MIND MELD: Horror – Why You Love It, Why We Write It, and Where It’s Going
The Bram Stoker Award final ballot was recently announced, reminding me why horror as a genre is so much fun, so in that spirit, I asked our panel these questions:
Here’s what they had to say…
My first few childhood memories are all pretty dark. There was the time when I haplessly stood barefoot and barelegged atop a fire ant hill only to look down and see myself covered in them from ankle to waist. Then there was me sneaking into a neighboring cemetery through a hole I found in a chain link fence. I made it my duty to collect all the dusty plastic flowers off the graves and dole them out equally among those who had none. Sometimes, I’d surprise my mother with a bouquet of deadman’s blooms. It’s not easy for me to pinpoint what piqued my interest in horror. I sometimes think I was born beneath a looming shadow that tends to darken all my thoughts.
Horror is a genre that bucks the status quo. That being said, it’s difficult to say what direction it’ll take. Some authors say that horror will become more “legitimate” as time goes on, but that’s a pretty silly notion. Horror has always been legitimate. It’s loved (and sometimes obsessed over) by millions. Yes, some of it is terrible, but without the bad there wouldn’t be the good. We wouldn’t know sub par from genius without the help of my favorite author, Stephen King, and amazing books like Full Dark No Stars. We wouldn’t know a good ghost story from a bad one if Joe Hill hadn’t written Heart Shaped Box, or understand that, sometimes, horror can be nothing more than following someone through their twisted everyday lives if Bret Easton Ellis hadn’t published American Psycho. Horror is fully dependent on the fears of the one who consumes it. If you really want to know what direction the genre will take, just ask yourself: what am I afraid of?
When I was about eleven years old, I walked by my father’s room and heard him laughing very loudly. I poked my head inside and asked him what was so funny. He told me to sit down because he wanted to read something to me. He held a paperback book in his hand by a man named Stephen King. The book wasn’t a typical King book; it was made up of four different novellas. It was called Different Seasons. My father read me the pie-eating contest scene from “The Body.” By the time he was finished, I was laughing too. I went straight to his bookshelf and started reading all of King’s books. I suppose that was how I got interested. Weird, because it wasn’t really the horror element that grabbed my attention, but the humor. As for the future of horror, I see the genre spreading out, becoming more inclusive. If you think about it, there are a lot of books being published with elements of horror that aren’t being classified as such. More and more, I believe people will begin to recognize this and horror won’t be seen as a dirty word anymore. Eventually, I believe horror will be mainstream again. But two things have to happen. Horror writers and hardcore fans have to be more accepting of books outside of their tight-knit community, and people that like good books have to embrace the truth that many of those good books are really horror novels (The Lovely Bones, The Road, etc.).
As far as modern horror writers, I think the best in the business are John Langan, Nathan Ballingrud, Paul Tremblay, and Laird Barron. All four are incredible writers first and foremost, but also innovative storytellers who are helping to move horror in new and exciting directions.
The adrenaline rush and intensity of fear is what first piqued my interest in Horror. I enjoy writing it hoping I can relay those feelings to others. I’d like to see Horror as a genre become more mainstream .For classics, I’ve always enjoyed works by Edgar Allan Poe and Shirley Jackson, my favorite short story of Poe’s is “Hop Frog”, and the novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Jackson. Several other authors I enjoy reading are Lisa Morton, Lucy Snyder, Lisa Mannetti (loved her novella duo Deathwatch,) Michael Rowe, Gene O’Neill, and so many more. Being more involved in the Horror Community through the Horror Writers Association has given me the opportunity to read my favorites and discover new ones.
