Tales of the Unexpected: Roald Dahl, Literary Device, and the Horror Canon


Most of us remember the first time we read a real Horror story. But the one author who opened that door and lured so many of us through it is typically forgotten when it comes time to assemble a Horror canon…

The author is Roald Dahl– that Roald Dahl – the one of children’s book fame; author of Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG… and like Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm before him, we have decided that his stories are for children. But what we tend to forget are the tales he wrote for adults – his much celebrated Tales of the Unexpected – that can effectively teach modern Horror writers how to take simple situations and common characters that occur in our day-to-day lives and lay out a startling, resonating and lasting Horror on the page.

His is a modern style – one that is often considered an anathema to the genre because Lovecraft opposed the tendency toward Horror that utilizes anything deemed “common”… Yet his stories are enjoyably effective, and reading him is a lesson in language usage – primarily satire and irony.

Have we decided his adult stories are not Horror because he also writers children’s stories, or because his adult stories are not Weird? And are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Are these not only the Horror tales we seek, but ones that we seek to tell and all too often fail at?

Roald Dahl, I suggest, is one writer whose adult work not only belongs in the Horror canon, but whose writings should be studied for their ability to use language devices… the very ones we hear tell of in English class, but seldom see so efficiently and accurately wielded. Roald Dahl is yet another author you should know, and have on your Horror shelf.

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Irony and Satire: Do You Know Where Your Outrage Is?

Author of 19 novels, 9 nonfiction works, 13 collections, and 3 poems, Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, Wales on September 13, 1916 to Norwegian parents. “Following his graduation from Repton, a renowned British public school, in 1932, Dahl avoided a university education and joined an expedition to Newfoundland. He worked from 1937 to 1939 in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika (now in Tanzania), but he enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) when World War II broke out. Flying as a fighter pilot, he was seriously injured in a crash landing in Libya. He served with his squadron in Greece and then in Syria before doing a stint (1942–43) as assistant air attaché in Washington, D.C. (during which time he also served as a spy for the British government)…” he died November 23, 1990…. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Roald-Dahl

In order to talk about why Roald Dahl affects and enhances our canon, we have to talk about using Literary Devices. Dahl’s work is not only riddled with them, it teaches us by example how to employ them…and this is a lesson we desperately need in this age of gutted Humanities education.

Along the way to modernity in the Horror genre, we as readers and writers have lost the understanding of the many possibilities proffered by alternative functions of language – not just those constructions which communicate a story, but which can also communicate the subtleties of human interaction. We in American Horror are so impressed with pointless diversions like found footage and swinging light fixtures in the “fun” of Horror, that we forget what Horror was meant to do – to reach down deep inside and pull out our still-beating hearts. Horror is meant to connect…to draw blood. Yet modern American Horror is still not fully succeeding at this; our Horror tends to be fleeting and disconnected. And missing that use of the versatility of language is yet another reason our Horror tends to just lie about on the page, not-working to its fullest effect.

This is also why Literary Critics are so frustrated with us. And it remains the unspoken criticism of editorial rejections. We may have a command of language in terms of vocabulary and grammar and sentence structure, but we have lost all of the shades of meaning, the Art of Language that is so central a part of sound storytelling.

And while we can enjoy the superficial window dressing of modern Horror fiction, getting deep into the story is our responsibility as readers and providing those many sub-basements and hidden attics are our responsibility as writers. Only by having and peeling back such layers can we gain that frisson of terror – and it is not about having to know the names for things, the rules of technique, the secret of the magic trick; it is knowing that a magic trick is happening and still not catching the magician at the illusion. It is a subconscious exchange of awareness.

When we talk about inserting Literary elements and World View into Horror in the hopes of building better fiction, we absolutely have to talk about HOW to do it.

Time and again we are” taught” by inference that genius wills out and the rest of us need day jobs. Yet we are also underestimating the value of a sound Classics education on the young writer’s formative mind; on how early and thorough education about language and storytelling pound in place a subconscious narrative on how to use language to do more than basic communication. Put Lovecraft in a cave, and I wonder if we would have gotten the Weird…I wonder if we would be calling the man a genius. He had access to a Classics education, to all of the most modern science of his day, to the entitlement mentality of the rich (even as he languished in the loss of his family fortune). We cannot say the same of our young writers today. We cannot say it even of MY generation.

For those whose intentions are both artistic and honorable, the confusion comes when genius is not equated with sales but with Criticism. And when publication is equated with either talent in telling the tale OR telling a really merchandisable one; the two are not exactly or always compatible.

There is no absolutely black-and-white formula for getting there. There is no education. There is no mentoring. There is not a whit of conversation, encouragement, or guidance. We know we have a story to tell, we might even be Literarily angry… but we have no clue in how to start, revise, or finish.

Fiction writing is not generally taught – or not taught early enough.

And this is why in lieu of actual fiction writing instruction a novice writer does best to read the Classics of the genre… Read enough, and hopefully an epiphany will occur – either subconsciously or consciously – enabling the elevation of one’s personal craft…Because we don’t tend to see much in the way of education fitting the bill. And for the most part, we can forget guidance within a genre that does not commit to discussion, the formal establishment of our history, let alone invite experimentation in its writers. There is an informational and authoritative black hole.

We are, instead, left to deduce how language works…there is no clear disclosure of the fundamentals beyond grammar and its crazy rules, but instead a patchwork of seemingly unrelated and un-relatable terms and concepts. But I found that the adult short stories of Dahl can briefly turn the light on in these empty rooms. And when it comes to pressing Literary elements into Horror, this makes Dahl’s stories integral, and consistently unlike most others in the genre. His use of the Literary Devices of irony and satire are as close to a formula as we could ask…his execution almost textbook.

None of this, however, is any good if we do not understand “Literary Devices”…

My own experience with education and fiction writing has been more about reading and creating essay papers systematically called the “Literary Analysis”… Here, teachers briefly suggest one look at the use of Literary Devices: satire, irony, allusion, diction, euphemism, metaphor, analogy, allegory, imagery, personification, etc… all terms with which to construct observations in the form of an essay. They did in fact attempt to give examples, but many teachers and professors clearly feared giving too good of an example would lead to plagiarizing that example in the assignment. Therefore, students tended to leave the classroom even more confused about what was expected, even more mystified about the actual techniques utlilized by the Masters of good writing which we were expected to deduce (for instance, were they intentionally planted by the author? Or did they just happen in merry coincidence? No one ever said). For most of us – even inexcusably English majors – the entire concept of Literature continues to grow even more muddy.

Worse for us, however, that exact educator fear of explaining too much also means no one really, thoroughly ever talks about Literary Devices. Terms like “satire” and “irony” become key words we as students learn to name-drop in class and in papers without really understanding what they actually define and how they are connected, how structure in writing happens. We are never given the mental picture of any hierarchy of language elements. Terms are free-floating in balloons, sailing well over our heads. And when we consider how many people are not teaching us about language and writing…well, it is a wonder we still manage to produce ANY level of Literature in this country.

(I say again: we need classroom education in the art of writing fiction. We need instruction in technique. We also need it by middle school. And that requires more time, not less… it means STEM needs to learn to work with the lion’s share of educational funding attention it gets and leave what is left of the Arts alone.)

Most of us exited class and even high school and sometimes college wondering how important this all was, and why we should care. Yet we need to care. Understanding all of the hidden meanings and disguised references are a crucial part of discovery in Literature; that private “aha!” moment that might be unconsciously derived or blurted out in excitement is what makes reading a more deeply rewarding experience.

You have probably experienced it when you realized what else a story might be talking about, like theories that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are possibly allegories for World War II…or if you wondered who was right about the Don McLean folksong American Pie (is it about the history of rock and roll, or about the Kennedy assassination?) What we need to understand is that a “device” in Literature moves subversively – like it does in poetry. It is communicated like Morse code; there are patterns, bread crumbs that web the ideas in the mind. And then epiphany happens when the possibility that this is what the author is really saying materializes.

Then everything changes. And that, friends and neighbors, is what “allegory” is all about, strung up on the trellis of Literary Device.

Literary Devices, therefore, are not merely created to become subjects for term papers. They are writing tools. They are there for your reading pleasure, and sometimes as fragments of unconscious expression of the writer’s deepest beliefs – perhaps deep enough the writer is not aware of having revealed them, sometimes intentionally crafted to goad the reader into action while reveling in the story itself, perhaps indeed acting in service to allegory.

Roald Dahl is a writer who uses satire and irony. And he also does it with a touch of Horror and psychological terror. Through it he is pointing out the annoying, tortuous foibles of modern society – from institutionalized cultural behaviors, to the psychological gymnastics we all perform to stay sane. We can read the story without taking its elements apart and be strangely sated. But what happens if we look deeper? First we must know about the Devices he is using.

So what is satire?

“Satire is all about mockery and shaming– typically of social conventions, politics, and the people who serve as figureheads for disagreeable behaviors. And it uses irony as its main delivery system. Dahl uses a great deal of dramatic irony – where the reader or spectator knows something one or more of the characters do not.” https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/why-does-author-roald-dahl-use-verbal-dramatic-536945

What is irony?

Dahl introduces us to two forms: “Situational irony”( an event that is opposite to what is expected), and “dramatic irony” (where the reader knows what the characters in the story do not). (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/satire)

It is through these two main devices that we meet the real Roald Dahl – the one who seems to have an uncanny understanding of how any social injustice or slight can make us feel; he takes us unceremoniously to the cliff edge and we willingly topple right over at his urging. This is artistry in language at its best: every story is an exercise in the economy of words, nothing extra is there. Every word works. Every Device is working right alongside: irony and satire in Dahl’s writing are the draft horses.

This is also exemplary of Dahl’s style – so simple and plainly exposed on the page. This is an art we seem to have lost – the art of simple, uncontrived storytelling. And I blame the modern mad rush to action-adventure in the genre, the muddying and blurring of lines of genre made to serve as a guideline for writing in the genre. There has always been more than one way to do most anything, and if we all do the same thing even on orders, where does originality go?

We are talking about the modern imposition of style preferences… and if criticisms and editorial displeasure is to be believed, even that has gone awry. And maybe it has gone awry because when we aren’t writing to spec for Hollywood, then we are tending to refuse to accept anything Lovecraft wouldn’t have approved of as Horror – anything not Weird. And it is time we started asking how many Roald Dahl’s can we afford to lose?

Diversity in storytelling is important for the genre – it is the way we find our audience and our next artistic direction. We are at risk of losing a lot of Horror if we are going to eliminate everything not written in the style of Lovecraft – and perhaps we should even be asking if that is why Young Adult Horror is well out-performing Adult Horror – precisely because they don’t have Lovecraft hanging over their heads…

According to Joyce Carol Oates, we can hear the bell ringing with Roald Dahl:

“Though a number of Dahl’s most engaging stories, particularly in his early career, are cast in a realist mode, his reputation is that of a writer of macabre, blackly jocose tales that read, at their strongest, like artful variants of Grimm’s fairy tales; Dahl is of that select society of Saki (the pen name of H.H. Munro), Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, and Iris Murdoch, satiric moralists who wield the English language like a surgical instrument to flay, dissect, and expose human folly. As a female character says in the ironically titled “My Lady Love, My Dove”: “I’m a nasty person. And so are you—in a secret sort of way. That’s why we get along together.” Given Dahl’s predilection for severely punishing his fictional characters, you might expect this nasty lady to be punished, but Roald Dahl is not a writer to satisfy expectations.” https://www.roalddahlfans.com/dahls-work/books/the-collected-short-stories-of-roald-dahl/the-art-of-vengeance/

Some of us hunger for that kind of Horror now and then, because instinctively we know that fairy tales so very often got it right…

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Using Dahl to Understand Literary Horror and the Power of Simplicity

One of the reasons Dahl has risen in my estimation as a Horror canon writer is because writers who belong in our canon should be writers who in some way shape it. Dahl brings to the fore the importance of the mainstream and commonality of our shared world, elevated by shock value as delivered by Literary Device reflecting the flaws of our times and executed with the precision of a technical writer. This is what reading short stories should feel like. When we read Dahl, we bless him for not making us think: we can enjoy the show. But we can also lift the curtain and see the man behind it if we choose. We can poke about for analogy, and we can study his sleight of hand for his magical technique.

