Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Horror of It All -- Writers on Being Scary with Words

Once again, Mary Shelley
paves the way.
Horror is hard. Let's just get that out of the way first. I have nothing but respect for those writers who can do it well.

So, to find the ins and outs of what makes good horror, well, terrifying, we went straight to the writers who do it well.

How do you define horror as a literary genre?

Paul Mannering: Horror is presenting the reader with the unknown and then taking the what-if question of all fiction and choosing the things that scare us most as the answer to what goes bump in the night.

Ed Erdelac: Anything that causes a sense of dread or unease in the reader.

William D. Prystauk: Horror is my genre of choice, and the one I prefer best for my screenplays. Yet, defining horror is akin to a nightmare due to all of our own perceptions. However, regardless of monsters, gore or the supernatural, what makes horror work is what Freud called “the uncanny”: Where the expected, the norm, is suddenly transformed into something different enough to shake us to our core. It is those expected, taken for granted things, that become something “other” and alter our world as well as our perception. And when the norm is changed, when it becomes something that can strike fear in us, that’s horror.

Selah Janel: For me horror has to deal with fear. There are a million and one ways to handle it, but at the end of the day horror is supposed to explore the dark territory of our minds that we aren't supposed to let out in polite society. It's about exploring the things that ignite that most primal fight or flight instinct in all of us. I don't think that horror stories necessarily have to have downer endings or point at the futility of life or anything like that, just like I don't think they necessarily have to have a lot of blood or 'booga booga' type scares. What they need to do is to make a reader feel unsettled and start to think about the possibilities of what they're reading happening to them. Horror is supposed to make us uncomfortble and unsettled. It's a genre that shows how vulnerable and horrible we can be as people.

G.L. Giles: In a nutshell, I'd define it as  writing, dealing with either the natural or supernatural world, where the emotion of fear and feelings of revulsion are frequently at play to elicit responses from the reader.

Herika R Raymer: Horror as a literary genre are stories that draw out the terror within. My personal favorites are the psychological horrors, the ones that allow the imagination to run. It seems like there is a great deal of splatter gore and the like to try and terrify people -- to me that is just gross. I prefer stories that inspire chills.

Pamela Turner: I think if you look at how horror makes us confront the dark side of our natures, the idea of “good vs. evil” and such, which are common themes in literature, then you can argue horror is a literary genre. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are two classic examples. I remember studying Poe in school, particularly “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” It’s been a while, but I believe we discussed themes of vengeance in regard to Poe’s stories. Then there’s Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which is all the more terrifying because it makes us realize humans may be the worst monsters of all. 

What is it about horror stories that attracted you to writing them?

The stuff of nightmares.
Paul Mannering: Originally it was an excellent cure for depression. You can take all the dark thoughts and feelings and channel them into something that doesn't harm you or anyone else. The adrenaline of it becomes addictive, we love to be scared in a safe way. Now I just like to push the boundaries of what is acceptable and see what kind of reaction I can generate.

Ed Erdelac: The first book I ever read on my own initiative that had no illustrations in it was the novelization of Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives by Simon Hawke. I read it because my friends went on and on about it but my parents paid more attention to what I watched and I couldn't see it. I read it in one sitting. I have no idea if it was well written looking back on it, but some of the descriptive passages stayed with me for years. I had no idea a book could be so visceral and vivid and violent. I started voraciously reading novelizations (mostly by Alan Dean Foster, all of movies I wasn't allowed to see) and then books movies were based off of, which of course led me to Stephen King, and eventually to books and stories that had never been filmed.

