It’s always interesting to find out how authors write dark material, so we asked our contributors this:
This is what they said…
For me, Horror isn’t about gore and torture. Any hack with a laptop can do that. Well-written Horror is about the psychology of fear, and you can’t get behind that without careful character development. Maintaining tension in psychological storytelling also requires finesse. In that style of writing, you spend a great deal of time in the characters’ heads. Some readers have very little patience for that. Therefore, I prefer to combine both tight third person point of view for the psychological aspects of the story and more immediate sensory-driven writing.
One of my favorite films is Jaws. I did read Peter Benchley’s novel, and it was great. In fact, its mix of non-fiction and fiction is influential, but I admire the film more. Spielberg’s precise character development painted in simple, sparse strokes is masterful. When a person spends a great deal of time in a place certain aspects of their personality will be on display there. I call it “character development through setting.” So it is that from the moment the camera pans the walls of Quint’s workplace at the dock, we’re aware that this is a man with some serious issues. The space is heavily decorated in disembodied shark jaw trophies. At that moment in the movie, Quint is boiling the remains of yet another shark he’s killed. He’s even got fresh shark blood on his hands as he offers Brody a drink. This is a man with an obsession. We don’t know his whole story up front, mind you. That is revealed later when a drunken Quint tells Hooper and Brody about The Indianapolis. It ends with “…Eleven hundred men went in the water. Three hundred sixteen men come out. The sharks took the rest. June 29, 1945…” There’s no action in that scene, no explosions, no loud music — nothing is going on but two men listening to a third, but it’s gripping. I hear the horror in Quint’s flat voice every time. So it is that when Quint dies in the mouth of that great white shark his screams are filled with more than agony. They’re swollen with a dread terror that no human being should endure, and we, the audience, feel that nightmare. It was so effective that Jaws fuels our collective fear of sharks forty years later. It’s the best monster story to hit the big screen, if you ask me.
I’m also a huge Stephen King fan and have been since I was seventeen. King is a master at psychological horror. He’s so great that I don’t think I can pick a favorite scene or novel. I reread The Shining last year, and it’s every bit as amazing as when I first read it—more so, in that I know more about writing now than I did then. King has this knack of placing the reader in a familiar, mundane setting and then making the monster in it ever so real. I honestly feel that’s why his writing hits so hard. He makes the impossible, possible. He understands mundane evil which, when you think about it, is far more destructive than Big Bad Evil. The Shining isn’t just a Haunted House story. It’s about addiction, and its effects upon the Torrance family as whole—the isolation, guilt, and self-destruction. King isn’t the only one. Shirley Jackson is also a genius at psychological horror. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a fine example of unreliable narrator, insanity, and mundane evil. Also, forget the terrible film made in 1999, read The Haunting of Hill House. Just do. It’s incredible. And if you’ve never liked short stories, read The Lottery. It will change your mind.
I’ll mention one more novel and stop. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of my favorite tropes is the broken idealist. That archetype is the epitome of tragedy and terror. Seeing a character with hopeful ideals — ideals that could change the world for the better in the right situation — crash against all the horror of their reality… well… it touches close to my own fears. The Sparrow is about faith and despair and the destruction of a human being intent on doing good. It’s about faith gone horribly wrong. There’s torture in it, but the more potent aspects of the story are Emilio’s mental torture and the scars that leaves behind. It’s a terrific book in every sense of the word.
Fear as entertainment is one of my favorite things. Real fear sucks. So for me, there’s a real compartmentalization of fear: things I’m actually afraid of, and things I want to be afraid of.
Things I’m actually afraid of: death. The inevitability of death. Impending death. The constant, random probability of death. I’m reminded of Siggy’s speech from the fantastic film What About Bob?, and I’m paraphrasing here: “I am going to die. You, are going to die. It’s going to happen. We’re all going to die, and what does it matter if it’s tomorrow, or 80 years from now?”
I never write about this, because I don’t want to think about it. And I have a real love/hate relationship with books and film who manage to portray inevitable doom. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road does a great job of it. So does Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia.
Fears that I love: the fear of being doggedly pursued by a slow killer. I would love to integrate this into a story somehow. Perhaps the scariest thing about this fear is the way it wears you down, and makes you want to just stop fighting and let it happen. One fear I really enjoy and have used in my fiction is the fear of something that doesn’t follow physical/logical rules. I like putting characters in forests where a straight line leads back to the beginning. I love the creation of an image. In Stephen King’s IT, there’s a description of a mangled child’s corpse lying near where our main characters play. They never see it, but we know it’s there, and the idea of them happily building their dam while Peter Sunkeneyes’ jaw rots off thirty feet away is just fantastic.
