Social unrest, political distrust, unbreachable financial divides, and now a global pandemic… Has there ever been a more fertile time for writing Literature?
Yet here so many of us are, so incredibly overwhelmed by the high, swift tides of information overload, emotional distress, and outright confusion about where our place actually IS in this historical mess that we are like so many deer in the headlights: frozen in stunned silence. If you are suffering from a new and frustrating writer’s block right now, you are not alone…
Is the constant inundation of data that we accept as the price of admission for living in the modern world creating circumstances that are any different than the times writers have lived and written through before?
And does it contribute to how we interpret a pandemic as a kind of “nameless monster” that runs rampant through our emotions, devouring our creativity?
And if that is what Horror is all about, why can’t we harness the chaos?
Nature as Monster
As Horror lovers in times like these, we are forced to confront the real truth about our genre: that the best of Horror is homegrown in the soil of Real Life Horror. Every monster in our genre was spawned from the very scary realities of actually living in the world. And we should not be surprised that as a genre that revels in the macabre accoutrement of death, Horror has been influenced a great deal by plagues and pandemics, disease and human vulnerabilities.
So here we are again… starting to understand how villages of old came to fear strangers, how peculiar or selfish habits carry very real threats, how peasants were once wont to queue up outside castles with pitchforks, and how throughout the ages the threat of death remains so very personal and terrifying.
Small wonder that some of us might flinch under the weight of it all…
Disease emphasizes very powerful fears: will there be anyone left to help or bury us respectfully? Is there a God and life after death, or is this really “all there is” and “have I wasted my life”? Why me, or why not me? What will we do without the ones we love most? How will we survive so much change alone?
Horror responds to these queries with Vampires, Ghosts, Zombies, and even Mummies. To make ourselves feel powerful, to mock what we cannot control, Horror offers up Witches and Sorcerers, Priests and Angels, Amulets and Ancient Texts… And to keep the battle accessible to even the most timid of our readers, Horror provides formulas to defeat monsters like Werewolves, Poltergeists, Demons, and Maniacs with hooks and hockey masks.
By injecting the supernatural into Real Life, Horror has always mitigated and satirized Real Life Horror.
So what is stopping us now?
Why is the coronavirus the game-changer for many writers?
The answer is: because this just got personal.
Viruses go anywhere…striking in what seem like random patterns like tornadoes. They are invisible, seemingly arbitrary yet horribly specific, and potentially lethal – if not to us, then to those we love and things we need to make our lives routine and familiar enough to be safe. Worse, viruses invade those “safe” places…
Viruses as an extension of what we thought of as “domesticated” Mother Nature are exactly as Philip Athans says about Stephen King’s The Mist in his book, Writing Monsters: How to Craft Believably Terrifying Creatures to Enhance Your Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction: [it] “is as much a monster in the story as the Lovecraftian horrors it hides. It’s something that you can’t stop, can’t predict, and can’t fight – and in a very real sense it acts in collusion with a panoply of dangerous outsider predators.” (Athans 104)
Perhaps our mistake has been in miscasting Nature altogether (which is really not all that surprising or unlikely if we consider how easily we tend to miscast members of our own species, for which we have oodles of proof of unpredicability).
Native Peoples have said from the beginning that the earth is a living, breathing entity; that it demands to be treated respectfully, or it will defend itself in quite lethal ways. They weren’t being “cute,” “quaint,” or “naïve” when they said this; they meant it. And now here we are… watching a naturally born virus erupt among humanity — the biggest most harmful infestation the earth has had to endure.
As writers, we are observers. And thinkers. It is so very easy right now to wonder if we have done this to ourselves in so many ways. And guilt is yet another suffocating emotion in the Arts.
Yet is this any different that the plagues writers like Shakespeare composed through?
I say it is. And it is because Shakespeare may have had to deal with the closures of theaters, the layoffs of himself and actors, the fear and devastation of those dying around him… But he did not have media 24/7 blasting the devastation at him every waking moment. He wasn’t told to isolate in place, to scrub his doorknobs and food items like a neurotic raccoon, to love and fear his grocer, to keep seven-figure body counts in his head, to be shown on a map that there is no escape, to hear a litany of symptoms that mirror so many other less deadly diseases, to be designated “essential personnel” enough to wait on his fellow Elizabethans wholeheartedly but without the panicked, demanded-for protections of other essential personnel… Shakespeare could retreat if he was able, to write if he was able, to take the time to assimilate what the plague meant to him and his audience…to turn it into poetry…
I am not saying he had it easier. But there is a profound difference in helping your village dig a mass grave and filling with known folk to watching a military as large and “great” as our own being ordered to use heavy machinery to dig trenches in preparation… To see technology used via refrigerated semi trucks to store bodies (still keeping it distant and less real for those of us hunkered down in front of our television sets and not being able to realize the magnitude because we are blessedly protected from the reality…)
Reality is needed…even ugly reality, and there is something profoundly important about burying one’s own dead, about witnessing death.