William D. Prystauk: Story always dictates genre for me. In that regard, I write the tale and worry about where it fits later. However, since I am a horror geek, and have watched nearly 1,300 horrors to date (yes, I keep a master list), I have a goal as a screenwriter: To take each subgenre and write my own unique tale. For instance, I have explored vampires (the true predatory type, not the ludicrous kind that “sparkle” in the sunlight) in my script RED AGENDA, which won First Place at the International Horror and Science Fiction Film Festival in 2008, my ghost story, RISEN, which took First Place in the Horror Screenplay Contest in 2010, and my cannibal tale RAVENCRAFT, which earned Third Place in the AWS Screenwriting Contest (first for horror). Sadly, my zombie tale won’t be ready this year. Regardless, the dramatic elements always take residence with me, and I just hope to create a compelling story with strong characters that deliver the uncanny. Just as Poe did for me in my youth as well as the early works of Anne Rice. Unlike other genres, in horror something could be lurking around the corner at any moment to alter the tale. That element of suspense always kept me glued to the page, keeps me focused as a writer. And it is my job as a scribe to create suspense, maintain the tension, and deliver the jolts to the audience when they least expect it.

Selah Janel: I personally like that I don't have to focus on making characters particularly nice in the horror genre. It's refreshing to be able to bring up just how petty or selfish people can be, and it's a challenge to do that without turning a character into a caricature. I also like the possibility of including the improbable or impossible -- it gives me a lot of freedom I may not have in more literary genres, while also giving me a huge challenge because even the impossible needs to make some sort of sense in the horror genre. Horror isn't just about being extreme or having monsters or killers - for it to work there has to be reasons for everything. If you can't make a reader believe that something could actually happen or if you can't plunge them into the situation enough to suspend belief, then they're not going to be scared.  And personally, as a mostly-nice-ish person and as a woman, when I write horror I feel like I don't have to care at all what people think about what's going through my head. The people who are going to read these stories not only want crazy, twisted, and perhaps a little socially unacceptable - they expect it. I can take off the kid gloves I feel like I have to wear in my daily life half the time and just go nuts. Any irritation or frustration I'm feeling can directly feed into whatever I'm writing, and it often makes it better. I also feel like writing horror helps me come to grips with that more selfish part of myself in a healthy way. It's a great outlet for the darker emotions. And since I have a mad love of monsters, it's the one place I can express that without people giving me a double-take. I mean sure, I like hearts and flowers and bunnies and kitties, but I also really love slimy disgusting Eldergods, violent vampires, and destructive mutants and horror is a place I can take that love and not be seen as a deranged lunatic.

G.L. Giles: I was first interested in Gothic horror. Poems like Coleridge's "Christabel," and books like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray really held my attention and stimulated my imagination. Furthermore, I ended up writing my Bachelor's Essay, while in college, on the life and works of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  So, American Romanticism became a focal point as well.  As American Romanticism oftentimes focuses on emotional states, fantasy worlds, outcasts, aspects of the sublime (in the awe-inspiring, impressive ways), etc. it is closely aligned with gothic horror.  However, a personal sickness was the catalyst for me to start writing in the what I call horror sub-genre of “fictional vampire literature."  I was first diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma (a type of skin cancer) in my early 20s.  I think I was subconsciously, at first, drawn to the vampiric creatures of the night, many of whom couldn't stand much of the sun's rays, because I could relate on some level. Yet, it's also of note that I related most to the "noble beasts" or "noble savages" sort rather than those merely into senseless violence. The only real exception to this is the fact that I do love most zombie lore, which sometimes comes across as senseless, though perhaps in its inception it wasn't with bokors probably running the show. I also loved the catharsis that horror literature can bring about, both for the writer and the reader. My first books were admittedly self-indulgent and half-baked, LOL. Thankfully, my first novella, one with my own primal Napoleon Dynamite-like illustrations, is now out-of-print. I'd only written scholarly essays, for the most part, prior to attempting them, and I’d never studied creative writing. My plotting was poor, and my dialogue was stilted.  It’s also of note that, as I don't like the feeling of being stuck in a genre, I challenged myself to break free by writing a contemporary romance novella with a supernatural subplot last year (recently published under a pseudonym), and I've also written several children's picture books.

Herika R Raymer: The exploration of the human psyche and what still makes people afraid of abandoned places, of being alone, and of strange places -- not to mention fear of the dark. Some people may not be afraid of that anymore, but there are still plenty of people who are terrified of seemingly 'normal' things. They make for great settings.

