Most “normal” people wonder how an otherwise fellow “normal” person can write horror fiction “in times like these.” This is a conversation that has been going on since the first monsters burst onto fire-lit cave walls. Why give imagery and substance to such – well, horrors – when real life provides plenty of examples? And what happens to the Horror writer when Real Life intrudes? Do you stop that novel? Do you suddenly take up a nice little mainstream fiction plot and compartmentalize your talents and inclinations? Do you hang your head in abject shame?
As Horror writers, we have to admit we sometimes exploit the violence of reality; we intentionally set out to shock, to disturb, to even offend. Admittedly, there is some psychology at work. But never in our wildest dreams do we embrace the reality of Horror to the point that we wish it upon our audiences in real life. As Horror writers, we need to understand why we write Horror and what we need to do as its artist when real disturbances mar our personal canvas. We need to know how to react – not just in order to “defend” what we do, but to keep doing it. The Horror genre is affected in this way like no other genre, and tragedy in real life can stop the Muse in her tracks; it happens when it is personal and it happens when we identify with the real thing. How you as a Horror writer process this kind of fact determines whether or not you keep on writing or find yourself suddenly and completely blocked.
When my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in 1997, I had been writing my first novel. As her caretaker, when she went terminal, she took my writing with her. All of a sudden I could see no entertainment value in writing about death or dismemberment, about the nature of evil lurking in the dark. Evil devoured my mother right in front of me. And as a writer of the Horror genre, I suddenly found myself eviscerated. I was a Horror writer. If I could not write Horror, I was nothing.
It took ten years before I was ready to write again. Then it took another five years before I could write more than a paragraph. As I have said before, it was returning to a university classroom and mounds of term papers that made it possible. And when I look back at the first two statements of this paragraph I cringe. Fifteen years of writing were LOST. That’s fifteen years I don’t get back – and all because no one was there to tell me how to move forward when a Horror writer is caught in the wake of the real thing.
So here I am now, older and more wizened, hoping to provide some light on the matter. We have just experienced yet another mass shooting in this country. As if international and domestic terrorism weren’t enough, as if realizing that there are wars and fatal illnesses to catch or to catch us, that an otherwise perfectly normal day can be brutalized by drunk drivers and even Mother Nature herself…Along comes an inconceivable and seemingly unforgivable act by what is supposed to be a fellow human being yet who steals the lives of innocent children and those we charge with their safety. Not a single person in this world can avoid identifying with those children and what they represent. Every person can empathize with a parent’s agony of losing a child – even if it must be imagined because we never were personally graced with the privilege of having one of our own.
How does one write Horror after bearing witness in any capacity to such an unforgiving truth? One simply does…
First, a writer of Horror must understand that a lot of what we write is real. Somewhere out there, a person has survived something of what we deign to put on paper. There are times to think of that person when writing or when deciding not to write and suspending operations. But a Horror writer should never abandon what they do for fear of its inappropriateness. Horror writing at its best is a reflection of society and its issues. You may choose to suspend writing while grieving a loss, or out of respect for someone who is, but if real life tragedy is going to change you as a writer, let it change you in ways that improve our genre. Use the experience to bring something important to your fiction.
And if tragedy is visited directly upon you, or you identify with it to the point of being overwhelmed, then it is indeed time to put the Muse on pause. Horror goes on hiatus for a writer because we are human. Everyone needs time to process horrendous events, to experience the moment that has enveloped every waking emotion. The point is: if it takes longer than six months to go back to your writing, you may need to get professional help. This is not a judgment against you or a sign of weakness. Not being able to connect with such a vital part of who you are is not healthy, and it may signal that you are having too much difficulty navigating the tragedy that has afflicted your life. We are supposed to help each other…. it’s why there are so many of us lounging around on this planet. (Don’t wait fifteen years…)
Second, a writer of Horror must realize how what we do looks to the outside world whose emotions are left raw by tragedy. This means that you must be prepared to hear condemnation, or you may even have friends or relatives who might attempt to shame you out of the genre. When people are hurting it doesn’t matter whether you write “high culture” or “low culture” Horror. You are an easily accessible target of a frustrating anger born of cultural helplessness. No excuse you give to others or give yourself will be good enough. But the fact is that you should not acquiesce. There is a time and a place for Horror. Love Story is a classic romance everyone should see, but not if you or someone you love is fighting cancer. Horror is no different and right after a tragedy – whether personal or national – is not the time to discuss the issue of merit. Let everyone vent, but keep the Muse out of the line of attack. Protect her, because she has more to share with you than you could imagine.
Horror writing may also be a personal coping mechanism. Many of us get into the genre because we have personal baggage of our own that we are working through. Outsiders are not likely to consider this as an “excuse” or a good enough reason to write Horror. Yet somebody out there bought all those Stephen King novels… Halloween is still a favorite holiday…Kids still put plastic spiders in their sister’s bed sheets at night. Horror – whether naysayers like it or not – has a societal, if not literary function. It is also a kind of therapy for those of us who have our skeletons neatly packed into psychological closets. Sometimes unpacking those skeletons and sharing them with others helps all of us in some way, even if it turns out a cheap thrill was all any of us was after. Horror is a deep, rancid chamber of weird psychology. It is also a way to explore seriously buried issues – your own or a culture’s.
Thirdly, a writer of Horror must realize that as we age as writers, we will be changed by the Life around us. Parents will pass away, children will have children of their own, pets will be euthanized. And sometimes tragedy will find us – even hidden in our writer’s garrets. I was writing the moment my husband walked in to tell me my fourteen-year-old nephew was dead at the hands of a drunk driver. But this time I decided that writing was my air supply and I would never again surrender it. Life happens to us. Whether you are a twelve-year-old Horror writer or a ninety-year-old Horror writer, you are not exempt from Life. It is what you do with the experiences that will mark you as a human being. Sure, this means there is exploitation. But it is no different than the exploitation a songwriter makes when he or she writes a hit about love lost. It is no different than the exploitation that any writer makes when they chose to strategically place an emotionally loaded sentence in a paragraph to explain a character’s flaws. Life exploits life. We devour each other’s dreams and steal from the dead. Life goes on, whether we want it to or not, whether we are here living it or not. Fiction is just another way of dealing with that fact.
Writing Horror in the wake of tragedy is therefore in itself sometimes a tragic act. But it is one in which all of us are trying to make sense of the senseless, to call down Justice from the heavens, to summon some sword of vengeance to right inevitable wrongs. We need our monsters and our ghosts the same as we need our superheroes. We need to lay our demons and believe that something bigger and greater than ourselves is somehow in charge and has a plan – that there is order to the disorder we perceive. Most of all, we need to know that everything and everyone has some value and purpose. Sometimes that means describing the indescribable, creating evil on the page because it is there that we can annihilate it. It is there we can press into collective memory the truly wondrous and unique quality that represents a real person lost to our lives because of something inexcusable and otherwise unimaginable.
Like it or not, Horror is part of who we are; it’s why it resonates. It’s also why we who write Horror write it, and why even in the face of tragedy, we cannot give it up. In this random, unpredictable darkness that sometimes descends on swift black wings in real life, it is the only salvation we know.