When I first bought our house, and my wife and I were settling in and establishing a routine, it would occasionally feel surreal to me: there’s sort of an internalized myth of happy domesticity, perpetuated by Steven Spielberg and Rockwell and the like, and for me the mundane responsibilities of cooking a meal or doing laundry or taking out the trash had a queer excitement, this kid who was by no means an adult and yet was now acting like one.
It’s this idea of ownership, I think, which is twined so closely with responsibility and duty: this little patch of earth is indisputably yours, and you must take care of it, because no one else will.
But I think I sensed that this concept of ownership was a lie even then. I knew there were countless infrastructural and financial systems whose whole beings were devoted to allowing me and every other person on the block to engage in this happy fantasy. And for them, there were no boundaries. The men who came to check the meters or the gas or cable lines were perfectly within their rights to hop a fence or open your gate and stroll right in.
A fantasy, in other words, must be maintained. And for it to be maintained, it must be violated from time to time, its fragile penumbra punctured by outsiders going about their day to day business.
When I took out the trash at night, I began to imagine a curious encounter: stopping and seeing a man standing in the corner of my yard, beside the leaf pile beside the fence, his face concealed by shadows cast by the tree above. He would see me, and I would see him, but neither was allowed to acknowledge the other. So I would go and throw the trash out, and walk back into my house, knowing that man was still out there, knowing he could come and go whenever he pleased, and I could say nor do nothing about it.
There were people whose power trumped the fantasy of domesticity and ownership. And I had this crawling fear that we only had this fantasy because they allowed us to.
It was a curious fear. But it grew and grew, until eventually it became American Elsewhere.
At the risk, of oversimplification, I see all horror fiction, whatever generic trappings it may don, as depicting the conflict between the conflict between a form of order and form of chaos. The collapse of said order may or may not be a needed thing, though the collapse (and the force that causes it) will be feared by the protagonists, and often (though not always) by the reader. The pressure points will be things for which we desire certainty, but do not have it, or where we believe we do have certainty, and thus react with terror when that certainty is taken from us.
Therefore, when I write horror, I try to identify and target these pressure points, whether they are my own, or whether I perceive them in others. In Gethsemane Hall, for instance, I tried to do both, particularly with regard to belief (or lack thereof) in the afterlife. I do not believe there is such a thing, and so, for me, a universe where the supernatural is unequivocally true would be a frightful one (so I took a particular pleasure in subjecting the character whose beliefs most closely align with mine to an early and gruesome demise). Conversely, the way I targeted those characters who are certain there is an afterlife was by presenting one completely at odds with everything they believe to be true.
The self and its integrity is another pressure point. Our identity is something we are far less likely to be absolutely certain about, but I believe we would like to be, and to have it wrenched from our control, or to feel it disintegrate , is deeply upsetting. At least, it is something I fear.
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a work that has certainly had a great impact on me, and it attacks both of these pressure points. Jackson gives us life after death, but it is a grim thing indeed (“whatever walked there walked alone”). And Eleanor Vance is a study in painful disintegration. Eleanor has no stable sense of self to begin with. In fact, her journey to Hill House is in no small way an attempt to forge an identity that had never been allowed to come into being. And so, horrified, we witness Hill House latching on to that weakness and tearing Eleanor’s self apart completely and fatally. Furthermore, the fact that Eleanor’s attempt to do something for herself becomes the cause of her doom is a classically tragic pattern in horror that fascinates me. This is the fear that our attempts to prevent something terrible wind up being the very things that bring it about (a trope I use in The Damnation of Pythos and Maledictus).
The works of Sade, meanwhile, give us a disturbingly voluminous depiction (or more accurately an anatomy) of identity being destroyed not by supernatural agency, but by other people more powerful than the victims, and by the social systems granting them that power.
Kathe Koja’s horror novels deal with various aspects of the disintegrating self, here given an added layer of horror but presenting situations where the jeopardized self is an artist whose best work comes at the cost of that dissolution. When the supernatural makes an appearance in novels like The Cipher and Bad Brains, it is uniformly malevolent – there is more than is dreamt of in our philosophy, and it is out to get us.