But unavoidably, we see, hear, and feel the Horror. And it is powerfully experienced. It is memorable. It stays with us like it was our own personal and painful memory. Dahl haunts us for years after reading him.

This Literary lesson is not readily found in most of our genre – at least, not so clearly. This makes the lesson of how to employ Literary Devices accessible – even attractive to novices. And isn’t infusing Literary elements into the genre the main goal of both Literary Critics and contemporary editors?

When we look at Dahl, we can see how uncomplicated effective and “effortless” original storytelling could and should be. Yet his stories are also a great read. Why then is he never really mentioned within our genre, let alone adult fiction writing? Why, especially, in times like these when we seem to have lost our ability to understand how to create original fiction from commonplace life?

And is that why he is not considered a Horror writer – because his stories are about common people, places and things – in exactly the way Lovecraft said dooms great Horror? I have little more than theories. But at this moment in time our genre seems to not know what it is or what it wants, beyond the scope of demanding undefined “good,” “Original,” “approved” Horror…and that also makes a ton of money.

Yet don’t we have to write about our own times? Aren’t we obligated, if we are to create Literature and Literary Horror?

We need to be asking what we want from our modern writers when it comes to non-Hollywood-oriented writing. And we need to read and study writers like Roald Dahl. That means we need to acknowledge him as part of our genre. Says Margaret Talbot in her 2005 article titled “The Candyman: Why Children Love Roald Dahl’s Stories – and Many Adults Don’t” (further proof the man is writing Horror):

“Most of Dahl’s early writing was for adults. He specialized in wartime stories and macabre tales with surprise endings, or what the British call “a twist in the tail.”… But by the early sixties… The New Yorker, which had earlier accepted several stories, now sent rejection notices. Dahl’s adult stories were crisply, shiveringly enjoyable—rather like “Twilight Zone” episodes—but they showed little compassion or psychological penetration. It was children, it seemed, not adults, on whom Dahl could lavish empathy.” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/07/11/the-candy-man

Yet he wrote stories for adults… and they are great stories that remind us that concepts handled correctly can drive great stories – whether driven by satire or not, irony or not, Literature or not…but the better ones do have such elements.

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If we wish to do the deep-dive of Literary Criticism, we can look into the rise of feminism at this early time in Dahl’s life – we can see evidence in the repetitive patterns of female characters he sketches for us – the stereotypical wife gone off the rails, acts of revenge that tickle the spine and the imagination.

Here is an excerpt of my favorite story of his titled Lamb to the Slaughter, delivered with his typical simple and direct style:

“This is going to be a bit of a shock to you, I’m afraid,” he said. “But I’ve thought about it a good deal and I’ve decided the only thing to do is tell you right away. I hope you won’t blame me too much.”

And he told her. It didn’t take long, four or five minutes at most, and she stayed very still through it all, watching him with a kind of dazed horror as he went further and further away from her with each word.

“So there it is,” he added. “And I know it’s kind of a bad time to be telling you, bet there simply wasn’t any other way. Of course I’ll give you money and see you’re looked after. But there needn’t really be any fuss. I hope not anyway. It wouldn’t be very good for my job.”

Her first instinct was not to believe any of it, to reject it all. It occurred to her that perhaps he hadn’t even spoken, that she herself had imagined the whole thing. Maybe, if she went about her business and acted as though she hadn’t been listening, then later, when she sort of woke up again, she might find none of it had ever happened.

“I’ll get the supper,” she managed to whisper, and this time he didn’t stop her.

When she walked across the room she couldn’t feel her feet touching the floor. She couldn’t feel anything at all- except a slight nausea and a desire to vomit. Everything was automatic now-down the steps to the cellar, the light switch, the deep freeze, the hand inside the cabinet taking hold of the first object it met. She lifted it out, and looked at it. It was wrapped in paper, so she took off the paper and looked at it again.

A leg of lamb.

All right then, they would have lamb for supper. She carried it upstairs, holding the thin bone-end of it with both her hands, and as she went through the living-room, she saw him standing over by the window with his back to her, and she stopped.

“For God’s sake,” he said, hearing her, but not turning round. “Don’t make supper for me. I’m going out.”

At that point, Mary Maloney simply walked up behind him and without any pause she swung the big frozen leg of lamb high in the air and brought it down as hard as she could on the back of his head….” https://4.files.edl.io/4a65/10/23/18/235824-cd055462-e062-467c-a8ae-492f46d8caad.pdf

What is most useful about Dahl, is the direct way we can see everything laid out in his stories. If a writer is looking for a how-to, Dahl is your man. His works are uncomplicated – even while wielding Literary elements. We can see the story. We can go back and see the elements.

Clarifies David Ulin in his 2016 article titled “Roald Dahl’s Twisted, Overlooked Stories for Adults”:

“What we’re seeing is a style, a sensibility: that sophisticated, offhand voice, that air of a story heard and repeated; fiction as gossip or conversation, a game of telephone. It’s reminiscent, in a way, of Sherwood Anderson, that master of the story within a story, but even more, perhaps, of Kurt Vonnegut, who was writing his early short fiction at the same time Dahl was producing his. Vonnegut ultimately gave up on writing stories, put off by what he saw as their contrivance: “Short stories are artificial; they are very clever misrepresentations of life,” Vonnegut told me, in 1997. “You can be fairly truthful about life if you have a little length, but a short story has to be awfully cute—it has to be a con.” https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/roald-dahls-twisted-overlooked-stories-for-adults

Yet Dahl does con us. He makes Horror look easy. Because maybe it is easier than we have been wont to make it, so accessible we could all of us BE any of his characters… Yet this is not the only reason Dahl succeeds in hooking us. Says Joyce Carol Oates in her 2007 article titled “The Art of Vengeance,”

“Dahl has a zest for blackly comic sadistic situations in which characters, often hapless, are punished out of all proportion to their wrongdoings. In one of the more subtly crafted stories, the ironically titled “The Way Up to Heaven,” first published in The New Yorker in 1954, an exasperatingly slow, doddering, self-absorbed old coot, seemingly so rich as to live in a “large six-storey house in New York City, on East Sixty-second Street, [with] four servants” and his own private elevator, is allowed by his long-suffering wife, to remain trapped in the elevator as she leaves for six weeks in Europe to visit her daughter:

The chauffeur, had he been watching [Mrs. Foster] closely, might have noticed that her face had turned absolutely white and that the whole expression had suddenly altered. There was no longer that rather soft and silly look. A peculiar hardness had settled itself upon the features. The little mouth, usually so flabby, was now tight and thin, the eyes were bright, and the voice, when she spoke, carried a new note of authority.

“Hurry, driver, hurry!”

“Isn’t your husband traveling with you?” the man asked, astonished.

“Certainly not…. Don’t sit there talking, man. Get going! I’ve got a plane to catch for Paris!”

In a mordantly funny coda that must have stirred visceral dread in male, upper-middle-class New Yorker readers of that pre-feminist era, the elderly liberated woman, returning from her highly enjoyable trip, is pleased to discover when she reenters the townhouse a “faint and curious odour in the air that she had never smelled before.” https://www.roalddahlfans.com/dahls-work/books/the-collected-short-stories-of-roald-dahl/the-art-of-vengeance/

Does he get it “right” every time? No, no one does. But that doesn’t mean those stories considered less artful aren’t somebody’s favorites. And isn’t that also the point – that writing is an Art? That it is relative?

Maybe the most important thing Dahl’s writing does is to open the conversation about the proper application of craft and technique, about originality versus the contrived that we need to have within the genre and within novice writing and education. He not only awakens the pores of the Horror skin, but he sets it a-tingle. He makes us feel like we can do it – we can pull great Horror out of ourselves because it isn’t far away from us. It isn’t about genius but more about observation and using every tool we have in the writing toolbox.

Continues Ulin:

“Not all of Dahl’s stories are equally effective, of course. More than a few (“The Sound Machine,” “Edward the Conqueror,” “Vengeance is Mine Inc.”) echo as unrealized conceits. Still, even at its least resonant, his writing raises questions about what we want or expect from fiction, what a story ought to be.” https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/roald-dahls-twisted-overlooked-stories-for-adults

Maybe that is the question we should all be asking, but don’t tell us Roald Dahl is not of the Horror genre; his work reeks of Horror conventions modernly rendered.

Let’s add him to the list. Let’s ask Literary Critics to look again at Roald Dahl for a foundational author of our canon. But for Horror’s sake, let’s read him.

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Works:

Novels: (Young Adult):

The Gremlins

Sometime Never: a Fable for Supermen

James and the Giant Peach

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The Magic Finger

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

Danny, the Champion of the World

The Enormous Crocodile

My Uncle Oswald

The Twits

George’s Marvelous Medicine

The BFG

The Witches

The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me

Matilda

Esio Trot

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke

The Minpins

 

Short Story Collections:

Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying

Someone Like You

Kiss Kiss

Twenty-Nine Kisses From Roald Dahl

Switch Bitch

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More

The Best of Roald Dahl

Tales of the Unexpected

More Tales of the Unexpected

A Roald Dahl Selection: Nine Short Stories

Two Fables

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life: the Country Stories of Roadl Dahl

The Roald Dahl Treasury

 

 Edited by:

Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories

 

 Nonfiction:

Boy-Tales of Childhood

Going Solo

Measles, a Dangerous Illness

Memories with Food at Gypsy House

Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety

The Dahl Diary 1992

My Year

The Roald Dahl Diary 1997

The Mildehhall Treasure

 

References

Dahl, Roald. “Lamb to the Slaughter.” https://4.files.edl.io/4a65/10/23/18/235824-cd055462-e062-467c-a8ae-492f46d8caad.pdf

Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 6/15,02019 from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Roald-Dahl

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Art of Vengeance.” The New York Review of Books, April 26, 2007 edition. Retrieved 6/15/19 from https://www.roalddahlfans.com/dahls-work/books/the-collected-short-stories-of-roald-dahl/the-art-of-vengeance/

Talbot, Marion. “The Candyman: Why Children Love Roald Dahl’s Stories – and Many Adults Don’t.” A Critic at Large. The New Yorker: July 4, 2005. Retrieved 6/16/19 from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/07/11/the-candy-man

Ulin, David.”Roald Dhal’s Twisted, Overlooked Stories for Adults.” Page-Turner. The New Yorker: July 21, 2016. Retrieved 6/14/19 from https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/roald-dahls-twisted-overlooked-stories-for-adults

Webster’s Dictionary. (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/satire)

 

 

Writers in Exile: Is the Horror Genre Killing Itself?


We keep hearing how everything is ok.

Despite the bodies being carried out the back door, we keep hearing how the Horror magazine market is viable, and traditional book publishers and agents want new writers, and editors are overwhelmed by submissions on every front (sometimes too many good ones to publish them all, and sometimes as proof that indeed just anyone thinks they can write Horror).

We also keep hearing about the many ways we as Horror writers can spend our limited monies and emotional currency on writing contests, conventions, and buying “how-to” products, doling out reader’s fees and professional club memberships like we are made of money…or how we can become overnight successes publishing ourselves – all of this while countless rejections and the narrowing of submission guidelines are shoving many writers into other genres.

These are mixed messages. All of us are confused.

Are we being rejected because of our Craft, our stories, or both? Or are we being sacrificed to the gods of precision branding in this age of one-size-does-not-fit-all commercialism? Is our Establishment trying to exercise control over which direction we are heading, and using the few bestselling authors we have left to psychologically fund their efforts?

We are seeing a narrowing of focus in the Horror genre. We are seeing an overemphasis on the Literary while hunting for bestseller stories told however they get the book sold.

