I get this question all the time, particularly from my mother and grandparents. I think they think I’m talented, but just don’t understand why I chose to write in such a “disturbing” genre, filled with demons, monsters, and things that are “satanic” (grandparents are also quite religious, as people their age tend to be.) To be fair, my grandmother is offended even by people making out in my stories, but going the horror route certainly doesn’t seem to have helped.
The first story that I ever published was a short about two soldiers of opposing sides dying on a Civil War battlefield, a white confederate and a black federal soldier. It was featured on the website of a local paper that is popular in my city, and all of my family seemed to love it and the deep messages about racism and the pointlessness of war it contained. I do believe that they all assumed that I was going to keep writing dark literary/historical fiction, and were surprised to find that I thought of myself as a horror writer. Even when I wrote the story I thought of myself as that, I just thought that the story was dark enough without needing anything supernatural to make it horror.
So, getting back to the original question, why horror? Like a lot of people who write horror, it all goes back to when I was a kid. I always liked scary stories as a boy. Early on, my family would go camping and tell scary stories by the firelight at night. I could never get enough of it. The first book I can clearly remember buying with my allowance money was Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, filled with the terrifying illustrations of Stephen Gammel (boo to the new illustrations.) While the stories and illustrations (particularly the illustrations) would terrify me to the point of sleeplessness, I couldn’t stop reading them in bed with a flashlight I’d snuck from the laundry room. I bought the other books in the series, and from then on there was never a chance that another genre would capture me the way horror did and does.
When I got a bit older, around third or fourth grade, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series exploded, and suddenly I wasn’t the only kid reading horror. It was hip. Never one to take a pretentious hipster attitude of getting mad that “my thing” was suddenly mainstream, I was extremely excited that my peers were enjoying the same kind of books that I read. I devoured every single Stine book I could get my hands on–not just the tween Goosebumps books, but also the books that he wrote for teens, such as the Fear Street series. I was practically forced to start reading the Fear Street series because I’d devour the Goosebumps books in an afternoon, and then have to wait three long months for the next one (or whatever ungodly release schedule it was RL Stine had.)
Frustrated at buying me a book only for me to finish it in an afternoon, my mother became determined to get me to start reading longer books. I’m sure some of it was because she knew my reading skill was higher than what I was using it for, but I’m also sure some of it was because the Goosebumps books were expensive, especially if your kid could read one in a few hours.
So one day she gets back from a yard sale after promising me a book with a (by my standards at the time) huge book with a disturbing illustration of a monstrous cat on the front. “Here,” she said, thrusting the book into my hands. “This should keep you busy for a while.” It was Pet Semetary by Stephen King, as some of you may have figured out.
“This is way too long for me,” I said, having never read anything that was longer than about 100 pages in juvenile format (which is what, maybe 50 pages when compared to standard novel formatting?) The book was over 400 pages.
“You’ll be fine, it’ll just take you a bit longer to read it. You won’t blow through it in a day like those Goosebumps books.” I then protested that the language was too complex, which she brushed off by saying “Those Calvin and Hobbes comics you read use just as complicated writing as this, and you read those fine.”
My 10 or 11 year old brain out of arguments (yes, my mother gave me Pet Semetary to read when I was that young,) I told her I’d read it, probably pissed that I wasn’t getting another Goosebumps book in the foreseeable future. Frustrated at practically being forced to read something that I thought was above my level, I sat down and started leafing through the book, sure that I wouldn’t like it.
But of course I loved it. It opened up new worlds of horror and disturbing events that I didn’t even know was possible. When a certain character dies at about halfway through (trying to stay spoiler-free even thought the book is decades old now and you should have read it,) I was absolutely devastated. It was almost too much to handle for my young brain, but not quite. While it scared the bejesus out of me, it also gave me a thrill like nothing else. It made Goosebumps look like the little kid books that they are. I read the book, reread it, and from then on would read anything from Stephen King I could get my hands on. I branched out into other adult horror as well, one of my particular favorites being Lovecraft, though it took me a few more years to really build up the reading comprehension so that I could understand the archaic language of his stories.
I love horror not because of all of the supernatural elements, but because of the human elements. Horror, to me, is just a device to put characters into extreme situations so that we can analyze and think about what people would do when thrust from their orderly world into a world that suddenly doesn’t make sense. What would a detective do if he started to suspect a serial killer was a vampire? What would I do if I were walking and spaced out while reading, only to look up and find that I’ve walked into some other dimension? What would someone do if they started seeing a demon following them everywhere they went? These are the kind of questions I think of, and it’s not the supernatural element that drives me so much as what a person would do when thrust into that type of situation. Horror analyzes the best and worst of us as people, what actions we take when confronted with the unexplainable.
And that is why I read and write horror. Sorry if the post is a bit lengthy, I’ve been giving the subject some thought for a while now. I’d love to hear from some others why they like to read and/or write in their favorite genre, if anyone has some comments or links to other blog posts. Have a great day, everyone!