Koja and a writer like Ramsey Campbell, to take another example, undermine us not just with the events they describe, but also by attacking us at the level of language. There is no certainty to be found anywhere, even in the prose itself. With Campbell, descriptions of the most mundane objects become uncanny (I find Campbell’s story “Mackintosh Willy” creepier each time I read it). And with Koja, sentence structure itself becomes threatening, with syntactical reversals and accumulations of sentence fragments denying us any firm grasp of meaning.
When what we count on to be real or stable falls apart, anything can happen. And the horror I enjoy the most, and that I try to create, is a kind where that worst case occurs: anything can happen, it does happen, and it isbad (because there is no good alternative).
Possibly the most important part of the answer to this for me is one word: honesty. If I’m writing something that’s intended to horrify but I’m unmoved by it, then it’s dishonest to assume anyone else will be unnerved. It’s sometimes difficult to reveal those inner fears, but it’s the only honest way to evoke fear in someone else. This , by the way, is also one of the reasons I think horror works best in the short form: because it’s impossible to keep that level of honest, personal fear throughout a 300-page story. You have to cheat some of the scary scenes just to keep the plot moving forward.
One author who I think is underrated as a horror writer but who was brilliantly able to tap his own dread was Philip K. Dick. There’s a scene in Ubik – possibly my favorite novel – in which a man is trying to crawl up a flight of stairs so he can die alone, but the female antagonist is in his way the whole time. The central notion in that bit – that our lives wind up as nothing but seeking some quiet place to die and being denied even that – is one of the most disturbing ideas I’ve ever read, and the writing suggests that Dick shared that feeling. It’s bleak and terrifying and brutally honest, and one of those scenes that leaves the rest of us imagining what body parts we’d give to write something with a fraction of that subconscious power.
I love to use fear as a bonding experience. I often say that fear brings us all together. There are people who don’t understand joy, love, or camaraderie, but everybody knows what it’s like to be afraid. It’s the most basic, primal emotion there is. When you have a group of people who just watched a scary movie together, for example, they walk out of that theater as a connected group who just shared something. I adore that.
The dark things are always there in the back of our minds. I think the difference about being a horror writer is that instead of banishing our terror to the closet, we allow it into bed with us. I have the opportunity to really stare my fear in the face, to study it while it sleeps, to listen to it breathe. I fear losing my children. I fear the sanctity of my home being violated. I fear losing my mind. As an author, I’m allowed to explore these feelings and see if they connect with the reader. My goal is to share my horror until the reader experiences the same thing. It’s, as they say, both a blessing and a curse. In order to share that fear with others, I need to first feel it, to let it run its tongue along my spine. It isn’t pleasant, but it’s real. It’s honest. And that honesty allows me to form that bond with the reader. Now we’re both terrified of very real things, and we aren’t alone anymore.
Michaelbrent Collings has a novel called Apparition that really invoked these feelings of loss and discomfort in me. It’s about loving parents who change and attempt to murder their children. It was quite good, but the thing that really made it powerful was the afterward where Michaelbrent explained where the story came from. It was quite dark and delicious, and I’d recommend it.
For me, when I want a tale that creates a sense of fear (or at least a certain frisson of suspense) it’s never about what you can see, it’s more about what you think you can see, or feel, or hear, or.. you get the idea.
So: the sight of an axe murderer, standing with his weapon of choice surrounded by body parts, does little for me apart from makes me think “Yuk!” It revolts me but doesn’t scare me. But give me a story where I think there’s something not right…. Yeah, that works.
The power of the imagination is a wonderful thing. I guess, as a writer, if you can get the reader’s mind doing the work for you, then much of the work is done for you. The tricky thing, of course, is how you do that. To me, Fear is a feeling, a general creepiness, an impending sense of unease that escalates.
Here’s some that work for me.
M R James’ Collected Stories is one of my favourite story collections. They always work for me, and this is one of my go-to books for Halloween. Why do they work? Because they are all about the unseen, the imagined, they are about inexplicable things that happen to relatively normal, sane people. Admittedly there is a pattern – they are often quiet academics or clerics or simple travellers who unknowingly encounter something that isn’t right. Being short stories they hold your attention long enough to make an impact.
