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?

Bess1

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.

Bess2

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.

Bess3

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…

Bess4

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…

 

Bess5

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

World View: the Secret Sauce of Horror Lit (What It Is & How to Get It)


In these increasingly hard times for Horror fans and Horror writers, one thing is clear: neither Horror nor Horror publication opportunities are what they used to be.

Having editors whose perspective has failed to move with the reality of the times, who consistently preach that cream always rises to the top and pronounce there are “plenty” of legitimate, Establishment-recognized venues looking for new talent, and who simultaneously bemoan the state of novice Horror writing without offering either professional coaching or a dream Craft Bible, doesn’t help. But it has managed to change a lot of the ways (un-traditionally published) Horror is now being written.

Contrary to Establishment insinuation, this is not a simple case of sour grapes.

Not only are Horror fans being “forced” to read more classics due to the smaller and smaller pool of Horror writers being published today, but so are Horror writers.

What are we to do with all of this Literary (and yes, I mean LITERARY) influence on our genre readers and writers?

And if we cannot look to our genre or higher education for the answers, who should we be looking to for craft guidance?

The answer: Literary Critics. And here is why.

Wv1

Great Writing Does Not Happen In a Vacuum

I honestly don’t know where the myth got started that real Writers spring from the womb all Literary.

When we look at all of the canons of writing, including the Western Canon of Literature – English Language Literature in particular – none of those writers were untrained: they were taught by their education, their reading examples, and their mentors.

When the education system focuses on things like Literature, what it means and how to appreciate it (appreciation not meaning exhibiting proper adoration, but actually interpreting, decoding, and understanding the actual words, concepts, and ideas therein) instead of passing standardized tests, that education feeds a young writer’s repertoire of subliminal storytelling; a blueprint forms in that student of writing’s mind – one they can imitate, elevate, or rebel from.

When a novice reads published writers accepted as Literary, they further drive Craft elements into their subconscious and learn about plot and character development. They also learn what has been done, and naturally grow toward the unexplored territory of telling the same story only better…thereby producing new fiction. They also learn where trends are, what they are, and how to exploit them or defy them.

When writers are gathered into communities, the unpublished mix freely with the published. Novices get feedback – not always friendly, and not always accurate – but feedback about their writing. Feedback is what shapes a writer; he or she can decide to change their writing, or to defiantly refuse to alter their own vision. They can become an Establishment Writer like a Dickens, or a future genre-changer like Poe…or Lovecraft. But having a sense of community and a place inside or outside of its approval is crucial. Having some level of mentoring is crucial.

Our biggest problem today in Horror is the same as it is for all fiction writing: we have (hopefully inadvertently) hung a price on every level of instruction.

A University degree in this country can easily top over $100,000 for an undergraduate degree – a fairly useless degree in the employment market without even more education. To get to a Masters and a Ph.D., is probably a lot closer to half a million dollars…all that work and expense just to be underpaid in almost every employment scenario.

To self-educate is also expensive. No one – not even universities – are endorsing writing instruction manuals. There is nothing but silence and literally millions of “expert” voices trying to explain how to become rich writing fiction – not how to write quality fiction that apparently no one wants to pay to publish. A writer can spend literally thousands of dollars trying to get to the bottom of how to become a good writer…and never, ever get the full picture. Meanwhile, reading classic authors fortunately has gotten increasingly cheaper…but unfortunately at the same time mimicking these writers’ styles is strongly condemned. Reading “new” Literary Greats is chancey…there are few who are all-but-certain candidates of future admission to the canon…and even for those a single work in hard copy book form can cost anywhere from $14.99 to $39.99.

Today, mentors are something novices are expected to pay for. Editors claim they are far too busy to indulge daring but otherwise incompetent or not-yet-competent writers; conferences and writers’ retreats are thousands of dollars; professional groups have publication requirements and steep membership fees. Clearly today a writer must pay to play. “Unknown” writers are seldom truly that. And to suggest a writer should be a social media king or queen and simultaneously a palm-greasing networking butterfly is flat out offensive.