It seems like what they really mean is not that they want new writers or new Horror, but apparently that if they can’t unearth a new Poe, they want a new Stephen King…a Reserve Stephen King, just in case.

Because clearly we are caught in a crisis – an identity crisis where we don’t know if Horror is whatever sells, or what some editor says is Literary enough.

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Edgar Allan Poe – yours, mine, Mystery’s and ours…

What Happens in Horror is Not Staying in Horror

If we look at the history of Horror after the Horror Boom of the 1970’s and 1980’s, what we find is a parade of authors escorted to the borders of the genre and unceremoniously dismissed as no longer Horror writers. Sadly, this means we have lost a lot of Horror and a lot of Horror Literature. It means a lot of former Horror writers no longer self-identify as Horror writers. And for others left to contemplate their exile in their new found no-man’s-land, it means a bitter severance of the artistic relationship, hurt feelings, and even disgust.

Why did we lose writers like Clive Barker? Why did we never embrace a Roald Dahl or H.H. Munro? Why were we so brazen to banish Tanith Lee? To ignore Jane Yolen? Or to keep Terri Windling as no more than a casual mention?

This Weird charnel house we are living in seems to have been built on an earlier premise that Horror (not being a “real” or Literary genre) was instead a collection of sometimes Literary writing written by authors from Literary Fiction – in other words, great writers slumming it in the genres.

And in many cases, it was somewhat true – writers like Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, Roald Dahl, Charlotte Bronte, Daphne DuMaurier, H.H. Munro (Saki), Joyce Carol Oates, Louisa May Alcott, Shirley Jackson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Cormac McCarthy, Umberto Eco, Orson Welles, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, and Toni Morrison – are today not considered exclusively (if ever) Horror writers. Yet some of their writing places them firmly in our genre as potential providers of canonical works.

The list of such works by these kinds of visiting writers always grows. So why it is so hard for us to look within the genre itself and get a clear picture of what Horror is today – of the writers growing the genre right now? Is it possible the answer is because we don’t welcome our own writers in the genre unless they fit a certain “profile”? Unless they support a certain kind of genre branding as orchestrated by our own Establishment?

Why do we stop at the Weird Writers, sighing and swooning as we look backward to the Good Old Days of Horror? Are we so grieving the loss of those writers that we cannot see the grown children right in front of us?

Horror is an artful mix of different genres and different writers; it should never be so “formula” that it cannot be original, that it cannot display diversity. We should never be willing to bend to a brand.

This is the nature of Horror – it cross-pollinates and is cross-pollinated. We are a little bit country, and little bit rock-and-roll. We are as likely to welcome face-hugging aliens as we are to embrace dastardly lords of the manor who exploit vulnerable orphans, to feed annoying nannies to a horror in a garden shed or drag us through the savage mental decline of a woman trapped in postpartum depression. Horror is about the human condition – all of it in its absolute terror.

So why is it that we are apparently having problems with identity right now?

Who is imposing that identity, changing and tweaking it like a moral authority?

And do they have that right?

We have to ask these questions and find the answers, because we have lost control of what is happening in our genre – mostly because of what is also happening as a result of the Technology Revolution. And what started as the bleeding off of midlist authors in the mid 1980’s has become a new marketing trend of spinning off any and all authors who are not deemed – by someone – to be “proper” Horror.

The result is that it is looking like “no one” besides Mr. King is really writing Horror.

We have “perp-walked” writers who refuse to conform right into other genres, giving them up like we have so many to spare. Yet what we do have is clearly a lot of writers who are all but steered into “writing in the vein of” past icons:  we adulate Lovecraft and the Weird Writers to the extent that the message being communicated is that the Weird was the last time we had great, Literary writers in the genre. And that suggests the Weird is all that we were aspiring to become… that at the very moment we have reached that long-fought-for pinnacle of success – actual Literary Critical recognition – we have nothing left in the tank.

I don’t buy it. Our own genre history suggests otherwise, subgenre building on subgenre…Why is Weird any different? Why didn’t we learn our lesson from that period? Why aren’t we interested in seeing what ALL writers in the genre can concoct? To see what direction we will all lurch next in a burst of rabid creativity? Why aren’t we mining pulp? Experimenting? Publishing Horror? Connecting and communicating with our fans?

More importantly, why are we so eager to expel writers who are not seeming to stay within “approved” Horror guidelines, and exactly who has determined those guidelines?

One thing is for sure: it is NOT the Literary Critic who is doing this.

But the Literary Critic IS ABOUT TO…bwa ha ha…

Hiding rebel authors in other genres is not going to work – although it may certainly slow down the Critic in finding them. The Critic will decide who is Horror genre and who is not.

Is someone running about, clearing the road in front of the bus? And what exactly is their right to do so?

Take a deep breath. We are going to have to lean backward to see how we got here.

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When Booms Collapse

When Horror went off the rails in the 1990’s, it went amidst turmoil in the publishing industry itself. We cannot dismiss the importance of the impact of the Technology Revolution on our genre, because we were among the first to see cutbacks in publication and a rethinking of marketing strategy. The sudden lack of air in the room meant that all of the machinery that had sustained our genre and the publishing Boom of the 1970’s-1980’s ground to a halt. We lost a lot of publishers, imprints, magazines, editors, and writers at a time we had also already begun losing fans.

Some said it was proof that the Baby Boom generation which had propelled Horror in those two Power Decades was at last “aging out”… that we were “growing up” and moving on to more adult subjects, at long last disenchanted with scary stories because we had begun actually living them.

It was also theorized that Horror had “bottomed out”… that there were no more stories to tell, and no one left to read them. Slasher fiction and visceral Horror were offered up as examples for the creative desert, and the genre clearly began to struggle with an identity crisis.

But this is a tale of dominoes falling…

At the same time, Literary Critics had fallen out of favor. The constant railing against the really pulpy writing that came out of the publishing Boom had caused academic panic – the previously reciprocal relationship between publishers and Critics and editors seemed to have broken down, and the search for Literature seemed to have been abandoned in favor of the blockbuster bestseller. The constant Critical rants against authors who the public cherished and who the publishers couldn’t afford to continue to do business without lit fires everywhere. Hostilities broke out, insults were standard fare, and the public became increasing estranged from what the Critics were saying.

As Critics disappeared from newsprint and public view to be replaced with reviewers who thought more like us, we didn’t realize that the fracture of the relationship was a harbinger of troubled times in education, publishing and the field of Literary Criticism. But it was.

So the Literary Critics retreated into their ivory castles to try and decipher what exactly had gone wrong in contemporary writing that we did not seem to be producing any modern Literature…as well as why no one seemed to care.

This retreat was a coincidental consequence curiously timed with sudden cutbacks and restructuring of our educational system, which shifted into high gear to focus on standardized tests and herd high school graduates away from vocational schools and into promised-to-be-forever careers as wranglers of word processing and computer data entry operators. With the internet looming, the predecessors to the online world invaded our workspaces with word processors and data programs to the detriment of language arts and the Humanities in general.

What this all means is that while we were becoming cogs, we lost traditional publishing venues, editorial expertise, Literary Critical feedback, and the kind of education that taught writing, reading, and Literature all at the same time. It was a perfect storm.

While the Literary Critics were off reinventing themselves (simultaneously discovering that the reason no Literature was being found was because the Literary Critical Theories used to determine Literature and created for writers like Shakespeare and Homer, were not broad enough to accommodate actual changes that happen in living language…they then had to create new Theories and recreate themselves), Horror was also making discoveries.

During the last hundred years, the argument so well made by writers like Poe and Lovecraft that Horror was at least sometimes Literature had begun making inroads into Literary Critical circles. And at the precise moment we all had surrendered to the thought we would never gain recognition from Literary Critics as a genre we began to draw that exact attention. Critics were looking at Horror – largely because of that very group of Baby Boomers who had pushed the genre into new heights of production, sales, and attention during the Horror and Publishing Boom. It was those very Boomers who were now amongst the Critics asking questions like “why isn’t Stephen King Literature?”

We had moles. We had champions. And all of a sudden, we had the ear of New Literary Critics…and Horror became Literary-Elect. This means that for the next few decades, Literary Critics will begin the formation of Horror as a Literary genre. And if all of us who love it are right, it will not be found wanting. But this also means that Literary Critics have to begin committing facts to paper: they have to look at enough works to contrive a Canon of works – works that are Horror works, foundational works, works that define and shape the genre.

They will need to compile characteristics, formulas, subgenres, tropes, conventions, and terms that are standardized.

It also means that they will have to determine who our genre Canon authors are (the ones who write Horror most, if not all of the time – and whose works clearly define the genre) and those who sometimes write canon works (writers who visit our genre, write a tale or two, a poem, anything that is so full of Horror DNA it is part of the evolution of the genre – that it cannot be excluded… and then go away).

There will be lists, and debates, and arguments. Those lists, debates, and arguments will define, establish, and support proposed criteria and standards in the genre.

(Again, hint to English BA graduates: we need Literary Critics. Get your master’s degree. Get your Ph.D. and be part of an historical moment in Literary Criticism and the Horror genre!)

All of this means that the game is on.

For new writers in the Horror genre, it means you are walking a knife’s edge. For example, it has not yet been determined that pulp will or will not be included as a subgenre (although I personally believe it should be a subgenre and held to formula within the Literary Horror genre).

So as a writer you now need to know what Literature is and if you want to try to write it or purposefully choose NOT to write it. If you fall anywhere on the cracks, Critics will likely rule you out; you will need to commit if it is their attention you want, and becoming a canon author your dream. And that means you are also going to have to self-educate, because with the educational emphasis on STEM-as-Life, you will not receive educational support in the way it is most needed. To learn how to write with Literary elements, playing Russian Roulette with submission and editors is not going to be enough. This is not an area for guessing, but for lifelong study.

At the very moment we have the Critic’s attention, we are not at our best. We are not even able to get our work out there if it were worthy. We have saboteurs and empire builders all in a time when we have absolutely no access to Craft that is not attached to financially motivated teachers, publishers, and editors… at a time when finding publication and then readers is as random as squashing your novel in a wine bottle and tossing it out to sea.

It means we need to get our ship in order.

But it also means that whoever is trying to create a catalog of published Horror for the Critic to see clearly doesn’t understand Literary Criticism. (And isn’t that amusing?)

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https://observer.com/2015/12/forget-the-leftovers-here-are-6-shows-that-deserve-an-in-costume-campaign/

 

Writing. In Other Genres.

For decades we have been losing authors to other genres – mostly to Fantasy, but many to Science Fiction and Psychological Thriller.

Why?

Just who is threatened by our rejection of trying to continue the Weird and being weary of Zombies or Vampires? Who is threatened by fairies of the Unseelie Court or the djinn of the 1001 Nights, or the killer who may or may not be dead? The insane who may or may not be crazy? The alien no bigger than a virus?

We have to grow or we die. We have to experiment with other genre elements in order to infuse new life into worn tropes. It’s just how it’s done….

The idea that a writer who uses elements from other genres belongs SOLELY in that genre is a cheap shot and an ignorant one. It is evidence that we have ceased to understand what makes Horror, Horror – especially if “experts” in the genre cannot or will not explain it to us with diagrams, pie charts, and standard formulas…

If no one in our illustrious Establishment will deign to step forward and claim the responsibility for defining what is “acceptable” Horror writing in the genre – no one who will go out on the limb to nail all definitions down – then I vote we write like the wind until the Literary Critic does the job.

Because it IS their job…

Exiling writers someone doesn’t like for whatever reason translates into a cheap power grab.

It is also evidence that someone is trying to dash ahead of the Literary Critic to create that body of work…to direct the Critic’s attention to what is perceived to be “better” Horror.

We’ve done it with Stephen King – demanding that any Critic who writes Criticism about the genre dedicate some analysis to our best-selling author. But Critics are not having it. This is because Theories are still being formed, the author is still alive and working, and sales figures are not an indicator of Literature. King will be more fairly analyzed long after his demise, long after Critics who know anything about him die. It’s just the way it is.