Pamela Turner: Again, for me, it’s this idea of confronting the dark aspect of our natures. To paraphrase Nietzsche’s quote, how long can we look into the abyss? There’s also a kind of catharsis that comes from being scared, pushed out of our comfort zone. It’s like “Okay, I’ve faced this fear, now I can face another one.” 

So many books these days have elements of horror to augment their primary genre. Are those stories truly horror or not? Can stories borrow (or steal) elements of horror, and if they do, do they become part of the horror field?

Old-school creepy.
Paul Mannering: All stories contain elements of horror. Grimm's fairytales were horror stories, bible stories are filled with horror elements, Shakespeare had horror elements in alot of his work. Stephen King is called a horror writer, but he writes a lot of spec-fiction with a sprinkling of horror in it. It doesn't make them truly horror stories, but it does blur the lines.

What isn't horror is paranormal romance. That is just taking vampires as a sexual metaphor and making it more obvious by entwining it with a romance plot and genre-style.

Ed Erdelac: Game Of Thrones is considered high fantasy, but it definitely has some horror elements - zombies, witches....in Lord Of The Rings the orcs catapult severed heads over the wall of Minas Tirith, and there are undead in there - barrow wights and Oathbreakers, etc. Does that make it horror? I believe a book can have horror elements, but in the two preceeding cases the fantasy outweighs the horror. I guess a horror novel is the opposite. The horror overwhelms everything else. But I'm not a horror snob at all. Horror fantasy, horror action, horror comedy, I'm easy.

William D. Prystauk: I love multi-genre anything. Therefore, any author can do as he or she wishes. As for classification purposes, in order for a work to claim it is of a particular genre, it should maintain that particular thread in the piece and not just be a quick, once-and-done scene. And in a novel, one quick scene does not a genre make. However, I doubt there are any rules for this. Let the arguments ensue.

Selah Janel: I think as a genre it's becoming harder to tell what horror is. A lot of bookstores don't even have a shelf dedicated to it anymore - they just list it under fiction. I personally include dark fantasy and sometimes urban fantasy in horror if it has a definitive dark slant to it. If it plunges a reader into a world where they're gripping the book and wondering if the poor protagonist is going to survive because the situation is just freakin' awful, then I will usually cut that title a break. It's getting hard to draw a definite line because even the inclusion of standard horror fair like vampires, zombies, and monsters doesn't necessarily mean that it's a horror title. In general it has to have something in it that's shocking, terrifying, or taps into that primal 'uh-oh' instinct everyone has. Even if it's not a roller coaster of a plot, if it taps into that darker side of life then I feel like it could feasibly belong. That being said, it's still something that you almost have to go title by title on these days. There's less and less of a formula with so many subgenres out there.

G.L. Giles: I'm not sure, so maybe, as "part of the horror field" doesn't mean that all the players are necessarily focused on equally.  Case in point, some horror novels are known for having a romantic subplot, so maybe some romances could be said to have a horror subplot? That way the primary genre is perhaps never called into question.

Herika R Raymer: They may not be true horror, but then again what part of life is not horrific in some way. Makes everyone's life a bit of a horror story, but their lives are not true horror. It just adds spice to the story.

Pamela Turner: Good question. I’m not exactly sure how to answer this. I imagine certain genres or subgenres like science fiction, urban fantasy or paranormal will and can borrow horror elements. Could the movie Alien be considered horror as well as science fiction, for example? It seems like more authors are mixing genres, rather than sticking with a particular one.

Do these books become part of the horror field? I would think if a majority of the book is horror, then yes. But if another genre predominates, then there might be a gray area.

Wish I had a better answer for that. 

How has horror changed since its inception? What have those changes meant for you as a writer in the genre?

The original masters of horror
-- the Brothers Grimm.
Paul Mannering: Horror has become less about the suggestion of terror and gone for the cheap shot of gore and revulsion. Ghost story writers like Blackwood, the weird fiction of Lovecraft, Howard and Derleth, wrote the classic tales if horror because you are left to imagine the worst aspects of what is suggested. And it is the unknown that scares us at a primordial level.