It was a number of impulses and interests, really, which came together for me between 11th grade and the end of college. I had enormous fears and anxieties as a kid, not just of things I could see or imagine—I also thought the world was full of secrets that were impossible to prepare for. For me there had always this invisible world of dreams and nightmares which I was convinced were just as real as the everyday world, just as essential, but simply not literal. And it seemed to me that if you wanted to write about the full scope of human experience you had to include those things. I started reading ghost stories early on, which I didn’t necessarily connect to horror writing. To me ghost stories were about this spiritual life—a way to talk about these invisible things which terrified me, to turn them into a subject matter for writing, and in that way control their influence on my everyday life. Almost immediately this had a calming effect, and to this day I’m still a rather calm and peaceful person. Anxiety has become a staple of my fiction, but it’s no longer part of how I approach things in my everyday life.
It also seemed to me that when done well, horror fiction was highly emotional fiction, with the emotions spilling over into the landscape itself, into every detail used to build mood and atmosphere. This has always appealed to me. In fact, the older I get the more reluctant I am to involve myself with anything that doesn’t stir my emotions.
What direction do you see, or would you like to see, the genre taking in the future?
I think the key aesthetic question for the horror genre has always been just how close do you get to the real anxieties and fears of the readership before that readership turns away. Part of the attraction of such traditional figures as the vampire, zombie, werewolf etc. is that we know they’re not real—they’re simply comfortable stand-ins for the issues which actually trouble us. And in some cases these analogues stray so far from the actual source of our fears (contemporary YA vampire fiction, for example) that they lose a great deal of their effectiveness. Some writers in the field may react to this trend by writing more extremely. I expect this dynamic to continue, because at its heart, this genre is rather conservative. We talk at times about the “transgressive” nature of horror, and brave attempts are made from time to time to write transgressively, but it’s been my experience that these gestures rarely stick. The majority of readers appear to have a low threshold of discomfort in terms of their reading material.
But I’m not like most readers, I suppose. I like a wide variety of fiction, but generally speaking I want to be moved and shaken, and brought to tears at times by the things I read. And sometimes I want to be made acutely uncomfortable. I trust there will always be writers capable of doing that. And if there is any kind of trend, I do see a progressively higher level of writing skill in some of the newer writers who decide to take on this kind of literature.
Who are a few of your favorite horror writers, books, or stories?
Cormac McCarthy, Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, M.R. James, Caitlin Kiernan, Peter Straub, Kafka, are all favorites—but there are really too many to mention. Among the newer writers I particularly like Lynda Rucker, Nathan Ballingrud, Kelly Link, Steve Duffy, Simon Stranzas, Simon Unsworth, Gary McMahon, Richard Gavin, Laird Barron, and John Langan. There are also those writers who still produce ghostly fiction in the old tradition—writers like Mark Valentine, Helen Grant, John Howard, Peter Bell, Reggie Oliver—who I enjoy very much. But again, there are SO many. In fact I think we’re having a golden age in short horror fiction at the moment.
I always loved horror as a kid (so did my parents, fortunately), but it wasn’t until I was fifteen and saw The Exorcist in a packed theater during its initial release that I realized I had to write this stuff for my living. It’s hard to explain to younger people who weren’t there, because no movie since has had that impact, but The Exorcist tore through audiences with an insane amount of impact. People screamed and fainted and fled the theater in droves, and it was a
revelation to teenaged me that a mere work of art could do that. I went into that theater thinking I wanted to be an anthropologist; I came out knowing I had to be a writer. I remain committed to the genre all these years later because I do want to give people that emotional roller coaster experience. When done well, I truly believe it’s a
I’d like to see the genre move out of its ghetto (which I think it is doing) and be accepted as a field that can not only supply the thrills and chills but the art and craft as well. And I’d like to see a broader range of voices writing in the genre, especially more women and more people of color.
My interest in horror came from the 1977 book THINGS YOU’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT MONSTERS BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK, by Tony Tallarico. I was more interested in that book than the movies themselves! (Without Internet, cable, VCRs, or even a local late night Creature Feature, the movies were pretty much inaccessible to me.)I enjoy writing in the genre because I have a very dark sense of humor, and writing horror lets me take it as dark as I can go!