These days The Woman in Black by Susan Hill can rightly be regarded as the progeny of MR James’ writing but written by a contemporary writer. You may have seen the Hammer movie, starring Daniel Radcliffe, but for me nothing works as well as the stark and dank landscapes created in prose in this novel.
Dracula by Bram Stoker is a book that stands the test of re-read. Most people these days know the tale through the films and television, more than the original novel, but the original novel has a certain Gothic allure. With Dracula, part of the fear here is that the horror comes to you – it enters your house and destroys the security of your own domain, with disastrous consequences. For a book that’s nearly 120 years old, it’s still got a certain amount of chills.
All of my selections so far have been set in the past. The Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman, starting with The Wine of Angels, works by being set in the present day. By being set in an English rural village, with normal everyday routines – people go to school and to work, doing ordinary things – this emphasises the creepiness when strange things happen. All of the stories I’ve read in the series have an element of the supernatural but can also be explained away by normal, natural causes – it’s just that the victims misinterpret something or are mistaken. But there’s enough of the unknown there to make you think twice.
In the US, of course, the writer that does the same thing is Stephen King. For fear to work there has to be a certain degree of shared sympathy with the protagonist – how can you be scared if you don’t recognise or identify with the predicament our hero/heroine faces?
There are too many King books to list here, but I think my favourites would be ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Cemetery/Sematary and The Shining. Part of the creepiness is because generally wrong things happen to good people and they happen in what seem like ‘normal’ places – if bad things could happen to these people, in these places, they could happen to you, too! IT would have been my number one choice here, by far – the creation of Pennywise the clown is inspired – except for that oh-so-disappointing ending, that threw all the good work done previously away.
I’m not sure that it’s fear, exactly. But certain anxieties, certain moments from life when I haven’t been as brave as I should be or as bright as I should be—regrets, I guess—transpose themselves into the kind of fear that I try to evoke when I’m writing a scary story. Because ultimately, I think what we fear is our own frailty. So I ask myself: Did I respond badly to a romantic break-up? Do I remember the days as a child that I failed to stand up to a bully in the schoolyard? As an adult, my bad days as a journalist? And I use my memories of those times of hateful vulnerability… of ‘if only, if only…’ to try and turn a tense situation into something terrifying.
‘If only’ is one of the things that gives Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot such terrifying effect: for most of that novel Ben Mears and the gang of would-be vampire hunters hesitate and prevaricate and doubt their own senses, and as they do that, we readers feel the doom encroach in a way that rarely happens when Buffy Summers suits up to take on the vampire infestations that plague Sunnydale. Imagine if Jack Torrance had really beaten his addictions and had never had a rage problem when he took his family to the Overlook Hotel for that very bad winter in King’s The Shining. What if Marion Crane had been either a better secretary or a braver thief? Would we feel the same way about her murder at the Bates Motel in Psycho? Really, she probably wouldn’t have wound up there to begin with. Frail, damaged Eleanor Vance is probably the last person who should have visited the old Hill House in Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House. But it’s her failures that make the horror story succeed.
Strength, resolution, courage all negate fear—turns a nightmare into an adventure, or maybe just a tough job. They might all have their place in a good tale of terror—but not until weakness, indecisiveness and cowardice have done their work.
Much of the fear in my writing is rooted in the things that scared me as a child, including the stories I grew up on. As a little girl I was growing up on Poe, Doyle, R.L. Stine, Grimm, Yiddish stories. Those are stories that make fear accessible to children, and much of the fear is about mystery, and being believed. As an adult, fearing losing my faculties as I grow older is a strong fear, and Delia in the Jaime Lee Moyer books wrestles a lot with how her unique life often endangers her sanity.
Fear and desire. Sexuality and horror. Why have these two ends of a curious spectrum always related as the fraternal twins of human identity and idiosyncracy? How does what frighten us touch upon what we want, however buried, however merely glimpsed before returning to the shadows?
I’m a novelist. I’m grateful that I don’t have to have the answers to these questions or any others, now that I think of it. My job is to pose the questions as engagingly as I can and leave them with the reader like grenades with their pins pulled before being dropped into their laps.
Having said that, I have my theories.
Writing psychological thrillers – particularly thrillers with supernatural elements – requires the storyteller to build situations where fear might grow and thrive. Horror gardens. What attracted me to this project remains largely unknown to me. I think it has something to do with an interest in the liminal, the in-between, a fascination with transgression born of a childhood touched by the gothic. Growing up in a Victorian small town, the Protestant propensity for secret keeping, a wide-ranging early reading ultimately focused on unexpectedly coherent influences: Alice Munro on the one hand and Stephen King on the other.
