The Horror...

(A Genre Writer Turns 50)

KC Redding-Gonzalez

KC Redding-Gonzalez
Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA
October 28
A writer of Horror fiction and certified cat wrangler, KC has a BA degree in English/Professional and Technical Writing from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She writes this blog in her book-infested garret to exorcise the evil spirits of co-workers past, talk to real (visible) people, and avoid cleaning the layers of dust which five years of undergraduate study allowed to collect on twelve bookcases, three cats and one very patient husband.

JUNE 1, 2012 10:14AM

On Writerly Superstitions and the Magic of Making Horror

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I keep trying to start my second first novel. (Okay – it’s really my third first novel: novel number one was a Western I wrote while immersed in my Zane Grey period at age eleven – I just wanted to see if I could keep a story going in between riding horses and homework, and made it to 256 pages which were so bad I burned it as a fire-starter about thirteen years later when I found it hidden in my ‘stuff.’ Novel number two was a horror novel with dark fantasy elements which high-centered in the wine country of Medieval France when my mother went terminal with cancer – and whose entire premise I later found already published in a synchronicity-laced fugue and therefore abandoned.) Now the Muse is snippy, so I am pulling out all of the stops to convince her I’m back. But something suddenly came up.

The problem I’m having is the loss of old rituals – or maybe the loss of the power of old rituals…and the transmutation of those that are new.

It’s not that I have troll dolls or drink a magic potion… Other than antacids and sugar water, my mornings nowadays are pretty talisman-less. But I do like my mornings to start early; long before the sun rises, when for some reason the Muse is a little more talkative – chatty, even. But I have lost the special novel-length connection with her. Surely, I think to myself, she did not like Southern Rock (a ritual which accompanied the Western) or my Phil Collins Phase that lasted into the 90’s and became Enya (the Horror)… No, if music was the go-to ritual there could be problems, because when I listen to music nowadays it is not typically in English, but in Spanish with Salsa, Meringue and Cuban trova music…This does not summon monsters and is wont to make me dance – which I try not to do in full view of anybody, let alone the heavy traffic on Murray – as I don’t want to be responsible; indeed, that is a different kind of Horror.

So how to get her back? All the way back? I’ve looked online, peeking to see what other writers do to cast their nets wide. I think I gained a few more superstitions than I may have already had (like never writing in double-space because it tips off the Muse that you expect something worthy of publication) to never cutting your hair until the story is finished (because apparently hair is antenna-like when it comes to Muses – note the resemblance to crazier folk wearing aluminum foil hats).  I keep my cats close and pat each of their heads in alphabetical order for writing mojo; I have my Blue Wizard on my desk and my big-eyed scorpion, the unicorn with the broken horn, the rubber dinosaur… I decorate my blank pages with Google-image monsters and creepy stuff, and think Horror thoughts. I change my font to grunge or artistic, change the color to incite imagination and…all remains quiet. My Muse is whistling in the dark.

Maybe she is eyeing fall semester…She knows it is going to be a demanding one full of nonfiction and tech writing, a 4000-level lit course, and the Dreaded Senior Project – as well as (God willing) some sort of job. She does not like interruption. Still, I coo, we have time for some nice character development…or a short story or two? She pulls out a nail file.

She also knows about my MFA musings. If I am able to go on to a master’s in writing, is she planning on taking her annual cruise then? Does the thought titillate or annoy her? I can’t quite tell. She is disappointed that I have not found publication for the last few stories she dictated, raises an eyebrow at my job applications. I try to argue that if only she gave me the Lottery numbers the time constraints would go away, but still nothing.

Maybe that’s a good thing…I was able to catch the window as it blew in on me last week…Had I been in The Zone things might have gotten ugly. Now I keep one eye on it, hoping that much-needed job opportunity shows up before winter or the next Big Wind so I can remove the threat of falling glass…I can’t help but think maybe there is a talisman for that… But then Life on the Edge is full of such thoughts; that’s how the whole writing superstition thing got started.

For most writers, writing involves a mysterious element of magic; we all know it when it makes an appearance, and we all miss it when it goes into hiding. We fear its permanent removal from our presence, we fear offending it – of being cast into the slick-edged Pit of a writing-less life. So we add a pinch of this and a pinch of that into the creative cauldron, hoping that the whispers that start a story or a poem will have the grace to finish before leaving us breathless and spent…

We’ve all known a frightening truth from the beginning: writers have to find their own way, picking through the many paths that lead in many directions in order to persuade the magic to happen. We can get lost in the design, like spirits bewitched by Celtic crosses. So we need our talismans and superstitions, if only to summon back reality from the place the Muse can take us; we need our magic world to have rules that make sense – like ending a manuscript on even numbered pages, or wearing the same clothes for every version of every draft, like never telling the plot or discussing a story until it is complete, or keeping your fingernails at even lengths… We need control of the uncontrollable, so we search for spells.