Ed Erdelac: Well, I wouldn't really know. I haven't been around that long and I'm hardly a scholar of the genre to be honest. I read everything, and I write what stories come to me. Sometimes they're horror, but I don't consider myself a horror writer.

William D. Prystauk: The gothic horror of old has not been replaced, but subgenres, such as slashers, have taken over – for now. Today, to continue to capture the mind’s of audience members that crave something new, different and more powerful at every turn, gore and violence often seem to be played up, especially in the brutal “torture porn” market. (I sincerely doubt any of my English students would state that ROSEMARY’S BABY is a horror because no blood is spilled. I can hear the sighs of boredom now.) As a writer, this does not affect me because by the time I finish a script and send it out to producers, the flavor of the month has already changed. Therefore, I focus on stories and characters, and since I’m writing for the ultra-expensive movie market, I hope to create scripts that reflect a low-cost production. Regardless, the one element of horror that has not changed throughout the many decades (from the Grimm’s brothers’ fairy tales to THE CABIN IN THE WOODS) is the fact that most horrors, if not all, are cautionary tales. The stories ultimately conjure fear, and that’s one strong item to keep us all motivated.

Selah Janel: I think in a lot of ways the metaphors have been lost as we've gotten away from the early gothic horror. There's still some of that but people have almost come to expect things to be more graphic or the scare threshhold to be higher. I still feel like horror can be used to shed a lot of light on our general bad behavior and give us a good view into our own fears, insecurities, and personal darkness, but I feel like these days you have to be a lot more obvious about it. And if you include a monster/paranormal element you have to really work to not make it a caricature because the pressure is that you have to make it "evil evil EVIL" to get it away from fantasy stories or paranormal stories that may be more towards the romance or other genres. It's almost ironic because the more people say that they want writers to defy the rules and give them whatever dark ideas lurk in your mind, the more it turns out that they really have a set formula in their head. As a writer that likes to include a lot of elements in my horror, I feel like I'm still finding that mix that works for me. But playing around with what works is a big part of the fun! That being said, I pretty much do what I want at this point and then if it becomes a problem when I'm submitting I'll go back to a manuscript and play around with it again.

G.L. Giles: As societal values changed, so did the horror genre.  Certainly writers like Poe focused more on psychological horror versus gore aplenty.  I have been influenced by writers from many different time periods in the past---from both their works I studied at school and have read on my own. However, I also read and review contemporary books, so I personally nod respectfully to the past while I oftentimes create contemporary fiction which keeps up with what’s popular now, too. Therefore, mine is somewhat soft and psychological at times and then, from time to time, somewhat brutally grotesque (for the short answer).

Herika R Raymer: Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on who you are talking to, it has become more about gore than fright. Probably in part due to the slasher films. Seems to me that horror should be more about what terrifies rather than what splatters the most. I still adhere to the old formula when I can - write about what horrifies rather than what is gruesome.

Pamela Turner:  I wonder, has horror changed or has how we read/respond to it changed? The writing has certainly become more graphic, although this may be a carryover from Hollywood and the advent of slasher horror films. People aren’t as shocked by gratuitous violence and some may even consider it an essential part of the horror canon.

As for any changes affecting my writing, I can’t say they have. Yet. But maybe that’s because I’m a newcomer to horror writing, even though I grew up reading Lovecraft, King, Blackwood, Poe, etc. I haven’t yet been affected by the trends, criticisms, etc. that other horror writers face.

There's discussion at various conventions about gender and horror. Are writers of a certain gender more or less predisposed to creating horrific horror?

Algernon Blackwood, author of
"The Empty House"
Paul Mannering: I think men and women can write horror with equal impact. Women tend (in my reading experience) to be more subtle, going for a psychological scare rather than the jack-in-the-box monster pop-up.

Ed Erdelac: That might be a loaded question. I was at World Horror Con in Salt Lake City and there seemed to be an even number of female and male horror writers. I admit I've never read a horror novel by a female author. But again, I don't exclusively read horror, so I'd be a poor judge. I suppose Anne Rice is a horror writer, and I enjoyed her Vampire Chronicles. But if you mean horrific horror like serial killer, slasher type stuff....it may well be. I don't know of any women writing serial killer novels.

