A Day In the Life of a Writer, Author Talk

10 QUESTIONS WITH THE TALENTED KAREN RUNGE

seeing-double-cover

Karen Runge is a name I’ve seen in the writing community many times, and was happy to learn that she has a novel published with the awesome  Grey Matter Press.  She now shares a publishing home with many cool horror writers, including one of my favorites, John F.D. Taff . I am always encouraged to see women writing horror. So, I wanted to pick Karen’s wonderfully imaginative, and disturbing brain, and find out  more about the woman the late Jack Ketchum confessed, “Karen, you scare me.”  Now, there’s a compliment.

 

 

LF: When did you write your first book?

KR: I completed my first novel-length work when I was about fifteen. Of course, it was totally terrible (!) and I’ve long since lost that manuscript. I took another stab at a novel when I was around 21, tried to get that one published, but it fell flat (it was also… pretty terrible…) and I threw it away. After that I started concentrating more on getting my name out through short stories. The first story I sold (shortly after the burning of my second book attempt) was ‘The Lighthouse’, published in the awesome Horror/Sci-Fi magazine ‘Something Wicked’, which sadly is now defunct. From there it was a steady climb up to getting my first full solo collection ‘Seven Sins’ published (Concord Free Press, 2016). My first (finally!!) full-length novel, ‘Seeing Double’, came out with Grey Matter Press last year. Took a while, but hey, I got there eventually. And no, I am nowhere near finished.

LF: As a woman, what draws you to the genre horror?

KR: I’m not sure it makes much sense to divide horror along gender lines, because horror—real horror, in the real world—is something that we all experience in some way or another in our lives. This is what makes it such a powerful art form—it doesn’t discriminate at all. I can only say that as a person, it always resonated with me as a genre that was telling the truth about the darker conditions of human nature, and their impacts on individuals as well as societies as a whole. As in, there’s no bullshit here, this is the stuff beneath every surface. That kind of exploration is important, I think, in a very fundamental way. I honestly can’t pinpoint anything female-specific that draws me to it. It’s just there.

LF: How do women react when you tell them you write horror?

KR: That depends on the woman! My poor mother, bless her, is completely baffled!! I often get the cutesy, aghast reaction from strangers, “Oh no! I could never read one of your books!” which always strikes me as borderline silly. Is there a rule somewhere that women aren’t supposed to be open to this? Women, who (again, in the real world) are subject to some truly hair-raising acts of violence, in some cases even as the norm…? And then of course the badass babes think it’s fantastic. It’s nice when people choose to be curious about it at least, and that’s a reaction I’m always grateful for when talking to non-horror fans of either gender.

LF: I so agree!

LF: I’m going to ask this question because I’ve been asked this a few times and I’d love to hear your response. Why not write Romance?

KR: For me, personally, Romance has never interested me. I find it more than a little false, like a cardboard cut-out of what human relationships really entail. I read a few Romance novels as a teenager (under pressure from school-friends who wanted me to “Put Stephen King down, for god’s sake!”) and I rolled my eyes through all of those books. I don’t want to bash the genre—it’s there, it gives people a lot of joy, it wouldn’t exist without reason. But it strikes me (both personally and as an artist) as more fairytale-escapism than an actual exploration of anything. I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh—there’s nothing wrong with escapism. But for me, as a reader and a writer, I would much rather look at realities than candy-coated dreams. If we want to talk the complexities of lust and love, though, well… you can find those to greater or lesser degrees in pretty much every genre, portrayed under much more sincere terms than what is directly labelled as ‘Romance’.

LF: I couldn’t have said it better.

LF: Please tell us a little about your book, SEEING DOUBLE. Great cover by the way.

KR: Thank you! The cover art was done by Dean Samed, a really awesome visual artist. I was thrilled with it when I first got the cover reveal. It fits the novel just so perfectly. The story on the surface is about a depraved love triangle, who disconnect from any form of true empathy in order to satisfy their own desires. Beneath that, it’s an exploration of sadism and abuse and the long-term impacts these things can have on the soul, especially when combined with malicious influences. It was my attempt at capturing the Disturbo sub-genre of horror, and the thing came out to so freaking twisted I can only think of it as a fair shot!

