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Through this house of mirrors unpublished and new writers are being pressed… through a maze of gatekeepers whose qualifications hide behind misunderstood and ill-defined MFA degrees and unclear areas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.

 

 

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


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

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

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

It works. Therefore, it is repeated.

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

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Literature is For the Formally Dressed: Bring Your Tux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peripheral damage. Collateral damage. Accident. Tragedy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you see the point where Literature and Horror collide?

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

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

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Fairy Tales Are Not For Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder Moms everywhere warn against watching those scary movies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is why I became a Horror writer.

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

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On Finding the Original in a Many-Splendored Slender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References:

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

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

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

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

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