Our country’s leaders (like so many) wonder why we don’t “get” the danger…. It is because we are being sheltered from the truth… that people are DYING. And it is not a pleasant death. It is not an attended death. And death is not at all like cleaned-up-grandpa-in-a-fancy-box-with-flowers. It is not take the beloved dog to the vet and tell the kids he’s gone to live on a farm. Death is a battlefield. Death is watching the body fight for life with a person trapped inside. It is a twisted shell left gaping, ravaged by the wounds of that battle…And it is gritty and horrible, eviscerating, emotionally devastating, and will torment the dreams of those forced to live through it.
If such a witness to this kind of devastation is a writer, much of what is witnessed is not written on the battlefield. It is written after the nightmares wake the soul and spill their truths out onto the page. Such writing is another kind of death – one with rebirth. But it very often takes time… Reality comes rife with ghosts.
Some of us as writers have already been there at one time or another…in my case, watching my mother die of cancer. It devastated my ability to write. I couldn’t abide Horror, which suddenly seemed so incredibly trite. And that drove the stake deeper into my heart and twisted it. Because writing has always been my way to cope.
Reporters can tell me a thousand times the “GOT author is writing” and all it does is make things worse. Like many Horror writers, I know I should be writing. But I can’t right now. It just doesn’t feel decent somehow.
The thing is… that’s okay.
What I learned from last time – from that ten year writer’s block – is that we have to sort through our emotions. We have to experience what we are feeling. It’s the only way to come out the other side.
Because when nature is the monster, the overwhelming properties of that monster means we are often robbed of words.
Indescribable, Unutterable Horror
Says Athans, “Every story is about something.” (75) Monsters are often used in our genre to represent the real something… Monsters are metaphors… and “some of the scariest monsters are the ones that attack our psychological well-being.” (74)
Are we not there with the coronavirus? Are we not asking ourselves if we have been the agent of cause behind the rise of this disease? Do we not question everything from morals and politics to global warming and tinkering with Mother Nature? Are we not freaked out?
Yet we are unable to really envision this monster as it ravages continent after continent. All the slides in the world, all the explanations…. Most of us just cannot envision it… So we default to the imagery we all understand because it is not specific. We call it a Monster…
Says Athans: “You can’t see a virus, let alone slash it with your trusty broadsword, shoot it with a blaster, or drive a stake through its heart. It gets inside you and starts eating, and the only reason you know its there at all is the horrific effect it’s having on your body.” (123)
How can we really look into that horrible maw of disease we have named the coronavirus then, and not be made insane?
We have to realize that as writers, really seeing and on some level experiencing this Horror is also the way out of the block. It is our job and our nature to observe, to record the details, and regurgitate it all in some semblance of acceptable order…
We have to realize that this is what Critics mean when they talk about Literature… and why Horror should include more of it. Literature is about how humanity functions in the crisis of Life…
Soldiering through this incredulous time of pandemic is providing you as a writer with information that while overwhelming now, will inform every piece of writing you do from this day forward.
And if you are a Horror writer, it will also be colored by the indescribable moments, by the awful silence that fills the mind when the world as you know it stops.
Wordlessness for a writer sounds like death. But it is truly the sound of rebirth in the making. From that unutterable mass of emotion will come the monster you need to tell the story.
One theory of why Lovecraft is so successful in Horror and monster-making attributes his choice of words in descriptions – words like abnormal, accursed, amorphous, antediluvian, blasphemous, cyclopean, daemonic, eldritch, fetid, gibbering, indescribable, iridescent, loathsome, squamous, unmentionable, unnamable, unutterable…. (Athans 214)
Do we not talk about the coronavirus using similar vocabulary?