LF: Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

KR: I write piles of dark poetry (as a personal exercise, not for publication), and in that process I often find myself uncovering things I’d like to explore further through fiction. I’m also mad about music, and sound and lyrics do a lot to inspire me. Once I’ve started a story, and the plot starts fleshing out, there are always going to be themes or details that I straight-up don’t know enough about, and am going to have to research in order to write with any kind credibility. For example, for my short story ‘Exile’ (in the Double Barrel Horror series from Pint Bottle Press) I spent a good few hours researching… lawnmowers. Lucky me. All the research I’ve done over the years for various stories has already made me a little mine of totally random and (mostly) useless information. But if you’re going to talk about something then you do need to get it right, which makes those long hours worth it, even if it only appears in the finished product as one or two sentences.

LF: What does your family think of your writing?

KR: They don’t really know too much about it, to be honest. My father takes some interest, but the rest are just happy to see me doing what I love… since I guess for the most part they don’t really understand it! My older brother loves horror too though, and our shared interest has done a lot to encourage me over the years. ‘Seeing Double’ is actually dedicated to him. But he’s more a film fan than a book guy, so he’s not entirely sure what I’m up to in my own art either. And that’s okay too.

LF: Does writing energize or exhaust you?

KR: For the most part, in the aftermath, it makes me feel absolutely fantastic: super connected to myself and the world around me. A good day’s writing can put me on a high for days. Though to a degree it depends on what I’m writing, really. The heavier subject matter can be difficult to wield, juggling a ‘normal’ every day life when in the back of my mind I’m having to sift through some seriously unsettling stuff. ‘Seeing Double’, for example, was an emotional nightmare to write… but once I’d gone into it I knew I had to push through to the end. More to that point: You don’t always get to pick your stories; sometimes they choose you. But whatever journey it puts me on I love what I do, and I absolutely cannot imagine myself as anything other than a writer.

LF: What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

KR: By the end of a serious day’s writing, I’ll have a very satisfying word count (we won’t talk about how much I’ll chop in edits the next day), and… a completely spotless apartment. I don’t know what goes on here, really. Writing will be going really well, I’ll hit a point, and the next thing I know I’m standing at the sink washing dishes. Or sweeping the balcony. Or doing laundry. I don’t even decide to do it necessarily… it’s like I’m aware that I need a break, but need to still in some way stay active. But all this is totally subconscious, at least for the first few minutes. It can be kinda scary. Hey, at least my home is squeaky clean!

LF: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

KR: Usually if I’m not writing, or if I’m struggling with whatever I’m currently working on, I’ll dust off my paintbrushes and get going on a visual project. Usually I’ll be listening to horror fiction podcasts like Pseudopod or The Drabblecast while I paint or draw… so it’s like ‘reading’ while working. It’s a way to switch off to a degree, while still feeding the beast. That’s honestly a very happy place for me, and I don’t give myself hell when I’m not writing. So long as I’m doing something creative, I feel like I can maybe still pass as human. Mwahaha.

karen runge
Karen Runge

 

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Author Talk

Michael Frost Reveals Why He Writes Horror~

Horror writers are always asked the question, “why horror?” My dear friend Michael Frost reveals his reason for spewing darkness onto pages.

Here’s Michael Frost:

mike

It is quite interesting that I have been asked many times, ‘What drove you to write horror?’, and although deep down the answer to such an inquiry had substance, meaning, I never really thought about it. Why does one like the color blue? Would be just as passive as a question about the weather, but in the end I think not so; I think the water flows deeper, colder, darker.  I think it does this where there is no light.

Normally I can knock out a ‘writing’ in the matter of hours without ever so much as dwelling on what is to happen, but instead what is happening at the moment. I write that way; usually starting off with an oblique first sentence and then ride that puppy as long as it will take me.

This writing now? Honestly, I find it puzzling to put down in text; difficult even.

