The Future of Horror: Will You Be There For the Renaissance?


For those who might have noticed the strange and mysterious “disappearance” of Horror titles currently missing from American bookshelves…Might there be cause for worry?

Even in big box stores that formerly carried at least The Best Of series of Horror anthologies (edited respectively by Ellen Datlow, Paula Guran, and Stephen Jones), there appears to be a growing availability desert.

Sure, they can be ordered online. But what has happened to carrying at least those titles in major bookstores (titles, by the way, which always sold copies)? Where are our new authors? Our old, established authors? Why are we constantly seeing reconfigurations of the same authors and stories? What are they doing to our genre?

For many, there is the sensation that the future is bleak. Has the genre fallen on hard times, or are we being gaslighted into oblivion? Are Horror fans still out there, and what can we do as writers to try to bring things back to better sales plateaus?

The truth is that Horror as a genre is reinventing itself. And that means the real question is not are fans and new writers out there, but will you be part of the Renaissance?

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Masks of the Internet

One issue we are dealing with in our genre is the problem of the Internet. That’s right – problem.

Today’s internet control of Literature is like going into your local library and finding everything dumped on the floor. The only thing anyone tells you is that it is in the heap…somewhere.

While too many people are proud to say this type of availability puts everyone for the first time on equal footing, it also makes a mess that is overwhelming to navigate. Expecting the average reader to have the patience to sort through all of the possible titles and an army of unknown names as authors or editors is just too much. Never mind the issue of quality in Craft as well as production.

We need the kind of categorization that came with the thousands of years of development shaped by libraries, the kind of reviews that come from average folks that used to be employed by newspapers to rate or recommend new publications, the kind of analytical criticisms that come from actual Literary Critics, and the word of your local bookseller who knows what is selling and what is not.

All of these are being erased by Amazon and its shoppers. So for those still “using” the knowledge provided by libraries and brick and mortar stores to make online purchases, get ready. Your secret weapons are being eliminated. Prices are going up, selection is going down, and nobody knows or cares what you know or spend precious money on.

So go ahead. Wave your phone in my face and tell me how my job is soon to be extinct because my company won’t price match. I can’t wait when you get to pay new, higher prices because Amazon has you over the barrel…

The examples of what is to come are already out there.

It is far too easy to make books look totally awesome that are absolute crap.

Here is a for-instance: I recently bought a not-so-cheap Print-on-Demand book about navigating the “basics” of one of the Adobe suite programs….But instead of an introduction to that program, it was a hundred-page recitation of what you find on the box…system requirements, et al…

Talk about nerve. And if this kind of thing happens enough times, readers will stop buying books off the Internet. Justifiably. They will stop trusting us as writers.

So what can we do? How do we find Horror and keep our genre going in these hard times?

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For one thing, we need to keep up with our editors.

It really doesn’t matter if you like an editor’s choices and/or selections of authors or stories. What matters is that these are “considered” The Best….

As a reader, you need to see what that is to see if you agree or disagree with the assessment. And if you disagree, you need to support other, different authors. If you agree, you need to look up those authors’ other works and give them a whirl. As a writer, you need to know what has been done, what strikes you as overdone, and what inspires you to do something completely different.

You cannot know if you are a rebel if you don’t know the norm…

Know the norm. Know the editors. Know their styles. And either get with their program or write your own. But read them. Read them regularly… They aren’t who they are for no reason…

The other thing you can do is to try other publications, other anthologies, other editors. They are out there, although in increasingly smaller, more irregularly published numbers. They do have a habit of disappearing frequently, of reinventing, of staggered publication schedules. But if you do not purchase them, they cannot survive.

And try the offerings of small, independent publishers.

Horror is still more of a red-haired stepchild than its own powerful genre for many publishers, and all of that bruhaha about this being a Golden Age of Horror really does pertain mostly to film. As for print and Horror fiction in general, there is evidence of trying to stuff Horror into other genres like Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Thrillers. Mention of Horror tends to be an afterthought, not the leading marketing angle.

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And the sad thing is this is all the doing of publishers trying to rebrand our genre as everything else, as though to hide its wolfish nature amongst the sheep is a good thing…

We have writers – many of them from that Golden Decade of the 1980s and the Real Golden Age of the 1950s – whose works are still out there being read often because they are being recycled... But it would appear that the general consensus is that we are not at this time writing very compelling Horror fiction. And some of those “older” writers used to be proud Horror writers…until something ugly happened and they were sidelined by publishers who shied away from midlist sales figures and potentially controversial prose if not controversial writers. And then until something uglier happened and someone started bleeding off our writers claiming they wrote other types of fiction instead of a “purer” kind of Horror.

You didn’t know there was classism in our genre? Well, there is in fact…

But the good news is that along with the sweeping (and often detrimental changes) the internet has brought to our genre the opportunity for coup.

You see it is the fans of Horror who decide what Horror is and will become.

Fans decide with their wallets.

When I see more pulp, more comics, more graphic novels selling in our genre than the Best Of anthologies, I see revelation.

When I see classic authors outselling everyone but Stephen King, I see revelation.

When I see Stephen King carrying our modern genre, I see revelation.

The revelation is: you can lead a horse to water or a pulp fan to Literature, but you cannot make him or her drink.

And if a fan does not understand Literature, chances are, there is no incentive to drink more than once.

In other words, we as a genre – our Establishment – is doing a piss poor job of marketing the reinvention of Horror. We are not exclusively Literary, nor should we be. We have to love the whole child. And what better source of inspiration is there but pulp? Graphic Art? Fine Art? Comics? Summer blockbusters?

That is what is selling…

Horror is a fun genre as well as a heavy one. One end feeds off of the other.

Our Renaissance cannot exclude our pulp roots, or demand an explanationless manifestation of Literature because we are not (yet) robots.

Our Renaissance is destined to be a marriage of the two. Opposites attract. Sparks make fire.

We are as writers being presented with one “acceptable” track of creation, and that is in itself stifling.

If we want to “see publication” then we must conform to demand.

How ugly is that?

As a fan, if you want to know where your genre is, it is out here – with you – in the cold, wet rain. Writers are writing in rebellion. But we have few places to go to show you, unless we want to “give it away” and we cannot afford that.

We are seeking markets. Making markets. Trying to decide how we can navigate the world between the hammer-strokes of Amazon.

Your genre is reinventing itself, therefore it is being forced to hide its unpalatable gyrations, its shape-changing behind internet masks – lest it bring shame to the Establishment.

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But it is out there. Graphic novels, comics, pulp… its audience is loyal. It sticks together and whispers about new plots, new characters, new writers, new artists….Not so much general Horror fiction.

But in their loyalty to King, we see their preferences…the need for accessibility in fiction. As writers we are trying to get there. We are writing stories nobody wants to pay for, but may in fact be good Horror. We support King, read King, and will always have a special place in our creative hearts for his work. He (in all likelihood) inspired multiple generations to become writers if not lifelong Horror fans.

Yet we need more.

We need variety to keep on growing. We can’t all write pulp, or Literature, or Kinglike books.

But we can be inspired by them, and that is how genres grow.

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The Way Forward is Dark

One of the reasons we are having trouble selling our Horror fiction (besides the obvious obliteration of markets and reduction of publishers and editors) is that we are all not looking in the right place OR for the right things.

Like it or not, this is the era of attempted Literary Horror…and not because editors and Critics want it, but because the world we live in right now is presenting us with Horrors the likes of which only George Orwell, Isaac Asimov and Harry Harrison imagined.

From this decade we will either see the rise of some of the greatest Literature of our modern times, or the end of it. Because all of us are being affected down to the molecules of our day-to-day lives. We cannot escape or ignore truths any more than Dickens or Dostoevsky. And the fear, the fury, the moral outrage is coursing through our creative veins, coloring our monsters and our plots, dragging us into dystopian scenarios, making real the rest of the world in ways the rest of the world has only dreamed of.

Every day we are waking up in a universe created by Bosch.

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Every day, the garden of earthly delights becomes less and less attainable… replaced by the promise of man’s inhumanity to man.

Climbing up out of that hellish, all-encompassing vision is difficult. For artists and writers who are prone to so much psychic noise and psychological sound waves, the experience can be overwhelming….suffocating….and sometimes liberating…

Literature and Fine Art is born of this angst, this disgust and this Horror.

This means that a lot of writers are either writing about Potteresque young wizards or drowning in creative milieus of powerful emotion, struggling to get it down on the page and tucked neatly into story.

But they are OUT there…struggling to the surface for air. Keep looking for them; they are looking for you…

The transformation from trying to figure out what editors want and whether a story is one story or a trilogy has evaporated into how to bring the Horror to the foreground, how to make Horror scary again when Real Life seems to outpace anything we can imagine.

This is a creative challenge.

And like our fanbase in the genre, we are struggling to navigate each day, pay the bills, digest each new oppressive threat by politics that seem hellbent on creating dictatorship by promising various, construed bases changes won’t adversely affect them but only those they do not like….all while pushing plots and experimenting with characters and scenarios that often feel as surreal as Science Fiction or Fantasy because real life is mimicking it.

It is a tall order. But one I assure you your genre writers are up to…And I have seen the evidence personally. Right now what we are lacking most is that over-the-edge push…the one thing that horrifies absolutely the way a King novel horrifies, because the Horror is real… It is because we are struggling to learn the Craft we are not being taught while creating what we hope are sound concepts executed the way we want…

It takes work. Practice. Mastery.

It takes Renaissance.

And we cannot let ourselves go numb and mute. We have to say exactly what we mean. We have to not-care what others will think. We have to be willing to write outside of the Establishment’s dictates or preferences, and understand getting found in a confusing mass of titles is going to be a challenge unlike few others.

It’s going to take raw determination by our writers.

It’s going to take blind faith.

And as a writer I feel it coming.

As a bookseller I still see fans looking for new Horror.

This tells me it isn’t over – our genre is far from done.

In fact, I believe it tells me we are just getting started. And once we find a way to get it out there – as a genre – as a collective….then I think we will see new sales. New fans. New writers.

Whether we are The Best or not.

Some of us are content to place our immortality in the hands of our readers. Because that is where it belongs. Out there. In the dark.

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Know Your Horror Traditions: the Petition to Change the Date of Halloween


Well this is certainly one I didn’t see coming…

Maybe with the prolific and blind acceptance of fake news it has occurred to people that we can just change anything we want – including things like the date upon which Halloween occurs. After all, we did it to Christ and His birthday. What’s it matter to dis a few ghosts and witches?

Yet while it is true that we have often rearranged, renamed, and redefined holidays to suit the all-important gods of convenience, preference, and retail… maybe it is time to hit the “pause” button…

Listen up you self-indulgent busybodies… You have so decimated my industry and my genre in so many ways, GET YER MITTS OFF MY HOLIDAY!