I’m terrible at “Where is the genre headed?” projections, but since it would be rude not to answer this question, I’ll say that novellas will become more and more prevalent as the popularity of e-books increases. It’s a length that’s extremely well suited to horror but not well suited to print publication.
A few of my favorite horror novels are SWAN SONG by Robert McCammon, IT by Stephen King, NIGHTWORLD by F. Paul Wilson, SAVAGE by Richard Laymon, THIS BOOK IS FULL OF SPIDERS by David Wong, OFF SEASON by Jack Ketchum, and WATCHERS by Dean Koontz.
I came late to the love of horror, having been quite the terrified child growing up. Horror writing scared me silly, and I found the experience of being scared like that so unpleasant, so overpowering, that I didn’t go near the genre until very recently, that is, the last five years or so. Now, I find what draws me to horror writing is exactly what repulsed me as a child: I love the capacity of the genre to provoke such a strong visceral response. My early perception of horror was that it tended to hit the same note over and over again, that writers were only concerned with that visceral response. I’m sure that’s the sense that many readers not familiar with the genre have, but in fact it’s very wrong. Horror writing is remarkably capacious. It’s a big genre, and it does many, many different things. But mostly I find it is a genre that is free from limits, its writers are willing to follow the narrative without flinching. That makes it a potentially confrontational genre, and I like that .My approach to writing in early days was heavily influenced by Keith Johnstone’s theory of improvisational narrative, designed primarily for improv actors but still very adaptable to fiction. One of the interesting things an experienced improv actor once told me was that if you spend enough time on stage with your fellow actors, you will soon get a sense of all of the areas of narrative where they do not want to go, the narratives they automatically deflect away from. This is interesting to me, because improv creates a safe environment. Nothing is real. Nothing in the narrative has real consequences for the actor. But there are still stories we would rather not tell ourselves, lines of inquiry we would rather not confront, situations of powerlessness that we would rather not places ourselves in—even if it isn’t real. And the few times I went on stage, I discovered he was absolutely correct: there were places I didn’t want to go. I could sense those areas as “off limits.” But the remarkable thing I found was how tremendously exhilarating it could be to explore those places! Because you could see those were the moments the audience responded most strongly. Those were the things the audience wanted to see on stage, because they could sense it too. Those were the moments of most power—not because the audience or the actors were necessarily scared, but because they knew something was happening that was driven by real emotion and real risk-taking.
That’s what attracts me to horror writing. It legitimizes the impulse to explore fully and deeply, to delve into genuinely powerful stuff even if it is uncomfortable.
It is hard to say where I imagine the genre going next because horror is so responsive to its particular cultural milieu. The things we are afraid of change, and so the genre doesn’t stay still. I have noticed that some writers in the field are gaining more mainstream or literary recognition, that’s a good thing in my mind because it will attract new readers and new sensibilities. I think the greatest challenge any genre faces is the “photocopy effect”—when new writers simply mimic the material that came before and produce stories that seem like bad photocopies of things the reader has already seen. That is the potential danger of massively successful and influential writers like, for instance, Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer—publishers will want to capitalize on the success of those writers by asking for more of the same. Genres are enriched, I think, when they begin to look outside themselves, and I think we are seeing the effect of this in the New Weird movement, which has offered a name for dark stories that cross genre boundaries or experiment with new techniques. That’s all to the good. And it is particularly necessary for horror, which depends upon the ability of a story to surprise—and by this I don’t mean jump scares. Horror fails when it becomes predictable, and as a genre it constantly faces the threat of falling into parody. But when horror writing works, when it feels fresh and new, it’s like grabbing onto a live wire!
There are so many really interesting writers at work at the moment that it is hard to pick ones to mention. Right now, I am finding great delight in some of the classic writers—Robert Aickman, Shirley Jackson, Roald Dahl—to name a few. Aickman, in particular, is a real gem. His stories are all about the slow burn, with this incredible wry sense of humour underneath it all. I’ve also really enjoyed Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters, which has some of the best final lines I’ve ever read. Gemma Files’s short fiction continues to impress with its keen attention to language and style. Silvia Moreno-Garcia brought out a brilliant collection of fiction entitled This Strange Way of Dying, which I highly recommend, and Sarah Pinborough’s The Language of Dying is one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching works I’ve encountered. And I’d offer a blanket recommendation for the books put out by ChiZine Publications, which hit my sweet spot for weird fiction.