The When it all started is simple; one day the Horror woke up in me, well it whispered actually; turning this once fantasy writer into who I am today almost 25 years ago. The other W’s and the acceptable How of the family I really can’t definitively tell you for certain, yet I do know the Why; it was The Darkness.

Growing up until my early teen years—embarrassingly—all things horror scared the shit out of me; seriously.  Commercials on television during the early late 70’s, 80’s for the next Friday the 13th or any other scary film sent me closing my eyes and plugging my ears with fingertips; droning the childhood ‘yayayayaya’s until the commercial would pass. Like all children who feared such, our timings were always off; releasing the ear canals and opening the fleshy cameras just in time to see the hook; the scariest shit the commercial would have to offer.

This fucked me a lot then really and that’s when the Darkness would come.

At night—always with the dim lamp on in the corner on at the room on my dresser breeding a million shadows—I would lay awake as my mind molded and formed those horrific images from earlier that day once again. Once you added an imaginative child’s mind I was truly fucked sideways.

What is in there?

Is IT watching me?

If I scream for my parents would they save me in time?!

Where’s my BB gun?!?!?

Sleepless nights, lots of them…frightful nights; nights which eventually melted away their shadows skins away to the morning hue so to allow me to breathe and live again for one more day. I was a normal kid once again (sans basement and backyard of course), yet as the twilight crickets began to chirp along the bush edgings, the Darkness would creep in once again.  Always the same really, that feeling; coming along just as the streetlight’s mini-capacitors hummed and buzzed as they gained charge then eventually flickering to life. That’s when the horror would begin again.

So define this damn Darkness already and tell me how in the hell this made you the horror writer you are today!

Hmm, still working on that.

The darkness…

What I can contribute a fact is to where I go when I sit before the screen and feel that tingle; that one edge as the ‘other’ Michael takes a seat next to me and begins to whisper to me. Stories do that you know, well at least how I see it. There are countless ones floating around the ether looking for the right voice, its voice, to tell its tale, and when it finds the right medium, it talks.

I just shrugged to this dismissing how many might view it, but it is as true and factual as one might see self-interpretation of one’s own face in a mirror. That’s also when The Darkness comes back to be after decades of once fearing it. Michael carries it forth and shows me the things I once saw, once felt, once sweated to and then I finger this keyboard to death to show you.

What’s it like? Well, it’s like a mixture of elated Heaven edged by Hell; a continuous onslaught of those fears rekindled and formed like so many puzzle pieces of a horrific Salvador Dali painting on crack! I hate quoting people let alone myself, but I once wrote what it was like when the Darkness comes to me, my essence, sadly my ethos:

“You know it when you feel it, don’t you? Sure you do! That electric sensation which tingles the senses as you glide your fingertips over the black keys with white lettered labels; pure elation to know that the words are there–right there before you–begging to come out!

 

    I know this to be true, because they whisper this to me…

 

    Full cup of coffee, black; no sounds house is quiet in the dead hours of morn with only the whispers of the story flowing in.

 

    Pulse climbs…
Palms grow damp…
Ideas form while synapses fire!
Keys clicking–pounding even–becoming echoes of a thousand nightmares before!”

Yes, it’s something like that, but still, in the end, it’s just The darkness; that fluid caliginous essence which goes beyond the shadows…

It breeds the shadows; Fathers and Mothers them like a horrible malignant disease festering in the marrow-deep.

<*Clears finger-throat, continues*>

I know…you were looking for a particular event weren’t you Happy Reader; that key point of the era-carved points along a timeline with specifics with the magical 5 W’s and the acceptable How?

Mayhap—perchance—there was a certain movie or a traumatic event?

Honestly, there are none.

In truth, a movie did fuck me about clowns (Poltergeist as a matter of fact [thank you Mr. Spielberg]). I didn’t eat snap peas for a long time because of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a kid (thanks Dad) and due to a physically abusive babysitter who loved my older twin sisters, but loathed me enough to beat the shit out of me daily while screaming that there were snakes in the backyard and ghosts in the basement, I never visited those places whilst alone for years.

