are we not freaked out?
Yet we are unable to really envision this monster as it ravages continent after continent. All the slides in the world, all the explanations…. Most of us just cannot envision it… So we default to the imagery we all understand because it is not specific. We call it a Monster…
Says Athans: “You can’t see a virus, let alone slash it with your trusty broadsword, shoot it with a blaster, or drive a stake through its heart. It gets inside you and starts eating, and the only reason you know its there at all is the horrific effect it’s having on your body.” (123)
How can we really look into that horrible maw of disease we have named the coronavirus then, and not be made insane?
We have to realize that as writers, really seeing and on some level experiencing this Horror is also the way out of the block. It is our job and our nature to observe, to record the details, and regurgitate it all in some semblance of acceptable order…
We have to realize that this is what Critics mean when they talk about Literature… and why Horror should include more of it. Literature is about how humanity functions in the crisis of Life…
Soldiering through this incredulous time of pandemic is providing you as a writer with information that while overwhelming now, will inform every piece of writing you do from this day forward.
And if you are a Horror writer, it will also be colored by the indescribable moments, by the awful silence that fills the mind when the world as you know it stops.
Wordlessness for a writer sounds like death. But it is truly the sound of rebirth in the making. From that unutterable mass of emotion will come the monster you need to tell the story.
One theory of why Lovecraft is so successful in Horror and monster-making attributes his choice of words in descriptions – words like abnormal, accursed, amorphous, antediluvian, blasphemous, cyclopean, daemonic, eldritch, fetid, gibbering, indescribable, iridescent, loathsome, squamous, unmentionable, unnamable, unutterable…. (Athans 214)
Do we not talk about the coronavirus using similar vocabulary?
The deliberate rendering of the monster’s description as indescribable and defiant of all sane envisioning opens the door to our worst imaginings. It personalizes every monster, tailor-making each one into a very precise creature in our very different heads. All versions can be true at the same time. And such monsters are not only unforgettable, but immortal in our memories – fear first.
How we are seeing the coronavirus is doing the same thing to our mental processing. It has become a Lovecraftian monster whose terrible imagery has merged with our own vision of it.
When we deconstruct fictional monsters into their basic and indistinct parts, we can either deduce their weaknesses, or become disoriented by the Horror – losing ourselves in the very type of insanity Lovecraft loved to dangle over his protagonists. This makes Lovecraft a writer whose astute observation of his own personal fears allowed him to create a most effective emotional maze to draw his readers into. It is why we remember Lovecraft stories for all of the right reasons – for the Horror of them (and not for the almost-dull prose created to stall the sense of urgency we have come to expect in contemporary American Horror).
There is just something particularly terrifying about the slow, steady advance of a lethal monster with no known weaknesses…
Says Philip Atkins, “Many of Lovecraft’s stories lack immediacy; the threat is always subtle, implied, still developing, rarely seen in its entirety, or shown doing horrible things.” (201)
Is this not how we frame the news of today?
The pandemic is not expected to crest until July or August… although most states have a stay-at-home order, you can go for a walk, go to the grocery…
No one wants to alarm the public, to start a stampede or a panic. Today we have grown accustomed to the fact that everything is administered in measured, acceptable doses. Wars and massacres and even pandemics are interrupted by commercials for better pillows and soothing medications, and ways to waste hard-earned money. We are provided the necessary distractions to pacify and anesthetize our reactions.
Yet when the monster is big enough, bad enough, universal enough… then the parts we do not see cast long, scary shadows. The horrible things come closer, seem more personally possible – even if there is denial. And when the monster takes someone we know, when it stands drooling outside our front door, and worse – when it is invisible – we feel real terror.
How can we defend against the seeming indefensible? A Zombie Apocalypse is preferable — or a rise of Vampires, the stirring of Mummies and the howling of Werewolves… we know each of us can figure out how to fight those.
Viruses take special knowledge. Wars take special luck.
So when the monster – the metaphor for all we dread, hate, or fear – materializes ever so briefly, ever so fatally from the darkness… we need a modicum of control.
And when our fingers cannot find purchase as we dangle from the cliff we never saw coming, we have mere seconds to save ourselves or be lost to irrational terror.
We may see the coronavirus – but we only see it in glimpses of statistics, in the sudden, inconceivable loss of someone we love who was just fine so short a time ago. We never quite see the monster, even when we are shown images of it on a slide… it remains indescribable.
The monster-virus is as much a mystery as the code behind the internet. We see proof it is there, but we cannot truly see IT. So we imagine it. And it wreaks its Horror from our emotions outward… it remains unthinkable, shapeless…amorphous…unreal….
And for many of us, the writing stalls. We cannot muster the muses from those gloriously fertile adjectives.