Leave Halloween alone. There are actual reasons it is when it is…

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https://allergicpagan.com/2017/10/03/halloween-as-a-holy-day-2/

All Hallows… A Real Thing and On the Church Calendar

If this generation has tired me out on one issue, it is the reluctance of the younger people running this country to place any value whatsoever on historical tradition (you know: actual facts).

Claim the petitioners:

“According to the Halloween and Costume Association, the organization that started the petition, 70 percent of parents do not accompany their children trick-or-treating and 3,800 people are injured every year in Halloween-related incidents. They say changing the holiday to a Saturday would make it safer, reports CBS News’ Jericka Duncan.” https://www.cbsnews.com/news/halloween-thousands-sign-petition-to-move-holiday-to-a-saturday/

Never mind you just admitted you can’t be bothered to accompany your own children… We did this to ourselves.  And then claims another oppressed parent:

“…moving Halloween to a Saturday would be a treat for all. “It would be nice if we could all be together like we are with other holidays.”

Yeah, as a retail worker I think the same darn thing EVERY day after Thanksgiving. And then Thanksgiving. Let alone Christmas…It would be nice if WE ALL could spend holidays at home because the entire general public had 364 days to buy whatever they convinced retail stores they need the day OF…

But I digress… (Pardon ME for being selfish…)

The fact is, Halloween has reason for being exactly where and when it is on the calendar. And I have to wonder where all those mouthy silent majority folk are when it comes to messing with actual historical tradition.

The holiday we know as Halloween didn’t begin with irreverent mimicry of candy-hunting witches and Hollywood-inspired scary monsters.

No, it began with pagan rituals for the celebration of the end of the harvest and of the first day of the beginning of winter. And thereafter, even more appropriately with dead people and things that roam the darkest of night…

 

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While fans of modern witchcraft have embraced the day—called Samhain by the medieval (and older) Gaelic peoples, trust me when I say it goes way, way back. It is pagan – and pagan is not only wiccan practices, but those of any population practicing polytheism and therefore not any of the modern, “accepted” religions. This means the date comes – along with the name and “holiday” – from very primitive sources, related to the land and the spirituality of the land. But it is seriously connected to human survival as dependent upon the accurate understanding of season cycles relative to growing your own food.

In other words, at its earliest invention, what we now call Halloween is directly connected to human history and specifically farming….

And because success or failure in farming was so intimately connected with the mysteries of the seasons, the sudden lessening of daylight, the deepening of shadows that seem to lull the world into a cold, dark sleep… the association with death and rebirth was a natural leap.

And death carries with it its own mythology and superstitions, including ghosts and goblins and fairies and devils…evil spirits and curses and spells… So it also makes sense that somewhere between our ancient ancestors’ hopes to “stack the deck” for a great next harvest and a safe dark winter, certain behaviors and rituals might be born… and practiced…and believed.

Traditions which the then “new” religion of Christianity might take issue with, and seek to replace or diffuse…

So while one might argue that Halloween is something created out of a Christian-twisted pagan holiday, and it is just about the “end of harvest” whenever that falls…so it can therefore be changed even more… this is to totally ignore the point of the day: the literal acknowledgement of the end of a safe, productive summer and the beginning of a cold, dark, treacherous time: Winter. In the North Countries.

Why should we care?

How about….History….

Today’s populations seem so disinterested in history… Yet because we humans aren’t as creative or original as we like to think ourselves, history far too often repeats itself. So logically if we are not going to take multiple steps backward in every undereducated, ignorant generation, and thereby reverse the advancements we manage to occasionally eke out and maximize our own growth toward true civilization and – yes – enlightenment… then we have to learn our own history, respect the lessons therein, and prevent stupid, backward facing actions from bringing us all down.

Learning history means doffing our hats to those who got the rest of us here. It means understanding exactly how we got here – warts and all.

Paganism and all.

Farming and all.

Because believe it or not we still have farmers in this world and God bless them, every one. Isn’t it important to understand how farming shaped our human society? How it globally still does?

You might not think we sacrifice virgins any more to get a great crop, but have you talked to the nurses in a children’s cancer ward or read the labels on pesticides lately? Have you counted how many actual small farmers are put out of business, or commit suicide annually because they are being driven out of their professions by monopolies? Trust me: we still have demons to fight, and darkness to bargain with…

And what about religion? What about the spin Christianity contributes to Halloween?

All Souls Day…All Saints Day… the remembrance of, honoring of, and prayers for all our dead having gone before us…what about them? I mean, aren’t we going to be them some day? Don’t you want a collective prayer, a day of remembrance bigger than the one the lawnmower man might get you running his John Deer over your nameplate?

What about the tradition of that?

It’s no coincidence that Halloween would be set when the first breath of winter sighs over the harvested fields, and emotions are spent…the first day of the cold, dark days of spiritual peril, days when the veil between this world and whatever comes next seems precipitously thin…

Halloween… Hallowe’en… All Hallow’s Eve… (eve being “even” in the Scots…contracted to e’en, or een)…

Festival of the fires

http://liveireland.com/samhain-the-origins-of-halloween/

 

All Halloween, All of the Time…

The Feast of All Hallows, it is true, was moved to accommodate Church preferences…by Pope Gregory IV….in 835.

But it was purposely overlaid on Samhain, muddying the subversive beliefs of rural folk, guiding them toward Christian beliefs and actions.

And while these new Petitioners in today’s argument wanting to change the day of Halloween to the “last Saturday” of the month might point out such changes, the point of those changes that came before was to mask the day – the change of the season from autumn to winter – with something less superstitious and more Christian. It was meant to bolster faith, and spiritual protection – not to make lucky-to-have-both-kids-and-weekends-off parents’ lives easier.

Again we need to look at how Halloween happened in the first place. Its calendar recognition is not haphazard, not random, not “made up” for convenience. The actual date has astronomical significance as stated by Bruce McClure in Astronomy Essentials/Human World, Oct 31, 2017:

“But it’s also a cross-quarter day, which is probably why Samhain occurred when it did. Early people were keen observers of the sky. A cross-quarter day is a day more or less midway between an equinox (when the sun sets due west) and a solstice (when the sun sets at its most northern or southern point on the horizon). Halloween – October 31 – is approximately midway point between the autumn equinox and winter solstice, for us in the Northern Hemisphere.

“In modern times, the four cross-quarter days are often called Groundhog Day (February 2), May Day (May 1), Lammas (August 1) and Halloween (October 31).” https://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/halloween-derived-from-ancient-celtic-cross-quarter-day

And before anyone complains about calendars…We again must look at history, because we are now using the Gregorian calendar, and that also adds to the historic confusion a bit. Continues McClure:

“The October 31 date for Halloween has been fixed by tradition. The true cross-quarter day falls on November 7, representing a discrepancy of about a week. According to the ancient Celts, a cross-quarter day marks the beginning – not the middle – of a season…

“At that time, when the Julian calendar was in use, the cross-quarter day and the midnight culmination of the Pleiades fell – amazingly enough – on or near October 31. But, then, the Julian calendar was about one week out of step with the seasons. Had the Gregorian calendar been in use back then, the date of the cross-quarter day celebration would have been November 7.”

That’s right. Halloween is also about heavenly bodies and constellations. Halloween is all about astronomy. Like farming and religion used to be about astronomy.

Clarifies McClure:

“It’s thought that the early forbearer of Halloween – Samhain – happened on the night that the Pleiades star cluster culminated at midnight.

In other words, the Pleiades climbed to its highest point in the sky at midnight on or near the same date as this cross-quarter day. In our day, Halloween is fixed on October 31, though the midnight culmination of the Pleiades cluster now occurs on November 21.”

Got that?

Halloween started as a date recognized by farmers as the point at which growing season was over and harvest needed to be complete. It was a reminder that there just might be some unpredictable factors involved in human survival, and that we have lived centuries trying to find the exact right formula if not bribe to ensure the best outcome. And it was also seen as something else – something laced with supernatural mystery because

“For us in the Northern Hemisphere, Halloween is the darkest of the cross-quarter days, coming at a time of year when the days are growing shorter. Early people once said that the spirits of the dead wander from sunset until midnight around this cross-quarter day. After midnight – on November 1, which we now call All Saints’ Day – the ghosts are said to go back to rest.”

Halloween was never about convenience.

There is absolutely nothing convenient about a Northern Winter when you live in a hovel. Or spirits roaming about — known or otherwise.

And now you want to change Halloween? To make it “safer”? … Well according to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving website :

“In 2014, 16 percent of all drivers involved in fatal crashes during the week were drunk, compared to 29 percent on weekends. During weekday ay time, 12.1% of drivers tested positive for an illegal drug; 10.3% tested positive for prescription and OTC medications. During weekend nighttime, 15.2% of drivers tested positive for an illegal drug; 7.3% tested positive for prescription and OTC medications…” https://www.madd.org/statistics/

Surpise! Life has no guarantees.

And whatever happened to spontaneity? To recognizing that meaningful Life is not contained to weekends (which some of us work, incidentally and thank you)…

Life clocks along at its own natural pace…And for your information, those of us who trick-or-treated in the Old Days managed it just fine no matter what day it fell on. It was the all about the day… a time when the dead were honored and among us…

I wouldn’t be caught dead or walking dead trick-or-treating on any other.

Halloween falling on its astronomically determined date of October 31st reminds us that WE are not in charge…that winter will come for all of us, metaphor or not…right there with reckoning and judgment alongside your Snickers and Malted Milk Balls…

I say leave it be… The ghosts already know when to come out… The dead know when to walk.

Do you really want to exclude them from their own holiday?

And you are really going to ask this White House to change an historically, and spiritually significant date for convenience? That might be The Line, buddy…

Get a grip. It’s not all about YOU.

And it was never – ever – about fun.

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https://www.historicmysteries.com/origin-of-halloween/

 

Watching Scary Movies: Horror & the Inference of Blame in Current Events


Horror has always been suspect.

What kinds of people watch, write, or put on film and in our minds such awful images? What kinds of people like that sort of thing?

Since it first emerged as its own genre, Horror has been blamed for being the cause or the effect of mental derangement, of moral impropriety and religious slander. Hidden behind the guise of the immaturity of adolescent boys, everyone has intentionally overlooked the real origins and depth of the genre, trading it for gratuitous sex and violence and wielding it like a magic wand to explain the irrational behaviors we have come to embrace as “evil.”

Most recently we had the Slender Man girls. And now we have the Scary Movie-Watching Florida middle school girls who planned to murder smaller classmates in the girl’s restroom…

As a Horror writer, I feel we must brace ourselves for the interrogation of the genre that will surely come next because it has already been inferred: does Horror cause people to commit sordid crimes? Worse, does it cause or divulge mental instability? And do creators of Horror have any responsibility for subsequent audience behavior?