Where are those fears now? Down a river they run with not one single reflective or disconcerting thought other than a shrug as I light yet another cigarette before sipping my coffee. Those things are simple segments as to whom young Michael was, not who I am.

Later in life when I had a child of my own—my dear and lovely daughter—I was on alert because I knew she too would find the Darkness, actually, it would find her. I was diligent then however.  They knew they could no longer haunt me, so they chose her to attack and they did it well, but I had a tactic.  I absorbed all of her fears without bullshit that they did not exist by telling her that I saw them too.

One particularly bad night of their visits from the closet, I vanquished them all with an empty cardboard box, a soft tone and a convincing story for her to stay out of her room. With a soft Dad voice both understanding and caring, I spoke to The Monsters from the other side of the closed bedroom door; ‘convincing’ them all to get into the box.  Once I heard giggles on the other side of the door from my daughter, I opened it up so she can see.  She entered eyes blinking on the closed box, and I explained her that they were all inside. I had told her that these might seem like scary monsters, but actually they were scared themselves; lost from their land and wanted to go home.  Smiling, she helped me push the box into the closet (her closing her eyes by instructions so that she didn’t see them).  We left the box inside and returned and to her delight the box was then empty; the monsters had gone back to Monster Land and were now happy

It was lying, I know, but a Daddy lying—a savior’s lying—because that same Darkness I once feared and held inside was never to harm my daughter, my very Light of my life. From that night on she slept fearlessly and sometimes talking into the open closet during the day to see how they were doing being back home.

My point? Simple really so please just be patient a little while longer and you too will (hopefully) understand.

One can write about the Darkness, the horror, the fear, but until it enters you it is as passive as a fart downwind in the breeze; foul for a moment and then forgotten.  Want to know if you truly know it, see it, feel it, taste it, are it and breed it?  Sit in the darkness and see if the shadows dare to whisper to you and tell you things.  If they do you will know what horror is and be afraid of it yet welcoming it all the same.  You do not consume and/or feel any of the above?  Well, then you are regurgitating what someone else feared, loathed and wrote. Perhaps maybe historical fiction might be your forte?  For me these things are both friend and foe; often wanting to talk passively and directly while at the same time they glide the edges of their claws against the stones in my mind behind their backs; sharpening them with an alternative motive to rip out my throat and consume my flesh.

So far, they only cut me deep when I refuse to listen.

Over time, I have truly learned to listen.

 

–Michael Frost

Hear more from Michael Frost on his site: Michael Frost’s Frostbitten and Twitter page @MichaelFrostChi

 

Author Talk, Short & Dark

A Kiss in the Dark~

Horror is indistinct, misunderstood and often portrayed poorly.So to set the record straight, these horror writers give their definition of horror.

Horror defined by Adam Ickes:

Horror is an exploration into the dark recesses of the unknown and the misunderstood. It is a candid look at what terrifies us at a subconscious level and gives those feelings of dread and fright a face that we can relate to. Good horror blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. It makes you look into shadowy corners and wonder if you just saw something move in the blackness. It instills a sense of fear where there should be none.

 

adam bookHe returned to the back of the truck and yanked the sheet off the girl. The stench of decomposition caught in his nostrils and brought him to a halt. He twisted his head in disgust and grabbed the side of the truck to steady himself until he could regain his composure. With a shake of his head, the compulsion to vomit faded, but the smell still lingered.

From Sins of a Father by Adam Ickes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Horror defined by Brian Moreland:

Horror is anything that produces dread, fright or fear. It can take over your senses while watching a scary movie, reading dark fiction, or touring through a haunted house on Halloween. The adrenaline rush can be felt as a fun, exhilarating thrill-ride or so terrifying you want to crawl within yourself and hide. Horror can be a dark adversary faced in real life, such as a serial killer, the brutalities of war, or a violent accident that’s so gruesome you have to look away. It can be news that’s so shocking that time stands still. Whether in reality or through entertaining mediums of fantasy, Horror is confronting Death and all the dark emotions it brings up. For those lucky enough to survive, facing fears takes us to the pinnacle of what it feels like to be Alive.

