A lot of folks don’t “get” Horror writers. But they especially can’t understand what would make an otherwise respectable girl turn to Horror when they would much prefer to have raised a nice poet, or Nobel Prize winner.
Why? they ask, Was it something we did?
Well, maybe. Not to trot out the arm-chair psychologist or anything, but sometimes it has to do with simple curiosity – the kind that blooms in childhood in attic bedrooms cluttered with Victorian antiques smelling of mildew and wood rot…and sends thick, hungry vines to wrap around the trellis of imagination.
A Brief History. With Ghost.
Take my Grandma. She actually did drive a hearse. And I was at times awed and terrified by her – curious about her. She was a delicate-looking woman who was excruciatingly formidable, a tough woman shaped by the hard and fearful era that endured the Great Depression and World War I. At some awkward age, having spied a photograph of her as a young woman, I dared to utter, “Grandma, you were pretty.” To which she flew verbally at me to say in all seriousness, “I still am.”
You see, in my Grandma’s times, children were to be seen and not heard. You were a Young Lady the moment you weren’t in diapers. You sat quietly on the sofa, hands in your lap, legs demurely crossed, and mouth shut. Period.
You did not wander into rooms not for public viewing. You did not wander into rooms not intended for children. And you certainly did not pry into business not specifically your own, or speak before properly spoken to. Meanwhile your eyes took in the ball-and-claw furniture, the hand-woven rugs, what I now know to be folk art portraits of hideously miscalculated anatomy in solemn poses, dimly lit floor lamps married by tangles of extension cords, actual drapes framing the windows…
You heard the conversations about relatives and wars and matters of family. You could feel the fabric of mystery, of things left unsaid or understated. But you didn’t dare ask.
In other words, it was boring. And eerie. And cold.
And as an inevitably flawed child, it was treacherous navigating those social waters you were flung into every major holiday. But I was also simultaneously fascinated that my grandparents had had lives.
I used to sneak into the room where my Vietnam-era father (a career army officer), sat and talked to my Grandpa about his service in World War I, and his passion — the history of the Civil War. It was there I fell in love with history, because I could see its relevance to real people. But it was also where that matter of the hearse came up – because my Grandma had taken over for the men who would have done the job had they not gone off to war. No Rosie-the-Riveter, my Grandma… she drove the hearse.
Neither did it dawn on anyone that living for any length of time in Grandma’s haunted house might have had some influence on my ultimate choice of career. Never mind that I saw my first ghost there – that of my Great Grandmother who purchased the house and whose photograph I recognized years later when my own mother passed away – cuz yep that was her alright, sitting in the rocking chair at the foot of my bed, dressed in Victorian black and glaring at all four years old of me clutching my little toy dog. (My mother had later admitted that the house was haunted by Miss Mary, and that was “her” bedroom and “she” didn’t like kids. Thanks, Mom. Thanks for sending me back up there. Alone.)
So I guess it came as a surprise to me that anyone would be disappointed in my decision to be a writer or in my genre choice, sitting in a houseful of antiques where coffin boxes routinely did double-duty as linen storage.
But the decision to pursue the arts was not welcome in our family; it was a nice hobby. But it was a frequently expressed and common opinion that I needed to do something else with my education. I can’t tell you how many private talks were had that left me perpetually baffled, deflated, and professionally adrift. In fact, I attribute those conversations from my early years to the hideously long delay in starting a writing career.
Scary old folks who drive hearses and have intimidating opinions can have that effect on a young writer.
And it was only the bestsellerdom of a certain Stephen King in the 1970’s that began to change my parents’ opinions…I think they were more dazzled by his successes and the promise of Big Money than I ever was… But by then the damage to my ego had been done. By then I had subverted my love for writing and could only rebel by not becoming a chiropractor (believe it or not, my grandparent’s dream for me.)
So I dropped out of college in my twenties. I couldn’t find a “calling” that did not include the Arts and a bad paycheck. Or the humanities and a bad paycheck. Or a bad paycheck.
I misspent years of my youth in the shadow of the oft versed collective condemnation of my elders by not writing…and I was miserable.
Then indeed came the Era of Stephen King. And suddenly not only was writing cool – writing Horror was cool. It was as though the whole condemnation thing had been an hallucination…and I was misremembering my entire youth, every verbal barb. Instead, it was all about, “when are you going to write a book?”
So, okay, you realize (I was thinking loudly), it’s not like I can just flip a switch here…. Or wave a wand at New York. I had buried a lot of stories…buried them deep… And never mind that once the Muse is insulted enough, she goes AWOL. Even if I could find a thread of a tale, there was another problem my years of denial had created: when I did sit down to write, I found I felt…uneducated. Like I didn’t know how to go about it.