When we compare ourselves as writers to those who invoked novels from battlefields, from prisons, from oppressive governments and bestial thugs…even those who write in famines and even older plagues (yes, even Shakespeare wrote through two), we start to wonder what is wrong with us.
Yet unlike those wondrous writers, our own modern world seems to move through two very different realities simultaneously. Our world is “crafted” for us…filtered…. We don’t see the wars coming; we don’t comprehend the epidemic, let alone the pandemic. We are subject to numerous layers of “spin”… and the shock of the truth hits us in relentless waves when the storm finally approaches.
We are willingly lulled into numbness, into stasis…a bespelled slumber…
For countries like the U.S… this has been a rude awakening… a reminder that where monsters are concerned, we are all meat.
So not being able to write right now is more than understandable; this is unfamiliar to our senses. We don’t know how to process the flood of data pouring into and all over our Art. For too many of us, this is like listening to The War of the Worlds on radio…real only by its reporting…by images we cannot recognize of places made into Hollywood sets. We are waiting to hear someone announce April Fools…
Writer’s block is a natural reaction.
It is okay.
Not-writing might even be the righteous thing to be doing at this moment in our history. Writing will come back. Some people will not.
So if you are blocked, and not writing like that GOT author, or Shakespeare… Rest assured you are not alone. And you are no less a writer for it. You are doing research, willingly or not.
Live in the moment.
The words will come later… When the rest of the world needs a little reminding of what Real Horror is all about.
(A late Women-In-Horror Month posting with apologies to regular readers: my computer died and took my originally planned post with it. This is a reconstruct… from the best of my failing memory…)
Here in the climate of #MeToo, female writers of Horror do not have far too look for a sad sisterhood.
How quickly must I apologize to male readers of this blog? How deeply must I sublimate the resentments that still haunt every writing decision I make like so many Leng Hounds?
This is how we know there is a problem: “No offense to male writers of the genre, but…”
Because here we are not talking about a casting couch. (Perhaps those of us who are writers of fiction too often seem unsexy in our sweat pants and pinned up hair, locked for long periods of time like mental patients in our writing rooms, we only “glam up” on occasion and usually by accident.) No, our personal Horror stories are more about the annoyances of #MeToo experiences in minimum wage jobs while being unceremoniously rejected by publication after publication – all (of course) touted to be the best in our genre, although we ourselves as readers may think differently.
Why, male writers might think, do we believe we still have a sexist problem in the Horror genre?
Answer: Because if an author like J.K. Rowling uses a male pseudonym (NOT a female pseudonym) to write fiction, then Houston we have a problem in publishing period. And Horror has no J.K. Rowling…
Never mind that no matter how she meant it, I found it somewhat disturbing that Rowling found it “liberating” to write under the pseudonym chosen. Because on one hand it was anonymity. But on the other, it was gender anonymity.
On Being a Female Horror Writer
So here it is: I am not saying that perfectly good, perhaps even GREAT male Horror writers do not suffer unexplained rejection. (And that’s all the apology you are getting.)
I am saying that what happens with male writers in the genre – unpublished male writers – is different. Male writers are allowed to be unpublished without being shamed.
Female writers are automatically assigned to the category of not being good enough to be published – not just not having found the right publication for our work. Our bios are filled with charming cats and doting spouses. We are not likely academics or authorities in any field – at least publicly (because bragging is not ladylike). And a lot of this is our own fault. We think the way we were cultivated to think. It is unbecoming, unflattering, and kind of bitchy to show any sign of aggression (read as “competitiveness” if you are male). And for those of us born around or in the Baby Boom – well, ladies should not be offensive. And if they are, they deserve to be taken down a notch and shown their place.
And then we overthink the thinking that has been imposed on us. Women in most professions today are still not “free.” This is sooo evident in women’s writing — from creating it to judging it.
For one thing, male writers are not forced to live deep inside their heads second-guessing EVERY creative decision they make.
I just lost sleep last night wondering why I keep writing MALE protagonists. What is wrong with me? Shouldn’t I be writing female protagonists? But then if I do write female protagonists, am I narrowing my audience? Will I be assumed to be a Young Adult writer? A sensationalist writer? A writer with no market?
Should that female protagonist’s name be gender-ambiguous? What if she is TOO strong? What does it mean if she has a boyfriend? How should they interact? What if she is too aggressive or not aggressive enough?
Should I write under initials? What if they see my blog avatar and I am outted before they read my fiction? Does it matter?
Will a female editor give me more of a chance if she knows I am female or be harder on me to overcompensate because SHE is a female in the typically male dominated field of Horror?
It took me a few hours to realize I had completely lost the story I was thinking about…
This kind of mental Vietnam goes on forever for female writers in general, but especially in our genre.
One of the most powerful discoveries I have made as a writer is the one where I realize that I am a female writer…which apparently makes some sort of difference…especially in the Horror genre.