If you hear the creak of the attic door, you are not alone…

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Evil As a Modifier

We are living in tumultuous times. With globalization comes the questioning of individuals as to how much responsibility any of us have in either causing, enabling, or allowing bad human behavior to unfold and have its way with innocent other people. The pressure can be phenomenal.

Because even if we sense, feel, or believe we have some level of responsibility for such events, or even feel compelled to do something about what common sense tells us are indeed bad things and that therefore the people who do them should be brought to heel, the facts are that we feel equally powerless as isolated individuals to prevent such human behavior. And the greater the guilt we sense we should shoulder, the more frustrated we become – all too often looking to blame anyone and anything else we can to absolve ourselves from having to address the issue so we can rebury it and get on with our comfortable lives.

We want so desperately to shut the images and their truths off.

It’s how we got here to this place of isolationism in the U.S…It’s how we got caught up in the idea that if we could only turn back the clock to “simpler times” we could all finally….breathe.

Yet the reality is isolationism does not work: ask native tribes that were living blissful lives until boatloads of Europeans floated ashore…Sooner or later the world comes for you and the trick is to be ready to embrace the facts that cannot be changed – not blaming yet another strata of people and superficial issues.

One particularly unsavory fact needing a hug is that human beings are flawed.

And none of us are exempt from those flaws, which include any number of mental and personality disorders. Why do you think psychologists and psychiatrists burn out? Can you imagine the horror of realizing most of humanity is not completely sane?

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But because humans are also not entirely stupid, we realize that things are askew and we haphazardly seek to fix them ourselves or find explanations for why it is ok these little deficiencies exist. They disturb us. They make us doubt ourselves in ways that make us seek out others of our own kind and similar thinking (for how else will we get a fair shake?)… For a while, religion filled this function nicely.

Yet if we look at the evolution of the Horror genre, we see that humanity has always had questions that are not so easily put to rest, questions religion could not or would not answer directly. Through Horror we have pondered the Big Questions about the existence of God and an afterlife, we have poked corpses in the attempt to understand the differences between life and death and that mysterious road that leads from one to the other. We have asked where consciousness and life begin and end, we have recoiled from the many ways the human mind grabs onto sanity by buffering itself in insanity.

When religion fell short or its leaders were exposed to be just as human as the rest of us, we held God at fault. And we punished Him by running away into the dark forest, using our cellphones for light.

Horror is so brain science, so philosophy, so religion, so psychology…but it is also superstition and sociology. And to our endless Horror – history.

In our fear and trepidation, we manage to scoop everything we do not understand but fear immensely into one word: evil.

We like to think God abandoned us, not the other way around. And so we set out to clearly delineate what is God stuff, and what we can actually change. What is God stuff is all mystical and indistinct – anything that upsets our daily, ghost-free lives. So when two little girls act in ways that had clearly been banished from view, we need tools to make our world right again.

It was those darn violent, Satan-worshipping movies… It was those bad parents…It was all the Church scandals… It was those negligent teachers…

Or maybe it was just the devil. Because then none of us have to do anything. It all becomes no one’s fault – not even the little girls’ unless we want to make them into the personification of evil, but first we will have to look into the matter…do the criminal court thing…toss them into a pond to see if they float…

It is somehow easier to envision all manner of demons and devils rising from Sulphur-lined pits to test our faith and resolve than it is to admit that we all too often just get it wrong, or that we make decisions from ignorance or unsound minds.

It is an excellent, totally encompassing word that explains all and clarifies nothing.

It is a Band-Aid for a bullet wound.

And best of all it is a dehumanizing word. It gives us permission to act in irrational ways to bury the problem that scares us the most: mental illness in children.

Whether we are talking terrorists, serial killers, political opponents or middle-school kids… when we toss the word “evil” into the mix we give collective societal permission for everyone to nod in unspoken understanding, to shrug and walk away, to stuff the “evil ones” into the attic of social choice and call it a day. If the doer is evil, we are not only absolved, but elevated for being more moral, more ethical, more superior…less flawed…

Yet if Horror has taught us anything, it is that evil never dissipates – it merely changes form…

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Two Little Maids From School Are We

When the Slender Man attempted murder story broke, there was ample discussion of what the girls had been into.

Fortunately for Evil-spotters everywhere, the newest culprits have supplied us with exactly what we need: they are admitted Satanists.

Forget for a moment that middle school kids no matter how “sophisticated” haven’t a clue what that means. This is a godsend. Clearly it was no one’s fault but the devil. We now have permission to proceed, but heads must roll.

Surely the watching of scary movies is of importance. Where on earth else would innocent children even learn the term “Satan worshippers”? Become “tainted”? “Infected”? Turned…

Obviously not from this election cycle…

The reporting uses words like “chilling” “disturbing” “childlike drawings” “planned killing” and “suicide”…It was emphasized that the plot was “hatched” while watching scary movies during a sleepover… https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/News/video/girls-stopped-carrying-deadly-school-assault-police-58738128

And every subsequent report reveals ever more sensational allegations – the intent to drink the blood of their murdered class mates, of being found with a goblet, planning to dismember the bodies and commit suicide…of being confessed Satanists. ..

Of course it is shocking. Of course we want to know how did this happen?

Because we so desperately want to believe it would be so simple as watching a few scary movies…that dreaded mental illness has its root in merely viewing what your parents told you not to watch, that you can save your children by banning exactly that.

The news reports reflect all of our responses…a certain and desperate need to believe this anathema appeared from nowhere to possess innocent children.

Of course it must be the Horror movies. It has to be the Horror movies. Because that way it becomes its own Horror movie and all Horror movies have formulas to follow and supernatural entities to blame…

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And what about all of those horrible movies? That awful Stephen King? Those clearly twisted individuals who like and propagate the kind of psychotic drivel that is the Horror genre?

But these questions are not so simple. And contrary to the beliefs of questioners who will most certainly come forward, Horror – like video games – do not cause human behavior as clearly as both reflect it.

Horror is a mirror. Horror writers and filmmakers pull nothing from the air; they are not magicians. They merely report what they observe – pulling at loose threads because the questions of what causes human beings to do the terrible things they do to each other bothers them deep down…

Most certainly there is a spectrum upon which Horror creators fall. Some are more observant of some parts of human nature than others, some revel in the shock of human behavior and its implied consequences… Others thrash about in the darkness of the human mind, desperate to understand where all of the real lines are…But there is one common denominator: the determination to make their audience think, if not think twice.

Any balanced person who reads a Horror story or watches a Horror movie receives the warning in exchange for riding the roller coaster to the end. And the warning is always the same: tinkering with things you don’t understand can get you eliminated from normal life or life itself. Worse, it can drag you into hells you have never imagined and from which there is no hope of return.

Horror is fire and brimstone. Death is just the beginning.

So where do two middle school girls fall into this?

They fall into the category of like attracting like, of one more charismatic mind manipulating another eager to please. They fall into the category all of us dread – the mentally flawed, the psychotic or the wide range of antisocial personality disorders…And they did so with our social memories of movies like Children of the Corn and The Omen so vivid in all our adult minds…

Nothing terrifies us more than a child that seems to have preternatural, predatory awareness as shaped by mental illness.

It is so wrong, an anathema to our expectation and dreams of innocent childhood we all hope for our children.

It is an unforgivable unsettling of our little ordered worlds. And we wonder where this horrible disease might hide – that it hides being a whole different terror.

But in the end it is just illness. In the end, parents are busy and hopeful and rationalizing and maybe uninsured. Just like teachers. Just like neighbors. And even pediatricians. Signs get missed. Signs get subverted. Signs get blissfully, ignorantly overlooked. And sometimes they get hidden.

How do we know there is blame to be assigned? Owners of personality disorders and many mental illnesses learn early to hide their irregularities; many are astute observers of the normal so that they might imitate it, innocently trying to fix their own problems before embracing their differences. They can be very difficult to spot, even when you live among them – maybe more so because you live among them and desire better truths…

If these two cases of murderous little girls teach us anything, it is that we are none of us perfect – not in mental health, not in social behavior, not in being armchair psychologists…

We cannot hide our blindsiding dreams for our children that cause us to miss important signs, or underestimate the savviness of ill children to disguise their illnesses. But we should also stop believing that all things have a simple, black-and-white fix, that life is so easy we can patch the holes in the boat with an assortment of potent labels.

Horror does not cause mental illness. Horror creators as a group are not mentally ill, and no amount of binge-watching scary movies or reading urban legends and stories of Horror monsters cause crime or mental illness. That is not to say criminals and the mentally ill are not drawn there. Idiots dressing up as scary clowns to terrify strangers is the perfect example. But so are the imperfectly sane drawn to the important messages in the genre.

We have to stop calling people evil, using the word to modify any behavior we cannot or do not want to explain and take responsibility for.

We need to look at these two young girls as what they are – misfits, and unfortunates plagued by an unbearable illness — one that draws out the lifeblood of its victims and their families hope first.

We need to do better than wax poetic for the good old days.

We need to fix the broken ones we are living in now. And we do that by admitting we missed the signs…that we allowed ourselves to be distracted by easier or more garish problems. We owe these little girls that, we owe their parents and families that if we are to begin to fix the problems we have saddled our children with as a species and as a society. The weight of that burden is too great to bear alone.

It takes a village for a reason…

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https://thegibraltarmagazine.com/mid-harbours-family-community-centre-inaugurated/o-helping-hand-facebook/

 

 

It’s Halloween: Just Turn Out The Lights (How to Unsettle Yourself in Hi-Tech Times)


It all started because of a thunderstorm. It was a particularly wicked one, clouds plump with torrential rain, and continuous ropes of lightning that knifed through the darkness, bearing with it the sharp tang of ozone and delivering the weird frisson of having walked through something unseen.

It was a Mary Shelley kind of moment.

And it was an easy decision to unplug the electronics and move to a more secure place away from the windows, a no-brainer to assume that nature might well have every intention of inviting itself inside by way of the outside.

So sure enough… in a matter of seconds and one lightning illuminated, very loud clap and roll of thunder later, the lights…went…out.

Suddenly all that was left to sense was what could be held by the dark-filled room – its shape-filled interior lit only by the occasional flash of electrically charged tentacles, the sound of heavy rain cascading down upon the roof like a waterfall, and the rich loamy smells of wet earth.

What if, one could hear oneself wonder, what if I am not alone?