Meanwhile Literary Criticism is compromised not only by the sheer volume of works awaiting Criticism, but a lack of enough Critics to do the job of analysis, and Theories to be fully developed and applied. They have neither the time nor the manpower to pander to “expert” opinion…

This acceptance and analysis of Horror as a genre is all going to take time. Lifetimes of time.

But when those Literary Critics start to look at works, they will also be looking at those cross-pollinators.

That means for example that Clive Barker may yet be named a foundational author of Horror (I believe he is) and that many of his fantasy-in-exile works will also be included because of the dark elements. But it also means that Charles Dickens will be there on our lists with a work or two (those Christmas Carols no doubt!) as a writer who sometimes supplied canon works… and so we may also find Alan Dean Foster with Alien…even J.K. Rowling…

It’s only fair.

And it is Literarily normal….

Poe will be in the Horror canon, the Mystery canon, the Poetry canon, the Western Literary Canon. He is ours. He is theirs. This is why Literature is Literature – it services many genres and many needs.

So there are contemporary Horror writers in Thriller, in Fantasy, in Science Fiction, in Mystery – heck, even in Romance where we started! Why don’t we get to see their stories? Why don’t we get to write those stories ourselves? And who bloody well cares if they aren’t “pure enough” Horror for someone’s tastes? Neither was Lovecraft, once upon a time…

It’s time we stopped exiling authors and started welcoming them back into the fold.

It’s time we started rebuilding our genre for the benefit of both the genre and the Literary Critic.

It’s time we stopped stifling creativity and censoring perfectly good writers out of Horror – some of whom were perfectly great, even if it was for just a story now and then.

We still have fans. Some of us are left over from that great Boom. And guess what? We want our Clive Barkers back… We want our Tanith Lees… We want our C.J. Cherryhs and our Jane Yolens. Our Neil Gaimans and our Raymond Feists… Give’em back. Lure them back and I’ll bet you’ll see a new “boom” of readership…

Seriously. Stop trying to manufacture our trends and control our writers.

We can do way better than genre suicide. And there are a lot of us out there trying to write some good, scary stuff…because we want to READ it ourselves…

Horror happens. It is organic. And it belongs to us, no matter what section it gets filed in.

 

Late-Breaking, Horror-Shaking News: Editor Paula Guran Inches Toward Retirement


If you don’t know who Paua Guran is, you aren’t reading enough Horror…

Guran has been one of the three major contemporary editorial contributors to the genre, most recognized for her excellent work on the Prime Books annual “Best of ” collection, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, but also for her prolific work on countless anthologies that for decades have served up some of the more interesting and innovative Horror anthologies – often with a delicious side of Dark Fantasy and fairy tale influence.

She is, by far, my favorite American Horror editor. And in times when it is increasingly hard to get our hands on British Horror, her collections have offered a complimentary creative contrast to Ellen Datlow, whose influence continues to showcase better constructed Horror with Literary inclinations, but without that feel of adventure. Guran has been the “heart” of the genre, going for the emotional center.

In her latest annual Best collection for 2018—her forty fifth anthology – she announces in the About the Editor note that “after more than a decade of full-time editing, she’s now freelancing..” having downsized her life and her work to more relaxed levels with “mixed feelings.” (Year’s 511)

She is not alone in those feelings… American Horror is taking a hit.

And I have one thing to say:

Noooooooooooooooo!!!!!

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Say It Isn’t So…

The rise of the anthology in Horror fiction has done several very important things: it has provided a forum not unlike early Horror magazines in which readers have a chance to “discover” writers they could not find anywhere else, to “discover” new writers in the genre, and to get a feel for what Horror writers are writing about. But they also have provided a unique opportunity to understand what the field of editing is all about – not the sweat and grit of proof-reading or slush-pile skiing, but the kind of work editors used to do – back when they discovered writers and nurtured them a bit, guiding them into other publishing and awards territory – in essence, contributing to the genre an editorial style – not so much as a star-maker, but as a representative of chosen stories, subgenres, and “accent”…

In the Olden Days, readers read books curated by certain editors. Editors had fan-bases. We seem to have lost that connection with editors. And it is a shame.

Datlow, I think, will always be underestimated by readers for the work she has done for the genre – because her anthologies carry less obvious “voice” and because of her own preference for what I see as literary artistry. But Guran will be equally obviously missed for the solid sense of presence and voice in her selections. Where Datlow to me represents refined technique, Guran is just plain fun. With Datlow, I see something of the intended editorial future of the genre; with Guran I see the pulp roots of yesteryear bleeding through. Between them both, we had a fine balancing act doling out tradition and inspiring different aspects of our Horror future.

Now it feels like the wheels are coming off…

We are losing a highly representative voice of “accessible” and “achievable” Horror goals, leaving some of us to feel we are being refined right out of our own genre.

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Guran has been around the genre for some time…quietly rattling the cages of some pretty awesome beasts. According to http://paulaguran.com/about/:

“In an earlier life she produced DarkEcho, a weekly email newsletter for horror writers and others, for over six years (1994-2001) and was recognized with two unprecedented back-to-back Bram Stoker Awards for Nonfiction from the Horror Writers Association (1998 and 1999) as well as an International Horror Guild Award (1999) and a World Fantasy nomination (1997). She began producing the horror portion of the pioneering professional Web publication OMNI Online in 1996 and became the Literature Editor of Universal Studios’ HorrorOnline in October 1998. (Many of the now-outdated interviews, articles, and reviews she produced from 1995-2006 are archived on DarkEcho website—which she will, someday, cleanup and sort out—she hopes.)”

Do you realize what an awesome resume that is? All before she became the Senior Editor for Prime Books…

Yet there is more to Guran’s impact upon the Horror genre.

Ultimately, a major part of her legacy-in-progress will be her own contribution to the “shading” and gender-blending of Horror. She has been integral along with Datlow in the decisive attempt to bring more diversity to the ranks of published authors. Between the two of them, we see far more women being published and being awarded in the genre, far more minority voices, helping to eradicate that myth that only white males write great Horror.

But we have so much farther to go… I hope Guran has an understudy…. somewhere out there…

Someone who will rise in the genre to become the kind of editor she has been – one with eyes in the back of her head and at least one of them focused sharply on the future.

But editing is not something that publishers seem interested in grooming. They seem product-focused, not genre-focused… seeking what sells, not what shapes.

And our educational system is conducting itself in very similar ways. Editing tends to be one course in all of the university writing or classics undergraduate major courses, too-often about nonfiction, and it often isn’t required. No one talks about how to edit fiction. No one teaches it. No one really writes about it.

In fact, the only way one can learn it is by teaching oneself – reading other writers’ work, reading how-to’s written for writers on how to “fix” flawed fiction, reading essays on the emotional and etheric experience of editing. Nothing is out there offering a blow-by-blow instruction or introduction. And there are just not enough established and reputable publications out there who will hire an editor-wannabe for the purpose of mentoring into a powerhouse editor of a single genre.

This is slipshod and irresponsible. And it is all we have. The field of editing has become crowded with MFA folk who know no more about editing than I do, who are also writers who would rather be writing than editing, who “fall into” editing opportunities without any particular credentials or training, and often who appear to be some kind of network hire, a “connected” person instead of a proven editorial savant.

How can we get great editors if we are treating them the same way we are treating writers in our genre? Staring out over an open field of wildflowers with a glassy-eyed shrug, and deciding to judge only those who make it into a special-delivered vase on our desk?

We need editors who are trained….Like it needs to be its own DEGREE…. supported by study in classic Literature, Literary Criticism, and training in Craft.

We also need more flexibility in how academics look at the genres. Sure, genre writing is rarely Literary. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be capably executed or that its editors should not be very well-read in the genre they intend to edit.

Between training writers and training editors in mechanical basics and academic Criticism in and around the foundation of Classic Literature – how can we help but grow a few Literary writers and better readers? How can we miss creating better editors who create better books, which create better sales and better Publishers?

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Eclectic is Good. And It is Necessary.

As much as an editor like Datlow is to be appreciated, editors like Paula Guran become beloved. The only predictable thing in her anthologies is the unpredictable… There will be tales that are offbeat, unique in protagonist or setting… clear roots to the better traditions of Horror no matter how campy or Literary. And that is important.

Eclectic is good.

Eclectic is necessary.

And we cannot let our Establishment ever forget that, because in the rush to Literary style we have started to lose some serious essence.

It has often felt as though in our genre we are so focused on elevating our Craft, of impressing dead Literary Critics that we are totally forgetting the fan out there – the reader of Horror who wants some fun along with that technique, who wants more than anything to be scared – if only for a moment.

Everything in Horror does not have to be perfect.

Perfection is what we aspire to…It is for the Poes and Lovecrafts among us… even if those unknown writers are outside the field of current favoritism, as Poe and Lovecraft once were.

We cannot and should not denigrate writers of lesser genre fiction – those reckless storytellers of urban myth and trite, overused plots, nor those writers whose voices speak from outside our comfortable norm. From those places we might just see a writer take off on jets of inspiration and innovation. And it is those writers who need to read the work of other chance-takers. It is those writers who need to feel the recoil when the patterns of poor technique or overdone plots become obvious – but like with new and would-be editors – who can’t if they don’t read enough of all of that lesser-regarded writing for creative comparison to the Greats of the genre – past, present, or future…

This is what an editor like Guran offers: diversity from the roots up: from who is writing to what is being written about…

For example, in the 2018 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror are works and writers such as  “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse, a Pueblo/African American Writer…”The Lamentation of Their Women” by Kai Ashante Wilson, African American writer, “Little Digs” by Lisa L. Hannett, Australian National Science Fiction Award Winner…”Moon, and Memory, and Muchness” by Katherine Vaz, a Portuguese- American writer. This is genre diversity long over-due.

Guran’s anthologies remind me of the old Weekly Readers we used to get in elementary school – along with the book selections at the end that shaped the reading I do today. Her work is that “box of chocolates”… in no way the “Best” of Horror as much as it is the Year’s Great Horror Stories… Tales to inspire, to unsettle, to tease…

I slipped into a funk when I read Paula Guran’s note about pulling back from her editorial proliference… Now what will I do? I thought….maybe I should go back and collect the anthologies I missed that she edited… prolong the withdrawal a little longer…

I realize she is still working… at reduced volume, at reduced pace…

But I think this is a canary -in- the-coal-mine moment for Horror…

We need to do something, because how long we have Datlow is another pending question….And then what?

What, Horror gods, will we do to stop the editorial hemorrhaging? Because great editors are as rare as great writers: they deserve discovery and mentoring… They deserve educating.

How do we fix this without making an actual effort to do so? And how do we look our fans in the eye if we just stand around blowing up inflatable monsters instead of making a decisive effort to properly seat our genre at the academic table at just the moment when Literary Critics are beginning their work to define and establish our genre as the legitimate Literary entity we have all long known it is?

Paula Guran is scooching toward retirement. Fans like me are screaming into pillows. We better do something…before we lose everything we have worked for…

We better start caring about how great editors are made. Because I know we have other editors editing out there, but we all come with expiration dates. And for fans like me, they will never be Paula Guran.

 

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“Interested in writing and/or editing? Here’s a link to a unique Editors’ Roundtable that features general and specific comments on a promising story from some of the most respected editors in the field: Paula Guran, Ellen Datlow, Gardner Dozois, Liz Gorinsky, James Patrick Kelly, Nick Mamatas, Ann VanderMeer, and Sheila Williams.” http://paulaguran.com/

 

 

Scaring the Lit Out of Yourself: Making Good Horror From Bad Memories (World View Part 2)


When Horror writers think of Horror as Literature, we think foremost of Lovecraft; Lovecraft is so intimately and unequivocally ours…Unlike Poe, who having been repeatedly devoured by Critics of Olde (who in turn we resolutely believe did not “get” us), seems hopelessly ensnared in academic debate even as he rises as proof that Horror is indeed Literary. Lovecraft is accessible to our imaginations.