Amazingly, what I have found is that where male authors are concerned, their end-product is evaluated at face-value; for female authors, there ensues a search for subtext. For male authors, biographical details are enhancements, for females, they are excuses. To properly “dis” a male author, one simply criticizes them like one does a female author.
Before there is an all-out, knee-jerk reaction from all the men out there, let me clarify: I am not only saying that it is harder for women to find appreciation or publication…what I am saying is that for some pretty interesting and un-admitted reasons, there are always strange, invisible criteria applied to the judgment of fiction works by women. Whether we are talking publication, Literary Criticism, or “simple” editorial decisions applied in anthologies; whether we are talking education, professions, and reputations, if you are a woman writer, people in general are wont to make apologies and excuses for your choices. Everyone becomes an arm-chair psychologist and a genre expert. All of a sudden the writing of a woman is not “just a story” but a running commentary against men, against patriarchy, against society…in other words, you are attempting to be Literary.
This makes it easier to weed out women’s writing from general submissions: if a publication wants playful, inventive storytelling and you are suspected of being a guerilla Literary writer, well this story is just “not for our publication.” Suddenly you are out of your depth as a writer and nobody wants to sort it all out.
And then if you are a woman and you write Horror…well then you, my dear, are miraculously transformed into a rebel.
What kind of woman writes Horror? Is it even decent?
Curses. I bothered my pretty little head about it…
It has been profoundly interesting to me to discover that because it is not “cool” to like Literature in these times, any writing that is not clearly “anti-Literary” and quasi pulp-driven is inherently subversive. Slap on a female byline, and suddenly it is obvious to everyone but yourself that you are angry, anti-establishment, and man-hating, and write boring, overly saccharine, overly wordy, overly sentimental made-for-a-limited-female-audience trash fiction.
I didn’t come to this conclusion through rejections of my own writing, nor am I saying that is why I personally find rejection with my writing (I earnestly think my writing has flaws that I do not yet know quite how to fix). I am saying that this is what I see as a female writer researching the Horror genre. This is what I read in Criticism of woman in the genre…
Sure, many male writers experience something similar when they write Horror…the difference is that historically once male authors develop a body of work, that work “lives” in reviews, criticisms, comparisons, historical perspectives, collectible comics and collectible publications which go on to have value in the collective body of genre works…if not an underground following. A great deal of women’s fiction in the genre just disappears as old magazines disintegrate or go out of business.
When one considers that in the magazine industry at the turn of the century, it is estimated that over 70% of published Horror genre writing was being done by women…is it not truly weird that not only have most of us not read those writings, but we don’t even know the names of the authors?
Divide and Conquer
When you are a female writer of Horror, you tend to feel isolated and alone. Everywhere you look, the examples of how to write Horror “properly” or successfully are overwhelmingly male. Many like to say that this is because it is mostly men who have shaped and produced the genre.
But they would be seriously wrong. It is only that male writers have found immortality in the world of Criticism, reprints and anthologies. That has led to their constant rediscovery and intense scrutiny by genre experts while new male voices have dominated the last three decades of Horror because that particular period of the genre has focused on male-driven interests. The minute our genre became one giant slash-fest is when most of us noticed it…but the style of writing – including plotlines, dialog, the fast-moving, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners narrative, the underdog antihero – these are the contributions male writers have made of late. But only of late. We are now on a railway “spur” to nowhere…The genre needs to reinvent itself and rediscover its center
Prior to the 70’s and 80’s, the writing style was much different. It was more Literary, with heavily detailed narrative, an emphasis on suspense, and exhibited a clear evolution from earlier genre works (think Poe and Lovecraft, Machen and James). In this period and prior to it, it was women who were the foot soldiers of Horror.
That is not to devalue the contributions of men of the period – including several heavy-hitters who came from Literary channels to write the occasional tale of the supernatural. But it is to say that women were mass-producing tremendous amounts of published works, while it is largely male writers who are identified as having risen to the top of the genre.
Yet if these women’s writings were so good, why don’t we know who they are?
Sometimes this is because many Literary Critics want to see a clearly defined body of work, and many women’s “bodies” (pardon the pun) are literally ghosts of the past (ladies notice the pun). If one can’t find them, collect them, and publish them, many Critics will not bother with them. The problem is that what happened to women’s writing – including its denigration, its relegation to the pulps, the public chastisement of the female authors at the hands of many male authors and the Critics of the times – means that we can’t find whole bodies of works for many of these writers.
While we are entertained by suppositions that women “get busy” with domestic duties and diversions and are therefore historically “unreliable” in building careers in general, the truth is a bit uglier.
Historically women’s writings simply were not assigned the same value as written works of men.
Women are expected to write for women readers. Men, on the other hand, write for us all.
