The Visceral Power of Horror: Why it’s so hard to write

Horror is always either on the edge of a horrendous implosion or on the cusp of a golden renaissance.  Horror is visceral.

I think that’s about right, given its cyclic nature.  Horror literature itself is a fairly shallow field.  Widespread, but shallow.  It makes half-hearted attempts every ten years or so to break out and become mainstream, but the impetus behind these efforts dies out and the genre, at least as far as fiction goes, lapses into senescence for another decade.

Right now it’s doing fairly well as a genre which is good for me and many other writers. But it wasn’t that long ago when I remember you couldn’t get much of anything in the horror field published. No one wanted to see it or touch it.

That’s in fiction. Horror still has cyclic phases is goes through in film, but unless I am mistaken the peaks and valleys are less prominent. Oh, sure, there are trends in Hollywood where horror is hot, or fantasy, or science fiction or another biker movie. After all, it was Easy Rider that damn near bankrupted Hollywood according to Leonard Maltin. Everyone and their brother, including every studio you can name, jumped on that bandwagon and wanted to dip their biscuits in that hot gravy. That’s how Hollywood operates. It has always been a boom or bust town.

However, I suppose because horror is so visceral, that’s why it works so well in film.  To be sure there are classic horror novels that not only helped shape modern science fiction but, I would further argue, modern fantasy as well, if not many other genres. One of the scariest science fiction stories I’ve ever read that is full-blown horror is “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin. I used to read his SF a lot and enjoyed it until he sGood horror is always hard to write, but a gem to read.tarted turning out fantasy tomes big enough to serve as blacksmith anvils.

Horror is visceral. It is also by far the oldest form of storytelling. I don’t know this for a fact. I’m just guessing. But the first storyteller, I’m willing to bet, didn’t tell a story about happy people and golden love around that Neanderthalic camp fire.  It was a story of woe, fear, darkness, angst.  You know, horror.

I’ve talked to other writers and many agree horror, good horror, is very difficult to write. Okay, let’s be fair about this. Good SF, good romance, good mystery, good anything is hard to write. But if you doubt me go to the horror section of your local bookstore, or browse online, pick up a book at random, and read the first page or some of the sample pages. Nine out of ten times it’ll be less than stellar.

Which brings me to H.P. Lovecraft. Like it or not he is still the high watermark in the genre. I came to Lovecraft late in life, but I was immediately captured by the overpowering claustrophobia of his stories,I'm willing to bet the first story ever told was a horror story.... and the depth and power of the ancient evil he wrote about. Pretty good stuff. I’ve seen horror based on H.P. Lovecraft’s stories since. It is even more difficult to write,  as you may imagine. No one writes like Lovecraft except Lovecraft, and despite many attempts since his death, no one ever has come close.

I don’t read much horror anymore. Those horror stories I do read tend to come from writers whose work I like to read anyway. People like Richard Parks, Gemma Files, and Michael Merriam. But I am always on the lookout for good horror so if you know any pass the word along.

I like horror a lot. I believe it is possibly the most difficult genre to understand and master because there are so many layers to it. Oh, I’m not talking about simplistic ideas of splatterpunk and zombie apocalypse and chopping up teens on their birthday. That crap is simplistic for the most part and too cartoonish for my attention.

I’m talking about horror. Deep, mysterious, complex. That stuff is hard to write and a gem to read — when you can find it.

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Saying “No” in Writing, and Living with the Consequences

Many years ago I watched an interview with Margaret Mitchell on television. She talked about the process she went through when writing Gone With the Wind and she related how she often had to say no to people who wanted her to go out to a restaurant, or concert, or a party.

She said it was hard telling them she had to stay home and write because she knew most, if not all of them, didn’t understand. What was the big deal, right? You can write anytime. Come on out and play, Maggie!

Mitchell knew she was hurting them in a sense because these were family and friends who wanted to see her and be with her. But for her, the novel came first. So she had to say no and live with the consequences of them not really understanding her reasons.

In a way I think all writers kind of understand what she went through. I mean, if you’re going to be a writer it’s going to come about sooner or later when someone will want you to do something and you’re going to have to say ‘No, I’m staying home tonight. Got to write.’

This happened to me quite often. Okay, I fully admit it didn’t hurt that I was mostly a hermit quite comfortable staying at home anyway. It happens less so now that my life has settled down. But I do remember going through this.

I’ve talked about this subject to other writers before and they all seem to be on the same page. They understand what this is like, what it means when you broach the subject. It’s no fun sometimes, but what are you going to do? Story comes first, pal. It definitely comes before you. It remains your decision whether it comes before anyone else in your life and if so, why.

Margaret Mitchell felt bad she had to tell her friends no all the time. But she never felt she made the wrong decision. For her, the novel, finishing the novel, working on the novel, struggling with the novel, was paramount to everything else in life.

I think writers often understand the nature of the contract we enter into when we decide to write. We are often forced, or sometimes think we are forced, to seclude ourselves in some fashion so we can work. I used to know a romance writer who lived in Haughton, Louisiana. I had the good fortune to befriend her through a writing class at the local college and she saw some spark of fire in me, I think. We never got to talk often but all the advice she gave me was good advice.

I asked her once about finding a place to write. Or maybe the conversation drifted in that direction through its own inertia. Get two writers together, and sooner or later they will start talking about where they write. Anyway, she told me she liked to write in the kitchen. She said it was the one room in the house that more or less was her domain and where she felt most comfortable. Sure enough, in a corner of the kitchen, sat her writing desk and typewriter.

I have always said no one understands a writer like another writer. Friends and family may mean well when they offer you love and support, but they don’t understand what you are going through. They sympathize. They want to help. But they don’t understand what it is we have to deal with upon occasion, and the choices we have to make.

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