The deliberate rendering of the monster’s description as indescribable and defiant of all sane envisioning opens the door to our worst imaginings. It personalizes every monster, tailor-making each one into a very precise creature in our very different heads. All versions can be true at the same time. And such monsters are not only unforgettable, but immortal in our memories – fear first.
How we are seeing the coronavirus is doing the same thing to our mental processing. It has become a Lovecraftian monster whose terrible imagery has merged with our own vision of it.
When we deconstruct fictional monsters into their basic and indistinct parts, we can either deduce their weaknesses, or become disoriented by the Horror – losing ourselves in the very type of insanity Lovecraft loved to dangle over his protagonists. This makes Lovecraft a writer whose astute observation of his own personal fears allowed him to create a most effective emotional maze to draw his readers into. It is why we remember Lovecraft stories for all of the right reasons – for the Horror of them (and not for the almost-dull prose created to stall the sense of urgency we have come to expect in contemporary American Horror).
There is just something particularly terrifying about the slow, steady advance of a lethal monster with no known weaknesses…
Says Philip Atkins, “Many of Lovecraft’s stories lack immediacy; the threat is always subtle, implied, still developing, rarely seen in its entirety, or shown doing horrible things.” (201)
Is this not how we frame the news of today?
The pandemic is not expected to crest until July or August… although most states have a stay-at-home order, you can go for a walk, go to the grocery…
No one wants to alarm the public, to start a stampede or a panic. Today we have grown accustomed to the fact that everything is administered in measured, acceptable doses. Wars and massacres and even pandemics are interrupted by commercials for better pillows and soothing medications, and ways to waste hard-earned money. We are provided the necessary distractions to pacify and anesthetize our reactions.
Yet when the monster is big enough, bad enough, universal enough… then the parts we do not see cast long, scary shadows. The horrible things come closer, seem more personally possible – even if there is denial. And when the monster takes someone we know, when it stands drooling outside our front door, and worse – when it is invisible – we feel real terror.
How can we defend against the seeming indefensible? A Zombie Apocalypse is preferable — or a rise of Vampires, the stirring of Mummies and the howling of Werewolves… we know each of us can figure out how to fight those.
Viruses take special knowledge. Wars take special luck.
So when the monster – the metaphor for all we dread, hate, or fear – materializes ever so briefly, ever so fatally from the darkness… we need a modicum of control.
And when our fingers cannot find purchase as we dangle from the cliff we never saw coming, we have mere seconds to save ourselves or be lost to irrational terror.
We may see the coronavirus – but we only see it in glimpses of statistics, in the sudden, inconceivable loss of someone we love who was just fine so short a time ago. We never quite see the monster, even when we are shown images of it on a slide… it remains indescribable.
The monster-virus is as much a mystery as the code behind the internet. We see proof it is there, but we cannot truly see IT. So we imagine it. And it wreaks its Horror from our emotions outward… it remains unthinkable, shapeless…amorphous…unreal….
And for many of us, the writing stalls. We cannot muster the muses from those gloriously fertile adjectives.
When we compare ourselves as writers to those who invoked novels from battlefields, from prisons, from oppressive governments and bestial thugs…even those who write in famines and even older plagues (yes, even Shakespeare wrote through two), we start to wonder what is wrong with us.
Yet unlike those wondrous writers, our own modern world seems to move through two very different realities simultaneously. Our world is “crafted” for us…filtered…. We don’t see the wars coming; we don’t comprehend the epidemic, let alone the pandemic. We are subject to numerous layers of “spin”… and the shock of the truth hits us in relentless waves when the storm finally approaches.
We are willingly lulled into numbness, into stasis…a bespelled slumber…
For countries like the U.S… this has been a rude awakening… a reminder that where monsters are concerned, we are all meat.
So not being able to write right now is more than understandable; this is unfamiliar to our senses. We don’t know how to process the flood of data pouring into and all over our Art. For too many of us, this is like listening to The War of the Worlds on radio…real only by its reporting…by images we cannot recognize of places made into Hollywood sets. We are waiting to hear someone announce April Fools…
Writer’s block is a natural reaction.
It is okay.
Not-writing might even be the righteous thing to be doing at this moment in our history. Writing will come back. Some people will not.
So if you are blocked, and not writing like that GOT author, or Shakespeare… Rest assured you are not alone. And you are no less a writer for it. You are doing research, willingly or not.
Live in the moment.
The words will come later… When the rest of the world needs a little reminding of what Real Horror is all about.