Monsters in the Nude: Unzipping Better Horror Fiction


Sometimes I think the whole Horror genre has become like Godzilla: no matter how much CG we can muster, no matter how many explosions and special effects decorate the modern stuff, the best version was the absolute first – the one from 1956, starring Haruo Nakajima , AKA the guy in the 200 pound, unventilated Godzilla costume, stomping all of rubber Tokyo…

How is it that a monster with floppy feet and an exposed zipper has more cachet than most modern Horror fiction? What have the monsters of old got over today’s competitors?

Stripping Down

Call me crazy, but I believe it has to do with “originality.”

It’s become that dirty word we all dread… because it seems we are all aiming for it, but like drooling dogs to ringing bells we find ourselves mesmerized, repeating what’s already been done (and we know it’s true because we often read it ourselves, and we read it ourselves because it is successful).

Everyone buys into the mythology…even publishers. So why is the quickest route to rejection so relentlessly tempting?

It’s that darn “pablum” of Louisa May Alcott’s own words… that formula stuff everyone says everyone else wants an endless, brainless supply of… talk about your Horrors…yet we buy into (if not succumb to) these interminable repeat performances.

Some writers “handle” the problem by simply not reading other writers. They think if they don’t read it, it can’t color their imaginations. But this is often a much worse mistake in the end, because not only is writing is a long term investment of time and creative energy, it’s essence and ideas also tend to run in synchronistic packs. How horrible to spend years writing a book only to discover another writer has already cashed the check for it…

The Muse is a fickle, fickle girl. It doesn’t matter that your version is perhaps better…the frisson necessary for successful scaring in Horror has already been spent, the cigarette smoked.

It happened to me… imagine my own Horror to discover a freshly published version of my synchronistical-channeled tale by another, now-successful author… After meat-slapping the plot for years, having purchased and read more books on medieval French history than any Horror writer should ever have to… I can only gloat that it didn’t do particularly well. (Or perhaps there but for the Grace of God…)

Anyway…shaking it off…

A writer who wants to be genre-changing has to know what is being changed… And many an editor would be profoundly grateful for the effort; in fact, (surprisingly perhaps) many a Literary Critic is rooting for that exact scenario.

So it got me wondering: what has happened to us?

The answer appears to be that we are being herded that way…we are being coached – no, tasked – to find the next Big Thing among the rubber rubble.

The realization came just as Godzilla crested the horizon overlooking the city of Tokyo. I was watching one of the newer film versions and I couldn’t see the zipper anymore. And it got me thinking… what’s Godzilla got under that suit? Cuz if it ain’t a short Japanese actor, the thrill is gone.

And that means the zipper was crucial…it means the underlying truth is what propels the fiction…

(Ooooh…a Literary Moment, would you look at that…)

Clearly, to reanimate our fiction we need to unzip the monster. Reveal a truth. Let him run free – naked as the day he was born, innocent as a hippie at Woodstock.

Who drove our monsters from the Garden? Shamed them into wearing flawless CG suits? And WHY oh WHY do we try to write them this new way?

Today’s Horror fiction has this homogenized feel, like it is constructed of recycled, over-processed parts, weary conventions, and predictable plots. It’s like we keep writing the same stories over and over again – a crazed monster trying to claw its way out of a box.

“Welcome to genre writing,” perhaps some would say… But that is not it. That is not it at all.

Because occasionally I see examples of fresh Horror fiction where the monsters run unencumbered (Ray Cluley’s Probably Monsters, Christopher Golden’s Snowblind, Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, Laura Kasischke’s Mind of Winter, Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstör, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s I Remember You)…

Works like these restore the faith. They are fresh air in an enclosed, rubber room. Read them and see what I mean. They suspend reality, take you on a tour of Tokyo, remind you to notice things…

There are so many of these fresh works out there…just sadly not classified in our genre…Nor are they promoted heavily…by anyone it seems. So allow me: Don’t wait for marketing machinery. Try new or unknown authors. Try these authors. Fresh fiction is a wake-up call that will set your own writing on fire. Atomic fire. Spewing-from-Godzilla’s-mouth fire…

The best part is when you read something fresh, it loosens the fetters on your own mind. Each one of these titles I mentioned reminded me that good Horror comes from taking the mundane and commonplace and seeing it differently…Honestly. Naked.

It’s like wearing Top Secret X-ray monster-seeing glasses. Or like looking through a hole in a fairy stone…

Yet today we seem hell-bent on writing for an audience we let others specifically conjure, and not the one that is out there waiting for our stories.

Writing is such an individual sport. It’s easy to forget there are real, thinking people on the other end of our product. It’s easier to take the word of others about that audience. But it’s worth putting everything on pause for a few moments or a few days…reset our thinking. A writer should never be absorbed with projections of what others might think…no matter who those others might be.

We conveniently forget we write first for ourselves. Instead we convince ourselves that we must write what is wanted – like we are filling a donut order – when what is wanted is fresh fiction. We write hoping to catch the eye of traditional Big House editors – and Hollywood, we tempt with open-ended tales designed to create options for sequels…We let ourselves be dazzled by the promised wealth and fairy glamour of what we ourselves despise when we read it.

It’s not our fault, really – not initially. We see a lot of mixed messages down here in the trenches. We read the how-to libraries, the author biographies, the magazine articles and professor’s comments. Everywhere the focus is the same: How to sell your fiction.