No wonder there is a noticeable gap in published Horror and new, innovative, original Horror. Great writing does not happen in a vacuum. It is educated, mentored, nurtured, challenged, and overgrown to be carefully and artistically pruned.

 

Wv2

Meet the Literary Critic: Your New Mentor

For many Horror fans and writers, our exposure to Literary Critics in our genre is most often encapsulated in those over-expounded, publicly untidy bouts between established Critic Harold Bloom and our very own Stephen King. But we also read essays of rebellion and exposition by Poe and Lovecraft who in their times set about defending the genre from other Bloom-like entities who decreed our genre as some form of garbage. So why should we even remotely be interested in Critical opinions?

The answer is simple: because in Literature, it is the Literary Critic who decides what is admitted to the canon – any canon, including the as-yet-unestablished Horror Canon.

This does not mean Critics are right, or are always right. Critics are human, and subject to bias, preference, elitism, and dislike – just like the rest of us. Their work is also meant and designed to inspire academic DEBATE…to spur (for the rest of us) water-cooler conversations about Literature.

And sometimes, like the aforesaid Mr. Bloom, they are long in their careers and unsettled by change. The field of Literary Criticism itself is changing. It has been forced to.

Not only are younger people put off by the automatic exclusion of contemporary writers they have come to appreciate, but they are more significantly aware of the very clear gap between “Literary Classics” and Modern Literature. Why, they have been forced to address, are there so few Literary writers today? Where is all of our Modern Literature?

The answer has been deduced to be: we are indeed still writing it. But it is because of two issues that it cannot be recognized as such: one, a living writer cannot help but influence a Critic’s interpretation of their work when Literature must stand on its own – cleanly away from the author – to be properly Criticized; and two, the original Literary Critical Theories were designed to accommodate those early writings, therefore they seldom fit contemporary writing models which therefore need new theories with which to develop academic study.

So there is a New Literary Critic afoot.

Wv3

Noel Carroll

This does not mean we dismiss Critics like Mr. Bloom, who is tremendously qualified and therefore entitled to and should express his opinions, as long as they pertain to Literary Theory as he understands it. Indeed, there is much to be learned from such a thorough Critic, as long as we realize that once a Critic wades into personal attacks we need to disengage and separate the truly Literary Critical comment from the desperate, frustrated, personal one.

Wv4

Harold Bloom

New Literary Criticism is, alas, however…new.

This is good and bad. Bad because we have few Critics in our genre. Good because there are plenty of English majors out there wondering what to do with their degrees…some of whom are Horror fans and would therefore have our best interests at heart in contributing to the development of Theories with which to analyze, discuss and debate our genre works.

That’s right: Literary Criticism is horribly academic. Dull, even. But interesting. Very, very interesting.

Wv6

S.T. Joshi

And right now, still at the forefront of our genre, are three Literary Critics of merit: S.T. Joshi, China Mieville, and Noel Carroll. Joshi once wrote in our genre. Mieville still writes – although he is categorized as fantasy/dark fantasy. Carroll is an academic, a Professor of Philosophy and student of film and art.

These three have – by simple timing (by being first) – become major players in how our future Literary Critics will look at our work in the Horror genre. And it is through their commentary – which often builds on those Poe and Lovecraft essays – which can offer us as writers and readers of Horror a much better understanding of everything from the classics in our genre to Craft.

This is important. In fact, right now, it is crucial.

Wv7

China Mieville

The Literary Critic is not charging us for the privilege of understanding how Literature works in our genre. In fact, the Literary Critic is desperate for us to understand…to grasp and start applying the essential Secret Sauce that makes Literature LITERATURE….your individual, unique, secret World View.

 Wv8

http://www.city-data.com/forum/religion-spirituality/686470-average-american-worldview.html

World View: Finding It & Using It

Believe it or not, you already have one.

If you ever say anything predicated with “I think” or “I feel” or “I believe” then you are guilty of having a World View. It may not yet be worldly, it may not be fully formed or fully informed. But if you have an opinion, then you have the roots.

Understanding how to employ World View is another matter. So we have to go back to the Critic for more information.