It was an epiphany moment when I realized that for all of the compliments English teachers gave me in high school, they didn’t really give me direction. Partly this was because teachers are so constantly overburdened with a wide range of students and abilities, and partly this was because University-level education in English at that time led to the otherwise unfocused study of Classic Literature, or teaching. But not writing. Not invention. Not story construction. Not craft.
Apparently, we haven’t advanced much – relying now upon a few undergraduate courses, expensive workshops, horribly expensive MFA’s, or collective groups of writers who are no better educated than yourself about what ails your fiction.
But we are also no better in helping writers find out who they are as writers, and about educating them within their chosen genre. I realized that this is because we do not educationally link all of the things that make writing dynamic. Instead we loudly identify and point out the fawn lying in the tall grass… and sometimes those of us lying down only see the big teeth after that moment.
No one takes vulnerable youth and guides it….they seem to think we are homing pigeons born with our own magnetic compasses destined to take us infallibly to our careers… And that if we fail to navigate successfully, it is a sign we deserved to fail. We are not worthy.
Try battling that ghost…
Writing is Curiosity
One of the truly coolest things about writing is the full scope of the brain that gets involved in the process.
None of this was lost on me sitting in that bed at Grandma’s that night, certain a ghost was in the room with me. And it is exactly that kind of thing that gets the old curiosity going.
Never mind that many writers who write Horror typically don’t “believe” in the supernatural; many of them are agnostic, or have fallen away from their respective childhood faith. Some of us do get into it because of the things we’ve experienced, but don’t understand. Some of us were obliquely analytical about those hairs standing straight up, and managed to get a bit addicted to the frisson of terror that dilates the pupils and spills questions from your mouth like, “did that door just move by itself?”
We might sit in graveyards, or watch Horror movies with the lights out. Just because. And then we might dive into philosophy and religion and psychology because we sense it is all interrelated. And we find it’s fun…scaring ourselves.
But it also means we know how hard it is to recreate. Because who knows what witches’ brew of written ingredients will cast the right spell? We have to pull the fear out of our minds and inject it into those of perfect strangers – about whom we only know that they have the same addiction to scaring themselves. How to surprise them…
Horror is so brain science! Psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, neurolinguistics, linguistics, memory, information processing, emotions, responses – learned and innate, physiology, biology, language formation and use…
When you see a ghost, why don’t you run? When you see something you know is not there, why does your heart race? What does it mean if you see a ghost? Is there something physically wrong? Mentally wrong? Or worse, spiritually wrong? What does that say about humanity? About the soul? About death? About religion? About God?
Horror is all about the Big Questions. From Great Grandma sitting at the end of the bed all dead, to what is the real meaning of life… Horror is the one genre willing to get down and dirty with the harsh imaginings of what it means to be human.
And as such it can spread its prose to encompass the symbolic, to haunt the guilty, to cry for justice.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it also made for some of the greatest Horror ever written. And it’s why as human beings we love scary stories, the macabre, the eerie.
Life Sucks. Death Sucks Worse.
So as you get older and people around you start dying, you also start wondering just why you are –especially after all these years— a writer of Horror. You wonder if you shouldn’t have channeled yourself into some other people-pleasing genre, written about hunks from history or epic battles. But then you get all excited about the new Joyce Carol Oates book, or rediscover some Shirley Jackson novel, or embrace some Roald Dahl or go all Saki with “Sredni Vashtar” and you just realize…you like it too much.
You realize that at the end of the day, you need to aim for the least amount of regrets. And if that means you spend your time sitting in a room writing scary tales – or trying to write them, then so be it.
Life sucks. Sometimes you’re the hearse-driver, sometimes you’re the hearse passenger. Life may be hard and unforgiving, the paychecks may be smaller in the arts, but death without having tried sucks worse.
It’s why if you are a young person whose parents frown at what you have chosen to write, you need to just keep writing it. Don’t ever stop writing. You can’t get those years back. And not-writing will make you miserable. It’s why if you are an older writer still waiting to for the right time to write, you need to pose those ghosts in your head and paint prose pictures right now. Just clear a space in a quiet corner and start writing. You probably have years of failure to spend catching up on lost time and opportunity… and like me, you aren’t getting any younger. Go for it. Set your soul free.
So I guess I’ll stay right here, totally remembering the image of Great Grandma in that rocking chair, totally awed by my hearse-driving Grandma. I have a lot of catching up to do, a lot of stories to unbury. And with beginnings like that, surely there’s one good tale in me worth telling.
Now to find the kitchen shears to root it out…