All this makes me feel very encouraged by the quality of work produced in the genre, and excited to see what happens next.
As a kid, I was incredibly sensitive to the world around me (and still am); I was also very imaginative (and still am.) I was sure there was a witch down our block who wanted to cook and eat me, a crushed and disembodied doll head in my closet waiting to attack me, and volcanoes and tsunamis nearby ready to melt me down or wash me away. Creating scary stories was a way of dealing with things that frightened me. Writing allowed me an imagined control over bad circumstances. As an adult, I still writing horror because I want to explore the darkness, and in doing so better appreciate the light. I’m no longer terrified of the witch down the block or the doll head in the closet. I’m fairly certain that living in western Virginia will keep me safe from most volcanoes and tsunamis. But there are terrorists and power-crazed leaders in the world. There is greed and hatred and rage and ignorance and poverty, all which contribute to some of the worst horrors imaginable. I write about what scares me because I want to examine it and know it. Knowing is always better than not. I use both psychological and supernatural horror to accomplish this.
As to where the horror genre might be heading in the future, I really have no clue. I would guess there will be a popular (as in promoted) swing back toward more quiet, introspective horror to counter the extreme horror that is now popular, but both will remain favorites to certain readers. However it goes, horror will remain at the core what it has always – a delving into what frightens us to see what is there and how we – vicariously through characters – might deal with it all.
I have quite a few favorites in the horror genre. Stephen King’s The Stand and The Shining, Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home and The Other, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (not considered horror but it is terrifying), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Child of God, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and many, many more. Each packs an emotional wallop and tells a grand story.
My interest in horror was more like a slow realisation. I adored the nastier fairy stories from a young age, especially Bluebeard, which gave me chills and nightmares. I loved it. I read Tales from the Crypt horror comics early on, hiding the covers from my parents. I devoured the news, fascinated like many others by the stories of loss and destruction and cruelty. I always wondered about the back story. How did we get to there? The song Horror Movie, from Australian 70s glam band Skyhooks, resonated with me a lot.
I’m not sure I enjoy writing horror, because I go to places most people wouldn’t want to go. But I do love the freedom of exploring the depths, of trying to understand nightmares and of answering some of my own questions about the nature of evil. I sometimes feel wrung out, as if I’ve been crying, when I finish a story. It’s cathartic, though, and I feel the better for it afterwards.
The best elements of the genre will move more into the mainstream in the future. We’re writing accessible fiction, using similar themes to those explored in the mainstream, but we’re making it hurt. I love that, and I think readers outside the genre are looking for that pain. Horror writers provide a visceral reaction, and they don’t weaken at the end and make everything all right. The good stuff is heart and guts, and I don’t mean exposed organs.
Writers I’m loving now, or have loved for a long time:
- Nathan Ballingrud. His collection “North American Lake Monsters” is very good.
- Laird Barron.
- Lisa Tuttle.
- Lynda Rucker.
- Kirstyn McDermott. “Caution: Small Parts”, her short story collection, is chilling.
- Joe Lansdale.
- Steve Rasnic Tem.
- Shirley Jackson.
- Michael Marshall Smith.
- Terry Dowling.
- Gemma Files.
- Norman Prentiss.
- Jeffrey Ford.
Favourite novels include The Shining and The Stand, The Haunting of Hill House, Russell Bank’s “Lost Memory of Skin” Sheri Holmes’ “Witches on the Road” and Pete Dexter’s “Paris Trout”
Anthologies: Anything Ellen Datlow has done. And the two amazing works of fantasy, “Black Water” and “White Fire” edited by Alberto Manguel.
