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


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

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

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

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

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

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Masks of the Internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And try the offerings of small, independent publishers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fans decide with their wallets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is what is selling…

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

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

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

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

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

How ugly is that?

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

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

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

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

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

Yet we need more.

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

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

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The Way Forward is Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a creative challenge.

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

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

It takes work. Practice. Mastery.

It takes Renaissance.

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

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

It’s going to take blind faith.

And as a writer I feel it coming.

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

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

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

Whether we are The Best or not.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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“This Isn’t for Us”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, it could be a cop-out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And writers who just “write the stuff.”

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Drive a Stake Through My Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we expect to get LITERATURE from that? Really?

Only in America.

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

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

Again. REALLY?

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

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

Maybe we DON’T want censors in our heads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

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

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

 

 

Reading Like a Writer: Horror Through Slime-Covered Glasses


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

Seemed obvious, didn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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YES. READING IS TECHNICAL AND SOMETIMES ICKY

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

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

We are, at heart, a superstitious lot…

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

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

As writers we are looking for clues when we read.

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

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

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

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

THRILL SEEKING ON A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two things are at work here:

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

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

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

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

Horror, it seems, is very personal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

ALONE WITH THE CRITIC

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

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

The bad news is that it is perfectly possible.

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

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

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

It made us feel stupid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you up to the challenge?

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References

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

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

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

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.