Lovecraft is indeed different. Lovecraft is us.

He is the traditionally rejected writer dedicated to his own vision of monsters. He is the rebellious outsider, the flawed character in his own story, a rich man made poor, a lonely man made so by his own inability to navigate society. He is the one who said, “I told you so,” the one who showed up his critics and enemies by outlasting them all, and becoming one of the foremost and most immortal of Horror writers. Lovecraft is our revenge upon all naysayers made real. He is our idol.. because he transcended all predictions and Criticisms of his time. For that, we love and adore him.

But what we tend to forget is how isolated, terror-filled, and haunted his life really was.

We forget he was extolled and emulated only after his death; instead we picture him happy and wealthy, when Lovecraft lived an opposite life of constant poverty and was tormented by his own tailored variety of demons. And those monstrosities were so real he not only wrote about them – he named them and gave them their own worlds as they relentlessly chased him through his. That he might well have been mentally ill is (for most of us) beside the point. Lovecraft represents the struggle of an exceptional writer to get his work perfected and published.

Lovecraft is a community triumph.

And while what Lovecraft wrote is now being identified as the highest form of Literary – replete with a Critic-adored World View, he once was indeed…us.  That this may provide a useful hint as to the technique we need to find and put to use is — for many of us — beside the point:  it irks us to be reminded of the truth, knowing how passionately we identify with pieces of his life as imagined by ourselves.

And so we do not understand how he performed the trick. Like any good bit of magic, we have missed the essence of the illusion by being distracted by that very illusion.

That Lovecraft might well have performed it by accident disturbs us. We are formula hunters…Pattern seekers. And we want a sure-fire, step-by-step instruction manual.

To get there, we have to recognize the secret of the Secret Sauce; World View is a consequence of personal experience.

And how you mine personal experience is encapsulated in two sentences of advice we have had drilled into our brains with absolutely no understanding of what was meant:

  • Find what scares you.
  • Write what you know.

It turns out that writing good Horror depends heavily upon your ability to turn bad memories into good story. It means –even if you are convinced you have neither baggage nor enough life experience – learning to scare the Literature out of yourself… Because if you are going to expose your World View, personal experience is your vocabulary.

 

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Finding What Scares You

In the search for World View, we must look for metaphors. What incidents in your life provide the necessary cover for Life’s Bigger Issues? Chances are, they are the smaller ones…

Yet we are easily overwhelmed by thinking in Literary terms. So it is often better to think in personal ones, and then stitch in the Literary reinforcements at some later point of revision. To do that, we can safely start by using the advice of common How-to tomes…

However, over-used phrases like “write about what scares you” and its near and necessary relative “write what you know” are too nonspecific. They leave a lot open to misinterpretation and we can spend long, lonely years toiling down primrose paths of flat, boring Horror.

But if you are going to write good Horror, you need to understand exactly what is meant by both phrases. There are inextricably linked. And they don’t mean what they sound like they mean: they mean precisely what they mean.

Sound confusing?

Good. That means you are already thinking about it.

When we are told to “find what scares us” in particular, we suddenly become surface dwellers. In essence, we fail to go deep enough into the ugly, emotionally scarred territory of our own subconscious because we spend our lives trying to minimize the damage other people keep trying to do to us and our fragile egos. It is not so easy to reverse course, to dig deep and poke our private humiliations and fears. In fact, it often takes multiple attempts, multiple drafts, and some incredible, hair-tearing moments to pull it off.

According to Charles Baxter in his book, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, subtext, or “the unspoken soul matter… that critical twilight zone… that landscape haunted by the unseen” (4) is the provenance of characters. And it is through the artful manipulation of “dramatic placement” that the hidden is revealed – but not just shown. Subtext is a potent revelation that must be deduced, felt, and infallibly honest… wherewhat is displayed evokes what is not displayed.” (3)

Sounds simple. But this is astoundingly complicated, especially for new writers who tend to grab onto Horror with both hands while minimizing their own world experience. Worse, we are often in love with the creative process. We wallow in the magic like cats in catnip.

For many of us, writing is an escape. It’s like going to the movies and sitting in a dark theater watching a personal showing of an unknown story unfold – this is true in particular if you are an organic writer. To interrupt that process of drafting and probe about for unsettling memories or associations can (in your own mind)  wreck the whole thing.

This is largely because being human we choose to insulate our emotional selves from eviscerating wounds. To get it out, we have to trick ourselves. We may have plethora of great and ugly experiences we expect to tap for our writing. But thinking about it is depressing, defeating. It is natural to think of those very personal horrors only in the quiet of your room, when the world is shut out and you feel marginally safe to play with razor sharp images. So we write in circles… in denial.

We create a story with vivid characters and wonderful setting and a plot that seems to lie flat on the page and never quite scares anyone much. We fail to engage our own warp engines…

Yet we all already instinctively know that the best Horror is buried deep: that is where the elevation of the story hides. And our own self-defense mechanisms are constantly plotting against our conscious selves to keep it there.

So when we are asked in public what really scares us – as in a writing class (or when our minds are in public-mode) – we tend to choose and reveal innocuous things that mark us as “one of the group” but not the one who is the most vulnerable. This is not by mistake; not only do we have the savage lessons of predator and prey to remind us of the importance of the safety of numbers, but we have the collective peer pressure of Modern Times…

Continues Baxter, “Our times are marked by mishearing and miscueing and selective listening and selective response – features associated with information glut and self-inflammation” (85) No one really wants to hear our pain, and we are endlessly encouraged to not-think about things we are led to believe we cannot change. It is therefore not so far a leap to burying our own unpleasantries.

This is normal in a world where such vulnerability is met with the most unimaginable cruelties. It means there is a problem with society. And there is your Literary entrance to Horror…

Horror is a unique genre. It is all about the ugly details of how we fail each other, exploit each other, and seek vengeance upon each other.

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Yet it is also a very personal genre. Every one of us is a little bit Lovecraft. A little bit King. A little bit Poe. It’s why their writing speaks to us. Why we identify with it, and feel the need to regurgitate our own mortifications.

It is also why it is okay to not be perfect, to have flaws, and to have suffered for them.

Alone in our rooms (even as adults), we often spend way too much time tending our personal terrors, agonizing over things we cannot change, doting anxiously over perceived missteps and mistakes, aghast at our own propensity for victimhood.

The paranoid dialogue is endless, overwhelming, and even debilitating at times. But when the suggestion is made to find what scares us, we think in cartoons; we use place holders like Vampires and scaly monsters in effigy…we ignore the list of darker memories, the unspeakable horrors that haunt our dreams and stalk our hopes and supplant it with lists of petty annoyances like dress codes and politics.

The two lists are indeed quite different, but they are related, and they may be both true. The petty list elicits chuckles or empathetic nods. But it is the first that makes everyone uncomfortable, because we can see ourselves reflected in the mirror like ghosts.

And it is the first list that is most often private. It is the one that circulates in your head and makes ulcers in your stomach. THAT is the one you need to go to…because that one is real. It doesn’t matter if it seems small by comparison to Other People’s troubles. If it haunts you…you are plagued by monsters.

Horror is all about profound truth.

But understand, it is not about confession. You don’t have to write a diary entry to write truth. You do not have to be graphic. You do not have to “out” the child molester in your family. You do not have to have a child molester in your family. But like friend Vampire, you need to draw the essence of the specific fear out to create a solid story around a real Horror.

You have to create resonance. So whether you are writing about a very real personal Horror or imagining one, you have to find the common ground shared by emotions…primal emotions.

Good news: Horror is all about emotions. We all have them. And we all know what is inferred when the right emotional buttons are pushed. You are unique; but what scares you is universal because we all share the same unspoken language of fear. Likewise, how something happened to you is unique. And when you write using those situations or their possibility, no one will ever know for sure if you are being biographical or just insightful and intuitive.

All you have to do if find those unique ways of combining words to summon the images of the monster: that is subtext in its elementary form, the lump of clay all stories start with. You already know how fear makes you feel – that is what is important and potent – everything else can (and probably should be) researched.

It is also where personal experience pushes out character and scene.

This is all Stephen King territory, by the way. King is absolutely tormented by what it is to be an awkward teenager: it clearly made an impression upon him which he cannot forget and which haunts him to this day. It’s why we love him: he gets it. He knows and writes about the awful dread of an acne outbreak right before the prom with your first real crush. He writes about social group rejection. About unrequited love. About how it feels to be bullied. About hating yourself at a time everyone else seems confident and gifted. And then he makes monsters who know exactly how to manipulate those fears.

But what you don’t see is that a whole repertoire of terror is right there in you right now… just waiting to be put to good use. Whether you are twelve or eighty, I guarantee you can dredge up the memories of your most horrible days. Contrary to every piece of adult advice, they do not go away. They live in effigy in your mind forever.

So you might as well put them to work.

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Writing What You Know

This little phrase is another snipe hunt novice writers are sent on.

We think we must wait to write then, until we have worked through our first “everything.” But it is not about some vast accumulation of life experiences. It is about empathy. About sentience.

So what if you want to write about a character who commits suicide? You can’t do that and live to tell the tale.

What if a character is an addict? Is the editor suggesting you should indulge before you can write “legitimately” about it?

Let’s be smart about this; of course not. So how do you write what you know?

For one thing, writing what you know means mining your own emotional reactions to personal experience and transferring THAT to your writing.

We all have unpleasantries in our lives, bad memories, embarassments, humiliations, things that went sideways. Nobody’s life is perfect…not really. Of course, maybe the Horror is that everyone thinks your life is perfect…

But in reality, it most certainly is not. Now, if only we as writers can tap into that…to drill down to the bone…

You know how it feels. So you must take how that feels and elevate it. Give those emotions and dreads and horrors to your characters, mask it just enough that there is room for the story itself…. story is biographical but NOT biography.

You can write about a horrible event, a tragic event, a true event – for example… but in order to reach other people at their core, it has to be about the reaction to the event…You must take all of your memories of how The Event marked and marred you, and season your story with those real memories and emotions…leaving just enough off that your reader must imagine the worst that comes after. You want the reader to discover what is happening…remember show-don’t-tell? Well here it is.

But here is the deal. You don’t have to have been there. You have only to be human enough to empathize, to be able to imagine the absolute horror of it.

For example, imagine how it must feel to accidentally kill a child with your car. The emotions are immediate, visceral…unforgiving. Most of us cannot even imagine how one could successfully move beyond that moment of pure hell.

So you don’t have to have actually been there. You can indeed write about anything, as long as you remember that out there –somewhere – someone already has lived it.

You need to care enough to get it right. That means – especially if you are young – you need a reader of your work that does indeed know something about the kind of tale you are trying to tell. Someone who can give you advice and let you know if you captured the reality of it or not. If you do not have the Life Experience required to be accurate in the telling of the tale, find someone who has. It’s not that difficult.

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But you also have an obligation to do as much as you can first.

Writing what you know is all about fear. Dread. Social blunders. Awkwardness. Vulnerability…That is something we all already know intimately...because of our very own personal past experience.

You have to dig deep. Mine those emotions and nightmares and reshape them in your characters.

That is writing what you know. Dragging the resonating fears out of us (your readers) is how you write good Horror. You must make your reader uncomfortable. And that means you must make yourself uncomfortable…to scare yourself, as Stephen King says.

And keep in mind that most of our genre’s most successful writers wrote their best as young people – before Life got in its licks, but emotion was king.

Sometimes great Horror is about the raw stuff we fear as young people and utilizing the brevity of youth to just say it…

But how far should you go?

The answer: as far as it takes.

Fear is never a “tah dah!” moment. It is a seedling.

It is a conclusion the reader makes… it is not a salacious moment of abhorrent adjectives. It is not cheap. The coin is very precious and you must spend it wisely. This means that much of the monster is never seen… just a claw here, a fang there, the drag-marks made by the victim.