This is a verifiable fact of history. One doesn’t have to be a feminist or dislike feminists to find plenty of evidence. It is just one more point of divide and conquer. If we stop and argue about that point, I would never get to my point.
Not being valued, the work of many early women writers is scattered about the many different publications of their day, most of them defunct or no longer having those issues available. No one thought to save the works, and just like today, many women were writing to pay the bills that come with the haphazard consequences of unpredictable lives dependent upon the favorable whims of men. Who knows what happened to their handwritten originals and typed manuscripts?
It is also to say that some of those works which did survive are now found in several subgenres and established Literary genres. Gothic, Gothic Romance, Suspense, Mystery, Ghost Story, Thriller, Supernatural Fiction, and straight-up Horror… No one knows where to put them: classified by genre, or by author’s body of work? (Maybe this is why I tend to shy away from re-categorizing Horror as “Weird”… it is predominantly male writers who can meet that particular defining “criteria” to the Literary Critic’s eye…and I am tired of witnessing the seemingly intentional exclusion of women writers).
Frighteningly, I’ve also noticed that not unlike today, many of those women – unlike their male counterparts – were made to pay professionally, personally, and socially for their “bad” choices…specifically the one to write genre fiction. I personally suspect that I myself have had a handful of job interviews simply because employers who found my blog or LinkedIn page wanted to know what I really looked like. (Alas, there are no tattoos, no piercings, no Gothic lips or hair. I am a boring Horror writer.) And I can tell any young female novice of the genre that the adulation of your peers will not last; it will be replaced by a thundering herd of stereotypes about people who like Horror and the kind of women that write it. Those stereotypes will not be nice and they may cost you jobs, friends, and relationships. Unlike male Horror writers who are cool, and refreshingly anti-establishment, as a female you will just be weird and as all feminists are to those who don’t like them – you will be possibly thought dangerously unbalanced. This would be amusing if it did not have tragic, real-world consequences…
But it is just further proof of what I am saying here. Regardless of how our male counterparts think we are being treated or perceived, something ugly is still going on with the reception of women’s genre fiction and the “image” of female genre writers. If it’s out there in the workaday world, and Critics grudgingly admit it, what is happening at the publishing level? Why in the few remaining Horror sections of the fewer remaining bookstores is there only one or two female authors of novels? Typically only 1-3 female authors in an anthology of 15 or more? (Happily I can state that Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran have gone a long way toward changing that trend, but why are they as women typically alone in the inclusion of more female writers in anthologies?)
In Horror, clearly we are still an unwilling part of somebody’s tasteless joke. It took me a while to “get” that, because I am proud to write Horror and proud to be genre. I don’t “get” what other people find “disturbing” about that; I see such judgments as living proof of profound Literary ignorance which certain people appear to be proud to display. I don’t see writing as frivolous, or self-indulgent, or particularly subversive and irresponsible…but as a woman who writes, this is the message being spit in my face. Over and over again… All too often at the cost of employment in a regular job.
Do male genre writers experience the same? It doesn’t seem so, or it doesn’t seem as widespread…
But neither observation surprises me, because this has been the tradition of treatment of women who write genre fiction from the beginning. It used to be the standard treatment for women who write fiction period.
“If a woman writes fiction, there is something wrong with her.” (Darn tootin’…she’s not afraid to think for herself. And in the case of Horror writers, to destroy the world one monstrosity at a time.)
The bottom line is that women writers of genre fiction have this strange uphill battle going on that we don’t remember starting. We just sat down and began to write stories for good or ill. But the fact remains that there are names missing from our canon which might well belong there but for the fact that they belong to women.
Now… one can toss around all the insults and excuses one wants about these (or any other) women writers. But if you have read women’s genre fiction especially from the late 1860’s into the 1900’s without deciding beforehand that they are man-hating feminists, you would be shocked and surprised at the quality. The ladies did more than hold their own.
To unearth this wealth of writing, one has to be a bit of an archeologist. You are going to have to dig. But you are also going to have to avoid stepping in steaming hot piles of …argument. Because argument is one of the tactics of those who want women’s writings to stay buried and disenfranchised. To do that, the best diversionary tactic is to pit men against women and to humiliate any woman even thinking about challenging dominant opinions. Nothing derails the truth like a wardrobe malfunction and a little name-calling.
If a woman points out that certain worthy female writers are consistently ignored, then we can just call that woman with the annoying voice a “feminist.” And bitter. And jealous. In fact, so is that darn writer she is yapping about…
For one thing, sensationalism distracts from the real issues. If a woman can be labeled a feminist, we give ourselves permission to stereotype her right into man-hating oblivion. Best of all, we don’t have to listen to what she says or justify why it’s okay to maintain the status quo. We get to stay lazy, blind and in the bubble. We don’t have to do anything and there is a crowd of people patting us on the back for agreeing with their loud selves.