William D. Prystauk: Nope. I’ve discovered that just as many women love horror as men – if not more. In fact, I usually discuss the horror genre with an even mix of men and women. Furthermore, most of the horror writers I know are women.

Selah Janel: I think women and men tap into horror in different ways, which is to be expected; our minds work in different ways! At the end of the day we may be afraid of different things, but we all are afraid of something so gender shouldn't matter. From my personal experience I think men are drawn more towards gore or very linear narratives where women tend to be more psychological and circular in their plots - they tend to not be afraid to deviate into a hundred little tangents or subplots that all come back to each other towards the end. I also feel like we're predisposed to be more sadistic...blame it on society or repression, blame it on hormones, blame it on just wanting to write really twisted horror, but some of the really chilling stuff I've read actually ends up being by women. Men may be associated with physical violence but in comparison women can be the Inquisition. 'The Haunting of Hill House' by Shirley Jackson is insane because you really have no clue if there's something supernatural going on or if the protagonist is out of her mind - plus, there are reasons for Eleanor doing what she does. She's so in love with the house and consumed by her experience that it's just freaky. And some of the best splatterpunk I've ever read is by Nancy A. Collins. She's not afraid to step way over the line, but she also ups the squick factor by making all the disgusting stuff happen for a reason. Don't get  me wrong - I love Stephen King, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, etc. They are definite influences and some of my favorite writers, but I don't think that's all there is.

I have noticed that people are really, truly surprised when I tell them that I write horror. I think it's one of those things that writers will fully admit that there shouldn't be a difference between genders writing this genre, but as a whole it's a genre that tends to be associated with testosterone more than estrogen. I always question why there isn't more of a push to market women horror writers and it's been flat-out told to me by people that a woman's place in horror is as a sex object.  I don't believe that for a moment and it just fuels my desire to write better and better stories.

My biggest frustration is that we seem to be going towards this weird formula that's been influenced by popcorn movies that horror has to have tons of blood and over the top elements and a lot of sex that's derived from like an adolescent mindset. If that's what does it for a reader then that's fine - there's plenty of that, but I refuse to believe that that's all there is. I  even refuse to believe that we've seen all the formulas and ways horror "has" to be yet. I think the more we get away from formulas and admit that there are different ways to access this genre, then we'll see more work from female writers. I don't want to feel like I have to work a certain way to get my work seen because the expectations are getting narrower, despite all the options out there. I don't like to be brushed aside for any reason, especially when I think my ideas are just as good as anyone else's even if they don't fit the x number of gore scenes/token sex or lesbian overtone scene/ narrative formula with the standard plot twist that I've read so much of lately. With women writers I think you have to read longer for a payoff, I think there's definitely an amount of build-up that may or may not happen with male writers and I don't know if that's what ends up working against us or not. But I think we deserve to be given a chance...and by that I mean a chance to show what we do best with horror and not just attempting to fit a current trend or mold that may or may not work for us.

G.L. Giles: Maybe males, but that being said, it was pretty easy for me to create my own works of sometimes grisly horror.  Many readers of Gothic horror were women, but it seems that perhaps due to the sometimes over-the-top gore factor in some works today, there are more male readers now. Fortunately, going by the name G.L. Giles has helped in attracting both male and female readers I believe.  I have many men assume I'm a male just because I write horror and because they can't tell by my initials. I believe that's worked to my advantage in this genre. However, a simple Google search will pull up pictures of me. :)

Herika R Raymer: I do not think so. I have read horror stories from both genders and both have been impressive, or non-impressive, depending on the subject material and presentation. It is about pushing personal limits, not about gender.

Pamela Turner: Possibly. In my crime writing groups, I’ve seen a few who’ve crossed over into writing horror or suspense/thriller. Then again, these writers are used to examining the more deviant side of people’s natures, so it probably wouldn’t be a stretch for them to move into the realm of horror. People who write paranormal and urban fantasy are also ones I would think inclined to writing tales of terror.