The secret is you want the reader to imagine the worst and if you succeed in making that happen the worst will materialize right there in your writing… BETWEEN THE LINES. Unspoken. Unwritten…in subtext.

When you are successful, the reader will come away with chills, with a haunted memory of having read your story….not necessarily the details of it, but because you described it like you were there and you dragged the reader there.

Again, Stephen King. It’s why he is so successful at scaring us.

If you are going to write about the most horrifying thing in your life, it may be the best – or the worst – writing you will ever do. But don’t give up. Keep remolding the clay. Have you said too much? Too little? Used the wrong words? The wrong monster?

Did I tell you writing is hard?

Did I tell you writing is work?

Writing is also slow torture.

And Literary Critics look for that torture to last a lifetime of writing. Literary Critics look ultimately at a writer’s catalog of works, rummaging around in World View, looking for subtle changes in the writer and the life’s work the way they looked for World View itself in each individual work. They are looking for a kind of character arc – YOURS.

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The “why” comes as part of the sum total job that a Critic does: first they find a Literary work. And then they ask: was it a fluke? Or is the writer Literary?

Because we change as Life has its way with us, it is logical that our World View would change right along with us – either growing deeper and more resolute, or resulting in an epiphany of change. That is what the Critic needs (and hopes) to see over a writer’s lifetime. It is not what you as a writer construct, but what is constructed by the act of your writing.

So what if you are an older writer who is not exactly long on time? Then a Critic needs nuance…perhaps a revelation of those changes that have already happened by presenting good characterization and a passionately true depiction of those earlier views. Yet aging is no excuse: we most certainly do continue to change as we age. And that change will continue to inform your writing…if you remain honest.

Because writing is about the most personal, the most painful, the most outrageous emotions we contain and which subsequently rule and sabotage our subconscious, typically ruining everything that matters. It is all about extracting the pain that you have spent all those years trying to bury, to deny.

Writing is about life and death. Horror is about digging up the bodies.

But more importantly, Horror is all about you – the real you, the alone-in-the-room you.

And no one can tell the story that you will, as long as you write what scares you the most and write what you know. Because to showcase that lusted-after World View, you’re going to have to get personal. You’re going to have to scare the Lit out of yourself.

And nothing scares like honesty.

 

References

Baxter, Charles. The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, c2007.

Phillips, Carl. The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, c2014.

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.

Slender Trends In Modern American Horror: How Original Are We Really?


For most of us older Horror writers and readers, the whole Slenderman takeover of youthful Horror audiences has remained slightly under the radar. Were it not for the heinous attempted murder trial of two unbalanced young girls which keeps resurfacing, it probably would have remained so…For many it is shocking, alarming…coming from nowhere – which makes it even more terrifying to contemplate.

Except for one thing: this whole scare-the-kids business with men in suits has been done before.

It might come as a shock – if not a disappointment – that the whole mythology of Slenderman is as old as, well, dirt. The fact that it tends to resurface in each generation or so is of mild interest, and often fanned by spinners of paranormal legend-making, offered often as proof that there are some paranormal “things” which have some basis in reality…thereby escalating the level of fear with which we treat them, and providing an emotionally charged platform from which to lob scary tales to haunt the young among us.

It works. Therefore, it is repeated.

But why does it work? And what in the world has the likes of Slenderman to do with Horror Literature?

Slend1

Literature is For the Formally Dressed: Bring Your Tux

Literature (some will argue) has its own formula. Yet it is in the genres that we are most likely to encounter noticeably familiar rhythms and resurrected themes. Therefore, time and again Horror writers must do battle with originality within the framework of …formula.

Genre audiences have certain expectations. And as such, this has led to what are called “conventions”… certain established rules for achieving that expected outcome. And those conventions have in turn led to an overt expectation of formula. In genre Horror the most common denominator of formula (and therein subsequent convention) tends to be derived from folk and fairy tales, and “new” fairy tales – the urban legend.

Now, formula is not always bad. Consider it to be like music notation…a kind of framework upon which all the magic happens: it is both necessary, and noticed when it is missing. However it can be more flexible than we have allowed for it, as long as changes are clearly organic and roots remain visible.

Most often, we recognize certain “melodies” in writing. These are often the side effects of a subliminally understood meter or pulse behind the words – the “beat” that gets us moving, that connects to emotions.

In writing, words can be every bit as primal as a drumbeat. And to understand the connection between what we do now and what has been done in the past, we need only look as far as fairy tales and campfire tales…urban legends…myths. These are the past tense of genre. And while they are fun and intriguing, writers must exercise caution because these are powerful and obvious patterns – we must decide if we meant to make the connection obvious, and at no time should we attempt to “trick” or “surprise” the reader with the fact of those patterns: we simply won’t succeed, and our story – no matter how capably written, will be rendered “trite” and our plot overdone.

These are our primitive instruments. And being the first things we derived to create word-music, we tend to revert to them often. Simply, we value their power – their ability to really connect into our primal memories to summon certain emotional reactions.

This is exactly what Slenderman (and all characters of his ilk) are designed to do. In Horror, we take the word-music and make it discordant, disharmonious… unsettling and uncomfortable. To do this we must know what is pleasing and soothing in order to not-do it.

Horror is not about banging on the piano keys. It is about playing something with patterned dissonance – intentionally and artistically. This is why some Horror with violence is gratuitous and cheap, but the same act in another story is powerful in a Literary way. As Horror writers we have to be aware of where the line is and make educated decisions on when we cross it and why.

A masterful handling of such details is how inventions like Slenderman got their start and manage to hang on. And on.

There are simply certain images which disturb us on a basic, primal level. Typically these images are discordant. Dissonant. Out-of-step with what we perceive as reality.

Slend2

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Babadook

This makes nightmares plumb hunting grounds for such images. As biology has taught us, every animal is prey for something else. So logic follows that if one is an apex predator, what could be more terrifying than that which stalks us?

The whole Slenderman profile speaks volumes about our modern fears as well as a few primitive ones. Today in “civilized” countries such as the United States the biggest villains are the faceless persons of privilege and power – the ones who move behind the scenes and treat us like their personal puppets. Their henchmen – figures of authority including government, law enforcement, religion…

It does not take much of a leap of imagination to see those representatives – the Enforcers of our warped society – within the description of Slenderman. We even speak of such authorities in derivative terms, reducing them to what they wear (“suits” and “uniforms”) to what they do (“Pencil pushers” “thought police” and “enforcers”). We proudly declare them “faceless”…”stalkers”… “dark web”…”hidden or shadow government”… They routinely take our children, curtail our rights, manipulate our reality, garnish our wages. “The long arms of the law”…. “the tentacles of government”… “the mind control of religion”…”the opiate of the masses.”

Never mind the perception of stranger danger… the constant presence of real fears of child abduction and the disappearing of whole children and people, the constant threat of societal perversion right here in our society… We were primed for the return of the Slenderman; we simply had not named him in this country…

But there is more to this picture. Because whether it is about survivor guilt or our own personal fears of the once-again suddenly noticeable influx of Others – of immigrants and different customs, language, and religion, we have customized a very old motif to fit modern worries.

And perhaps our human attachment to guilt – collective, racial, personal – all fold into those nightmare creations to build monsters which come at us from planes of existence which we cannot have control over. Perhaps it is a sense that we deserve whatever comes to us, combined with the knowledge our own perception of things has taught us: that when entities are vengeful they often take down whatever prey is available because they cannot reach the ones most often harboring the fullest measure of responsibility.

In other words, the innocent pay most often the debts of the guilty.

Peripheral damage. Collateral damage. Accident. Tragedy.

Humanity provides all manner of words. The Horror is that it changes nothing to cast labels along with our aspersions. But it does give us permission to revel in our customized misery. No one suffers like we do…

So when we create monsters, it is important that we be willing to sacrifice characters our readers have invested some of themselves in. It is important that we remember our own fears in order to translate them to the page.

Our history in storytelling assures us that we will not have to travel far to find such figures from which to diverge. Says Martin Tropp in his book, Images of Fear: How Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1918):

“The continued remodeling of popular myth is behind not only of the purpose and power of the horror tale, but also, as Bruno Bettelheim has shown us (in The Uses of Enchantment) one reason fairy tales have remained popular among generations of children…fairy tales have been shaped by their audience to reflect their wishes and fears. Certain patterns recur because the problems they echo are common to children – among them the fear of abandonment by parents, competition with siblings, the conflict between the allure of pleasures and the demands of growing up.” (7)

(I know. You are not children, you say. You are practically adults. I do know, because I was once you. In fact, only the mirror reminds me otherwise from time to time. And therein we are unavoidably linked.)

But here is the thing: as young adults, we all feel a weird pull toward the supernatural. It is a natural curiosity, typically happening when we fancy ourselves old enough to rightfully question our parents’ real authority, their religion if any, and the meaning of death.

Just like the wee children in fairy tales, we wander about in dark forests, invincible and immortal even as we know secretly that we are not. With a sense of superiority, we leave bread crumbs only to have wildlife eat them, leaving us stranded and lost. We test the things that threaten to get us if we cross the line. We buck authority, flaunt our youth. And we do it out of fear. We do it to prove we can out run those fears. Because bad things always have to happen to everyone else.

Except that they don’t. We see it right now with school shootings. With inner city crime. With war.

Continues Tropp, “Like classical or Christian mythology, stories like Frankenstein, Dracula or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thoroughly permeate our culture; you don’t need to have read the novels to have felt their power… And if myths are…the dreams of our race, then these [retold and reworked] myths have become our recurrent nightmares” the constant retelling of which “never tires of ordering and re-ordering in its search to find them a meaning.” (7)

Did you see the point where Literature and Horror collide?

Literature is all about bringing truth to the table. Fairy tales deal with raw truths about the human condition. Weave that into a tale which resonates with readers to inform about a period of time, an incident that will become history, and you are flirting with Literature. Horror in Literature.

It only makes sense that we would choose a fairy tale guy wearing a formal suit and sometimes a top hat to do the deed…

Slend3

Fairy Tales Are Not For Children

Having been surrounded by nursery rhymes and geese wearing bonnets, it is entirely possible that you have no idea about the true nature of fairy tales, or fairies for that matter. Especially in the United States, we have sugar-coated our fairy faith with Disneyesque sparkle and glitter. Happy Ever After is our mantra.

But in reality, fairy tales were never meant for charming children. They were most often meant for adults, and when offered to little ones were done so with the intent of keeping rebellions in line. They were “cautionary tales” whose violation resulted in death.

How grim is that? Very Grimm. Go in search of the original stories and you will never be the same.

Reach into Celtic Fairy traditions and you will not find nice things. Fairies of old are first and foremost supernatural beings. Not human. Never having been human to anyone’s certainty. But they are full of treachery and tricks, working within their own understanding of rules and acceptable behavior.

Yet we have done our best to neuter them. We have turned on our electric lights, made leprechauns dance on bar tops, and spun Red Caps into singing miners. We absolutely will not acknowledge any other version of fairies than the kind that emit rainbows and hawk sugary cereals.

Match that against the monsters we now create upon their templates.

Because in order to put the Horror back into our storytelling, we needed to pretend we were being original when we made Slenderman up. Imagine the Horror… when that was indeed closer to the original…

When a monster so stacked with imagery which has been proven through the centuries of fairy tales, ghost lore, supernatural stories, and urban legend to terrify… springs forth, it does so in three dimensions. This is top class monster-building, and it only works when the general target population has never heard the original tales in order to connect them up.

Slend4

The Phantom Coachman https://atashafyfe.wordpress.com/2017/10/22/ghosts-of-the-road/

This is how the younger generations become “easy” marks. And every year there is a fresh infusion of teenagers who have never heard of or read about certain monsters.

And so this is also why genre Horror is solely presumed to be an emotional playground for teenagers.

Never mind that this is a misconception. Never mind that Horror has even more in store for adults…

The constant recycling of monster traits can lead to some pretty heady stuff. When we as writers tap into primal imagery which has survived with its “scary” intact for centuries, we have the ingredients for a monster that will cling to the imagination in ways that do not let go.