We also don’t have to judge history, ancestors, or our own behavior. Women – you see – tend to write fiction that is meant to strip the flesh of pretense from the bones of reality. That kind of thing happens when by nature of your gender, you are privy to the inequalities and injustices thrust upon others…or yourself. After a while you get pissed off. Unfortunately, even now times have not changed enough for women to “talk like men” and speak freely without some sort of repercussion.
All a woman must do is allege that this is true and the Gender Wars erupt. This is how we manage to not change: we divide and conquer. We get busy making it us-against-them, throw some dirty, scandalous rumors in and – voilà! – nobody is talking about the issues anymore.
So I am not going to talk about why men should see the things women see so clearly. What I am going to do is say this about women writers:
If even one of these issues raises its ugly head in a woman’s prose, she will be called a feminist, her work will be a treatise on some feminist issue, and that is just too darn lofty for the average Horror fan who just wants a good read.
But just try being a woman and not know these things intimately. Men are lucky; they don’t have to think about them. But for women, these issues shape our lives and will inevitably find their way into honest fiction because they haunt us. They dog our every step. Sometimes we even use them against each other to try and impress men.
Whether we hide behind a male viewpoint or venture out to express our own, we don’t get the same choice as a male writer to be separate from the issues – simply because even if we don’t write about them people will root around in our words until they can find some semblance of what they think is there. And if that is not enough, they will talk about our private lives as though that is the reason for our failures and insufficiencies.
Is that why men tend to be “struggling writers” and women tend to be “failed” ones?
We could argue the merits and faults of feminism with men who hate what they think is feminism, or we could preach to the choir. But who I really want to reach is the female Horror writer out there who thinks she is alone in the genre, who thinks women don’t write Horror well, who thinks women never really contributed to the history of Horror.
Like that young woman, I also want to know: why haven’t I heard these names before? Where are the reading lists that include them? Why do I have to have some forty anthologies of “classic” Horror to get a sampling of the women writers of this genre?
The answer is simple if not simply unpleasant: genre writers of the female persuasion were definitively not treated the same as male writers in the past, and because of it, many are overlooked if not lost altogether. In order to change this, we first have to see how we ourselves may be being treated and speak up. We have to stop allowing anyone to make us feel somehow deficient or inferior because we choose to write, or to write genre. We must support Literary Critics who are willing to analyze the writing of women writers, and editors who include women writers of today and yesterday. We are fortunate in having editors at the top of our genre who tend to do that now, but we must never allow ourselves to be lulled into complacence. And we must definitely never allow ourselves to be convinced that it is because of women in the genre that the genre seems to be losing prominence.
It is not about the writing or who is writing it…Horror (like all of publishing) is still battling Technology for the right to exist…
Women have important things to say, and in Horror, important ways to say it. I don’t mind noticing that I am a female genre writer. But I resent being reminded of it only to be made to feel guilty. This is 2020, isn’t it?
And yet we still see a predominance of male writers published in the genre – even though women are gaining some ground.
So for all of you novice and new Horror writers – especially women writers – I say “Hold onto your hair, fellow Horror-chicks. We write among giants.” Following is a list of books that address women writers in and around the genre, writers of the past and present. I am going to name names. And while some of these can be pricey, they are eye-opening and worth the read.
As a female writer of the genre, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you overlook this information and the glorious treasure troves of Horror fiction. If you’re going to be part of a tradition, it helps to know whereof you write…
Because some of those “men” might well have been women.
Literary History and Criticism/Essay
Carpenter, Lynette and Wendy K. Kolmar, eds. Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, c1991.
Davenport-Hines, Richard. Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin. New York; North Point Press, c1998.
Hay, Simon. A History of the Modern British Ghost Story. New York: Palgrave McMillan, c2011.
Joshi, S.T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., c2001.
Nelson, Victoria. Gothika: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, c2012
Short Story Anthologies
Ashley, Mike. Unforgettable Ghost Stories by American Women Writers. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., c2008.
Baldick, Chris, ed. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, c1992.
Bleiler, Everett F., ed. A Treasury of Victorian Ghost Stories. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c1981.
Cox, Michael and R.A. Gilbert, eds. Victorian Ghost Stories: an Oxford Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, c1991.
Dalby, Richard, ed. Ghosts for Christmas. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, c1988.
Dalby, Richard, ed. The Virago Book of Ghost Stories. London; Virago Press, c2006.
Dziemianowicz, Stefan R., Robert A. Weinberg & Martin H. Greenberg. 100 Ghastly Ghost Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, c1993.
Lundie, Catharine A., ed. Restless Spirits: Ghost Stories by American Women 1872-1926. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, c1996.
O’Regan, Marie, ed. The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women. Philadelphia, PA: Running Press, c2012.