And all we have to do is read. And think. We are going to have to admit we need to surrender some quality time to studying Literary Critical essays…maybe even take a class if we can.

And then we need to re-read the works we love and the works they are predicting are Literary…see the similarities, the disagreements, the points at which we diverge. Because understanding Literature and Literary Critics means we have to be willing to work. But we also have to be willing to look at art naked – even our own art – to see the clockworks… the bones stripped of flesh. We have to see writing as mechanically assembled bits. We must stop seeing it as magic.

Oh, how we as writers hate that…

But in fairness, we have to. We do already dismantle the magic in fact, when we sit down to edit, to rewrite…to improve, to usurp the Muse. Why not do so using the Critic’s eyes? To see if we could go deeper? Twist the knife? Unearth the body that fertilized the plot in the first place?

The answer has historically been: because we don’t get it. And what the heck is a World View got to do with it?

Critic S.T. Joshi (whose professional opinion also places the Weird as separate and a possible fore-runner of Modern Horror) states it best in his discussion of Modern Weird fiction and its failures: “…it seems as if the whole approach to weird fiction today is flawed in its very conception. The purpose of most modern weird writing seems to be merely to frighten. This is an inevitable result of the elimination of a philosophical basis [my emphasis] for the weird: all that is left (if, indeed, anything is left) is the emotion of Horror…” (Joshi 2)

Now, I know what you’re already thinking…. isn’t that the goal? Isn’t that the point?

And the answer is no. Horror has too long been misinterpreted as having the one and only goal of scaring or unsettling the reader or moviegoer. But that is supposed to be the side-effect… the cherry on top. Because the real Horror is what spawns the emotion… what the story is really about.

Again, I hear you. It is about monsters. And the monsters scare us. Tah-dah!

But this is wrong. This is Hollywood in our heads….visions of sugarplums dancing in our fantasies chanting: sequel, prequel, video games, action figures…

Continues Joshi, “If I may utter an apparent paradox: horror fiction is not meant to horrify. This is to say that the primary purpose of weird fiction should not be to send a tingle up one’s spine….if weird fiction” (and therefore Horror) “is to be a legitimate literary mode, it must touch depths of human significance in a way that other literary modes do not and its principal means of doing so is the utilization of the supernatural as a metaphor [my emphasis] for various conceptions regarding the universe and human life. Hence the need for a world view that structures and defines the use of the weird in literature. Mere shudder-mongering has no literary value, however artfully accomplished.” (Joshi 2)

Did your writing life just flash in front of your eyes?

Good. Then there is hope we can extricate ourselves from writing like everyone else and starting to learn to write like only we can.

World view, you see, is quite personal.

But how do we see it? Especially if we are young, how do we know we even have one? If we are old, how do we know it is even relevant anymore?

If you are American, you can thank our current political circus for clearing all of this right up.

Whether you are for or against the one in the White House, chances are your world view is wearing plaid and day-glo colors. You know how you feel – passionately – about absolutely every utterance, every piece of legislation coming out of Washington. This is your World View. On drugs.

Do you want to build a wall, or rip it down with your bare hands? Do you believe immigration makes America stronger or weaker? Is religious diversity healthy or threatening? Should only English-speakers enter this country, or should we care about learning and preserving other languages? What about women’s reproductive rights? Climate change? Gun control? Voting rights? Civil rights? The definition of Civil Rights? Conformity? Rebellion? The Constitution? The Bill of Rights? Peace? War?

How you feel about – well – every issue this administration is hell-bent on reshaping or dictating how you should feel about – tells you what your World View is.

If only we could bottle it….But then, maybe we already have. In Lovecraft.