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Illustration by 731 …https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-07-03/u-dot-s-dot-plans-for-power-grid-crippling-sun-storms

 

This is Where I Live as a Writer…

Growing up in the military, I lived for a while overseas, experiencing my first hurricane on the island of Taiwan in 1971, a Category Five Super Typhoon named Bess. I remember watching the walls of our house crack in the flickering light of candles, the winds so loud we never heard the large tree fall on our house, buckling the ceiling behind the kitchen. We also couldn’t hear the screams of the families further up the mountainside whose houses disintegrated during the storm, families that were left huddling against the only remaining wall of their home, holding onto a glass-peppered mattress for protection as the storm took off the roof.

Their suffering went unheard and unnoticed, everything lost to the surreal and unnatural sounds that 130 to 160 mile an hour winds create as they pass over land, ripping trees from the ground and sweeping civilization back into the ocean, drowning anyone and everyone not left impaled, carrying too many back out to sea in the floodwaters of the storm surge.

In a place where our house was slightly sheltered by a natural earth berm, the biggest terror I took away from it all was the warning of our ama (a Chinese appointed housekeeper and nanny) to never open the door during a storm no matter what we heard because the dead wander in typhoons asking to be let in.

Even now, I eye the darkness left by a simple power outage with suspicion.

Even now I tend to turn off all electronics, gather the candles, and sit and…listen.

It is a gift to a Horror writer, these kinds of life experiences.

It is mirrored in the temporary power-outages caused by lesser storms, reminding me not to forget. It forces the arrogant beast of technology back into its cave, disarming the once-brave because there is nothing like a black-out to remind us of exactly where we come from.

In the darkness of a storm, we are all meat.

Indeed, these times of high technology have ruined a great deal of Horror. We mock the measured, detail-laden stories of older times, we sneer at people who would be so superstitious, so easily spooked. We think ourselves so sophisticated, surrounded with technology the way primitive peoples used to surround themselves with amulets and sacrifices.

Yet hiding in our precious lighted castles, we forget that it is the elements in charge of our ultimate well-being. Our planet decides whether we will be allowed to live another day, to ravage her flesh and mine her bones. And on occasion, she has tantrums and moves to excise us from the open wound our existence has created. If you have ever lived through a class 5 hurricane, you would have no doubt of our tenuous rule of this place.

And if you are a Horror writer, you know that it is not all superstition; that it is appropriate that we refer to energy as Power…

Sooner or later we are all brought down to the level of the elements, cast naked among them and dared to survive unchanged.

Yet not-changing is impossible, because even the brief loss of electricity stays with you long after the lights come back on. Suddenly you decide to straighten your room, to put away that sinister stack of clothes that you laugh at now, but suspect strongly did move just when the dark was darkest. And when a holiday like Halloween rolls around, it is that moment you remember… and a new frisson spills across your flesh even as you hide behind the cuteness of kids in costumes.

You can’t shake it. And you won’t admit it.

And therein again you miss the point… Mind that something has noticed, and is now waiting for opportunity to arise just there, at the edge of your vision.

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https://www.wallpaperup.com/55819/House_Creepy_halloween_haunted_lights_windows.html

 

Tasting the Fear and Loving It

Those who like to say that Horror is childish and no longer an effective genre have never been completely alone in the dark.

They mistake arrogance for bravery.

They live in electrically lighted homes with what they perceive to be impenetrable walls, armed with flashlights whose batteries never die, with cellphones that Twitter endlessly in the silence. Tragedy happens to everyone else. A “bad” storm is one that interferes with your cable connection.

They gamble and win so often with the odds that they believe themselves to be immune to the effects of Horror and beauty alike… never suspecting that sometimes they are one and the same.

They have never even looked up at the night sky when the streetlights and city lights are blotted out, never sat in the wilderness and seen that thick blackness populated by Carl Sagan’s billions and billions of stars… some of them falling away, the texture and dimension of the velvet of starlit blackness so profound you can feel as though you yourself might fall off the earth and into it as you stare…

They don’t pay attention.

They have never stood on the edge of the continent and felt the power of the ocean as it crashes into the land mass, slowly wearing it away with the promise of more beach sand and broken shells. They have never listened to the sounds a house makes when battered by the elements, the siren-cries of the wind, the sounds made by animals dying in the dark because predators don’t let the rain stop their hunt.

They trivialize nature on a skewed system of relevance.

But these things – all of them – are what shaped our fairy tales, our myths, our legends, our phantoms, our fears. Writing Horror, we ought not to forget that. Reading Horror we are trying to recreate that prickly sense of heightened alert, that brief and profound triumph that comes with eluding the man-eater in the dark.

Only if we remember it can we recreate it for the reader. Only if we’ve felt it and embraced it can we summon it at will.

Thrillseekers. That’s what lovers of Horror are. We find an endorphin-skewered high in sharing scary experiences, a secret thrill not unlike what many an ancestor must have felt in cheating a hungry lion. It is a fleeting feeling, almost impossible to recreate by seeing the movie or reading the book a second time because once learned, we program in the pattern of deceit directly to our brains. We learn from our experiences. It is a survival mechanism from our primordial beginnings.

Horror is so brain science…

This makes it even harder for a Horror writer to shape the old fear into a new design. We must make our monsters unrecognizable just long enough to lure the reader closer, unsuspecting and within striking range.

Then we must give the reader a fleeting glimpse…We must return to the lesson of the storm.

It is deeply primitive and elemental, this lightning-flash view of the drooling beast with open maw that can end us in a split second. And it must happen at precisely the right moment or we cannot trigger that basic instinct to survive… the one that says RUN… or the second monster that leaves us to ask WHERE?

When “people say” Horror cannot scare us anymore, that we are too sophisticated now, they are in denial. They will simply be the first to be eaten. They think technology will save them in the end, and that bravery is about willpower.

They have never really faced the natural world, living in their virtual ones. Hypnotized by their perceived control of all things, they have disabled the primitive responses that can be suddenly and completely resuscitated by a thunderstorm.

“Scare me,” they dare. They watch movies and read books where protagonists get to hide behind digital devices, and roll their eyes when the terror fails to fully materialize. They go into dark theaters of Horror films and cannot even turn off their cellphones. “Not scary,” they proclaim. And I say, probably not.

To scare yourself you have to be willing to meet yourself in the dark.

You should try it. Turn out the lights and sit in complete darkness. Alone. Taste your own fear. Let your mind imagine things that move in the inky black. Did something brush against you? Are those eyes over there? Is that door moving?

This is the sketchy place your Horror writers live. We pack up the notepads and leave the headlamps behind, crawling into dark and dank places where misshapen things slither…because we like it. Because it is strangely familiar.

We go there so we can bring a piece of that world back to you, to jumpstart your heart, to startle your reflexes, to whisper of things that wander in the tall grass with rotting meat in their teeth.

You are welcome to come along, but you will have to turn off your devices, because they do not work here. This is a place for instinct, and sensory acuity. This is where survival happens, and luck can be simply the place you bed down.

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Putting Your Head in the Mouth of the Beast

They called it a Super Typhoon. It had a forty-mile wide eye and sustained winds from 108 to 130 knots, depending on where one was exactly. I remember the terrible and sudden eerie silence as that eye passed over Taipei and the mountain community of military housing called Shanzaihou on Yangmingshan (where we lived while my dad served at the U.S. Taiwan Defense Command), sliding stealthily over us from 10:20 to 11:05 pm…

When the storm was over it had claimed 30 lives with 2 missing, 2,200 dwellings were destroyed (and that being dwellings of record, as much of the population unaccounted for were street people at the time, living in lean-to’s between other structures). Flooding was massive, with as much as 18 inches of rain having fallen with a storm surge of 9.9 feet , and I remember almost 10,000 people being unaccounted for the immediate morning after as I and my family stood looking down the mountain at what had been the bustling town of Tianmu surrounded by rice paddies, then looking like an inland bay.

Nothing in my life has ever touched me the same way. I cannot get out of my head that memory of staring at all of that water, remembering all of those people who lived and worked down below, whose restaurants I had eaten in with my ama, quite against my parents’ directives…

Where are all the people?

The thought to this day brings tears to my eyes…the power of nature was overwhelming even in its aftermath. And I knew at that moment I would never forget what had happened, would never stop wondering how many of those 32 lives I might have encountered on my many trips into towns and cities and who were now just…gone.

I remember it as the first time I heard the sound of the elements the way our ancestors heard them when they clung to trees and painted the insides of caves.

I remember it every time a severe storm comes, its worst punch and thrust only a whimper of what happened that September 22nd on the tiny island of Taiwan. I remember it because its language is that of the Horror writer…primal, lethal, savage.

Typhoon Bess would become my benchmark for terror. I would never get it completely out of my head – the sights, the sounds, the smells, the absolute fear I felt even at age ten as fingers of wind clawed at the wooden shutters, trying to get in. It would serve to remind me that no amount of civilization is a match for the things that stalk and shape this world – the older, elemental things that seem to come awake when we overstep our egos, the things that seem to know that all which must be done to cow us is to turn out the lights…

It echoed the truth of what apocalyptic writers say: that technology cannot save us from the natural predator that ultimately stalks us… that in the end, we are all meat, destined to face our maker as naked as we met this world…

And it made me homesick, thinking about that time and that place. So of course I went looking…I went rummaging about in my past. And in the internet search for photos for this post, I took a long trip down memory lane…I used to trick-or-treat in this neighborhood…now in serious disrepair…

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https://www.facebook.com/pages/Yangmingshan-American-Military-Housing/188130171205885

 

Here I found a photo that suggested the house that was condemned after the typhoon, along with a similar wall and a same-sized tree that grows in the exact place it would have grown at our house, the one that fell on our kitchen, our ama, Fay, oddly sound asleep in her room beneath it during the storm …

And then there were other houses that look familiar…

 

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The Old Neighborhood… http://ustdc.blogspot.com/2010/09/yangmingshan-housing-area-today.html

 

Is it any wonder that we are shaped by the things that rearrange our lives? Do we remember or imagine the things we see in the dark of savage storms? And when it is our time, what might we see then? The storm that left us to recite the tale of its passing?

Horror writers inevitably cannot leave those questions alone. We pick at them like a scab that covers our humanity.

Will we die in our sleep?

Or be devoured alive by something we underestimated? Perhaps the Horrors in our own memories?

Turn out the lights and ask that question. Do it for Halloween when strange things roam the night.

Listen to the inhuman cries in the thick of a storm. Are the voices human? Did the darkness just move?

Don’t open the door… trick-or-treat… who knows what might be asking to be let in.

Maybe you should just set the candy dish out and go to a well-lighted place…

I’m not thinking you have the nerve to sit there in the dark.

Horror is alive and well.

Tweet that.

 

Bess6

https://stmed.net/wallpaper-64078

Coercion & Conformity in Horror: When the Stakes Go Through the Heart


I have a confession to make: I stopped submitting work to Horror markets years ago.

Oddly, it wasn’t about rejection – or rather, it was, but not in the way you might think.