Isn’t that why we’re all here? Isn’t that why we write?

The Real Cost of Pimping Out Your Fiction

Funny you should ask.

Because as writers of Horror fiction (even largely unsuccessful Horror fiction), we are also students of the genre. I like to look (Critic-like) at why a classic is a classic, at how it scares and the language a writer chooses to utilize…which is how I came to be a fan of Literature and Literary Critics. Poking prose to see what it does is fascinating.

But it also leads to respecting the writers that have gone before – especially ones that are the founding authors of what will become our genre canon (because for now, it is merely theoretical and no canon list exists, as our genre is currently in the early stages of Literary Criticism – which formulates and finalizes The List comprised of Literary-quality works). (Phew.)

…And respecting the writers that have gone before comes when they haunt the edges of your own prose, making you want to write something equally as innovative and scary.

The mistake seems to happen when we start taking advice from other writers without knowing who the heck they are or realizing that we are in the midst of a writer’s revolution of sorts (and yet another argument FOR the necessity of dead authors in Criticism).

There are passionate arguments afoot:

  • Genres are/aren’t relevant anymore
  • All fiction is/is not Literature
  • Readers want/don’t want watered down prose
  • Action does/doesn’t trump plot or characterization
  • Fat tomes do/don’t sell
  • Horror is not Weird and Weird is not Horror. Or it is.

Unfortunately, who wrote that how-to book and his or her beliefs may be relevant to your developing style and future success. And it’s important that as a writer you understand which side of the divide you write on, because there are sides and these are not editors whispering in our ears; there will be consequences to decisions made. And most importantly, there is no promise of publication because you did what those books said. And maybe that is why (because you did what they said).

(I didn’t say I wasn’t paranoid. It was a LOT of French medieval history…)

The question becomes, who is ultimately in charge of your writing? Who has their hand on the zipper?

Lap Dances Are Extra

This is also why Horror needs an occasional sightseeing trip through pulp: the best in our genre never wrote to spec… They were outside the box, zippers exposed.

Remember pulp? The days of the Penny Dreadful? The days of Sensation Fiction and newspaper installments? The cheap mass market paperback designed to fit in your pocket and be abandoned in airports? The magnificent and often cheesy cover art and comics? The really great stuff that terrorized kids and lasted a lifetime in therapy?

Those monsters seem to reside in another, pulpy world, drifting earthward just long enough for the tentacles to brush our cheeks, like angel’s wings before departing at the ring of a telephone.

As I sit in front of the computer, massaging a high-centered story, or sacrificing chickens over my keyboard, I wonder why there is a kind of automatic reset…a reversion to a false belief that a story should lurch this way instead of that. Why, specifically with an interruption, the unwelcome Editor comes back on in raging default mode, whispering what “should be done in modern fiction” and how Godzilla should look.

Why does a story go from liquid ooze to a coagulated mess once the The Thinking starts… Who exactly controls the zipper?

So the mind begins to wander. Have I read one too many how-to’s? Am I writing for an audience that is nothing less than a prefab manifestation of someone else’s reader? Have I forgotten why I started the story in the first place? Am I worried about being politically correct? About my parents reading what I write?

And I have begun to realize that maybe it is because with all of the upheaval in publishing and the comings and goings of markets, publishing venues, editors, and options… maybe there is too much reliance on everyone else’s theories, too much thinking going on and not enough writing from instinct. There are no short cuts…no REAL formulas…Getting published is an accomplishment, not an entitlement.

Maybe we zip it in fear because we are too afraid of WHAT we are thinking. Maybe we are grateful for the interruption…the derailment of self-sabotage because to keep on going takes courage that might just guarantee a lifetime of rejections.

The moment the phone rings, the kid next door begins pounding on the walls, the potheads light up their skunkweed… well, that THINKING begins. And it’s like wrestling an alligator – he who has the most teeth wins.

(The next thing I know I’m in another room, fuming instead of writing. The spell is broken. The tentacles lift skyward…I start mentally second-guessing, trying to re-write to spec. What I’d give to uncork a monster and let him run his giganto rubber feet all over my neighbors… may they rot in Tokyo.)

But even then the hint is there…that germ of an idea on how to get the mojo back:

PULP IT.

Pulp was meant to be thrown away, a temporary thrill, to not-last. And there is something creatively freeing to think that what one writes is simply for fun, a spontaneous and joyful madcap run through a field of tall grass… a brief moment of thrills…nude monsters running free…

Best of all, no one recommends it today. Pulp is for REBELS.

The very idea of pulp is liberating… No critics to please. Fits in a file drawer. Devours wicked neighbors… The realization that you can write in the privacy of your own imagination – ANYTHING you want, accountable to no one – stirs the cauldron, summons the unseen.

The truth is golden:

If one can slip into the rubber suit one can squash Tokyo.

So why are we pimping out our fiction? Is getting published that important?

Well, I can say having had it happen once, it is validating. But it is also temporary. Validation by publication is fleeting…because even after it hits print all you see are the glaring errors.

Sure money matters. It helps to have a roof over your head while you pound out that novel. But to manufacture a work as pretense… well let’s face it, to do something for the money may or may not make you a professional, but it may also make you a prostitute. Choose wisely.

Myself, I am going for the zipper. It would be great if something good comes of it. Greater if something Literary comes of it. But for now, I’m happy to just let the monsters frolic. Nude. The way they were meant to be…

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