Salmonson, Jessica Amanda, ed. What Did Miss Darrington See? An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction. New York: The Feminist Press, c1989.
Women Authors of Note in Supernatural & Gothic Fiction
Alcott, Louisa May
Amelia B. Edwards
Amelia B. Edwards
Beecher Stowe, Harriet
Braddon, Mary Elizabeth
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Cobb, Emma B.
Crawford, F. Marion
Du Maurier, Daphne
Dunbar, Olivia Howard
Hull, Helen R.
La Spina, Greye
Molesworth, Mary Louisa
Oates, Joyce Carol
Pangborn, Georgia Wood
Peattie, Elia W.
Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart
Rice, Susan Andrews
Salmonson, Jessica Amanda
Spofford, Harriet Prescott
Wilkins Freeman Mary
Wood, Mrs. Henry
Imagination is a wonderful – and terrible thing to behold. When it comes from your toddler or small children, it borders on conundrum – especially if there be monsters…
Say the wrong thing and the monster wins, its shadow looming large over real life well past the time of age-appropriateness. (For example, we tell ourselves it is to prevent accidents, but we adults really keep those night lights on in case of monster emergencies imprinted since our own childhoods).
Say the right thing and the questions children bring you get harder and more frequent… Yes, banishing monsters is something we all attempt to do – first as children ourselves armed with amulet-power-endowed stuffed animals, and then as adults around children while armed with foggy memories of Dr. Spock (not to be confused on any level with Mister Spock) and then for a special few…juggling the unexpected and unrehearsed events as actual, real-time parents and grandparents.
But somebody has finally one-upped us all in the Monster Banishing department, and as a Horror writer who actually had monsters in her closet, I found his story intriguing…
Yet the nagging question is: in the Arts world where inspiration holds the highest value, is an artistic partnership equal if one party benefits by the snake oil feel of attempted banishment of monsters while the other appears to be the only one who receives monetary compensation and most of the acclaim?
This is a question we must ask as writers. It’s also one we should ask as Artists.
Just where is the line of artistic plagiarism? And if all legal parties agree, does the impropriety vanish?
Gilding the Monster
When one has monsters, one looks for monster repellent. We usually start by trying to deny the existence of monsters. Then we decide on parameters, applying adult rules in the attempt to outsmart child logic. Sometimes we even try to make them cute and ineffectual. But often the best way is a direct assault. And one artist may have found a really effective way of speaking to the fears of children with monsters… or so it might seem.
It becomes, at least, an interesting question about art and invention…if not about child psychology and the right of ownership and authorship of intellectual property.
Dave DeVries, renowned comic artist who has drawn images for Universal Studios, video games, greeting cards and provided the comic visuals for several prominent superheroes has created The Monster Engine. Started in 2005, the project was born of the artist’s fascination with the simple honesty of children’s art, and specifically his young nieces’ drawings of monsters. He started wondering what might happen when those powerful, uncensored images were rendered realistically by a professional artist; and the project was born. Now DeVries creates works with children who benefit from learning how to control their monsters with his artistic guidance. He has a book of these shared creations, does workshops with school children and groups, and does special commissioned works.
Each work provides a “before” and “after” glimpse of the original art and his remake. Those that follow on this post are from his website, lending credence to his argument that his work is more an attempt at collaboration than exploitation. He also includes their names as original artists (which gives at least the appearance of trying to do the right thing by the children).
Of course, how this hits you may depend on whether or not you are a person associated with the arts.
Isn’t this…well…a kind of plagiarism? Akin to forgery?
DeVries makes a point to emphasize that his works are collaborations with children; interviews with the kids are conducted, and “all rights have been transferred through proper legal documentation signed by each parent”… Some might find this a wee bit suspicious, perhaps even be thinking about words like “predatory” and “exploitative.” Why else would someone have “proper legal documentation” in advance? And as a former child who is a former would-be artist, when I look at these examples (although they are amazing and represent possibly the kinds of things I might have seen oozing from my own closet), I know that if my original artwork were alongside his, I would also be asking: what was wrong with my drawing that you sought to “improve” it?
And I have an adult question…
Can you really collaborate honestly with a child? Don’t we adults tend to dominate? To…manipulate to our own advantage? To “game” kids even before we realize it? Haven’t we all been drunk with power in a roomful of toddlers?
As most parents and childcare workers know, anything involving children gets really complicated really fast…
And maybe we need to keep our eyes on the other ball here: maybe what is important is acknowledging our kids and their feelings about monsters in the dark…not just attempting to gloss them over with fancy professional renderings of their portraits.
Maybe it’s time we admitted to our kids that we all have monsters from time to time instead of denying that they exist.
And about that monster problem…Is that really, truly, finally being resolved here? Does it end the monster-making and night terrors? Or this is a trendy and cute way of playing pretend? Are we dabbling in child psychology, or discovering a creative and witty way of outsmarting our monsters?