In any case, no matter where it comes from, what I’ve found is that what frightens us – as with what sexually excites us – reveals character in ways that more conventional or intellectual “ways in” to the self cannot. More than this, what we fear and how we experience it surprises us, often in uncomfortable ways (again, as desire is similarly capable). This is what I find constantly renewing about the practice of writing scary stories: just when you think you can predict how a character will respond to a situation you’ve created for her, she does something else. Which is to say, you find yourself doing something else.
Sex and horror, in the moment they are being experienced, may feel like triumphs of the body over the mind, but this is camouflage. It is in these episodes of fear and desire that the mind and body find a connection so often denied them in “regular life,” the long stretches of habit, considered speech and decision making. This is what I’m after. The interruptions of the unnatural that expose our true natures.
The problem with being a fiction writer is you are always making things up in your head. This is a little hard on your loved ones. If your spouse is a little late getting back from somewhere, you imagine the car on the side of the road, the twisted metal, the call from the hospital. When your kid’s school bus is half an hour late, you imagine it has sailed off the side of a cliff, all of the children dead at the bottom of a canyon. You wonder how you will go on. I am dreading my children’s teenage driving years.
My first book was born of these sorts of everyday fears. I know they are not healthy fears, but why not take advantage for fiction’s sake? In Harrowgate, Michael has lost his wife and baby, but has arrived home to find them still living with him in his apartment. How does he react? Wouldn’t he do everything he could to keep his family with him? Get to know his son? And how does his wife Sarah feel, starting her family as she had planned to, but doing it while dead? This became a leaping off place to explore other more natural fears and anxieties about marriage, raising children, leaving a career, letting our children grow up and leave us. Horror is a wonderful place to take those daily worries that vex us and blow them up into full-blown terror.
The stories that get me are always character-bound and creep in through the senses. I need to be invested enough in the characters, in their lives and wants and bodies, so that when their fears creep in, they are my own. Peter Straub is the master of investing you in the textures of life and the world of the small towns in which his horrors take place. He is so invested in his characters, that the horror creeps in organically, at the back of his characters’ neck, by the time that neck has become our own.
In Lisa Morton’s Malediction, her characters dwell firmly in ordinary human wants, needs and concerns, so that when unstoppable Evil enters their midst, she grabs us by the throat, leaving wreckage in her wake. Morton builds a knowledge and certainty of the approach of this evil in her main character, Gwen, which thrums with a growing dread throughout.
In Tananarive Due’s Joplin’s Ghost, we sink into a comfortable bath of longing and wistfulness, and the fear is welcomed in as a friend, where it then becomes unruly and takes over our heroine’s life. Due took an artists’ natural fears, passions and doubts and extrapolated them into a haunting.
Nicola Griffith’s entry point is the senses. We become invested in her characters’ bodies, sensory awareness, limbs and perspective. In her short, “Cold Wind,” we are so deeply inside her narrator that when the story turns, we reel with it, fully invested.
We are human and fear is imprinted in us to help us to survive. Engaging in those personal creeping fears in the dark recesses of our minds and bodies is where the horror writers get us, engage us, terrify and eventually delight us. And, at least for me, they provide catharsis for those daily real fears constantly playing themselves out in my mind.
I have a strange fascination with food. Eating is so primal, involving teeth and lips and chewing. You can eat almost anything, even yourself. It might not be good for you, or your food source, but there’s a power in being the top of the food chain whether as the supplier or the predator. Likewise, there’s an insecurity, a painful neediness, at the bottom.
One of my favorite lines is from Sonny Moraine’s “Singing With All My Flesh and Bone” (Nightmare Magazine, Sept 2014). “The truth is that you’re made of meat.” Such a frightening desensitization in such a simple statement. All of our accomplishments, our brilliance, our ego-chasing, and yet, in the end, we are meat. It terrifies me. The story itself is brilliant — a furious fight against this central idea. The main character auto-cannibalizes and self-mutilates, but as the story progresses, she learns to draw her own type of blood magic by forging a connection to her own body.