I stopped because just reading various submission guidelines and editorial rants made by what are supposed to be professional publications and publishers absolutely pissed me off.

And this got me thinking: just how many other Horror writers have had it with submitting their work to three-year-olds?

And if other such writers are out there, not-submitting their work, how do we really know that the true best Horror stories are being told?

How do we know which way the threads of the genre are being pulled?

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“This Isn’t for Us”

I can’t vouch for other English-speaking countries, but there is something insidious afoot in the United States fiction market. With the loss of so many Old and Traditional Publishing Houses, the loss of so many quality editors, so many midlist authors, and so very much print, our fiction in all genres has bottlenecked at the river Homogeny.

No one seems to know what they want (other than an author who can make a lot of people rich at the same time and as quickly as possible). No one seems able to actually use words to express real parameters, no one seems to be able to define criteria succinctly and professionally and free of insane clown tantrums.

Everywhere is the stench of a new conformity – one that suggests that the genres are dead and classification generally useless, and another one that blurs the lines of genre requirements as though the publications themselves don’t know them.

Through this house of mirrors unpublished and new writers are being pressed… through a maze of gatekeepers whose qualifications hide behind misunderstood and ill-defined MFA degrees and unclear areas of study. We are so desperate to please a Horror editor – any Horror editor – that we overlook the absence of academic expertise and allow for the belief that because someone has a title of editor, they know what they are doing.

But there is no real school for Horror editors to graduate from. There are few jobs to get on-the-job training or mentorship.

And if we are relying on our educational system to provide guidance for and the birthing of new editors (Horror editors notwithstanding), then we are living in a house of illusions. Just as with creative writers, our educational system has redirected its focus to getting graduates employed in what amounts to “vocational” jobs – graphic arts, commercial art, copywriting, technical writing, technical editing, (and sometimes) a watered down version of Journalism.

How can anyone discover the next Lovecraft or King if editors and publishers are not educated in the literal and Literary history of the genre? If starmakers can’t recognize a rip-off of Poe or appreciate the rich soil of Pulp?

Says Steven Saus in his essay “Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Ideas: Making Speculative Fiction Speculative” (Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, New York: Penguin, c2014): “Over the last decade the hard bright lines of genre have disappeared. You can lay the blame on the reduction of actual physical bookstores, literary cross-genre courageousness, or the alignment of planets – but the effect is real…The labels sci-fi, horror, and fantasy have shifted and blurred so that it is difficult to tell where the lines are anymore…” (3)

Why this is may indeed be evidence of growth in storytelling ability, simultaneously arising alongside what is most probably a healthy trend toward better Craft and technique often associated with the Literary. But it may also be why New Horror doesn’t sell as well as Classic Horror.

In the editorial quest for originality and more writers who cut their genre teeth on the voluminous writings of the 1950s to the 1980’s, we have indeed seen some concepts of originality take wing – concepts that seem to lead out of genre and into the nothingness; into the massive pool of general fiction. According to Donald Maass in his book Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques For Exceptional Storytelling, “Today, genre-bending and blending is more the rule than the exception…” something which is contributing to what he calls “the death of genre” and the emergence of hard-to-classify authors. (11)

Much of this seems to be author-driven, according to Maass, who states “the first question I get in pitch sessions at writers’ conferences is, ‘What category am I?’ When I respond with the question, ‘Where do you think your readers will look for you in a physical bookstore?’ the answer is often a shrug. ‘I just write the stuff.’ [And] while that answer can be a cop-out, it may also express a genuine indifference to traditional category borders…” (11)

Or, it could be a cop-out.

As a writer I know I feel confused about this type of author. How could you not know?

Of course, maybe this perspective stems from my years working as a library cataloguer – where characteristics of a story suggested the place where the bulk of fans would find it, and additional subject headings would ensure a bit of cross-pollination for readers seeking new authors or writings that touched their reading preferences.

But personally, I feel it comes from loving story, and a story type – a genre. It comes from years of joyous reading in that genre, and cross-pollinating it with other genre’s stories that carried elements of my preferred genre. That is where the desire to become a writer should emerge – from the seed of what has gone before, not the desire to just write and be rich… to “just write the stuff” which screams a literary ignorance that is both shocking and disrespectful of literary tradition – let alone Horror tradition.

It makes me want to take names and not waste my time or money on writers with such a cavalier, superior attitude.

Because if a writer doesn’t care enough to know where his or her story is coming from, the motivation is all wrong. The “I wrote it, you fix it and make me a star” attitude is one I have read editors complaining about. And perhaps that has contributed to the Rant Guideline.

But there is absolutely no justification for what is clearly becoming an attempt to make writers conform to nongenre story. Out there in the Real World of Old Publishers and New Writing, there is a pressure to write to a new specification – one that makes an unpublished or under-published writer feel more like a pawn than a star.

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When you write Horror and read in submission guidelines that your story cannot be about vampires or wizards or “like Stephen King” yet that is exactly what is being published, you have to wonder what the heck is being solicited. And when they go further and state things like: “no serial killers, no tales about survival of child molestation, no ghost stories, no post-apocalypse…” we have begun to enter the territory of censorship – not only in what you will or will not write in order to get published, but what readers will or will not find published by traditional publishers…and therefore professionally endorsed.

While it is an admitted function of a qualified editor to contribute to the shaping of the contemporary genre, it is not their function to gatekeep what type of stories are being published – the quality and choices colored by their own preferences should be the only visible, moving parts. And that should be tempered by having many editors of many tastes.

In this not-so-brave new world of homogenizing genre so that it becomes (miraculously) “literature” we are also showing our blatant disregard for the study of Literature AND genre, as well as RESPECT for Literary Critics. We are all on the same side, even when our preferences are separated by creative divides.

Publications are arising from nowhere and everywhere. They are dropping young editors in at the helm thinking that only young people know what other young (and therefore potentially higher earners with deeper pockets) people want. They seem to think parking behinds in MFA classes is enough to build knowledgeable editors in the genres…that their presence may ensure the “elevating” of genre to the Literary. Yet anyone who researches MFA’s will find the old school mindset that allows writers not to write. To come to class if they choose (i.e., we have your money, we don’t care). They don’t have to be there. If they are not in the mood. If they cannot get inspired. BUT THEY COLLECT A DEGREE.

Seriously? THESE are the people the Establishment plans to put in charge of new writers without MFAs? If a writer is that temperamental, they need academic guidance in how to get past it, in how to subvert blocks and produce writing. How else can they know how to guide actual writers who hit rough patches while under contract?

And what do we know about their editing skills and education? Editing fiction is a long-term investment in study – both as a glorified copy and content editor, and as an expert in all that has gone before, and as a knowledgeable representative of Craft. That means there should be education in Craft specific to genre as well as Literature. I haven’t seen that on curriculums. I see teaching creative writing classes…the ABC’s not the in-depth detail of mechanics which new writers WILL BE rejected for because they haven’t mastered them…

And these are again, the new editors who hold the Golden Ticket for finding positions in traditional and nontraditional publication acquisition offices.

This should disturb you. It disturbs me…Because there is indeed a learning curve for new editors. And it is not about understanding grammar. It is about having extensive, hard-won knowledge in the area one is hired to edit.

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But there is also evidence that both publishers and editors in our genre are also operating on the fact of our own collective ignorance, believing that any “good” story can make a mint and do so without vetting it in the genre history because no one really reads anymore, no one really reads genre old authors, no one really reads Literature anyway, so our editors don’t need the knowledge because today’s consumers won’t be the wiser…

This is irresponsible. And it is destroying our genre – not because Horror cannot withstand an elevation to Literary styles, but because ALL GENRES have bloodlines. And without them, writers are indeed just writing “stuff.”

If there is one thing I can say in defense of having only two American editors of Horror who came from our storied, traditional past, it is that at least these ladies know the genre inside and out. They know the history and what has been done and overdone. They know good writing technique and good storytelling. They may be inclined to accept or reject based additionally on personal preferences, but they have earned the right to do so, and at least publish qualified writers in the genre – whether the rest of us like the stories or not is actually not relevant.

But it is damning when the editing stops there in our genre…when the historical tradition of Horror writing is being ignored if not denigrated everywhere else, by what appear to be unqualified editors… The kind who rant about submissions…

And writers who just “write the stuff.”

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Drive a Stake Through My Heart

This has really got to stop. And I think the only way it can is for Horror writers who KNOW they write Horror to take charge of their own writing. To demand or create new publications and publishing houses, to write whatever they darned well please, and to self-educate in the traditions of both the genre and Literature.

It makes me wish the Horror Writers Association was a bit more inclusive, more of a leader. And perhaps, more of a rabble-rouser, a defender of all of our genre efforts.

As it stands, they seem to represent just one more layer of posing and imposing by their membership requirements and allocation of awards – defining authoritatively just who will be who in the genre. This means they are dictating what direction they want the genre to grow in. And it is not that they don’t sometimes have good ideas. It is that genres grow in the direction of unfettered writing.

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We seem in this country to have put the cart before the horse. We seem determined to dictate an American style which weirdly denigrates genre by homogenizing and re-categorizing it.

It is almost as if someone is on an ego trip, secretly planning to become THE editor who makes the genre what it will be in the future…a Svengali, a magician, the power behind the throne to lead us out of the darkness…

Except we ARE the darkness. We like it in here.

As a writer I do not care if this or that publication or editor doesn’t like this or that type of writing or story. I care that those publications are held up as the only acceptable qualifiers for Horror writers to claim on their resumes.

Punishment for deviation is swift and harsh. Self-publish, or indie publish at your own risk. Publish in an “unauthorized, unapproved” publication and you have marked yourself as some kind of unqualified degenerate bent on destroying the genre.

But I can tell you I don’t “get” this tendency to maintain an exclusive club.

In my travels I have seen quite capable writers of Horror who are shut out. They have, apparently, committed some sin. And they are, however, quite good if not very promising. I can’t help but think there are indeed readers out there who would like to be reading them right now…Yet we are – all of us, readers and writers alike – separated by this wall composed of New Editors, Establishment Editors, and fewer and fewer accessible publications.

When I complain about this, Establishment editors seem to roll their eyes and list the same few publications as the solution to my “problem.” But this just proves to me that they don’t “get it.” Whether as a submitting writer or a reader, I want to walk into my book store and find three or four pulpy magazines done just for the joy of publishing Horror.

And there are consequences to not-having these types of publications.

How do we know what direction the genre is growing in if we are not reading all of the writers who write IN the genre?

I mean pulp AND Literary… Lovecraft was pulp once. So was Poe.

How can we be sure we haven’t silenced the Next Big Thing in Horror because they are now working at McDonalds for having written a story that “isn’t for us”?

How can we complain about quality when we as a genre we are doing NOTHING to ensure that writers are nurtured and trained in the art of writing – in Craft, history, and Literature, in genre? In comics, graphic novels, and pulp?