Says Noel Carroll: “It is clear that literary supernatural horror – which, by means of the morbidly unnatural (the repulsive), evokes [Lovecraft’s] cosmic fear – is attractive because this kind of awe responds to or restores some sort of primordial or instinctual human intuition about the world… The relation of the repulsive in horror to this sense of awe is that the morbidly unnatural is what it takes to trigger it. So we seek the morbidly unnatural in literature in order to experience awe, a cosmic fear with a visionary dimension that corresponds to instinctual, human views of the universe…Lovecraft appears to think that supernatural literature affords something like religious experience as well as a corresponding reaction against some kind of desiccating, positivist world view.” (Carroll 163)

If you look at what is being published today and come away feeling disappointed, unfulfilled and even irritated…If you just can’t keep yourself from rereading the Classics in Horror, chances are you already understand something of what Joshi and Carroll are saying…You just didn’t know you did.

We have –all of us – had our understanding of what Literature does deformed by what is now called “success.”

Ask any writer what “success” means and he or she will most likely say “earning a living with my writing”…. But what they mean is Hollywood in our heads….visions of sugarplums dancing in our fantasies chanting: sequel, prequel, video games, action figures…

Because that is what has been marketed as success: wealth… the power to dictate what you write and when.

Yet look at our Critically-besieged Mr. King.

Stephen King

Do you really think he wants to keep writing the same thing over and over? Look at the many times he has tried to break out of the constricting mold we have sentenced him to: Delores Claiborne, Full Dark, No Stars, Rose Madder, Lisey’s Story, The Green Mile, Joyland… All of these may ultimately score him the Literary recognition his mainstream Horror has been denied… and yet we want and demand more Christine, The Shining, Carrie, Pet Cemetery… And because those are the moneymakers, so do the publishers. So he keeps churning them out for our pleasure (and we do thank him, but at what cost to his personal ambitions?)

Likewise, the sheer numbers of his sales potential, peripheral options, merchandising opportunities… these are dangled in front of novices and labeled “success”…

What we have to be asking, is “is it really?”

If Lovecraft had been born in today’s environment, he would likely have kept his mythos… but he would not be placed in front of us as a “success.” Lovecraft would have none of the commercial criticism or demand that we have laid on King; he himself was too…weird. He avowed repeatedly that he did not desire “success,” that he would not change what or how he wrote to please anyone other than his own muses.

And look what we inherited.

This is the Critic’s point. This is Joshi’s point.

If a writer writes for anything other than the art of communicating a real concept about the universe and human life…if we don’t touch depths of human significance, then we are flirting with being hacks. We are prostituting our talents.

While we are all aware of the need to pay our bills, we must (daily) decide if what we write and the way we write it is important enough to keep it sacrosanct… to choose to go unpublished if the alternative means writing more fiction that has no soul…that is in Joshi’s words…”lifeless.”(3)

How to do this is another argument. Therefore, it will be my next post.

But the current question, the question of this post, is should we? Should we start pushing our World View into the Muse?

Should we seriously consider what the Literary Critics say? Study their comments? Consider if they might be in fact, right?

I strongly suspect they are.

There is a whole boatload of soulless fiction out there, convincing publishers that good Horror is not selling because it is not being written…maybe because the genre is all used up, or that no one buys new Horror because it is “somehow” inadequate and substandard despite all the editorial begging.

And the truly disturbing thing is that they are using this very set of speculations to reduce the publication of Horror titles…to reject new Horror writers.

The Literary Critic is telling us why.

The Literary Critic is telling us what is wrong and what must be fixed if Modern Horror – especially Modern American Horror is to ever regain its former popularity, to rise to the level of Real Literature… To grow from the likes of Poe and Lovecraft. To grow the genre…

And what Horrifies me most…is the thought that I am still writing it myself, that I have not learned – mastered – the Craft of infusing my own words with my own passionate beliefs. I realize that my own interpretation of how to write good Horror has been corrupted by the very system that claims it wants better.

So where do we begin?

Perhaps with Joshi, one of the world’s foremost experts on the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

He says about the few success he sees in modern weird writing: “It can be seen that these novels have virtually nothing in common with each other, either in theme or in style or in execution; it is simply that in each instance the author [my emphasis] has conceived of a scenario that is sufficiently complex and sufficiently supernatural in its essence such that a novel is required for its exposition.” (Joshi 10)

So where do we begin? With World View — not preaching it, but showing it.