In “Snow, Glass, Apples,” Neil Gaiman reforges the Snow White myth told from the stepmother’s point of view. In the opening scene, the six-year old Snow White bites and sucks the blood from her stepmother’s thumb. The king dies, sucked dry. Snow White’s bite marks cover his entire body, including his genitals. Viewing a six year old child as a predator, and an incestuous one at that, found that primal spot inside my brain that made me squirm. That’s a predator you don’t see coming until it’s too late. Throw in a dose of necrophilia, and this is a deliciously horrifying story that you should read for yourself. Gaiman’s fairy tales are always a delight and this is my favorite.
Confession: I was the child who saw the Venus Flytraps at the grocery store and promptly stuck her finger inside, hoping it would bite her. I know. Big surprise I write horror stories now. But the thought of a plant eating a living creature fascinates me. In Scott Smith’s novel, The Ruins, a group of tourists stumble upon a Mayan ruin covered in not only carnivorous, but top-of-the-food-chain, predatory vines. In a set of particularly gruesome scenes, Eric becomes convinced a piece of vine has infiltrated a scrape on his knee. He feels the vine wiggling beneath his skin as it grows, but the other characters reassure him the vine isn’t there. The reader watches as Eric struggles to decide if he’s going crazy or not. There is no good answer to some questions. The body horror and the psychological waiting game that Smith plays out in this novel are both terrific. But definitely don’t read this on an ivy-covered porch. Trust me.
But the apex predators, the ones we often don’t see coming and can’t run from even when we do, are the ones at home. And those are the ones that make my blood run cold. Reading “Granny’s Grinning” by Robert Shearman for the first time was a strange experience. Sarah is disarmingly humorous, a pre-teen’s point of view that eases the reader into the story and lowers mental defenses. It’s Christmas and Sarah’s Granny is coming. But it isn’t just any old holiday. Granddad has died, and Sarah’s family, on the brink of financial disaster, will do anything, and I mean anything, to make Granny happy. Sarah receives a zombie suit that turns her into a literal monster, a shambling zombie made in Granddad’s image. Granny is pleased. Too pleased. By the time the reader realizes how far Granny is willing to go physically with her new version of Sarah-Granddad, it’s too late. The reader is neck deep in pedophilia, necrophilia, and the realization that the people who are supposed to protect are sometimes the monsters.
I prefer slow zombies over fast zombies. Don’t get me wrong, running zombies can be scary too,
but in the kind of mindless ‘oh god, what is happening, I’m stuck in a rollercoaster, it’s happening so fast’ kind of way.
True, the walking zombies are easy to ridicule with their jerky and clumsy movements but they keep going after you no matter what.
You might outrun them for a while, but eventually they will catch up. That’s what make them so scary, because you actually have the time to realize that some really bad stuff is waiting for you in the future. You just don’t know when and how, just that it will happen sooner or later and will probably involve rotting teeth and some really bad breath.
So running zombies thrill me, but I fear the walking dead (see what I did there?).
The kind of stories that really know how to evoke the fears lurking in my mind are the kind that takes their time to grow that first uneasy feeling in to something truly terrifying.
The first book that really scared me was not a Stephen King book, though I really loved those as a kid, but 1984 by George Orwell.
Why Orwell scared me was not because of the vivid description of a totalitarian state or the horrific tortures Winston Smith has to endure, but the endless waiting before the real bad stuff happens.
Throughout the whole novel there is this feeling that no matter how bad the situation is eventually something worse will happen. Winston will get caught. Winston will be tortured. Winston will end up inside room 101 and eventually Winston will get shot. Orwell really knows how to create this sense of foreboding. And even though Winston tries to fight it, or at least preserve some kind of dignity, in the end he is completely broken down by the Party and will eventually be killed in a moment of their choosing. Not having a choice and then be forced to wait before the bad things happen is to me truly scary stuff.
Another book that provoked a sense of fear in me is this year’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Compared with 1984 this might seem an odd choice, as LWSMAP in essence is a feelgood book. But once again that sense of impending misfortune is woven into the story. At the beginning of the book you are introduced to the quirky crew of a small spaceship and you really start to care for them.
Their trip is not without some danger but soon enough with all the wonderful things encountered you forget about it until..WHAM… the crew stares into the barrel of a gun during a robbery. Now with most space operas the crew would find a way to disarm the assailants and would go on their merry way. Not with Chambers. The crew-members are not invulnerable and, just like in real life, there is really not much one can do when death is but a trigger away.
