Decided to write a horror story? Don’t think about it.
Use your feelings and fears instead.
Someone once said, “I write in order to discover what I think.” Could’ve been Blaise Pascal, or Joan Didion. Maybe Susan Sontag. I can’t remember.
The quote is accurate enough, I guess. A bit intellectual for me, though. Because I am naturally suspicious of what I think. Too many filters and prejudices attach to thinking, like those suckerfish on sharks.
I’m more comfortable with the statement, “I write in order to understand what I feel.” That’s seems a little closer to the mark.
I could dial in the focus even further and say, “I write in order to know what frightens me.” Now that seems true. And maybe that’s why most of what I write (and read) is identified as “horror”. After all, horror fiction is most concerned with the evocation of dread, right?
I think, therefore I ape….
That sub-head above caused me no end of anxiety. I mean, who the hell am I to tell any writer how – or how not– to approach a story? It’s ludicrous. But, as a READER, I know in my guts if a writer was just plowing the same old horror field, or if that writer was really down there in that basement with some un-named…thing. Or trapped in ‘The Penal Colony’ with Kafka’s protagonist.
As a writer, thinking too much tends to make me wily. I’m looking for an audience, or a cheap reaction. And the stories that spring from that soil usually never make it off my hard drive. But when I’m fueling the action of a story with my own revulsion and fear? Well, then I think I’m onto something true and good and worthwhile.
So, as I write a story, I’m always asking myself, “Does this frighten you, Bob?”
Since you’re reading this, I assume you are, to some extent, a horror fan (or a much-appreciated supportive friend who checks in on this blog every now and then) and, like me, completely unfazed by werewolves and vampires. Those old world tropes just don’t cut it anymore. Oh, they can be written as sexy and angst-ridden to appeal to a YA audience. But scary? Pazuzu-scary? No way.
And that New World, post-industrial trope – the Zombie – has been so done to death in fiction and movies, it’s become a parody of itself: undying, yet devoid of life.
I’m not saying a story written to these tropes cannot be effective. I’m saying any contemporary story using these tropes, will find success only insofar as it touches on more timeless, even phobic, fears.
Like claustrophobia, for example. One of my…problems.
If a writer wants to crank up the tension in a story, the easiest way to do it is by progressively limiting the mobility and the choices of the characters. Melville did it in Moby Dick. The moment the Pequod left the dock, those sailors were doomed, with no escape but a watery death. Where, in the trackless wastes of the Pacific, could they run to escape Ahab’s obsession?
Stephen King made immobility and the lack of options famously explicit in Misery. The protagonist is successively and progressively immobilized by accidental injury, involuntary drugging at the hands of a crazed fan. He is even hobbled, for Chrissakes (just to drive the immobility point home, in a spectacularly gruesome scene). And not only that, this all takes place in a remote cabin where no one will come to help. Talk about dwindling choices! And King’s own anxiety in relation to this situation is apparent in the writing.
I believe all writers – not just horror writers – use their fears to create their greatest stories: fear of intimacy, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of people not just like them. It’s almost as if the act of writing itself were nothing but the exorcising of these fears.
And maybe that’s just what it is.
My strongest stories are those composed of scenes that make me flinch. The ones that make me feel I am, myself, this character undergoing this horrifying experience. I may even turn my head away from the page as I type – but my fingers know the words, and won’t stop until the story is told.
To write a story and not be moved by it is a cheat – to both the writer and the reader.
I think I’d like to write a story now.
And I feel it is dark enough to get it done.
Image by Pink Sherbert Photography