 

 

witchinghouseThe house that ate people stood within a coven of pine trees like an ancient god being worshipped. The high branches touched its shingled roof with reverence. Towering three stories, the rock house was far from being a flawless god. The moss-covered stones that cobbled its walls were pocked from years of rot and abandon. Fungus and creeper vines had spread across its facade, leafy tentacles invading cracks where boards covered the windows. The glass within their frames had long ago shattered. The Old Blevins House, as it came to be called, was set miles deep within the East Texas forest and rumored to be haunted.

From The Witching House by Brian Moreland

 

 

 

 

 

 

Horror defined by Clarissa Johal:

Horror knots your stomach and pulls the breath from your lips. A horror/gothic horror novel should make you look over your shoulder and ask the question, “What if?”

 

struck-bookThey were in a house. A Victorian. Fire burned in the fireplace. She could smell the burning wood. The light reflected off elaborate, but worn, wallpaper and furniture. A half-eaten biscuit lay on a delicate-looking plate. An empty teacup lay on its side. Julian took her by the hand and led her up a winding staircase. She studied him from behind. Tall and lean, he was quite broad-shouldered. Fine white hair draped across his back like silk. His form-fitting, tailored jacket hit mid-thigh, and matching black pants were tucked into knee-high leather boots. He walked with catlike grace, his boots making light sounds on the stairs.

Otherworldly, her thoughts whispered. Still in her hospital gown, Gwynneth felt vulnerable and naked. Her bare feet pressed against the wooden floor. Grit stuck to her toes. He led her down a hallway lit by fluted glass light fixtures along the walls. At the end of the hallway was a door.Never taking his eyes off hers, Julian opened it.
Dark figures scattered like exploding glass. Red, so much red. There was blood everywhere. Blood-soaked sheets, pillows; blood pooled onto the wooden floor and soaked into an ornate carpet. A woman lay across the bed. She wore an old-fashioned white nightgown, which was plastered to her body. Her long dark hair spilled across the sheets. Gaping wounds covered her chest. A knife lay on the floor. The windows were open, and white curtains fluttered in the evening breeze.
The creatures writhed in the corners as light from the hallway shattered their darkness.
From Struck by Clarissa Johal
Horror defined by C.J. Sellers:
The aim of horror is to provoke emotions within the realm of fear. The genre’s villains are not merely mean, vile, or impure — they are monstrously so. The ordinary is violated by a perfidious chaos wherein the world ceases to provide ample comfort or quarry. In this sudden atmosphere of dread, readers cannot tear our eyes away as our nightmares manifest into life.

 

cynthia book

“I shivered in my solitude, not only from the cold, but also from a growing terror. I was actually beginning to believe this superstitious nonsense on some level and could not reason myself away from it.”

From Pale Hunter by C.J. Sellers

 

 

 

 

 

 

Horror defined by K.Z. Morano:

Horror is life… or a milder reflection of it. Horror as a genre captures people’s capacity for love and hope and courage. It shows people’s will to survive under seemingly impossible circumstances. In the end, horror shows you how precious life is and it leaves you with the question of how hard are you willing to fight just to cling to it.

 

KZMaranoKatie came home from school, the delicious aroma from the kitchen greeting her.

“Mom?”

An eerie voice reverberated through the hallway.

Her mother was singing some strange, fragmented lullaby…

The door creaked open.

“Shhh…“ Katie’s mother warned. “You’ll wake the baby.”

Part of the blanket fell away to reveal raw turkey cradled in her mother’s arms.

She held it to her breast, lovingly patting its wet pimpled flesh.

“W-Where’s the baby?” Katie quavered.

Her mother’s face split into a demented grin. “Dinner will be ready soon.”

Slowly, numbly, Katie walked towards the kitchen. Something hissed and sputtered in the oven.