Even after no one gets (really) hurt and (further) violence is avoided that sense that things could have gone really wrong stays with you the rest of the book. The author reminds you that all those characters you care so much about can easily die and there is still a long way left to a dangerous place. Just as with 1984 it is that sense of waiting that feeds the fear. Good times resume and slowly the bad memories fade away, but that nagging sense of fear, of waiting for something bad to happen again, stays in the back of the mind.
That kind of fear, the fear of knowing that something bad will happen to people you care about but not when and how, is ultimately far scarier than any monster with big pointy teeth could ever be.
The fear lurking in the dark of the mind, the one that leaks out into the underlayer of stories is a terror of losing one’s self — of being mad. I say “mad” because in a literary and secondary-world context the word can encompass everything from contemporary definitions of mental illness, physical brain damage or disease, to things at odds with societal norms or mores at one time or another. It’s probably there to some degree for all of us. The idea of losing what makes you yourself, of finding aspects of your own mind slipping beyond your control, is terrifying. In the real world we face that loss of self in some forms of mental illness or when we see relations, friends, people we know of, people whose minds we may admire, vanishing piecemeal under the onslaught of dementia, or lost or buried by a stroke, or in the drugged finality of painful terminal illness. In my writing worlds it often seems to creep in as possession, or a hidden, forgotten internal otherness finding expression, or some great damage to the ‘soul’.
That loss of self to something outside — or buried within — is a theme running through all the stories set in the Blackdog world in particular. It wasn’t a deliberate choice; it’s just how that world has evolved, that lurking fascination seeping up from the the depths. The stories began with Holla-Sayan, the caravan-guard possessed against his will by the unreasoning, devoted guardian spirit of a child-goddess and forced by this possession into a conflict with a devil-bound warlord that was really nothing to do with him, his people, or his own god. He’s become a mad dog, he thinks, mad in its obsession, its berserker nature, its inability to see anything beyond the girl it’s been bound to protect. He has his own family, his own plans for his future, but the dog threatens to destroy all that; his life becomes not only a struggle to protect the goddess but to keep hold of his self, to not surrender everything of himself to the dog. Another set of characters are humans who willingly surrendered their souls to become merged beings of two integrated (with greater or lesser success) natures and great powers that make them a threat to the very gods of the world.
There are other ways of losing one’s self that have come to shape characters in the Blackdog world as it grows: the dis-integration (sic) of the mind, an assault on the soul — or its willing surrender to a stronger power — the failure of the bonds that merge two souls into one being, all provide differing ways to explore that loss and rebirth of self, the idea of what it is that makes “you” you. In the two volumes of Marakand, possession and the breakdown of the mind and self became a dominating theme, with characters like the assassin Ahjvar, cursed with possession by a psychopathic ghost, enslaved by a necromancer, and looking on death, even the obliteration of his soul, as his only possible release, or the dancer Zora, tempted to surrender selfhood in return for the power to bring change to her city. There is also a human who is, I supposed one could say, latently a god, but who still has that choice before him, which may mean choosing to sacrifice the person he is and might have become for the sake of a homeland where he knew only oppression and abuse. Struggling against it or submitting to it, characters damaged beyond hope, characters moving beyond humanity willingly or otherwise, souls — selves — are merged, changed, renewed, remade, destroyed. In that process I get to discover so much more about them than I could have consciously thought of at the start of their journey, to show people struggling to hold on to their selfhood in the face of the onslaught of the world, and to explore them both in their victories and when they fail and fall. I think this can resonate metaphorically with primary world issues that challenge the integrity of the self: depression, other psychological struggles or mental illnesses, even just the ongoing assault of demands from outside that you be someone other than who you are.
So for the second part: Alan Garner. Caves. Low-roofed, twisting, jagged, water-filled caves. Quid multa? How does he do it? It must be the description, the details of reality, combined with the visceral reaction of the characters to what they are seeing, hearing, smelling, the coldness of the water — the full sensory experience. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Moon of Gomrath gave me a fascination with caves that I didn’t take away from the goblin tunnels of The Hobbit and The Princess and the Goblin. I’m drawn and frightened in equal parts by dark, close underground places; Garner hits that fascinated fear right on. Or perhaps he was its father. I want to write something underground that terrifies and thrills me like Colin and Susan in the caves of Alderley Edge, and I can’t — yet. Someday. Maybe I need to do some real caving first. Or…not.