We begin with ourselves. We begin with our passions. We begin with finding ways to say what we really think about the world. This means we have some thinking to do, to discover what we truly believe and what is truly true. We have skills to hone as we set those rampaging emotions loose upon the page as we try to say what we mean and mean what we say. But we have to begin. And where we begin is shockingly easy.

We begin with the monsters. We begin with US.

References

Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, c1990.

Joshi, S.T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, c2001.

Caution: Tentacles May Deploy Without Warning (or, How Your Age Informs Your Fiction Writing Success)


When I was a teenager, I loved horses. I rode competitively briefly, showing other peoples’ hunters… and I desperately wanted one of my own.

Standing next to a fellow rider once, I was asked if I had my own horse. I replied, no…but I hoped to have one someday. The girl snorted, looking down her nose at me. “If you really wanted one,” she said, “You would have one by now.”

Little did I know, this was how the world would be looking at my writing forty years later.

If you were any good, you would be published by now…

To my Horror, I actually believed that for an ungodly long time.

 Age1

The Truth About Age in Fiction Writing

I have often wondered why no one ever discusses age (like race) as a contributor to Horror fiction.

I have often wondered why once we are ensconced (read trapped or buried) in other careers, relegated to merely dreaming about our writing, we stop believing publication is possible. Or viable. That we come to believe success in writing is only for the young among us.

Some of this is the fault of the marketing machinery of Big Publishers, who like to advertise new writers as “the next Stephen King”… implying that such a writer is a youthful puppy, a keeper, a long termer, a veritable gold mine of future works to be immortalized in film. And sometimes this is because Big Publishers NEED another Stephen King… because some day they will have to navigate our genre WITHOUT him…

But many times it is also because those of us who are right now the Old Writers struggling in the genre grew up with a totally different concept of success – actual examples of lives lived writing… even writing even mediocre Horror fiction. We grew up with the 1970’s Boom, and so to us, success means writing a novel or two in our twenties and transcending into being a Professional Writer. To us, success has been painted as being able to not only make a living off our work, but living well…

Yet if that scenario failed to play out, we start doing the math. After years of listening to the many criticisms and following the life-plans dictated by other people, we wonder: is there still time? Will we live long enough to woo Big Publishers into paying us Big Money contracts (the kind that don’t exist anymore), and didn’t we miss the boat already if we can’t be young and flaunt it? To do all of the things we wanted to do as rich, successful authors?

Old writers are often their own worst enemy…

But then we have had a lot of help in twisting our own self-images.

Because I have also wondered when it became okay to associate older, unpublished writers with failure…to make it an inside joke.

And why is it “proof” of talent or vision to not only get published, but to be young and rich and published? Only some of us are old enough to remember when that was even possible…

It’s not like editors know the ages of submitting authors either… So it must be coming from ourselves.

We have bought into the mythology that unless we are published when we are young, and are thereby a “Professional” (and rich) Writer well before we are thirty, we are simply not good enough…We didn’t want it badly enough. So now we don’t deserve to associate with Real Writers…

Suddenly there is an accompaniment of snorts and sideways, condescending glances… Suddenly we are out of the loop, out of style, and unable to gauge exactly when that moment of stellar success was supposed to have happened.

To make things worse, we keep moving that secret Age of Success, the one that marks the moment we should resign ourselves to other jobs and other careers… Whose idea is that?

Writers of our genre come in all genders, ages and colors, all geographic locations and climates, all political and religious bents. Yet time and again we are given a prepared profile of the Professional Writer… in our genre, typically still a Caucasian male, young enough to remember his youth and still writing about it and his own young adulthood.

Women writers of Horror, it seems, are more readily painted as Young Adult writers, or writers of fantasy. We are to be seen and not heard, demure… nurturers of young readers. We have, apparently, even lost our genre identities as the mistresses of the ghost story. We are not to be taken too seriously.

It gets worse the older we are…

Collectively, we have lost our voices as men and women unafraid to write as older men and women. It is kind of like being in Hollywood… as though we are being (in not-so-subtle ways) coached to disguise our ages (when not our genders) by writing about youth, as though the only ones interested in reading Horror are the very young people the Establishment tends to claim don’t read anymore…

These are all lies, I tell you…lies!