And what IS this seemingly endorsed new trend to guide writers to write for Hollywood? To create stories that are written with the rules of screenwriting so IF they are any good there won’t be too much work to repurpose novels to screenplays?

And we expect to get LITERATURE from that? Really?

Only in America.

Thank God for the British. They seem to care too much for the genre to let the poison in…

And then I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the suggestion to submit to publications that are not American. Maybe as an American writer I want to submit nationally…

Again. REALLY?

We can’t manage to have actual publications that print Horror in this country? And you are whining about the lack of diversity in the genre? About originality? Maybe we are all too busy writing to spec for the three publications that will accept our submission on a Thursday in March, for three minutes, to do something about it. Then again, maybe some of us are writing different stories. Surreptitiously. On the sly. Without permission.

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Maybe we WANT to write like Stephen King. Or about vampires. Or wizards.

Maybe we DON’T want censors in our heads.

One has to wonder why not only are we being told what not to write, but that such is coming with the blessings of our own Establishment.

What is the motivation here? Are they just ignorant? Or complicit?

The declassification of Horror and re-dissemination of our works and authors into other genres is nothing short of assassination of our genre.

The floating of rumors that our fan-base no longer reads Horror or buys Horror is only so true insofar as they cannot FIND Horror. Or diverse Horror. Or new Horror. Or Horror writers. Or BOOKS IN PRINT.

Then to be rejected – but with the eye-opening caveat that Horror has become like Children’s picture books , itself a category that accepts only a few new authors per year and favors established authors, classic authors, and celebrities – is beyond enraging. Not because of jealousy, but because of the knowledge that this small, exclusive club of writers does not include the bulk of new genre writing.

It doesn’t include the future of the genre…but it guarantees a certain homogenization…a funneling of creativity into pigeonholes.

How do we know what is out there? What might transform the genre next? And why the heck doesn’t someone in charge of the nurturing and protection of the genre in this country CARE?

Something terrible is happening in our genre in the United States. And you don’t get to blame unpublished writers for this one. Or the Horror fan-base, many of whom have fled to Manga, Dark Fantasy, comics, and graphic novels to fill the void. God bless them for doing so – for they are saving Horror artists in the process…

I firmly believe those of us locked out of the current system need to stick together. Whether we are struggling with Craft or toying with stories, writing in more than one genre or exclusive to Horror… we need to ensure our own place in the history of this new genesis. We need to take back our genre.

We need to reject these attempts to drive a stake through our hearts, to censure the stories we want to tell.

There is no room for Vampire killers and prima donnas not wearing nighties in Horror…

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References

Maass, Donald. Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2012.

Saus, Steven. “Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Ideas? Making Speculative Fiction Speculative.” Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. Laurie Lamson, ed. New York: Penguin, c2014.

 

 

Where Have All the Zombies Gone? (the Dawn of a New Monster Era)


Truth be told, it is hard for this generation of Horror fans to remember a time without Zombies. Yet such a time seems to be upon us.

Rather abruptly (and some may think at last), the Zombie Craze seems to be fading.

What does it all mean?

And perhaps the more interesting question is – if your Literary senses are tingling –what comes next?

For those too young to remember, there have been other monster-dominated decades…and to fans of Literary Horror, such changes in Horrors represent changes in our times, our societies, our very self-image. More than any other genre, Horror “represents.” Horror is the spirit of the times…the Zeitgeist of who we think we are. And as such, these monster transitions can be very telling.

In Literature, Horror plays a unique and indispensable part. Horror mirrors our social and cultural failings: it is our dirty laundry, hung out for the world to see. And it is meant to awaken us, to inspire change.

Our World history and our regional histories are decorated by the monsters of our choosing. Pay attention: THIS is how Literature moves in Horror…

Because even if you don’t think your genre is speaking loudly in Literary terms – even if you “just” read or write pulp – monsters have historically been stand-ins for what scares us the most.

And what scares us the most – is humanity itself.

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Growing Up Zombie: the Decades of American Disillusionment

It came at the end of the Reign of Vampires: the rise of the Zombie and the apocalyptic visions of a world we were clearly eager to see end.

But for Literary watchers, it also came coincidentally during the tenure of the George W. Bush Presidency – a time (2001 to 2009) when the United States was shaken rudely awake from its American Dream, “given more real life strife than it had seen since in the 1960s, including two very long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, destruction on the home front in the form of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, plus massive natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, and the global economic meltdown [of] 2008…” And the subsequent Zombie movie milieu “fits in perfectly with these aforementioned national and world events because it functions on two levels simultaneously. On a literal level, Zombie movies concern rampaging monsters that want to eat your flesh and/or brains. But on another, more metaphorical level, these movies focus on the collapse of the familiar infrastructure that maintains our high-tech civilization.” (Muir 159)

This was a rather unpleasant rousing from our previous Literary monster decade – the Vampire Era – which seemed like a lazy summer reverie in comparison. Those were the times born of the Summer of Love and spurred by gender rights and sexual liberation. And I can’t help wondering if there must have been something about those amorous Creatures of the Night which pissed most of us off – or finished doing so – in order that we were willing to exchange Horror’s most beloved monster for something more like ourselves.

That’s right: we are the Dr. Frankensteins, creating the monsters in our own image. And therein hides the Literature.

The Zombie says a lot about us. The Zombie tells the world how we felt from the mid1980’s onward: like we were all being marginalized…like we were undervalued cogs in machinery that had swallowed us whole…like nothing of ourselves was valued or mattered. We began to see ourselves as hapless, unwitting victims. Conspiracy theories and suspicions of everything from our own neighbors, coworkers and government rose from the ashes of immolated Vampires. And we got angry.

It is no small coincidence that the rise of the Zombie coincided with the rise of Technology. In fact, the last time a monster rose in such a way to represent us en masse was during the Industrial Revolution when it was the Ghost who came to envision how we felt – like we were truly rendered dead and invisible in our own time…like the world suddenly lurched forward without us…like it didn’t even have the courtesy to wait until we died before burying us in time-stamped irrelevance.

During the Ghost Era we saw so much suddenly slipping through our fingers – some of it wrenched heartlessly from them – seizing our sense of spirituality and subsequent order of our universe and replacing tradition with an unsettling, rapidly changing uncertainty.

Literature abounds with examples of the heartless separation of humanity from a more acceptably paced march forward. Everywhere people were awakening as if from a stupor to find change unfettered, science dominating, the human touch in life left cold and uncaring. In the Ghost Era, we discovered we could no longer live the lies. And women’s voices rose in chorus to name the sins, spawning the Golden Era of spectral fiction that still today informs us strongly of that time in history.

It was not long after that our genre began documenting our own shock at the world around us…and all manner of Horrors and deceit and human tragedy was rendered in Horror form. From the psychological Horrors of Poe to the alien monstrosities of Lovecraftian nightmares, our genre continued to narrate the changes we all encountered, the fears we hid and the resentments we nurtured.

 

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https://tulsaballet.org/dracula/

In fact we had tried on many monsters on the way to the Vampire (a constant infatuation throughout our folkloric history) – including the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolfman – all in the attempt to make sense of self-discovery.

So when the Vampire came along again in the 1970’s to tease us about our sexual indiscretions, our Sexual Revolution and search for gender identity, the threat was more subtle…less encompassing… and certainly left us employed and believing what we did and who we were somehow mattered. It seemed a pleasant, if not superfluous distraction, its latent threat more shadowy. With the Vampire, the illusion that all was still well – just different – predominated. Not so in the Zombie Era.

When the Zombies rose, it was an apocalyptic moment. It was a sign that while we were sleeping, something had gone terribly wrong.

Much like the Time of the Ghost, the rise of the Zombie represented our minimalization by those we had trusted – a betrayal that wounded in private places made horribly public.

We had become mindless cogs in someone else’s machine. Our days grew from nine-to-five with weekends and holidays off, to 24/7/365…instead of eight hours including a lunch it became eight hours or more plus another for lunch, plus accommodation for breaks, plus longer and longer congested commutes, plus forget holiday pay or overtime, count yourself lucky you still have a job…plus fund your own darn retirement…and insurance…and education….

Worse, we now had jobs (many times multiple ones) instead of careers. And at any point, anywhere along the way anyone from a politician to a coworker could take it all away with a single fib.

We had trusted, invested, and committed. And we were summarily robbed. Unbeknownst to minorities and immigrants, the betrayal had at last reached all the way up the ladder of entitlement…We were – all of us for that moment in time – equalized by an impending sense of doom, poverty, ill health and despair.

The world as we knew it and had relied on with its haphazard, unequally applied rules, was indeed ending.

And so the Zombie rose…hungry for mindless vengeance to supplicate mindless anger at a mindless society which eviscerated us without apparent care.

Because the Zombie is all about humanity, according to John Russo in his foreward to The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead, “about human beings, with all their good qualities and all their bad qualities, having to fight for survival against tremendous odds and daunting, soul-deadening destruction…[and] how we may rise to the occasion when we are in extreme jeopardy or how we may fail.” (xvii)

So this Zombie was different than any Zombie that came before.

Simply rising from the grave with a need to dine on brains wasn’t nearly enough to satiate our fury at what was happening in the world – at what was happening to us.

This new Zombie did not rise alone, but rose in hordes….walked in herds…swarmed like hungry locusts to purge the land of all we had built.

And we were different too – we who survived the first onslaught to fight the menace. WE rose as well…grabbing guns and bats and crossbows and swords and hatchets… We fought back in unspeakable violence – so much so that we shocked ourselves.

In earlier versions of the Zombie, the Zombie was the Horror. In this one, it was not only how the Zombie comes to be, but the hideous violence that we ourselves inflict on the Zombie that is the real Horror.

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How Furious Are We? ZombieLit…

As in the Industrial Revolution, the Technology Revolution has disfigured our ability to see ourselves out of it, and we cannot separate this newer revolution from the human carnage of today. Now as then we have experienced massive job loss, massive blows to our loyalties, our sense of worth, our very identities. Talk of retraining the masses has been a lie for most of us; and when thousands of jobs are replaced by one or two, that leaves a lot of us free to stew in anger.

Unfortunately, we are not very creative when we are reeling in personal pain. How angry are we?

Just look at what we have undone in the United States with one rebellious presidential election. Because this is what is going to inform our Literature for the next few decades…

This is not about liking or disliking a president or American politics. This is all about the surfacing of major divisions that have been simmering beneath the surface of contentment and “progress” in our country and the world at precisely the same time Technology has completely reshaped how we interact with the world, how we process TRUTH and FACTs and understand what we ARE or ARE NOT entitled to…

Rather than fix the problems our own greed has created, we have chosen the old default in a time we should know better: to blame the Other.