According to Jonathan Gottschall in his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, we should never underestimate the power of primal images to hijack our reason. Says Gottschall: “Take fear. Scary stories leave scars. In a 2009 study, the psychologist Joanne Cantor showed that most of us have been traumatized by scary fiction. Seventy five percent of her research subjects [my emphasis] reported intense anxiety, disruptive thoughts, and sleeplessness after viewing a horror film. For a quarter of her subjects, the lingering effects of the experience persisted for more than six years… for 91 percent of Cantor’s subjects, scary films – not real world nightmares such as 9/11 or the Rwandan genocide by machete – were the source of their most traumatic memories.” (149-150)

No wonder Moms everywhere warn against watching those scary movies.

And no wonder we sneak downstairs when the house is dark and watch them anyway. Sometimes, to life-changing effect.

Slenderman is no different when you take away his tux. He is merely a continued reshaping of a reliable mythic monster.

Slend5

http://skulduggery.wikia.com/wiki/Springheeled_Jack

Alleged to have been “officially” created by Eric Knudsen in June 2009 for a website writing contest, Slenderman burst upon the internet scene and has not looked back…

But we need too. Because according to Knudsen himself, the monster was based on Mothman, Men in Black, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the collective works of H.P. Lovecraft, Shadow People, and the works of Stephen King, among others (Redfern 19-20) This means he was more re-invented than invented…more invented than “discovered.”

Slend6

https://www.dmhsperspective.com/government-and-their-secrets/2017/01/16/the-real-men-in-black/

The Slenderman template has a long history, stretching as far back as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Spring-Heeled Jack, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon…even spirits that haunted stately houses in Britain with tall, dark ghostly figures or stalked the moors, or drove phantom coaches…

All of these images work for a myriad of psychological reasons. For example, we have a built-in, hard-wired obsession with tall, thin, spindly characters in black, nattily dressed, and often sporting a full complement of razor sharp teeth when they aren’t missing eyes or mouths or features in general.

We are afraid of….strangers. Especially if they can just vanish before our eyes, or come and go out of fevered dreams…

Strangers have always been dangerous…whether we are talking child abduction, fairy/child abduction, avenging spirits of the murdered or apparitions of the improperly interred dead, outcasts that stumble across one’s tribe, or the only survivor of a plague… strangers often brought death to our ancestors. And they still do in some Walmarts, some high schools, some workplaces, some highways…

Yet in order to propagate fear properly, monsters’ tales must be told. And retold. Embellished. Made familiar and too close to home. It may well be why campfires were invented. And perhaps most importantly, scary things must be shared and believed in because adults do not believe in them.

Yet, the secret is…we still do. We just pretend we don’t. Because at our age, we know there is not a darned thing we can do about them.

This is how the Real World becomes entangled in fairy tales – and I mean the real kind of fairy tales that never end well – when Horror becomes Literature because “…sometimes what needs to be expressed can only be done through the monstrous, for sometimes the human condition is monstrous, defined by the breach of the boundaries between the sacred and the profane, the normal and the abnormal, good and evil, right and wrong.” (Held 4-5)

This is why I became a Horror writer.

And the sooner we see Slenderman as a stand-in for our deepest fears, the sooner we can make newer, scarier monsters from his mold.

Slend7

On Finding the Original in a Many-Splendored Slender

I find it interesting that Slenderman has begat endless progeny in Horror, and that his likeness and progeny proliferate right now in American Horror.

Whether we are talking film or writing, we are being drawn into the vacuum of the tall thin monstrosity that stalks our world. He hides in the forest – a Freudian reference if ever there was one – lurking in our primitive desires and fears.

But like all fairy tales, his presence in our fiction has issued a new challenge to Horror writers. Tell any tale you want, but find the point of originality.

Here again, writing becomes like music. And like in music, in writing we have Jazz to deal with.

In music, there is the following of notes, and there is improvisation. If Horror writers insist on using our primal templates, we must also find a way to deliver the monster in some sneaky, unsuspecting way.

Some say all tales derive from fairy tales and their ilk…some say there are only three original plots in fiction.

But even if that is true, we have only to look at the many stories that these seminal stories themselves begat to know we can one-up the original. We simply have to figure out how, why, when, and where. We have to write and then edit with the realization that when we borrow these primal templates,  the melodies are familiar — but we don’t want them completely recognized. We need to surprise in order to delight, to terrify, to unsettle and then haunt.

And sometimes this unfortunately may mean shelving a monster because the sacrificing the original just won’t do. It won’t matter how well a story is told if the only image that surfaces belongs to another story. We see that now with all wizards and witches in Young Adult. Just stating the premise alone is flirting with professional rejection. We are still seeing the same problem with dragons in Fantasy. On one hand, a writer set such glorious imaginations on fire that the creative waters are bursting the banks, but on the other, the audience now needs time to forget in order to be surprised again.

It is an unfortunate characteristic of our species that we endlessly search for patterns. And when we spot them in fiction, they spoil the yarn.

Slenderman is doing this now in Horror. He has replaced Zombies, which replaced Vampires. And we are now nearing tilt.

Writers must endlessly search for the new angle on the old tale. And “sometimes only horror can say what needs to be said” (Held 5).

But we need not despair. Says Jacob Held in his introduction to Stephen King and Philosophy titled, “On Writing Popular Philosophy”: “Noel Carrol notes that ‘the attraction of supernatural Horror is that it provokes a sense of awe which confirms a deep-seated human conviction about the world, viz., that it contains vast unknown forces…’ we are attracted to that which horrifies us.” (6)

And indeed we are. The popularity of fan fiction websites like CreepyPasta which contain whole sections of fictional Slender tributes are the proof of our own self-horror. The fact that even left to our own devices we primally gravitate to the same monsters over an over are not proof of their existence, but proof that we fear ourselves most of all. We fear what we have become. We dread the endless threat to innocence. We fear we are already in a fairy tale of the old school…

Deep down, we know the truth: we are all faceless ruiners of innocent humanity. No wonder we see suits in the trees with preternaturally long arms waving and probing the night to grab us and drag us to face the laws of the dark forest… Judgement and justice always seek us out.

We cannot make a single choice that does not have ramifications which ripple across our geography and potentially damage other human beings.

And yes, we wear our finery when we wreak our havoc, top hat and tails, our suits and facelessness, professing our own innocence in the doing of our misdeeds. That we fancy ourselves as innocent makes us fair game for the tentacled arms of justice. It makes us deserving of the night gaunts and haunts that stalk the dark, wild areas of our imaginations.

This is what causes Lovecraft to capture us: our fear that we do not deserve the planet we occupy. Cthulhu waits. Judgement is pending. And all manner of dark things have come to course the night-world and hunt us. Including Nyarlathotep…a god masquerading as a man dressed in black… (Bilstad 208-209)

It should not be a far leap to see that the current impact of Slenderman on modern American Horror is nothing more than a continuation of a tradition of guilt and hair-raising storytelling. Because creating guilt even where there might not need any to be is part of our human legacy. But those among us – especially young, idealistic teenagers – who are just starting to explore the world around them as well as their own places within that world – are especially susceptible to the myths that spring from our very DNA.

This is not a bad thing at all…it is, rather, how great Horror gets its start… Because it is within those memories, those glimpses into the indistinct shadows of night where hungry, faceless things await us with inescapably long arms and featureless faces that we will see reflections of ourselves.

And the monsters just keep on coming… like they’re rolled out on a rack…

 

References:

Bilstad, T. Allan. The Lovecraft Necronomicon Primer: a Guide to the Cthulhu Mythos. Woodbury, MN: Llewelyn Publications, c2011.

Gottshcall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2012.

Held, Jacob M., ed. “Introduction: On Writing Popular Philosophy.” Stephen King and Philosophy. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, c2016

Redfern, Nick. The Slenderman Mysteries: an Internet Urban Legend Comes to Life. Newburyport, MA: New Page Books, c2017.

Tropp, Martin. Images of Fear: How Horror Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1819). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, c1990.

 

Author Biographies: Can or Should You Separate an Author From Their Work?


For most of us, one of the harder challenges of writing fiction is deciding what to put in those little, abbreviated bios that editors want.

We agonize over the details. We do our best to find some outstanding characteristic of our lives, our qualifications, ourselves to share with strangers. Maybe even to impress or endear those very strangers to us.

For the most part, those brief bios are meant to be introductions: brief summations of why we might be qualified to call ourselves a writer – mentioning relevant university degrees, real-world jobs, past publication, or professional organizations (often depending on the story or the publication), or even a synopsis of the story in play– but also to shed just enough light on personality that we see a bit of author as a person. In sum, these succinct profiles are blurbs of the author’s life – not full on biographies. And that is a more fortunate thing, as it turns out.

Because if existing author biographies are any indication, actually having one written about you might not be the perk it sounds like. For example, we seldom think about the harder reality that today in particular, anyone can find out pretty much anything about our private selves. And they will. And they will publish or promote the most unsavory of these details. For all of us would-be and under-published authors, those short little author bios are – in reality – the least of our worries.

At what point is some information too much information? And should an author’s life and philosophy be kept separate from their work? Does who the author is, really matter?

In the world of reading, analyzing, reviewing and Criticizing an author’s catalog of works, author biographies can enhance our appreciation for an author, or ruin everything.

Bio1

What Do We Know and When Should We Know It?

I have always loved reading author biographies. I love them because they teach me more about the struggle to write than the writing.

As a writer, this is important. I’m not sure it is significant at what point on which train J.K. Rowling decided to write Harry Potter. But am I curious about why…about her decision making process in the writing, about her background and where she developed such a keen marketing savvy that it puts Amazon to shame.

Yet for some, knowing the details of a person’s life – like Lovecraft, for example – leaves them proudly proclaiming a distaste for the works themselves. They may declare a deliberate omission of the writing because of how the writer lived his or her life, how they THOUGHT. In short, they disapprove.

When and whether to separate an author from their work has been part a long discussion. And such things took a particularly evil and pronounced turn after the Holocaust, when scientists had to sort out whether to keep ill-gotten scientific results gleaned from torture, or to abandon it all as a condemnation of how it was derived.

One point of contention may well be intent.

While an Artist’s beliefs are not actions; their work is action. And there is a significant difference in belief and incitement to degradation or violence.

Where do we draw the line?

This is a tougher question than we think. We cannot step anywhere (for example) in the United States where we are not stepping on stolen ground, adoring older structures that may have been built by indentured or enslaved hands on property that once belonged to someone else, or even constructed for the purpose of insuring the taking or keeping of property thusly gained.

We cannot even brag on technology without facing character flaws: what of Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who gave us our Space Program in exchange for overlooking his service as a member of Hitler’s SS? Or perhaps we justify that today things are less threatening when we consider that the founder of Facebook was alleged to have stolen the concept from fellow students at Harvard University. Perhaps when we benefit from advances or enjoyment, we are fine with wearing rose-colored glasses.

We manage to be myopic when it suits us. But at all times, humanity is faithful to its tendency to commit all manner of sins. And when considering the Arts and writing, this becomes important. Because when an Artist’s work reveals something too easily forgotten or buried about a time or place, that work – no matter how despicable, gains a value.

Looking at Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a recurrent visitor on the banned books list is a perfect example. The use of racist language places the book in a time capsule that in these more allegedly enlightened times should make us uncomfortable, yet it reveals nevertheless an important question as to whether or not the book still serves a purpose. That it does, but now perhaps presents an additional purpose, keeps it relevant. The language and context are now important things to discuss. And perhaps that raises the age when the book should be read, but it does not negate the most important message of the book: Life for many of our fellow citizens is often unfiltered and unpleasant…. It is time we look at what is under the whitewashed fence.

H.P. Lovecraft has long been the Horror poster child for these arguments. But he is by no means alone. In fact, there have been times when the flaws of many of our greatest American writers have all been paraded past us like they are qualifiers for greatness.