Mommy Makes Dinner (from 100 Nightmares) by K.Z. Morano

 

Horror defined by Lucian Barnes:

I must admit, I do not share the same sentiments as a majority of the population. If a story is written and would be considered for a PG-13 rating if a movie were made of it, in my eyes it shouldn’t be classified as horror. To me, true horror isn’t made up of situations that only make you jump a little; they make you cringe, cover your eyes, and sometimes tickle your gag reflex and make you want to vomit. In order to accomplish these things, I believe a good horror story needs to employ plays on the emotional stability of a character, a healthy dose of elements that ignite a fearful reaction in the audience, tension and unpredictability (a book is usually not very good if you can see what’s coming before it happens), and lastly, gore.  There are many ways to achieve this result, whether by psychological means or the use of supernatural entities.

 

Lucian Barnes Destined for DarknessHis dreams were very bizarre and disturbing, but from them an idea formed about how to feed his family. Why let the victims he hunted down wither and rot in the ground when they could provide his family with meat. They were already cut into pieces when he buried them and it would only be a little more work to carve the flesh from their bones.

From Destined for Darkness by Lucian Barnes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Horror defined by Thomas Amo:

When suddenly everything normal suddenly becomes clear something is wrong.
That feeling you get when you’re alone and you know, someone is watching you. You’re alone in your home downstairs
and you hear footsteps above you. The fact you’ve realized something is wrong..usually means, it’s already too late.

 

thomas bookMatilda could hear her father’s sobs in the distance, and it tore at her tiny heart. She slipped from under her covers, pulled her overnight case out from under the bed and opened it. Inside was Rosie’s book of witchcraft and book of spells. Matilda turned the soiled pages and looked at ink drawings of covens dancing around fires, goats being worshipped, and a faceless white creature with a single horn growing from the side of its head, until the tip of the horn, was nothing more than a wisp. Matilda stared at it for a long time. It had thin slits where its eyes should have been and no mouth. It was chained to a demon that went by the name Zagan. Matilda eyed the caption under the picture. It read: Zagan, keeper of the faceless one that does the unthinkable things death will not. 

The image troubled her, as it certainly looked terrifying enough to her.

“Zagan, I wish you could help my daddy,” she whispered.

From Midnight Never Ends by Thomas Amo

 

 

 

Horror defined by Latashia Figueroa

Imagine you are in a small room, the lights are out and you can see nothing. Not even your own hand in front of you. You believe you are alone until you hear breathing. Your breaths become quick and shallow. The breaths you hear are slow and deep. They surround you. Your hairs become prickly, your mouth dries. And then lips land flush on yours. It is sudden. You are surprised,shocked and filled with anxiety. Before you can release a scream, a door opens. It brings forth light. It is your escape and yet you do not flee. You are both haunted and captivated by the kiss in the dark.

Every direction looked the same. The coolness of the air did not stop the sweat from pouring down his face and into his eyes. His stomach turned, his heart fluttered violently within him. He instinctively reached into his pants pocket for his cell phone but quickly remembered all cell phones had been confiscated upon arrival.

They were told “no outside distractions.” It would limit their experience here. No smart phones, or iPads, or even a camera. It was to be a weekend without distractions, a chance to focus on himself for a change and make some very necessary improvements to his life. For the past two days, he and the others had endured intense physical and spiritual labor. But it was worth it, Brad had thought. It would all pay off in the end. He had felt lucky to be here, that he had been chosen to experience this spiritual awakening.

Now, running in the woods alone, in the middle of nowhere, terror scalding him from head to toe, he didn’t feel so lucky anymore.

The Retreat (from This Way Darkness) by Latashia Figueroa

 

A Day In the Life of a Writer

Writing Horror: Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death

 

www.lovethesepics.com
http://www.lovethesepics.com

 

Some people . . . claim that there’s nothing new in horror. In a sense, that may be true. More than sixty years ago, H.P. Lovecraft drew up a list of the basic themes of weird fiction, and I can think of very little that the field has added to that list since then. But that’s by no means as defeatist as it sounds, because the truth is surely that many of the themes we’re dealing with are so large and powerful as to be essentially timeless.

