Kevin Lucia recently served as a Submissions Reader for Cemetery Dance Magazine, and his podcast Horror 101 is featured monthly on Tales to Terrify. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through was published November 2013. His nw novel is Devourer of Souls, an original tale of cosmic horror.
by Kevin Lucia
My initial attempts at writing horror resulted in very obvious attempts to “scare” the reader. I had monsters – vampires, werewolves, demons – and I had blood and pumping viscera. There were incantations, tentacles, and “unspeakable horrors from beyond the grave.” Frequently, I had awful people doing awful things, and awful things happening to those awful people as a consequence.
Though some of those early efforts glimmered with potential, most of them were cliché, on the nose, and very obvious “horror stories.” Most of them were rejected, for which I’m very thankful, today. Luckily, I was new and clueless and convinced I was the second coming of [Insert Horror Writer’s Name Here], so I kept plugging away.
Eventually my technique improved. I learned how to end stories. I learned how to cut, learned word economy. I started selling stories here and there to small press, semi-pro venues. Some folks found them entertaining, and hey: progress was progress.
But about the time I turned down invitations to both a vampire and zombie anthology, (thinking, “Geez, I don’t WANT to write those kinds of stories.”) I began turning my thoughts toward the kind of stories I DID want to write. I’d accepted the horror genre as my own, if only because my stories didn’t seem to fit anywhere else. Now I felt the need to stop writing stories for submissions calls, and start writing stories for me.
Around that time, horror legend Mort Castle – whom I’d studied under at Borderlands Press Writers’ Bootcamp – offered me some advice during an email exchange. He’d praised me on reaching a certain point in my development as a writer in regards to technique and dialogue, but advised me that something was missing in my work, a personal voice unique to me. He then said words I’ll never forget:
“The best stuff, the stuff that lasts, comes from our late night conversations with our very own selves.”
Around then, I began reconnecting with an old favorite, Stephen King, and realized something I’d missed in my obsessive reading of his work in my twenties: what makes his stories so great and so universally loved by so many is their focus on the human element. We recognize his characters as people we KNOW. Maybe even recognize them as us…which can be more unsettling and horrifying than any mucus-laden, tentacled monster.
Along with this, I discovered Charles Grant, Ramsey Campbell and T. M. Wright, dug deep into the early, weird fiction of Ray Bradbury (The October Country especially) further shaping my focus. The very subtle ghost stories of M. R. James and Russell Kirk worked on my mind, also.
It was another year or two, however, before I really felt a key turn in my head. I was reading (not coincidentally) King’s treatise on the horror genre, Danse Macbre. I came to his examination of The Twilight Zone, which I had begun viewing extensively. To be fair, King had his criticisms of TWZ, but this passage struck a huge chord within me:
“Week after week, The Twilight Zone presented ordinary people in extraordinary situations, people who had somehow turned sideways and slipped through a crack in reality…a powerful concept, and surely the clearest road into the land of fantasy for viewers and readers who do not ordinarily visit that land.”– Stephen King, Danse Macbre
I thought to myself: Aha! Now THAT’S what I want to write!
I have since become a devotee to The Twilight Zone, and even though it – like any other television series – is sometimes hit and miss, that “middle ground between light and shadow”, featuring everyday folks we might meet on the street has become my favorite place to tell stories. Another writer that King suggests in Danse Macabre who achieves this even better than Serling is Jack Finney, in his collection of short stories, The Third Level. About Finney, King says:
“One of Finney’s great abilities as a writer has been his talent for allowing his stories to slip unobtrusively, almost casually, across the line into another world…” – Stephen King, Danse Macabre
Like a good student, I hunted up a copy of The Third Level on Amazon.com…was blown away. Though mostly time travel, dimension hopping tales and not horror, Finney’s technique was as subtle and as smooth as King said. Here’s what I wanted to write, stories I wanted to tell: human tales so universal that they’d speak to a wide range of people, drawing them in with their familiarity and simplicity…then twisting the world before they could escape.
Do my stories always achieve this effect? Even though I try, I’m sure they don’t. Does this mean I’ll never write about monsters like vampires, werewolves, and zombies ever again? Certainly not. Each story is its own “boss”, as Stephen King also likes to say.
However, for the first time I’m writing stories I care about, personally. Stories coming from inside me, about things hiding in the cracks, which we’re probably very fortunate never to see. And, most importantly, I’m having fun writing them, too, which in my opinion is the most important thing.