My father loved horror and suspense movies. He’d take me to see movies every Sunday afternoon, and among them were some of Alfred Hitchcock’s early films. In addition, both my parents were Italian, and their parents arrived from the old country with a rich tradition of superstition and supernatural tales.
Hopefully the genre will begin to listen to the female voice a bit closer in the future, and I see that coming, because more of us are publishing our books and we’re being taken seriously. I believe that we have a long road ahead of us, but I’m hopeful.
Shirley Jackson, Kathe Koja, Robert Dunbar and Greg F. Gifune are great voices in horror. Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty have always resonated with me. I love good, deep and dark fiction, and I often read outside the genre for inspiration as well. Books like Midnight Cowboy, Deliverance and Suicide Blonde are quite disturbing, and display a horrific side of life.
The first books that really enthralled me as a kid were science fiction and fantasy, and so when I was a teenager that’s what I wanted to write. However, thanks to my tendency to have vivid nightmares, much of what I began writing was horror, despite my attempts to turn it into something different. That hasn’t changed; my imagination is a fairly dark place.
I finally quit fighting my horror instincts after I met Gary A. Braunbeck. He gave me a proper introduction to the genre and helped me realize that many of the books I loved contained strong horror elements. For instance, there’s a lot of dark, disturbing stuff in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, but reading it in college I never thought “Hey, this is horror.” And much of Ray Bradbury’s excellent work is extremely dark, but his books had been presented to me as fantasy and science fiction.
My genre disconnect was largely due to marketing. I was a teenager in the 80s during the horror boom, and all I saw were the gory, garish covers publishers put on horror novels. I found those really off-putting. The blood and evil clowns and keytar-brandishing skeletons were terrible, and I assumed that the contents of said books would surely be just as dumb as their covers. While I blissfully avoided a lot of crap, I also missed out on some good novels by writers such as JN Williamson.
My initial experiences reading slush for magazines didn’t improve my opinion of horror much. Most of the really badly-written, poorly-plotted submissions I got were about psycho killers etc. Sure, I got bad SF submissions, too, but they were forgettably bad. As an editor you will never forget your first batch of necrophiliac poetry, no matter how hard you try.
Conversely, the dark fiction I received that was good always seemed like it could be something else: fantasy, usually, or SF. If a story has a lot going on — and good stories always do — chances are the reader will manage to see it in light of his or her favorite genre.
Anyhow, Gary gave me a copy of his collection Things Left Behind, and it blew me away. It was emotional, and beautifully-written, and most of all, it was smart. I asked for more, and he obliged. He started showing me the good stuff I’d missed, and he introduced me to the horror stories and novels of Joyce Carol Oates, Shirley Jackson, Clive Barker, Dan Simmons, Joe R. Lansdale, and Jonathan Carroll, just to name a few.
I’m not sure where horror is headed. I suspect it’ll go wherever our imaginations can take it!
Tananarive Due is the Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College. She also teaches in the creative writing MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. The American Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award recipient is the author of twelve novels and a civil rights memoir. She recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. In 2010, she was inducted into the Medill School of Journalism’s Hall of Achievement at Northwestern University. Due and her husband/collaborator, Steven Barnes, wrote and co-produced a short film, Danger Word, based on their novel Devil’s Wake—starring Frankie Faison (“The Wire,” The Silence of the Lambs), nominated for Best Short Narrative Film at the Pan African Film Festival and BronzeLens Film Festival. Due also collaborates on the Tennyson Hardwick mystery series with Barnes, in partnership with actor Blair Underwood. Due’s novella “Ghost Summer,” published in the 2008 anthology The Ancestors, received the 2008 Kindred Award from the Carl Brandon Society, and her short fiction has appeared in best-of-the-year anthologies of science fiction and fantasy. Due is a leading voice in black speculative fiction. Due wrote The Black Rose, a historical novel about the life of Madam C.J. Walker, based on the research of Alex Haley – and Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, which she co-authored with her mother, the late civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due. Freedom in the Family was named 2003’s Best Civil Rights Memoir by Black Issues Book Review. As a screenwriter, she is a member of the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA). Due lives in Southern California with Steven Barnes and their son, Jason. Her writing blog is at www.tananarivedue.wordpress.com. Her website is at www.tananarivedue.com.