Are real monsters being slain?
Of course, there is also the question of a little bit of fame here… a little room for pride of parent and child.
How else would we know Chelsea or Brendan or Kimberly?
The former artist in me admits that precious few of these children would find their drawings valued by art critics without DeVries’ hand, and most of them have those monsters to contend with regardless…and some can say at least something beneficial comes of it:
Still, something about this is hard to shake. It makes me uncomfortable.
For those whose hackles are still erect, I refer you to the website: http://www.themonsterengine.com/ which does a much better job of showing the artist in action and clarifying his motives. While some may feel DeVries should dip into his own closet or peek under his own bed, the fact remains that many children come away from the experience empowered, perhaps even inspired to be the next generation of artists. His workshops are framed by the excited and involved faces of children no longer held emotionally hostage by the nonsensical creatures that our minds put together so well when we are young and often asleep. That should be worth something.
And one has to admit there is in grown-up hindsight something tremendously empowering about having an adult who is not predisposed to tell you well-intentioned lies look upon your work and your need to conquer monsters literally and actually help you do something about it.
Perhaps this is one of those cases…But this is another instance where we also feel a wee bit tainted by the whole concept.
And truth be told, I hate that it does bother me, because I love that children get the chance to put monsters in a safe place for later recall if they choose and when they choose.
I also love that DeVries involves children in the Arts, showing them how art actually moves from the emotional left side of the brain to the right…introducing them to mediums (the art kind not the trance kind)… and teaching them the value of translating experience into a communication device.
So why am I so disconcerted?
I have had this post in mind for around five years… but kept putting it off, hoping (I think) that my own opinion would gel. (It hasn’t. I am still unsettled.)
Then I try to look at things from a Horror writer’s perspective…
It isn’t really all that different than writing fan fiction, or themed anthologies, right?
But as a former artist, it just bothers me. Maybe the reason is because this involves children who are both trusting and legal minors. Maybe the reason is I see all of the adults in the room orbiting around children instead of the other way around.
Of Monsters in Closets
So let us haul the beast out of the closet. Let us look at a legal term…because this is indeed where the mind is drifting on this matter.
“Definition of Forgery
“To illegally modify or reproduce a document, signature, an instrument, legal tender or any other means of storing information is known as forgery.” Any item that is copied is also considered forged.
When something is forged, a piece of art for the purpose of mimicking the style of a popular artist is made by a person and signed with the name of the artist. Usually, the work of dead artists is forged because their work cannot be testified. A few art forgers are very sharp.” https://www.ukessays.com/essays/english-language/forgery-and-plagiarism-english-language-essay.php
Now, DeVries has covered himself because he has created those protections (again, and “all rights have been transferred through proper legal documentation signed by each parent”…) So legally speaking, nothing illegal is happening here.
But is it moral? Ethical?
Recall that our definition also proclaims “Usually, the work of dead artists is forged because their work cannot be testified…”
Neither can that of minors. Especially when their guardians sign away those rights.
This feels an awful lot like someone asking the question: would you want to give a story idea to Edgar Allan Poe so he could write your story better than you could?
My answer would be a resounding NO! It’s my story to tell…
And when something similar happens in the writing world “by accident” and two writers write the same story at the same approximate time, lawsuits have a habit of happening.
So why is this different? Is it because it involves the work of children, or because we already rationalize and lessen our own contributions to society?
Are we so tainted by the selling of ideas to Hollywood that we think more of ideas than actually finishing the work ourselves? Are we charging now for potential, when “ideas” are only seedlings with no guarantee to sprout? Or is this really more for the parents in some weird, Freudian fashion? Does it somehow reflect positively on them (at least in their own minds)?
And do we really think that the average person (and thereby our own children) have nothing of value to offer in its raw state, that only the Established among us deserve accolades? Are we really at that point in our economy that contracting everything out is just the way we do business, where delegation is a right to claiming to have done it ourselves?
And is there really that much joy in saying “oh, that was my idea” when the nondisclosure agreements prevent your simple byline on the product: “thought of by John Doe”?
This really does speak to a larger problem nesting in our society: the rooted belief that one must be worthy before one is “allowed” to contribute by name… that we mostly are incapable and incompetent…that only our icons should be heroic, allowed to make mistakes and never be “called” on them.
We have to admit we hear it all the time in the Arts: “until you are published, you are not a Writer and you have no right to call yourself one”, “you have to pay your dues”, and “a starving artist is enduring the rite of passage; it is unseemly to be famous during your own lifetime” (all while mysterious savants pass us by making millions, often off “borrowed” ideas…). But many of us, having bills to pay, consider these elitist arguments to be…malarkey. And it’s why we sell out Literary and Artistic dreams to put food on the table and wear clothing. It’s why we bristle at what often feels like a rigged system.
