An Aspiring Author on Writing Horror

My mother always wanted me to like nice things. Barbies, for example (which I did, until I stumbled into adolescence and realized that I could string together Barbie’s severed heads and wear them as a necklace; much like the destroyer-goddess Kali Ma — the knots in the synthetic hair binding together each smiling face.)

When I was a kid I wore pink frilly dresses and white patent leather shoes, and ate my grandmother’s cookies with milk. I was a good kid. I was mostly a good teenager too, save for the necklace incident. Mostly, I think I was pissed off that Barbie could do anything and be anything — doctor, lawyer, vet, whatever — and I was thirteen years old and shocked that attending high school didn’t automatically mean that the world was offering up its adventures for my “grown-up” self.

To this day, I still manage to draw up a latent fear when I look through the second story windows in my parents’ home when full night has fallen.

Like most teenagers who are seeking an out from the overwhelming disappointment of early adolescence and the revolt it inspires, I was searching for something to assert myself; to carve out my own place in the aftermath of frills and patent leather. I stumbled into trying to piss my parents off by reading Stephen King.

To this day, I still remember my mom asking repeatedly, “Why would you read such garbage when there were so many nice things out there?”

Something to that effect.

The answer, quite simply, was that Mr. King wrote about characters that I could identify with. They were kids too. Granted, they dealt with their dead pets returning from the grave, and predatory clowns, and their fathers trying to murder them due to prolonged isolation and inhabiting a haunted hotel, but they were kids and Mr. King was speaking to me through their voices. Their voices, subsequently, were telling me that to be afraid was normal. To respond to these stimuli — supernatural or otherwise — was a purgative; it ensured that your sleepless nights made the reality around you (as sucky as it was) a little more interesting when you started second-guessing what might be hiding in the shadows.

Summer of Night, Cover through the Diecut

Summer of Night, Cover through the Diecut

 

At the time, the young adult market was dominated by Judy Blume books (which I learned are excellent, though that realization came much later) and if I wanted to read horror for my age demographic, I was stuck with Christopher Pike and R.L. Stein. I read all of them, but at a hundred pages a piece, they didn’t sustain the appetite for a prolonged, well-paced scarefest.

My thirteen year old brain equated a book with the thickness of a brick to a decent adrenal-dousing. The bigger the book, the longer my synapses fired.

Now, given my mother’s distaste for my choice of reading material, it figured that every opportunity I got to squander my allowance at the nearest used bookstore offered ample opportunity to get my hands on the next toothy beastie, psycho killer, were-thing, or tentacled and suction-cupped creepy crawlie that was too terrible to describe. That usually meant Saturdays.

(Forget the local library. I exhausted the horror section mid-way through the summer, and subsequent trips were usually a disappointment when they didn’t restock my favourite authors fast enough.)

Saturdays meant shopping day. Shopping day meant enjoying the many magical aspects of suburban consumerism, including the used book store in the strip mall with its coroplast signs with overlarge type announcing the sections by genre. The horror section had its corner at the back of the store. I could make a beeline for it down the right aisle, dodging the overcrowded bins that littered most of the floor space.

I remember this very clearly, because it was one particular Saturday spent whipping by the Danielle Steel titles that I found the book that would trigger something vicious in me, catalyzing a long-standing love affair with the macabre into something else:

Something with teeth.

Something that wants nothing more than your blood and your sanity and your in-between hours to give it life.

It was a story about five boys, set in the 1960’s, from a small town in Illinois called Elm Haven. The cover of the book was die cut to show the hulking mass of a Victorian-inspired school building with a bell tower shown through a house’s window, with curtains billowing beneath arching, shiny type the colour of freshly oxidized blood. Four boys on bicycles rode by in the frame created by the window in the falling dusk.

It was written by an author named Dan Simmons.

Summer of Night by Dan Simmons

Summer of Night by Dan Simmons

 

Summer of Night gave me nightmares for the following decade, and to this day, I still manage to draw up a latent fear when I look through the second story windows in my parents’ home when full night has fallen, and the only thing I should be seeing is my reflection against the darkness.

It was a book that impacted me so strongly that, to this day, I still see the white face of something else floating two stories off the ground.

I hope that many aspiring authors experience this at some point: you either finish reading a book that sucked harder than Edward Cullen on a mountain lion and declare that, “I can write something better than this,” or, “I want to write something that makes other people feel so strongly that they’ll never even have to consider Edward Cullen.” Summer of Night inspired the latter, (and *Twilight* the former, but that’s another story.)

I think that we find our niche as writers by developing a willingness to explore subjects that are titillating. Fear, for me, is a big one. Childhood fears, especially, because even in my adult life I find that fear of the unknown is still a relevant consideration when you reiterate questions like, “Where do you go when you die?” and the reassurances you received in childhood may no longer be applicable.

I found the book that would trigger something vicious in me, catalyzing a long-standing love affair with the macabre into something else: Something with teeth.

My solution for these and other problematic existential questions was to provide my own answers through fiction. The worst-case scenarios:

Revenants. Spectres. Moving shadows beneath doors that open to reveal empty rooms.

The direct route to ensuring that I confront these fears isn’t a means of overindulgence anymore, either — it’s become an exercise in plumbing the depths of the things that I thought I buried with my Barbie heads in the niches of my parents’ crawlspace in their suburban home. The things you’d think you’d grown out of when you passed the last years of adolescence and survived the real-life horrors of your twenties.

It never quite disappears when you grow up, you see. It just hides for a time. As a writer, I look for others with similar preoccupations; similar night thoughts that they imagine into existence to commune with the unknown and make it more bearable.

At the end of the day, for me, writing horror is the craft of managing fear; it’s the bold face of defiance that looks into the shadows for a time, and tries to scrape the worst things from the walls of the places where they were created, ten, twenty years ago.

I found those decapitated Barbie heads, recently, by the way. Holding onto that necklace of fuzzed blond synthetic resin, I thought to myself that there was something artful in ruining those dolls:

Sometimes it takes a little destruction to be able to create something from the wreckage of a misspent childhood.

This post originally appeared at Horror-Writers.net

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