My first exposure to horror was through the classic horror movies my late mother loved so much: The Fly, The Wolf Man, Dracula. At 16, I fell in love with the work of Stephen King. I also loved Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” But I was also steeped in the history and literature of the black experience, so I found myself drawn to literary writers who wrote about the supernatural: Gloria Naylor’s MAMA DAY, Toni Morrison’s BELOVED.
As a civil rights activist, I think my mother sought out horror as a relief from the true terrors in daily life. Over time, I have come to realize that horror fiction served as the perfect counterbalance to the uncertainties of integrating new neighborhoods as a child, as well as my ongoing fear of mortality. I create characters who must rise up and be as strong as I would like to be when my own monsters come.
Favorite horror: THE STAND and PET SEMATARY by Stephen King; SONG OF KALI by Dan Simmons; BELOVED by Toni Morrison; a new short story collection, SALSA NOCTURNA, by Daniel José Older.
Looking back, it seems like it should be an easy question to answer. After all, how hard can it be to remember that moment that a younger version of yourself first said, “Wow, this is cool!”
It should be like losing one’s virginity, shouldn’t it? Like a line drawn in the sand, a moment that defines before and after?
And yet I find it hard to pin that moment down in my memory.
I like to think it was that summer I first watched George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. I was thirteen, I think. I watched the movie on cable, and got so thoroughly freaked out that I went to bed clutching a baseball bat, convinced the zombie’s were going to be coming through the walls the moment I closed my eyes. In fact, the film scared me so badly I went to bed every night for the next month clutching that same baseball bat.
But was that the beginning?
I find it hard to pin an origin on my love affair for the genre, for there were precursors.
I remember the house in which I grew up. We had these saloon style doors that separated the living room from the kitchen. During the summer – I guess I would have been about six or seven at the time – I’d stay home with my mother during the summer. Come mid afternoon, she’d turn the TV to reruns of Dark Shadows, and I would go behind those saloon doors and quake in fear as the shows would play out, trying to pretend that I was going for a bag of chips rather than hiding from the vampire on the TV.
And then there was the time I was seven, and I found Lon Chaney Jr’s The Wolfman on cable. I watched that transformation scene, where he’s walking behind the pillars, and slipping further and further into his animal self, and I was terrified.
Later that night, I went into my parents’ room and told them I’d had a bad dream.
My dad, a bit frustrated and irritable – as dads who work too hard and sleep too little so often are – sat up in bed
and ran a hand over his face and said, “What’s bothering you?”
I picked up on his tone and realized that telling them a dream about werewolves would be dismissed as nonsense and get me sent back to my bed. So I picked on a non-supernatural entity as my object of fear.
“I had a dream about a bear in my room,” I said.
“A bear,” my dad said, and rolled over and went to sleep.
My mom slapped the bed between herself and my dad and that was all I needed. I jumped into their bed and slept soundly the rest of the night, convinced that no werewolf would ever dare fuck with me while my parents were so close.
So, yeah, horror was there all along.
I suspect some sort of predisposition to it. I was the kid who felt bored on Space Mountain, but kept pulling my parents toward the Haunted Mansion every visit to Disney World.
The heart knows what it wants.
But I didn’t believe it, really honestly believe it, and understand it, until I became a father. I remember, right after my oldest daughter was born, looking in on the glass at the nursery, and thinking to myself that the world had suddenly gotten so much more complex. I’d gone from being a young police officer with nothing but fun on his mind, to a DAD, who suddenly had to think about house payments and which schools his kids would attend and health insurance and saving for college and all the rest of it, and I freaked out a little. I suddenly had all these responsibilities rushing in at me from every side, and I hardly knew what to do with myself.