So maybe it is my age talking…but something about the Monster Engine is unsettling on a primal level.
And it is not jealousy.
While DeVries’ paintings are awesome and I like what he has done, I also dislike what he is doing.
And the paradox is really bugging me.
Perhaps because this is also about how we view children in general – part possession, and part promise…all parental dream-and-expectation. Perhaps it is me feeling like the parent is still not seeing the child exactly, even as they coo over the monsters.
Do they not remember the monsters?
Because while DeVries does bring the monster to the fore for judgement and sentencing, why the monster came in the first place is part of the child’s problem. Do the parents stop, relieved and bliss-filled, at the commissioning of monster portraits?
One cannot help but ask that question. Does this cure the monster problem? Or is it a bandaid for a bullet wound?
Monsters feed on isolation. That’s when they come, and every child feels isolation often (talk about your rites of passage…) Monsters often come when children are overwhelmed by indescribable emotions, usually spurred by adult events… this seems a pretty tall order for a drawing and a portrait to fix – not to mention a problem that repeats.
I know I felt alone with my own monsters. And I never drew them.
But then perhaps that was part of my own dysfunction. I mean I rationalized such things.
I thought myself fortunate (and maybe even kind of elitist) because I started out as a Fine Artist. I did not want to “do” commercial art, I did not like the …idea… But this meant I personally spent a lot of time trying to realistically depict things I saw… I was never headed to become a Dali, or a Bosch…no artistic monsters for me. I loved Rubens, Vermeer and the Dutch Masters, Degas, Monet, Van Gogh… I loved Bernini and Dubois…Once older and in art school I did not “wow” my surrealist-bent instructors; they wanted fairies and elves and waterfalls on bricks. I drew bricks.
So I did not draw my monsters. They stayed in my closet where my sanity needed them to stay.
Is that why I am not an artist today? Did I squelch something inside? Suppress my own artistic instincts by not drawing monsters? I don’t think so. I think my leaving art had more to do with the monsters in the art instruction classrooms than the ones I did not draw…They are why I switched to Horror writing, because my writing skin is scarred and thicker… my artistic skin has a habit of bleeding. And then one has to ask, do I write Horror because I did not banish my monsters?
And there is that what-if. Because I could have been that kid at a DeVries School Event.
As a former artist OR a current writer, I cannot shake the feeling that to have had my parents give one of my drawings to an “established” artist to make-over would have deflated me further…and the resentment would have lingered well into adulthood, suffocating me under a blanket of inadequacy already exploited by arrogant and narrow-thinking art instructors.
What happens to a child’s psyche when someone does over their work? Is it a compliment? Or a theft? A commandeering?
I know how I felt in college as an adult when an instructor snatched the eraser from my desk and began erasing my drawing so he could “correct” it…
I wonder what psychologists would say about all of this.
Enough time has passed for some of DeVries’ artist children to have grown a bit. I wonder what they think about what was done now? I wonder if we will ever know…
What’s In YOUR Closet?
Maybe all of this is overthinking things.
Maybe on balance, what DeVries does in bringing children into a fascination with both Horror and the Arts is of significant benefit.
I admit I love both versions of the works.
I admit I wish ANY artist had visited my school when I was a kid.
I admit I wish I had had more guts to STAY with art.
I also find myself looking at the reality that art from nightmares and night terrors has led to some pretty prominent work in the Humanities.
Says Lex “Lonehood” Nover in his book Nightmareland: Travels at the Borders of Sleep, Dreams, and Wakefulness: “Whether the dreamer is threatened by an ancient demon, a vampire, a lobster, a fairy story monster, a robot, or an atomic ray, his experience is in each instance like that of a helpless child confronted by powerful forces with which he is unable to deal effectively…in adults’ nightmares, recent events, characters, or disturbances are often superimposed over archaic childhood fears, such as being chased, attacked, or mutilated…dreams reflect the symbolization, distortion, displacement, and projection mechanisms that characterize the thinking of early childhood…” (118)
With the Arts meeting childhood monsters, maybe we will get another Bosch out of all this… Maybe we will find another Lovecraft (whose suffering with persistent night terrors laid the foundation for the Cthulhu Mythos)…
And maybe we will get angry adults who just draw pictures of the monsters in their lives instead of picking up AK-47s…
But we also have to wonder about the whole picture…
I sincerely hope what DeVries is doing helps kids, and that those kids aren’t as affected by the trading off of their artwork as I would have been. (So here’s to hoping I am more messed up than most to be worrying about it.)
I really do hope his work is transformative.
Kids are our future, you know.
They need the protection of imagination realized. They need the Arts. It’s how we get the Good Stuff. It’s how we get superheroes.