Writing Horror adds color to this process, because There Be Monsters… The supernatural is rife with rules and strong penalties for those who break them. These rules seem to extend right out of the story and take a taste the author for good measure, reminding us of deeper, more primal consequences that we drown out with our noisy, well-lit modern lives. But what of darkness and the things that reside there? Are they simple fears and superstitions that demand wards and lures to appear on the page, or are they complex and valid yet able to be controlled by writing things in a certain order? Turn out the lights and See…

Horror is a haunted house. The Muse is the ghost rumored to live there, last seen haunting someone else. You go because you want to see for yourself. You want to touch the tapestry – the thin veil between what is seen and what is unseen. You want proof, even as the silhouette of it on the drawn shade terrifies; you want to write it. Your heart pounds, but you still must enter the pitch black maw of the open door. You climb the crumbling steps toward the house, wanting to See, dreading you will…

You enter the dilapidated ruin, moonlit and shadow-ridden, torn curtains and stained walls suggesting shapes that move in opposite corners. You draw a magic circle and summon her by name; you fall into a trance without awareness where words luminesce on pages of velvet black. A cool breeze passes through you; a touch like spider webs caresses your face. The air becomes cold, with icy fingers that explore your flesh as though she is blind, a vague nocturnal wind carrying the scent of other places and the stale perfume of pressed flowers left rotting in her hair. Words tumble from an upturned bottle and hang floating on the page. And as you drift aimlessly in the anesthesia of her thoughts, you remember what someone told you once…There is no wind at night. You jerk awake, a corpse reanimated on a ruined floor.

What drives us to this steep drop in our emotional landscape? What carries us to the point of tampering with things we were warned about and hoping something we clutch in our hands is  powerful enough to hold? Horror poses these questions. Is surviving the experience worth the cost of the tale? Horror writers say it is. It’s why we read Stephen King at night, or watch Clive Barker movies in the dark, it’s why each story needs to terrify us in a new and different way and why the search for power and protection is endless. Horror envelopes its readers and writers alike in unexplored mythologies where discovering the rules defeats the overwhelming horrors of Real Life. Survivability is everything. It promises more…if only you have the formula.

Voices whisper in the blackness, pooling somewhere around your head. The darkness moves, breathing with strange undulations that seduce. The thought is tempting; stay in this place of mirages and bargain for those gone missing, let that which is corporeal fade and seek what you have misplaced or forgotten, battle the beast that took half of your soul on a cool autumn morning and rent it again on two different days in separate months of May… You are drunk with possibilities when you see the door to the room no longer exists and your hands are empty. The house has involved you in a dream of false-promises. She seems to smile in the dark, her face obscured by the wavering surface of water like poor drowned Ophelia…she clutches your foot and begins to pull…Does she haunt the house? Or do you?

At least we’re talking, the Muse and I… sort of. Well at least we’re in the same room.

The hard fact is that it’s not easy to settle down and start a novel. Not only does the world conspire to interrupt, but it’s kind of like announcing that by a certain date you will be happily married with 2.5 beautiful children in a house with a white picket fence.  From your lips to the Muse’s ear… One never knows when she is just teasing, when she changes her mind and wants it to be a short story instead. There is no warning that she wants a tale set in the one place you never lived, or populated by characters you’ve never met. (My own personal library is testament to this… I feel like a magician staring at her as I wave my arms throughout my writing room. “Choose,” I say, “Choose the form of the destructor…”)

The call is indeed hers. Try writing outside your genre once and see what happens…

Still one has to swear fealty to her, to assuage her honor. She will not step in without ritual and sacrifice. You can lead a Muse to paper, but you cannot make her speak…

I know the truth as told by oracles: you must find what works and guard the knowledge with your life; it’s part of the writer’s bargain with the Fates. There are secrets in writing – secrets that without the proper application of ritual will not survive the constant intrusion of Real Life.  Climb the steps to the vault and leave blood on the altar, step over the decay and desert-white bones…Shake your talismans and speak the words as she demands them. Don’t worry about looking foolish; you have nothing to lose. Enter the haunted house and slide into the darkness beside her… So what if is she is fickle and her affection temporally shaped? You can always sing her a little Phil Collins to get her in the mood…  

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Muse-osophy...I love it, Seer!