This is why the Zombie has gone away…

The World as we knew it has ended. And no amount of tantrum-throwing is going to fix things. Yet far too many of us fear our own adulthood. We search for blame and make it up if it suits our purposes.

We have become exactly what our enemies have been calling us.

And it wasn’t the fault of a political party or one black President. It was the fault of our own insatiable greed – the greed to be better than our own neighbors, to keep our own job even if it meant hundreds of other people losing theirs, if it meant pretending it was their own fault for not being bright enough or lucky enough to live and work where the Tech Revolution had not yet reached its suffocating tentacles, to bestow the title of Too Big To Fail on an irrational, select few.

Now that job loss and identity compromise has begun to hit the last of the holdouts – the ones who belittled the evisceration of millions of their own countrymen and -women – NOW there is a crisis.

Now bonking Zombies with a hatchet isn’t enough and is no longer funny. It is no longer sufficient. Because it DIDN’T WORK.

Because it is the upper classes, the wealthy, the alleged job-makers who have risen unscathed from the death threat… Surrounded by hordes of Zombies too oblivious or too greedy or too fearful themselves, these ever self-wealth-replenishing masters of the universe cannot be reached. The boss you dreamed of walloping over the Zombie head or eating the brains of is safely in the bunker he had you build.

Anger is no surprise. Blaming the Other is the disappointment.

Most of us had so hoped we were beyond this…

It is a sad fact of humanity that when we cannot get at the real problem, we get at the one we can reach….the convenient one.

And sometimes we are so, so angry we are willing to divest ourselves of important things in order to release that anger in mindless vengeance.

This is how a country like the United States begins rolling back human rights. This is how we rationalize doing so.

We are so brainwashed into believing that only the rich – in their wondrous, pure humanity – have the capacity to save us, that we forget we saved ourselves by forming this country in the first place. We forget we gave all future generations the tools to save each other.

We treat the Other like those Zombies – rending them limb from limb without the slightest human compassion all in an effort to vent without biting the hand we are told feeds us.

How soon we all forget….

We forget the Native American code-talkers that saved us in one war, the African American soldier that (forgiving the rest of us our judgment of them) shared our fox-hole in another, the immigrant soldiers who fight the same enemies in our name in order to participate in what used to be the world’s greatest Democracy, the foreign nationals who have given their lives or risked them to stand beside us, the Asian Americans who have built our infrastructure – not once, but twice over now, the gay Americans who have given us incomparable culture in unexpected ways, the American woman who has fought her own battles while defending those that cast long shadows on a mutual future, the Founding Fathers who without remembering to define what a “man” was freed forever what the definition of a “man” would be…

For certain our history has not been neat. But at least we could claim a percentage of ignorance in and of our own times. This – this new monstrosity rising from the ashes of the Zombie Apocalypse – is being resuscitated in the full light of day.

Where we could excuse ancestors for misinterpreting, for doing the best they could with what they had and what information they had…This time it is on US.

This time it is on PURPOSE.

For those gleefully waving the bat, the flag, the hatchet and the noose, there will be no forgiveness by your descendants. The stain here will be too great to cover with lies the rest of the world can already see through.

That any of us would STILL resort to blaming whole peoples for our own errors in judgment, our own misplaced trust, our own unwillingness to remake and reinvent ourselves is just plain indefensible.

We are lazy.

We are greedy.

We are selfish.

Way to make the terrorists of this world look right. Because now that the Zombie is dead, something else will rise to take its place.

I am betting on the Werewolf.

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Not The Good Old Days, Howling at the Moon

Chances are, if the Zombie was different this time around, so will the Werewolf be. In fact, the “Modern Werewolf” has already done some serious changing – slipping away from the simple, unfortunate nip in the moonlight to become (like the Vampire) an empathetic creature.

According to Nathan Robert Brown in his book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Werewolves, “Werewolves are no longer depicted in exclusively negative or evil light. In fact, modern pop culture has embraced the werewolf as a rebellious antihero. Similar to modern-day motorcycle gangs, they move and hunt and live and die as a pack, and they live outside society’s rules. Pack law is the only law. In the last century, werewolves have been embraced by every medium of pop culture. They’ve become major figures in literature, films, art, comic books, and even video games. In America, urban legends about werewolves have sprung up with increasing frequency over the last 50 years.” (109)

I don’t know about you, but I see a lot of our modern outsider, rebel political factions right there. I hear the phrase “silent majority.”

Here we have a creature that cannot control its fury, who while in “human form” cannot fathom the carnage it creates, who cannot remember its animal behavior (which is far too convenient to ignore here), and who hides among the rest of us undetected, and for whom the end justifies the means. Like a mean drunk justifying his or her actions, everyone and everything else is responsible for the ensuing bloodshed – real or imagined.

Remember the last election? Yeah, I don’t know half of the people I thought I did, either…

But what I do know is that the Werewolf always denies he or she is a Werewolf – because that would be a horrible thing to be.

So they become in their own minds – if Were-anything – Werepoodles, I assume.

Where once they were unfortunate, hapless victims themselves… now with a kind of mental Photoshop, they are free to remake themselves into vigilantes – heroes of the state, the arm of popular justice…the same ones who say it is better to execute an innocent man now and then than miss one single guilty one.

And as we learned from the Zombie Apocalypse, there is safety in numbers…

Instead of being an isolated case, now we have Were-communities.

Like the Vampire Mega-Covens and the Zombie Hordes before them, we no longer think in singular terms….This is about survival. So what if other people think we are wrong to become a monster rather than cease to exist: they aren’t here with us.

Besides. They can’t get all of us if we swarm them, and if there is more than one of us, we are in the right…right? And if collateral damage happens, it cannot be helped…what can one person do in the face of the rise of Hell itself? The Devil made us do it…sure it looks like me, but it wasn’t me….I was just following the pack, the will of the people, orders….

For some of us, the familiarity of the excuses makes the hair stand on end, the hackles rise, our own fangs bare…

Like the Zombie Apocalypse before it, this new Horror is all about the Little Guy surviving the end of all reasonable things. And that means your neighbor may not in fact be your neighbor…but something else….something come to destroy all that the Zombies left of you…

And so what if the Werewolf is US? Or a spouse? Or a relative? Or a boss?

Forget the blood dripping from their lips….look at all of the STUFF they get to keep…

And if you keep feeding them Others, they might leave you alone.

Except they won’t. They can’t help themselves. They are sociopathic predators. You aren’t them. They are better than you.

Beware of Dog. Because like the Zombie Apocalypse, it is most likely not you who will survive. Once the carnage starts, we are ALL meat.

Read any old Werewolf story. Read what happens to the victims of the Werewolf.

In its animal form it can barely stop itself from devouring what it loves in its human form.

Do you want to take that chance?

How’d ya do stopping the Zombie Apocalypse? The Industrial Revolution? The Tech Revolution?

This is going to take more than Wolfsbane.

All of us better be prepared to lose some flesh.

Because if the Werewolf is back, we have to remember that as much as we once valued the human form, we are going to have to put the animal down, because indeed we might not be speaking of folklore anymore…

What cannot be trusted, what randomly and wantonly and indiscriminately destroys what we have – all of us – built, cannot be suffered to live and thrive and reproduce.

Horror “represents…”

Get your silver bullets. There will be blood. And this time, it will most likely be justifiably our own.

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References

Brown, Nathan Robert. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Werewolves. New York: Alpha Books, c2009.

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Film FAQs: All That’s Left to Know About Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Milwaukee, WI: Applause Books, c2013.

John Russo. “Why Don’t They Die?” Foreward. The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead Langley, Travis, ed. New York: Sterling Press, c2015.

Reading Like a Writer: Horror Through Slime-Covered Glasses


There are many reasons to read a great Horror novel: to scare yourself, to scare your parents, or to scare your teachers. But there is one reason that – if you write – you might not have considered: Reading great Horror novels can teach you how to write great Horror.

Seemed obvious, didn’t it?

So why doesn’t “just” reading a great Horror novel beget great writing?

The answer is: there are different ways to read fiction; you can read as the intended audience, you can read as a Critic, and you can read as a writer. And if you don’t understand the difference, you can’t put the writerly gifts hidden in Classic Horror to work.

Reading as the intended audience is easy. You pick up the book and let it take you someplace else; this is entertainment in its purest form and all control is relinquished to the author’s storytelling wiles. There is no commitment beyond the pursuit of enjoyment.

Reading as the Critic is much darker, much more motivated, colored by academic analysis: it is technical, and it is over most of our heads, requiring a great deal of preparation, such as a Classical Literature background, and an understanding of linguistics, psychology, philosophy, and history. Most of us don’t naturally go there and do not want to: it is cold, hard work that seems intent on destroying the innocent bliss of reading for fun.

On the other hand, reading as a writer is a weird marriage of the two. It is at once dependent on enjoying what you read, and then wanting to dissect it in order to understand what made you want to keep reading and what made its afterimage stay in your head. Reading as a writer is all about asking yourself how and why and when another writer managed to get it “right”… it is about studying their technique for the purpose of creating your own.

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YES. READING IS TECHNICAL AND SOMETIMES ICKY

Yet for many people – writers included – it never occurs to them to read something differently.

This is in part because we don’t know how. It also doesn’t occur to us to go beyond the pondering of the magic which appears to be involved in the writing of good Horror. We tend to not want to take it apart, to look behind the curtain because it is the magic that we love to savor.

We are, at heart, a superstitious lot…

It doesn’t help that reading as a physical act quickly becomes so automatic that we are not even aware that we are performing a complex brain activity. We seem to “glimpse” a word and it magically forms images in our minds…effortlessly….mystically.

We curl up someplace snug, we open our book, and wait to be enchanted. We don’t think of reading as work, because as we grow into being readers it becomes wickedly instinctive, unconscious – even involuntary….like magic. Words take on a life of their own, threading their way through our imaginations. We begin to visualize. We become engaged in the tale. Soon, we aren’t even aware that we are reading because the story simply and spontaneously unfolds…

As writers we are looking for clues when we read.

And reading as a writer means that you will have to adapt your reading technique; you are no longer seeking entertainment alone – no longer the one being wooed. Instead, you must become a shadow Critic, poking and prodding everything from the sentence structure to characterization, from punctuation to plot, from the outside in.

To do this successfully, a couple of things must happen first:

  • You must read the book for thrills
  • You must understand what you are looking for

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https://frankenreads.org/event/frankenstein-book-discussion/.

THRILL SEEKING ON A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT

Chances are, if you write Horror, you love Horror. This means you can’t read a word of a new story or novel and not get caught up in it. Of course, that is what every author hopes for, so it is not altogether a bad thing. But it is distracting. Your imagination latches on to the prose like a face-hugging alien – pupils dilate and the pleasure centers of the brain light up like Frankenstein’s monster.