Luckily there was writing, something I’d been doing for fun since I was a kid – starting right about the same time that I first watched Night of the Living Dead, in fact.
I thought maybe I could write a book about the things I was feeling.
Maybe that would help.
I started writing an SF novel called The Edge of the Map, and it totally sucked ass. I got about eighty pages into it and started pulling my hair out. I wondered why I was even bothering with it. Nothing of what I’d written felt genuine. Not a word of it.
And then I thought about why I was even bothering in the first place.
I eventually realized that I was trying to explain why love had me so turned around. I loved that little girl I saw in her cradle in the nursery, loved her more than my own life, and since love was the root cause for me trying to write, I should write what I love.
I may seem a little dense for failing to recognize it sooner, but I eventually came to understand that what I loved to write was horror.
I thought back on how great it felt to be scared – because the real me, the grown up me, the father me, was scare for the future – and I thought of going to bed clutching a baseball bat. I decided I wanted to put my present fears of being a parent into my past fears of zombies. I was a young cop with more responsibilities than he could count weighing in on him from every side, so I decided to write about a young cop with zombies weighing in on him from every side.
Once I did that, the book practically jumped onto the page.
The zombies in that first book – Dead City- became a metaphor for the fear of being a parent.
I managed to get it published, and today, nearly ten years later, the book is in its sixteenth printing and I’ve gone from a cop who sometimes scribbles down stories to an author who sometimes still has to put on a uniform and go into the day job.
Horror is putting my kids through college, but it took me forever and a day to understand how that alchemy came to be.
Now I do.
And that was my – extended – first horror moment.
My father is an interesting dude. Typical southern male, a lawyer, he wore a suit every weekday when I was growing up. He hunted, fished, played golf. Had a closet full of camouflage clothing, gun cabinets, a pool table in the basement. Drove big cars with knobby tires.
But underneath that southern male façade was a man who loved fantastic literature and dark stories. When I was very young, and we’d be on car trips, he’d retell me the tales of the Illiad and Odyssey – drawling out the story in his southern accent. On weekends we’d watch Ray Harryhausen movies, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, monster films Tarantula and Frankenstein.
That’s the fun father son stuff. He’d also terrorize me with stories of nuclear annihilation.
Anyway, I think my love of story – horror and fantasy – comes from my father. Pretty easy to draw the lines of influence there. I’ve talk more about that here – and recently discussed how he terrorized me with threats of nuclear Armageddon at LitReactor.
As for the future of horror, I see much more of the same that’s being currently released. The perennial favorites – monsters, psychos, ghost stories – will be produced to varying quality. The awareness of cosmic horror is on the rise, thanks to folks like Laird Barron, John Langan, Molly Tanzer, and maybe even little ole me. I’ve seen more mash-ups of horror in recent years and I think that will continue, gumshoe zombies, spy vampires, lothario werewolves. What’s interesting to me is how horror and horror tropes, monsters, and devices are permeating and informing fantasy now. Peter Brett recently mentioned on Twitter that his The Warded Man was his attempt to tell a horror-based fantasy, and you can see the presence of horror in “grimdark” works, at the least of the psychological bent, at the most, full of frightening and dark creatures and the characters hazarded by them.
Folks who’re writing currently that are my favorite and doing interesting things in these fields? Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series which is fast paced and profane and hilarious and dark – a perfect mixture of the horrific and fantastic. Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire fantasy, beginning with Prince of Thorns, is incredible and satisfying, full of broken people that may be overcompensating a tad bit for the bad things that’ve happened to them. Teresa Frohock’s wonderful Miserere is a fantasy that folds some horror elements into the plot.
I think with the success of shows like True Detective and Hannibal, we’ll start seeing a stripe of more cerebral horror, as opposed to the schlocky True Blood and Supernatural, though those are both fun shows. Sleepy Hollow exceeded my expectations simply because it was bonkers (though the writers held it together, and it doesn’t hurt to have John Noble on board).