Not only is Stephen King the proof, but so are writers like Ramsay Campbell, Anne Rice, Richard Matheson, Dean Koontz, Neil Gaiman, Tanith Lee, Dan Simmons, Clive Barker, Bentley Little, and Robert R. McCammon… all of them “vintage” and still carrying our genre…even in backlist titles.

As a reader of many of them, I have watched a good many protagonists creep up in age… leaving behind that New Adult thing that has tried to insert itself between Young Adult and Real Adult fiction. Our own writers have tried to drag Horror back into the Adult arena, dancing with Literary values by writing stories which are in themselves proof that some of the best Horror gets written after we grow up. Everywhere there are signs being downplayed and ignored… Horror is growing up.

So why does the myth of youth persist when defining New Writer Success in our genre?

Who has commandeered the profile of writers to suggest that if a writer has not “made it” by the time they are in their twenties and “established” by their thirties, then Fate is telling you they are not worthy?

The truth about age in Horror fiction writing is this: youth is where we learn about what scares us the most; old age is where we learn about confronting that fear… So while we may have great scary ideas as young writers, and we might write boldly about those things, as older writers we know how to throw and receive a punch. We are, in fact, more likely to generate Horror fiction with Literary elements.

Why?

Because it takes some living to write what you know.

And it takes even more living to write what you believe.

The truth about old writers, published or not?

Writers, like fine wine, improve with age…

Age2

Getting Past the Stereotypes

Like most Horror writers, I started writing pretty early – toying with ideas when I was a teenager, heavily influenced by the many writers of our second Golden Age of Horror and Science Fiction in the 1970’s Publishing Boom. This was the time of the paperback – what book peddlers call Mass Market paperbacks, and what was then bursting onto the scene as “Pocket Books” – those small paperbacks for under $5 that were on racks and spinners in every grocery store, hospital, drug store and airport.

This was when fiction was so mass-produced that the impression was left on many a young writing hopeful that there was a living to be made writing fiction and an unending world of story to be savored out there. Who would have thought it was a phase? Who would have thought that pulp stories would be pushed out of our immediate consciousness and that book prices would rise precariously, nearly putting fiction out of reach entirely, and severely limiting our choices both professionally and as readers?

Sadly, the demise of the age of the Mass Market paperback came with another price: the end of the Mid-List Author, the complete and utter destruction of writing careers, of publishing careers, of…writers.

Many of us were left adrift with our dreams. We had nowhere to go… And when former industry standards are being laid off, let go, and dicked over, when top editors are being unceremoniously dismissed… What hope is there for unknown writers?

Most of us were forced to abandon our dreams, to sell them out for “real” jobs, coerced into believing that because “anyone can write, writing is no worthy talent.”

So we spent decades writing stellar letters, correcting CEO’s bad grammar, creating easy to understand Standard Operation Manuals and Employee Handbooks. Later, we did some awesome presentation materials, edited scientific reports for style and grammar, we made the coffee, we cleaned the bathrooms.

And all the while Stephen King kept writing, kept being published, kept proving that it’s the story, dummy… it’s all about the story…

So pardon my generation if we took a little while to find our way back to sanity. It only took being sold out by every generation that went before and half of them coming after, by losing our alternate “careers” and retirement savings and being passed over for real jobs no matter how often we returned to schools and collected degrees, and maintained GPA’s our younger classmates seldom did.

It took realizing that we have been had… that we have been cheated and tricked and bribed out of our real purposes in life…

It took realizing we sold out…

Age3

That means that yes, my generation is in the midst of an epiphany.

And no matter what other well-meaning folks or scheming cads intended by saying what they said to us… We did this to ourselves. We abdicated…

And we are all the more miserable for having done so.

I think if older writers have one message for the younger ones shyly coming up behind us it is this: stop listening to the “experts.” Especially today, the rules are being rewritten, flaunted, disposed of.

Make your own. Take your own life by the horns and don’t look down, don’t look back, don’t let go…

This means that just like this old Horror writing woman, you have to decide what will be important in your life: holding onto what makes you, you… Or pretending that “someday” will come before you die.

