I would like to talk about Horror. It has been less than a week since I was asked why I would read something so awful after describing a scene from a book I read. A few months ago, I had the police called on me for explaining a revenge filled murder plot on the Internet. My own wife will not watch a horror film with me because she cannot understand why someone would want to be scared. Clearly, horror is not for everyone. So, why has horror permeated writings from the dawn of written language all the way to present day? I have a few ideas. Permit me to share.
I will begin by talking about horror and why I love it so much. Horror is a broad term that has been pigeonholed more than any genre except maybe Westerns. Many things in everyday life can be considered horrific. Just watch the news and one can see real world horror any time. Murder and mayhem are a part of the societies in which we live. But, simply writing about crime does not make for horror.
The supernatural is something of a staple of horror, though much horror is not supernatural. The supernatural alone doesn't make something Horror. The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe deals with the supernatural, but no one is going to call it horror. On the other side, Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door, defines horror for many people. It is widely considered the most horror of all horror. There is no supernatural in Ketchum's book. In fact, it is inspired by a true story. The brutality is amped up a bit from the real story, but it is within the parameters of what could have or very well might have happened.
I think what makes horror is that it is a bit beyond what would be believed. I could tell you that someone was brutally raped and murdered and you would likely believe me. I could tell you some bizarre details about what happened or how the victim was found, and you might jump to the conclusion that a very disturbed individual did it. It might be a serial killer. But, there is a line that can be crossed where one disbelieves that something so horrible could actually happen, or some circumstance that is impossible came into the equation, that it is beyond what can be expected in the real world.
This is not to be confused with fantasy. Fantasy steps completely out of the real world. It can share many of the elements of horror, but it goes to a different place. The Harry Potter series, for example, is fantasy. It leaves the real world, the one we know. As the books progress, more elements of horror are introduced to that fantasy world. But, it does not make it horror. That is not to say that horror cannot leave this world, and successful horror/fantasy has been produced, but it has to tie back to the reader being afraid for what could happen to him or her in the real world. Harry going to Hogwarts in and of itself is not horrific. Crossing worlds in Hellraiser is.
I like to some it up this way: The real world, while it can be extraordinary, is generally plausible. Science Fiction and Fantasy tend to be too otherworldly for it to feel familiar. Horror is the place in between. The borderland between what is real and otherworldly. Something one step beyond what can be believed in a world where things seem ordinary. That is the sweet spot.
Familiarity is key. No matter how messed up things get, it should take place in a familiar world or situation, but taken to a place beyond belief.
Monsters are important to horror. They can be in many forms. It can be an abhorrent creature that fell to Earth, was created in a lab, crawled from another dimension, or was born of toxic waste. It could be a reanimated corpse, or a malevolent ghost who has left behind its corporeal form. It could be a living human, a parent, a stranger, or a friend. It could be a pet, the family dog, a cat, a bird, or something a child found in the woods. It could be a wild animal in which there has been a change or mutation. It can be an idea or an inanimate object. In my novella, Ivy, for instance, the monster is decorative English ivy. Change itself may be the monster. The past can be someone's monster. Non-horror has villains, horror has monsters.
Shock also plays a role. A moment where something shocking happens when it is unexpected can be very effective. It does take a certain amount of grace, though. One person's shock may be another person's cheap scare.
Quite possibly the biggest challenge in writing horror is innovation. There is a certain cardinal rule of writing horror in which one must take the story someplace new. I'm not sure I completely agree with this. I believe that better storytelling will trump an original idea any time. People have been conjuring tales for many thousands of years and it is unlikely that anything is totally original and still comprehensible. A new twist is great. Excellent writing is better. If the author has both, then it should be a home run. Or, the new twist could bring down he excellent writing, and bad writing will most certainly bring down the new twist.