As a kid, I was absolutely obsessed with comic books (okay, I still am). Through comics such as Weird Tales, I was introduced to fantastical, terrifying stories of horror. After those early comics, I ventured into Poe’s tales, and many of them remain my favorites. It wasn’t long before I read I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, the story that story shaped me most as a writer. In that story, just like in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, the lines between good and evil were blurred: with a slight shift in perception, the monsters aren’t perhaps the worst thing to fear; sometimes the worst thing to fear is ourselves.
Good horror will always be character-driven, delving into the deepest, darkest parts within us. That’s why I love writing it—that exposure of the human element. Regardless of fads and socio-economic impacts on the genre, horror will always remain focused on the darkness within, and good stories are timeless. Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, F. Paul Wilson, Joe McKinney, William Massa, DJ Molles, Rhiannon Frater, and DA Wearmouth are some of my auto-buy favorites. And, I’m sure I’ll find another favorite author as I work through my current to-be-read list because there’s so much great horror out there!
Robert Pobi is an international bestselling novelist. His debut novel, Bloodman, was compared to “Thomas Harris in his prime” by Sarah Weinman, in her National Post review and O – the Oprah Magazine chose Bloodman as one of the Must-Reads for 2012. Pobi does most of his writing at an isolated cabin in the mountains. The rest of the time he is busy getting speeding tickets.
Visit him at www.robertpobi.com
When I was a kid, there was an episode of Kolchak: the Night Stalker that changed the way I saw stories. If no one remembers, that lost nugget of television gold starred Darren McGavin as a newspaper reporter who covered mysterious events, basically a sweatier drunker version of Agent Mulder. In that particular episode – The Sentry – an actor in a lizard suit killed off a bunch of guys foolish enough to drive their golf cart close to the lizard/actor’s lair. This seemed like pretty brilliant stuff at the time. I was seven.
Besides my love of actors in lizard outfits (oh, there have been a few) I have a strong suspicion I write this kind of stuff for the same reason anyone does – it’s what comes out when I sit down to work. I’m not going to say that it’s an unconscious act, but I certainly have less control over it than I’d like – no matter where I start out with a story, things very quickly turn bad for my characters. Sure, I can do all the stuff the romance book tutorials tell me to: I picture a happy couple with nice hair living in a nice house with their children (who also have nice hair). They have a nice dog and their label-appropriate clothing hangs in the nice walk-in closet. I can picture their trip to the nice lake where they have a nice cabin. The boat is named Daddy’s L’il Girl. And by the time I get to page three, someone’s fingers have been lost to the propeller. From there it usually goes downhill for all concerned. It’s just the way I was built. Some guys are good at computer programming. Others are good with a chef’s knife and dead prawns. Me? Keeping people up at night seems to be where it’s at.
The future of horror? It might be a cheap shot (I know it certainly is an easy one), but scientific hubris seems like a limitless supply of oops moments. If it was good enough for Mary Shelley, it’s most certainly good enough for a world hopped up on GMO foods, nanotechnology, malicious computer code that corrects itself, and Botox.
Favorites in the genre? Mr. King of course. When people start using your name as an adjective, you’ve covered some important mileage. Thomas Harris is another poet laureate in the creepies – Red Dragon is a remarkable book. Jack Ketchum really has his chops down. I still like old Clive Barker. Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The 1933 film, King Kong. I re-watched The Lords of Salem and Dead Snow up at my cabin a few weeks back – both of them were perfect films for a Sunday afternoon. One more? John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Tagged with: Ania Ahlborn • Elizabeth Massie • Helen Marshall • Jeff Strand • John Mantooth • Kaaron Warren • Lisa Morton • Lucy A. Snyder • Mind Meld • Rachel Aukes • Rena Mason • Robert Pobi • Sandy DeLuca • Steve Rasnic Tem • Tananarive Due
Filed under: Mind Meld
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