If you are a writer, that probably gives you pause. And it is certainly not why I read author biographies.

Like all writers, perhaps I seek a community awareness, some reassurance that the best writing often does come from enduring horridly difficult times, dashed childhood dreams, flawed thinking, lost friends or absent or invisible ones, the bitch-slapping life of poverty so many of us wind up in, the sense of being outcast, downcast, and just plain lost.

As Arts people, we have long endured the rumors: that the true geniuses among us are fatally flawed characters… They are not only misfits, but drunks and drug addicts, mentally disturbed and disrupted individuals, living tragic, abbreviated lives we all should envy for the permanence and quality of their life’s work.

It makes it hard to want to be successful if one must sacrifice one’s life, health, and sanity to the cruel gods of creativity. And it makes one wonder what could possible go right in a writing career if one isn’t spectacularly flawed enough?

But is it true? Must we be ruined human beings to be successful writers? Or perhaps the right question is: is it ever NOT true?

After all, part of being human is being flawed…is living. We are all damaged, to some extent, by our own navigations of life and by the intrusion of unwelcome others within it. Whether it is having the unloving, nasty family of Poe, or the loss of support family members and terror of racially different people like Lovecraft, we create our own mental baggage that we perpetually lug around with us in our writing.

Likewise, we experiment with different ways of soothing the open wounds, of denying the pains and humiliations of living.

Who among is NOT thusly shaped and affected?

Like with writing, it is what we DO with those bits of baggage that makes or breaks us.

It is always comforting to know other writers overcame, and that many needed to. It is sometimes helpful to know how, or to see that Art is shaped by the strain of battle…it is born in turmoil.

But it is always helpful to realize that living a life in the Arts by its very nature is one of struggle, that in fact it may well have called to us because we can SEE the intimate connection.

Yet when should we know the gory details?

How much is too much information?

The answer is not that easy. But Literary Critics have finally begun to address the issue themselves, and all because production of possible Literature is outpacing the number of Literary Critics needed to READ it all… a collision of facts derived from living authors and suppositions and allegations made about dead authors forced a radical idea to the surface.  Just how connected ARE authors and their lives to their works?

By 1967, we had so many more living authors producing published works, it became vividly apparent that knowing details about an author – especially ones still alive and verbally kicking – was having an effect on Critics. And French Literary Critic and theorist Roland Barthes wrote a detailed essay on why the knowledge of an author’s intentions paired with biographical facts should have no bearing on the Criticism of their works. https://writing.upenn.edu/~taransky/Barthes.pdf

It is this very essay that created a schism in the school of Literary Criticism, which had up to this point used an author’s biographical information – facts like politics, religion, prejudices, preferences, lifestyle, class, etc. – to decipher their catalog of works.

But with the increasing amount of living authors, Critics began having difficulty divesting their judgment of author lives, of author intentions, and author blowback.

Tremendous verbal battles have spilled their vitriol all over the recent decades (most notably for Horror fans in the verbal barrage between esteemed Literary Critic Harold Bloom and Stephen King fans), and which has had a terrible effect on both the field of Literary Criticism and how we all see various authors and their works. In fact, the worse consequence had been the inserting of the uninformed opinions of the common reader into the Literary Critical academic process.

Once again, the function of Literary Critics is not to devolve into mudslinging arguments about writing quality with the secular crowd, but to present academic arguments to other academics for or against the admission of a work or catalog of works into the Literary Canon based on Literary Critical Theory.

The introduction of the concept of the author’s intimate life details having no bearing on the decision is an important one.

Because without it, we must keep asking that pesky question: at what point should we know, and how much should we know?

Maybe the MORE important question is: in knowing it, what should we DO with the knowledge?

Bio2

http://enjoy-teaching.com/enjoy-teaching-biography.html

The Whole Dead Author Thing

One of the dangers of reading intimate details about a favorite author is never looking at their work the same way again.

Whether you are “just” a reader or a budding author or Critic, knowing the backstory is not always a good thing.

Words and situations take on new nuances. We begin to ascribe hidden meanings, possible subtext, and autobiographical details to stories we once loved for their own sakes. And we may get it all wrong…because then we begin to drag in our own interpretations based on our own experiences…which have NOTHING to do with the writer’s works or what he or she INTENTED…

The truth is, once we know about an author, their loves and losses, their frustrations and failures, we often lose the magic that their work represents. We start looking for the author inside their work.

And I can tell you as a writer, that is never the intent of the writing. The story is meant to stand on its own, to sneak up on the reader and send a familiar chill down their spines. I want them to see something of themselves in my stories, not something of ME in them.

Of course I am in them. They derive from my own memories, my own fears, my own revulsions and yearning for justice. But no one character is me. No one story is true. No one reader is invited to dissect me psychologically.

Therefore in my opinion, knowing “too much” about me as a writer and person might well get in the way of the magic I intend to conjure. It’s like having a pesky reporter behind the curtain with me in Kansas, giving away my tricks.

Yet I also can’t help but be grateful for the biographies I have read about other authors.

Could it be there is a time and place to know an author more intimately?

I do believe so. And sadly, for the most part I think that time comes after an author is dead.

While I also believe it helps to read biographies only after one has read a catalog of an author’s works, so as not to taint any reading of them, I find that reading such details as one finds in biographies leaves me reading new works and rereading old ones differently.

If the catalog is fixed, then I begin to look at them slightly askew like a Critic might look at them. But because I am not a Critic, I find it changes things in subtle, sometimes uncomplimentary ways. The work does lose its magic, and that is replaced by a study of and appreciation of technique.

Now, as a writer, that is exactly where I need to be. I need to see how the trick is done, and appreciate how a writer took some event or memory from their lives – no matter how major or how trivial – and turned it into something living.

But what I must resist doing, is making excuses for an author. And if we have certain details of an author’s life, that is exactly the natural thing to do…”of course, the book was not as good…his wife had just died, after all…”

We also tend to blanket “approve” certain sentences or paragraphs that the editor in us might suggest should not go unchallenged…assuming that it was the opiates, or the fury of battling unsympathetic Critics. If one is going to learn about an author’s technique from the finished product, we simply cannot be running in front of every word with a broom and dust pan.

And on the reverse side, we cannot devalue the importance of a work because we find out the author was, for instance, a bigot.

So at what point does knowing an author become detrimental?

I think it is when and only when we excuse an author for the wrongdoing.

Lovecraft is the obvious example in Horror. Many of his opinions were nothing less than offensive, odious attitudes toward immigrants and women.

But reading his fiction, we weren’t supposed to “know” that. Deduce it, yes. But to condemn Lovecraft’s writing on the basis of his failures as a human being is also to overlook the whole of the human condition.

We are – all of us – flawed. And history has come to place Lovecraft on the wrong side of political correctness, the wrong side of morality.

Yet as a human being, Lovecraft also reflects a period in our history, in our developmental growth and national psychology. At the heart of Lovecraft’s work is nothing less than irrational fear. That’s what bigotry, racism, misogyny and religious persecution is all about. So as sadly pitiful as his beliefs have come to be, he not only represents the time in which he lived, but sadly, even a subculture that exists still today in this country and all others.

Lovecraft is a lesson in humanity. His writing is a showcase of our flaws, many of which many of us still proudly display, and that should give us pause and cause for discussion.

But should we elevate the work of such a man?

I say with Lovecraft yes. The reason is because even in his writing Lovecraft was not advocating for violence against those he feared. He was simply displaying his fear by using some pretty amazing monstrosities and nightmares to emphasize the terror that beat in his bigoted, misogynistic heart. In other words, he reflected us…humanity….and our struggle to accept each other.

This is not the same as someone who “preaches” in their work to rise up and destroy other people, other genders, other nations, other religions.

The key here is whether a work is Literary by depicting or revealing a truth about ourselves or is a manifesto – incendiary and inciteful, meant to groom hatred.

If we started tossing out Art because of the thoughts of the Artist, we would be left with nothing to make us think.

Poe, like many writers of his time, was a drunk and an addict. If we throw out his work as ill-begotten gain born of drug trips and poor judgment, we need to lose the Beatles, Roman Polanski, and every Weinstein film ever made.

This is not to say we excuse the offender.

Rather, it means that we weigh the value of the message of the work. Some of the best Art has come from those dying for penance, whose secrets were the acid of their souls which in turn generated cautionary tales for the rest of us.

When a writer is still alive, it becomes a harder choice. Because then we worry about financially endorsing a behavior, for funding a lifestyle that may include reprehensible behavior. A look at how we are responding to Hollywood’s outing of sexual assault is the perfect example.

But we can also see when a writer is dead, that when his or her art imitates life – comments on it – it can elevate a work to Literature because of the mirror it becomes. It becomes useful. It becomes a teaching tool… a prompt for meaningful conversation.

Which brings us back to those little, abbreviated bios.

They should be honest. But they should also be constructed of things that are not presumptuous. Because in the end we will ALL be outted… especially if we (it turns out) are any good at what we do.

Bio3

So When Should We Read Author Biographies?

I think the answer is: when it is helpful.

Biographies contain lives. They introduce flaws that will expose your heroes as human beings. You might discover that you like their work more than you like them. But you may also find yourself encouraged, inspired, comforted in knowing that this road you are on has been traversed by many.

You may find that failure is part of the process. That sometimes rejection is a blazing sword to the heart, and that like you – writers of the past have suffered from many of the same problems – be it writer’s block, bad parenting, cruel Critics, ill health, mental struggles, lost love, betrayal, poverty, addictions, homelessness, the question of self-publishing, the search for mentoring, and a belief that all may well be pointless.

You may find that some of them were Poe, or Lovecraft, or Dante, or Shakespeare. You may even find an awkward kinship with a select few.

Biographies will tell you things about why you feel as you do, about the commonality of lives lived in service of the Arts.

And it may cause you to realize that we might not really like our idols, especially on their worst days…Just as sometimes we don’t like ourselves, or fear being thusly revealed to others…

This is the case of Lovecraft for me… I adore his monsters, love the British Horror atmosphere he managed to transplant to America for us to savor. But reading him is to see the more distasteful aspects of his quirky, misfit personality, to realize how little we have changed. Reading him also makes me worry about myself, and my flaws. It makes me agonize over those darned little bios.

The trick is not to rationalize. We are none of us saints.

The trick is to take biographies for the lessons they offer us: that there is hope we can communicate our deepest fears and anxieties in story form, that we can entertain as well as educate, that we can hope to persuade and shape our times by holding up a hand mirror to those who need to see the images therein.

By all means, don’t deprive yourself. Just know that once the genie is out of the bottle, he will not be put back in. Be sure you are ready for the capriciousness of magic.

Beware the power of enchantment. And then go forth anyway…

Bio4

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Recommended Author Biographies

Ackroyd, Peter. Poe: a Life Cut Short. New York: Doubleday, c2008.

Franklin. Ruth. Shirley Jackson: a Rather Haunted Life. New York: W.W. Norton, c2016.

Gaiman, Neil. The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction. New York: HarperCollins, c 2016.

Joshi, S.T. I am Providence: the Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft v.1. (& 2). New York: Hippocampus Press, c2013.

King, Stephen. On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. New York: Simon & Schuster, c2000.

Montague, Charlotte. H.P. Lovecraft: the Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness. London: Chartwell Books, c2015.

Montague, Charlotte. Edgar Allan Poe: the Strange Man Standing Deep in the Shadows. London: Chartwell Books, c 2015.

Ramsland, Katherine. Prism of the Night: a Biography of Anne Rice. New York: Plume, c1982.

Skal, David J. Something in the Blood: the Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula. New York, Liveright Publishing, c2016.

Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley, a Biography. New York: E.P. Dutton, c1987.

Sturrock, Donald. Storyteller: the Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl. New York: Simon & Schuster, c2010.

Winter, Douglas E. Clive Barker: the Dark Fantastic: the Authorized Biography. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, c2002.