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[GUEST POST] Jonathan Winn (EIDOLON AVENUE: THE FIRST FEAST) on How to Survive Writing the Unspeakable

In addition to Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast, Jonathan Winn (Member, HWA) is a screenwriter and author of the full-length novels Martuk … the Holy (A Highlight of the Year, 2012 Papyrus Independent Fiction Awards), Martuk … the Holy: Proseuche (Top Twenty Horror Novels of 2014, Preditors & Editors Readers Poll), Martuk … the Holy: Shayateen (2016) and The Martuk Series (The Wounded King, The Elder, Red and Gold), an ongoing collection of short fiction inspired by Martuk …

His work can also be found in Horror 201: The Silver Scream, Writers on Writing, Vol. 2, and Crystal Lake’s Tales from the Lake, Vol. 2, with his award-winning short story “Forever Dark.”

How to Survive Writing the Unspeakable

by Jonathan Winn

“That was pretty dark,” a beta reader said recently after finishing my new book, Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast. “Seriously, how do you even sleep at night?”

Now, me being me, my first thought was to say something witty. Toss out some off-the-cuff aside that would elicit a laugh or a grin or knowing smirk. But I couldn’t. She’d brought up a great point: How do those of us who rummage ‘round the worst of human nature, taking out the nastiest, most horrible bits, shifting it into a narrative and putting it all on paper, do so without it affecting us? How do we even sleep at night?

Short answer: it does. And we don’t.

Listen, I’m sure there are those who crank out a solid story, pause, and then pivot to the next thing without a care in the world. Their tales, their characters, the whats and whys and hows of what they’ve created, don’t drag behind them like some Jacob Marley-ian ball and chain. And then there are those who invest much too heavily – emotionally, psychologically, etc – in the stories they tell and the people they create. The consequences of what these people do, or did, is felt on an almost visceral level even though they are but words on a page. The whats and whys and hows of what was written linger, refusing to leave, haunting the writer as he types the next Chapter One.

I’m one of those writers. And, truth be told, the weight of the sins I saddle my characters with as I clickety-clack black pixels into paragraphs, and then pages, is heavier than anything the Three Ghosts of Christmas Whatever could saddle me with.

But that’s the unspoken agreement, isn’t it? Between those who write horror and those who read it? It’s the silent understanding we Writers have with you Readers. Going into the deepest dark, the deeper and darker the better, in some cases, is what you expect.

But, c’mon, it gets to us! Hell, Eidolon Avenue got to me. Stand up from the computer and head outside for a long walk to get away from the story-like got to me. But that’s what readers want from a book with a warning label on the cover. Again, it’s that tacit understanding we share. Clive Barker writing something light and fluffy and nice would be a record scratch with his readers. Stephen King not snaking his fist into the blackest heart of human existence would be a monumental waste of his talent.

And my capitulating to the voiceless screams of “What the heck are you writing?” as I discovered a new unfamiliar, malevolent voice would have left me without the five malefic stories that comprise Eidolon.

In the end, though, Eidolon is what it needed to be. It’s the world that needed to be created. And, in the quiet of my mind, there are still aspects of that world I regret. That still linger like a stubborn stain or scrape the floor behind me like Marley’s chains. That I still apologize for. To the characters, I mean. Not to you, the reader. Because it’s a world you want. At least on paper.

Point is, we’re the ones who charge headlong into the carnage first, blazing a trail into those hidden places for you. We take a breath, find our strength, quiet our fears, fight our doubts, cut the bramble and trim back the forest and create the path for you, the reader, to walk. And, confident the route’s been decided, you then turn the pages knowing you’re safe no matter how twisted, dangerous and unsettling the journey may be. You go into that terror, that screwed up, insane, what the heck is even happening? terror, knowing there’s a light – or at least a full stop – at the end of the tunnel because the writer slogged through the sludge first.

But to get there, even with the fears hushed and the doubts shushed, those of us who write still need to walk, alone, through the blackest of the black. We have to lower ourselves into that steaming, scalding bath of the unspeakable. It needs to sting, it needs to burn and it even needs to scar. And, whether the reader realizes it or not, we’re the ones who scramble out of the tub armed with a fantastic tale to tell, but burdened with the emotional, psychological consequences of having to tell it.

So, although we might literally survive writing the unspeakable, we don’t. Not really. If we’ve done our jobs well, if we’ve shredded the envelope and annihilated the boundaries and tumbled deeper into the pit than ever before, we are different in the end. We are changed, even if just a little bit. But what we’ve discovered, what we’ve shared, having fashioned the worst of the worst into a story, has been corralled, sifted, tamed and tidied up before you’ve even laid eyes on it. You will get the profound experience of the journey – and be scared or uncomfortable or freaked out – without enduring the havoc of our Sisyphean struggle to endure it. Because the writer pushed that boulder for you.

You’re welcome.

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