For instance, the folk tale of the wish that comes true more fully and more terribly than the wisher could have dreamed is the basis not only of “The Monkey’s Paw,” but of Stephen King’s Pet Semetary and of my own novel, Obsesssion, yet the three stories have otherwise far more to do with their writers than with one another. That suggests . . . that one way to avoid what has already been done is to be true to yourself.

That isn’t to say that imitation never has its uses. Here, as in any other of the arts, it’s a legitimate and useful way to serve your apprenticeship. . . . If you’re writing in a genre, it’s all the more important to read widely outside it in order to be aware what fiction is capable of. It’s less a matter of importing techniques into the field than of seeing the field as part of a larger art. Depending wholly on genre techniques can lend too easily to the secondhand and the second-rate. There’s only one Stephen King, but there are far too many writers trying to sound like him.

It’s no bad thing to follow the example of writers you admire, then, but only as a means to finding your own voice. You won’t find that, of course, unless you have something of your own to say. I did, once I stopped writing about Lovecraft’s horrors and began to deal with what disturbed me personally. I began to write about how things seemed to me, which was more important and, at first, more difficult than it may sound. I tried (and still do try) to take nothing on trust to describe things as they really are or would be.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that the horror field is riddled with clichés. The house that’s for sale too cheaply, the guy who must be working nights because he sleeps during the day . . . , the attic room the landlady keeps locked, the place none of the topers in the village inn will visit after dark—we can all have fun recognizing these and many others, which is by no means to say that they haven’t been used effectively by masters of the craft. But I think there are more fundamental clichés in the field, and I think today’s writers may be the ones to overturn them.

Take the theme of evil, as the horror story often does. Writing about evil is a moral act, and it won’t do to recycle definitions of evil—to take them on trust. Horror fiction frequently presents the idea of evil in such a shorthand form as to be essentially meaningless—something vague out there that causes folk to commit terrible acts, something other than ourselves, nothing to do with us. That sounds to me more like an excuse than a definition, and I hope it’s had its day. If we’re going to write about evil, then let’s define it and how it relates to ourselves.

All good fiction consists of looking at things afresh, but horror fiction seems to have a built-in tendency to do the opposite. Ten years or so ago, many books had nothing more to say than “the devil made me do it.” Now, thanks to the influence of films like Friday the 13th, it seems enough for some writers to say that a character is psychotic; no further explanation is necessary. But it’s the job of writers to imagine how it would feel to be all their characters, however painful that may sometimes be. It may be a lack of that compassion that has led some writers to create children who are evil simply because they’re children, surely the most deplorable cliché of the field.

Some clichés are simply products of lazy writing. Tradition shouldn’t be used as an excuse to repeat what earlier writers have done; if you feel the need to write about the stock figures of the horror story, that’s all the more reason to imagine them anew. . . . It’s only fair to warn you that many readers and publishers would rather see imitations of whatever they liked last year than give new ideas a chance. But I’ve always tried to write what rings true to me, whether or not it makes the till ring. If you don’t feel involved with what you’re writing, it’s unlikely that anyone else will.

There’s another side to the field that is overdue for attack by a new generation—its reactionary quality. A horror writer I otherwise admire argued recently that “it has been a time-honored tradition in literature and film that you have a weak or helpless heroine”—implying, I assume, that we should go on doing so. Well, tradition is a pretty poor excuse for perpetrating stereotypes (not that the author in question necessarily does); time-honored it may be, but that certainly doesn’t make it honorable. In fact, these days, so many horror stories (and especially films) gloat over the suffering of women that it seems clear the authors are getting their own back, consciously or not, on aspects of real life that they can’t cope with. Of course, that isn’t new in horror fiction, nor is using horror fiction to define as evil or diabolical whatever threatens the writer or the writer’s lifestyle. But, at the very least, one should be aware as soon as possible, that this is what one is doing, so as to be able to move on. I have my suspicions, too, about the argument that horror fiction defines what is normal by showing us what isn’t. I think it’s time for more of the field to acknowledge that, when we come face-to-face with the monsters, we may find ourselves looking not at a mask but at a mirror.

 

Ramsey Campbell’s thoughts  on “Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death” edited by Mort Castle

Originally published on Writer’sDigest.com