It means whether you are male or female, you cannot believe in stereotypes… like old people will only write fiction other old people will want to read (like filling a niche is a bad thing), or that old people can’t write fiction that relates to younger readers.

Pish tush.

It only means we really, really shouldn’t try to write in “modern” slang, to believe our own stereotypes about young people.

We Ancient Ones have had quite enough of the stereotypes, anyway. And if you are a woman, chances are you have been hearing them since you lost that 20-something baby fat and your front end alignment started needing annual adjustment.

Age5

The Eldritch Uprising

You may not have noticed, but there is a movement afoot. A bunch of old folks have gone rogue and started looking for “second” careers… (I am on number 39, thank you, Silicon Valley.)

We have realized that we are NOT our jobs, but our jobs may in fact be US. Who we are at the end of the day comes down to what we believe about ourselves, about happiness.

So many of us who tried to be writers just in time to become other cogs caught in other machinery have begun to come home. Just in time, too… because now we don’t need the Mass Market boom, or the classy sassy editor, or the big New York publishing machinery – it would be nice, but we don’t need it.

Because the same technology that vampirized our savings accounts and fake careers, has also provided us with the ultimate put-up-or-shut-up opportunity: self-publishing.

And ironically, what we hear from traditional publishing is a whole lot of whining about quality.

For sure, the price of self-publishing sometimes comes at the sacrificial altar of quality… But if we apply what we learned working in all of those endless clerical jobs about editing and presentation and layout and marketing…

Come on. You fellow old folks know exactly what I am saying… we already ran companies, offices, projects…

And if we can do them for others we can darn well do them for ourselves.

We just have to keep ourselves from getting giddy – drunk with excitement and anticipation, blinded by the possible rose-colored glasses of delusion.

Sure maybe we are J.K. Rowling’s long lost Literary Twin, the New Stephen King…

But most likely not.

So our rebellion must be tempered with humility. Don’t rush to publication. Don’t assume your writing is “good enough” without having others (who don’t care about your feelings) read it. Pay people to judge it. And learn how to fix the things that are found to be wrong…

As Eldritch Ones, we must realize that we may indeed have missed the boat in the quest to have our work to be well-read and to die famous, to quit the day job and live adequately on Social Security.

But we have not missed anything of Life. We still have the capacity to break barriers, to create something new in the vacuum of modern genre writing, to be… rebels. Old rebels, but rebels nonetheless.

Maybe that’s especially true for older women…Maybe nobody ever suspected you had Horror stories tucked away in your cookie-baking apron, or that you’ve fed every co-worker who ever got you laid off to the most unspeakable of monsters…

The bottom line is this: when writers get old, they write what they think. It’s a miracle. We stop caring what other people think.

Age4

 

Your writing is what you say it is, not what others say it is. It is also where you say it is… there is NO timeline, no age limit constructed by people with questionable motives and possible psychological issues of their own.

We also come to realize that by doggies we have opinions that do not have to conform, that we are as writers generally not conformists as a rule… that maybe, just maybe we should have been torching our own underwear with protest groups a long time ago instead of letting the Herd think for us.

Maybe that is how we turn it around. We realize maybe to our own perverse shock and joy that all of these years we really were feminists, or conservationists, or advocates for the unlikely and un-preferred.

And then things like Literature begin making sense… becoming even more mysterious, carrying codes and secret language we never before picked up on. And we realize with giddiness that we can write that way too…that it is the unwritten, unspoken challenge of the profession to do so…

Suddenly we realize we have actual opinions about the way things have played out in wars, in society, in the ways we treat each other right here in our own generational decades.

Suddenly our age informs our writing… and we cannot stop it.

And we begin to build monsters, looking for ways to say what we have by evolution come to realize: that we are where we are because we did not speak up when it counted, when it was for ourselves. We believed the mythology. And there is only one way to break out of our self-imposed misery…

We write. We are writers. That is what we do.

Don’t be surprised if there are tentacles.

We warned you.