Overused tropes became those because they were effective. I believe the effective writer can use any old trope or idea and make it their own. Take the zombie apocalypse story, for instance. There's nothing new there. The same thing happens more or less in every one as far as plot. Yet, some are undoubtedly better than others. It is all about the way the author handles the struggle. The best zombie novel of the year may be a typical zombie apocalypse novel that has rich believable characters that conveys thought and emotion as the characters struggle to survive rather than a zombie novel unlike anything anyone has ever read. People in general like the familiar. Swan Song, by Robert McCammon, is almost universally compared to Stephen King's The Stand. Plot wise, these two novels are comparable. While I prefer Swan Song, I don't think it is necessarily better. Both books are epic length, post apocalyptic wars between good and evil that take place across the U.S. landscape. They are not identical, of course. Swan Song has a nuclear war while The Stand has a plague. The Stand has a more Christian message than Swan Song. They each handled a similar plot in different ways. But, if someone took a survey to everyone who had read both as to which was better, the result would probably be a statistical coin flip. Regardless of this, I am always looking for another book like them. There is little that compares favorably to them. Whether or not McCammon ripped off Stephen King is debated, but certainly no one wants to be perceived as doing it again. Therefore, we don't get another such epic of this quality. I think that is a shame. While I certainly don't want it to be exactly like either of these, I would love one that has the same kinds of theme and setting. The same kind of plot. One without zombies or vampires. Both of these books are worth reading because they were both written well. That's the bottom line.
Not everyone will be pleased no matter what. Back to the zombie stories. There have been an enormous number of zombie stories written in the last several years. Before that, it was vampires. Some people will not read a zombie story or a vampire story, no matter what. I admit I'm guilty of this. I won't read one unless it comes highly recommended and even then I'm reluctant. I should not be, though, because what really matters is the quality of the writing. I have read examples of both in recent ears that were amazing. And, it was not because there was really anything new, just that the writing was excellent. The vampires were still blood sucking former humans, but the author was able to bring the characters to life.
Just because it does not scare someone does not mean it is not horror. Bless my wife, who reads all my stories first. Yes, the same one that will not watch a horror movie because she doesn't want to be scared. She ends every read with, "It's good, but not scary." She says the same of any example I can pull out of the air. I don't know what scares her, but someday I will find it. But, in general, that criticism comes up a lot. One person will say they are not scared by ghosts and another will find that the scariest. Some get a thrill from gore and others don't. Everyone is scared by different things, Again, it comes down to the quality of the writing. People would rather their horror be well written than scary. But, the magic really comes out when it's both.
Stephen King's It and Peter Straub's Ghost Story both tackle the theme of what is scary. It was inspired by Ghost Story, in fact. The idea is that what is scary is different for everyone and the ultimate evil is something that can be whatever scares you. I have seen forum posts where people post what they find scary, and it is a varied lot. Spiders are a very popular answer. For me, it is being in the woods and realizing I'm not alone. I spent much of my childhood exploring the woods around the lake where I grew up. Someone without that experience may not find that as frightening as I would. Some may find it more frightening. The scene I remember scaring me the most in Ghost Story was one such scene in the woods. Most seem disappointed with King's use of spiders in It.
For some, human monsters are scarier because they can exist. For me, supernatural things, particularly those that are there but can't be seen, are the scariest. Horror is both collective and individual. It taps into our survival instincts. Horror is meant to put the reader in overwhelming peril, and that brings us to life. When it is past, we feel thrilled. That's why it is a good idea to take your girlfriend to a scary movie. Sex is a survival instinct. Just a free tip. Horror makes us feel alive by making us feel temporarily unsafe. Suspense compels us to keep reading, but horror is what makes us live.
About the author:
I. Clayton Reynolds is an author of horror, suspense, and the supernatural. He studied Anthropology, Psychology, and History at the University of Texas and Iowa State University and gained extensive knowledge of legends and beliefs from around the world and deep into the past. His research has helped him to understand how, and why, frightening legends and cautionary horror tales have developed throughout the human past. clayton grew up in the oak forests of North Central Texas, spending much of his childhood exploring the woods, landforms, indigenous traces, and empty homes scattered through the countryside, looking for the spirits that haunt the land. He now lives in Central Iowa with his family. In his free time, he creates experimental electrical guitar circuitry to expand tone options. Clayton is a reader, a writer, a musician, and a graphic artist. He works to support people with intellectual disabilities in Central Iowa.
About the books:
Publisher: The Pumkhin Press
Publication date: 12.1.2014
A wooden elf Christmas decoration found in a box begins to reveal sinister secrets to a blind girl and her family.
Publication date: 2.1.2014
Tiny rootlets grip and crawl. Vines slither imperceptibly slow along the walls. Waxy green leaves choke and suffocate all in their path. Ivy, it creeps.
After a post-war industrial boom, Ivy and her husband find themselves wealthy and ready to live out an idyllic life together. When they build their dream home, Ivy grows nostalgic for her namesake vines that covered her childhood home. When a shadowy gardener delivers on her desire, her life begins to spin out of control. Death lurks in every dark corner and there is no escape.