It is important, then, to read a tale first for the enjoyment – to get that habitual and natural pursuit of happiness out of the way. It does serve a purpose: you will know exactly when and where that sweet spot of being hooked and being Horrified took place.

Sometimes it even begets your own monsters, new story ideas, or creates a nice, fertile mood for drafting or brainstorming. But reading for pleasure is not reading as a writer, and it should not be mistaken for such.

Reading for pleasure is that something else: a spinning of the channels of the imagination, a hope of hooking up with a really great idea or being swept away by one.

Yet for writers of Horror fiction, sometimes even reading for pleasure can go awry because if you write Horror, you also come to wonder how it was exactly that a given story scared you… and you eventually might come to be distracted by the fact. This is especially true if you re-read the story years later, when phrases like “What was I thinking?” enter the mind because you read parts you don’t remember and you can’t find parts you thought you did read…

“What happened to the Horror?” you might ask. And exactly how did the writer cause us to manufacture details that were implied but not actually there?

This, friends and neighbors, is where Horror goes all Brain Science…

Two things are at work here:

  • the writer’s technique,
  • and the curious effect emotion has on human memory.

Of course, emotion is not exclusive to Horror; but Horror is – as Lovecraft so accurately pointed out – fear’s first cousin. And fear is one of the most potent emotions because of its ability to hijack the brain and create memories where none previously existed.

When we experience fear, we process it according to our own experiences, and the reconciliation of the emotion with existing memory tends to reshape the new memory as colored by the old. So when we read Horror for the first time or for enjoyment, we are surrendering our brains to the puppet-master of emotion. The monster in the dark becomes more or less sinister based on what we read and what associations we make with it.

So during our teen years, when we fear the ending of the world before we grow up and realize our lives, the monster that threatens this scenario has more scare power than the same monster will when we are at midlife or older, when we are wont to rationalize, minimalize, and offer concessions – even to monsters. While the monster lurking in the closet has more “terror cred” if the reader has ever been or imagined being attacked in their home, the threat of possession by demons more intimate if one is a lapsed Catholic with residual guilt, how much Horror is delivered to a reader totally depends on the reader’s own experiences and learned fear management.

Horror, it seems, is very personal.

So how does the writer tap into that formula that makes a specific fear generalized?

Well, we are going to have to look at technique…and it is as elusive as it is desirable. And we are going to have to admit that not all Horror will scare all people at the same time; in fact historically, much Classic Horror scared its period audiences because of how those stories related to what was happening at the time. If we are able to associate the Horror with something contemporary, the story will still scare us. This means it has to be a Horror that is bigger than the monster – the monster has to represent something bigger.

The bad news is that such success is a bit of a crap shoot.

The writer must be able to gather that perfect storm of what is most likely to scare the bulk of readers in a specific target group at a specific time and for a specific reason, the exact amount of disclosure in when, where and how to reveal the monster, and the strange magic of storytelling.

The first point means a writer must really know his or her audience and not from afar – readers will sniff out the fakers and pretenders — and to actually understand and anticipate what his or her contemporaries really fear the most in life. The second means developing a kind of sixth sense about how to pull back the curtain without shouting “ta-dah!” and flattening the curve of your climax. The third means a writer must connect to that preternatural rhythm of prose that says exactly what it needs to and no more.

And it is the second and third of those ingredients that writers can learn from doing what readers love most – reading.

But there is of course a potentially fatal flaw imbedded in every writer (reading or otherwise)…a kind of subliminal kill-switch

And the glitch is this: very few writers are Masters of Their Domain – once again, most writers are readers and read as readers first. We are addicts of prose – both our own and random words printed on pages. We can’t stop ourselves from seeking the “high” so we might as well admit it; we really do have to read a good book first as a reader. We become as dazzled and bewitched as a fairy with a Celtic knot.

Then and only then can we go back and hope resolve to read as a writer. (And if you think I am kidding, go back and read your own writing – something old that you have forgotten. You won’t fixate on the bad parts that need fixing, but you will congratulate yourself on getting the good parts handled right. Sick, isn’t it?)

We are no different with a Classic writer’s writing; we embrace and stroke the beastly prose that made us feel what we wanted. We excuse any parts we did not understand or disliked. And most of all, we let how the writer set us up slip right past us.

This is why we have to go dark. We have to use the Critic’s lens…those slime-covered glasses that dissect what we hold most sacred.

 

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Illustration by Gustave Dore (1832 to 1883). http://wordyenglish.com/p/little_red_riding_hood.html

ALONE WITH THE CRITIC

For most of us, our only exposure to Literary Critics and analytic assessment of writing is both boring and negative. Critics are, after all (and to our knowledge), the ones who rip our favorite authors apart and insult our intelligence by stating outright that we don’t have any. They are the wolves in the sheep pen…

But what we don’t see is that the Critic means we are forever reading as readers and telling them that enjoyment means everything. Critics want more. And if you remember high school, so did your teacher. And then your professor. So why didn’t you get it? Could it be that no one ever really taught you about the many ways of reading?

The bad news is that it is perfectly possible.

For years we are asked to analyze what we read without being shown how to see words acting differently on the page…And for many of us caught in the passions of youth, we don’t want to….we aren’t emotionally ready yet.

But doing so – learning to read the same words, the same stories differently – is what helps us develop the ability to find and judge truth, to understand the use of metaphor and analogy, to separate polemic from satire. Try looking at our current internet, fake-news (which used to be called propaganda by the way), social media-led world, and NOW you see the importance of that talent…

So it was no illusion…education has always placed heavy emphasis on interpreting and deciphering prose. And all of those term papers, research papers, and required reading were about that. Yet education has never been graceful about teaching the details…because education has failed to show us the complete picture of how and why. Instead, it has served to embitter most of us about the critical process.

It made us feel stupid.

Worse, educators are great for coming up with ways to analyze writing, for some ruining the enjoyment of the Classics. And while this is a real fear for those needing to read like writers, and something that does in fact happen to some people, it does more so to those who are closet editors. If once learning how to look at language means you cannot turn it off, then you must face it: you are an academic, an editor, or a Critic. Get thee thou education and do not pass go. Be happy. Follow your obsessive bliss…because all genres need you.

However learning to approach reading academically and as a critical thinker is an important thing.

Reading as a writer is one of those irreplaceable tools every writer needs to master, and one I’d never really heard expressed as a technique before my return to the college classroom. In fact, if I had heard it in any guise before, I probably dismissed it as a cutesy way of inflating the ego. But this is a serious technique, and here’s why: especially within the United States educational system, not everyone reads enough “good” fiction or “Literature” to develop a subliminal sense of how to mimic the different elements that made those works great.

I know I have been guilty of such neglect. I always wanted to read the Classics. But for some reason, unless someone made me it didn’t seem to happen. I always felt intimidated by their greatness, I suppose, figuring that because they were such a source of study, discussion and Criticism that I would not ever fully understand them and I didn’t want to appear even more stupid.

But that is a cheap excuse. Books are books after all, written for readers. Yet I was plagued by the mystery so many modern readers are: what make a book great? What makes literature the Holy Grail of writing?

Unfortunately, it is not as mysterious and awesome as it sounds; it has more to do with the ability of a writer to accidentally or on purpose say something bigger than is stated in the story, while dazzling the reader with the competent and artistic handling of language.

This does in fact mean that some books are Literature but which are unrecognized as such – at least they are not yet. But it also means that we need to look at prose the way we’ve learned to look at poetry: it can be read for simple enjoyment, or it can be dissected and impress language technicians with double-meaning, allegory, metaphor, analogy and pure genius. The level to which you as a reader or you as a writer wish to enjoy fiction is up to you. But being willing to get down and dirty with the dissection business (something Horror writers and readers should be familiar with) can open amazing windows to understanding how great fiction is constructed.

So to learn how to write better Horror fiction, we have to do what engineers do: we have to deconstruct prose to see how the pieces came together and rendered success.

As Francine Prose (ironically surnamed as she is) states in her book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, you have to discover how to read analytically: to become “conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information conveyed, how the writer structures a plot, creates characters, employs detail and dialogue” because writing “is done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time” (3).

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One of the best ways to do this is to sit down with your favorite book or short story, and start copying it word for word. This slows you down, forcing you to notice every phrase, sentence and punctuation mark. It reveals how you were manipulated by the rhythm of the author’s own choices, why you as a reader gave emphasis to certain passages, were susceptible to others. You notice vocabulary choices, perspective, the intimacy or distance gained by wording and grammatical emphasis. These are your tools – your paints, your canvas, your textures, your lighting. This is the writer’s version of art school.

And because you are also a writer, chances are there is already a bit of the academic in you… As such, you have merely to access that natural curiosity about “memory. Symbol. Pattern. [because] These are the three items that, more than any other, separate the professorial reader from the rest of the crowd.” (Foster xxvii)

Since writing is the creation of patterns, reading is the logical reverse engineering of them.

Like art, writing is all indeed about patterns – everything from plot (of which there are various estimates as to the actual number of available “master plots” from two to twenty or more) to motifs and themes. Decoding these patterns is like deciphering a riddle the author consciously or subconsciously embedded in the text ( Prose 4-5)…

This is what close reading is all about. For example, Prose recounts and old English teacher’s assignment to read King Lear and Oedipus Rex and “Circle every reference to eyes, light, darkness and vision… Then draw some conclusion” upon which to write an essay (4). This is where Literature tends to stand out: these hidden gems lie awaiting discovery and assessment. Literature then, invites the reader back into the text multiple times, to explore potential meanings and relevances, to form opinions and make discussions.

Fiction today is really not much different. We just don’t feel as free to criticize, fearing offense or even attack by fans of the author, if not the author… Yet this is what is meant to happen to fiction. It is meant to be discussed and re-read, and even judged. That doesn’t mean that accepting criticism is easy, or that criticism is just or warranted every time. But unless you write in a vacuum, readers will find you. And they will judge, each and every one. Doesn’t it make sense that writers would write with the intent of surviving that criticism?

The fact is everyone has an opinion, for good or ill, correct or not, graciously delivered or accompanied by obnoxious and illiterate venom.

As writers, we have to detach ourselves from our own work, allowing our “children” to grow up and go out into the cold, cruel world.

We must realize that they will be judged and sometimes justifiably found wanting, but that it is ok to love them anyway.

This is the way fiction becomes Literature, the way writers test and challenge themselves to become better writers, the way good Horror becomes great Horror.

Are you up to the challenge?

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References

Adler, Mortimer J. and Charles van Doren. How to Read a Book: the Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. New York: Simon & Schuster, c1940, 1972.

Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor: a Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines. New York: Harper Perennial, c2003, 2014.

Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. New York: Harper Perennial, c2006