Daniel I. Russell has been featured publications such as The Zombie Feed from Apex, Pseudopod and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. He was nominated for two Tin Duck Awards in 2011 for best novel and best short story, and again in 2012 for best short story. Author of Samhane, Come Into Darkness, Critique, The Collector Book 1: Mana Leak and Mother's Boys, Daniel is also the current vice-president of the Australian Horror Writers' Association and special guest editor of Midnight Echo.
Part 6: THE DEAD MAN WAS QUITE THE CHARACTER
Read Daniel in...
Tuesday, August 27, 2013Part 6: THE DEAD MAN WAS QUITE THE CHARACTER
Let’s imagine a car accident. Someone was crossing the street and a speeding car has struck and killed a person. Think about it. Picture it. How upset are you?
Okay, now I’m going to add a few details to the scene. Apparently, the car hit and completely messed them up. The body bounced off the hood and the spine had snapped, so the hips were all twisted around. Poor thing didn’t die straight away either and just lay in the road screaming, blood everywhere, until the ambulance arrived some twenty minutes later. A horrible way to die. Horrible.
Side note, notice how often this happens in real life. I know I do it, but being a story teller I like to think that I have an excuse! If you’re given a macabre piece of gossip and don’t respond in a suitably disgusted or horrified way, how often will the person add additional detail, upping the ante? If they can’t shock you with the news and get the emotional result they want, they’ll exaggerate, or place emphasis on the nastier details. Horror writing psychology 101!
Okay, so back to the exercise.
You should hopefully be slightly more reactive to the news I’m telling you, as now it’s more than just a generic news headline of one killed in car accident. You have a few more gory details. You’ve been trusted with more intimate knowledge and are therefore a tad closer to the event.
Next part of this sad tale is that it you now get a phone call. It was your child that was hit by the car. Or your parent. Or brother or sister or best buddy.
Should this really happen (and I genuinely hope nothing like this will happen to any of you. I might create monsters but I’m certainly not one of them), the emotional reaction will be on such a level to eclipse your life for a varying time. Now I don’t believe a story, unless factual and based on someone the reader knows, can evoke a reaction at such an overwhelming level, but if you aim to write good horror, you have to try and tap into the same pool, if you will. This might call into question a writer’s motivation: do you want shock a reader or make them suffer? I’ll leave that discussion for another time.
Right then. Back to square one, actually, negative ten. I’m going prequel on you.
Ten years ago, you had just moved into a new place with your partner. You were expecting your first child together and things were going great. Things were going perfect. One day, you came home from work early and heard giggling from upstairs. You discover your partner in bed with a mountain of muscle with a cock bigger than a zucchini (and I don’t mean one of those small zucchinis, a mean the ones that look like huge cock zucchinis). Turns out the baby is his to boot. Rather than be allowed to mourn your loss and gather your thoughts, this dick pummels the crap out of you while your loved one watches with amusement.
Okay, bit of an exaggeration there on several fronts, but you get the idea.
Now, the aforementioned car accident victim, the one spread all over the road, is this guy (or girl equivalent. I tried to make this all sex and sexuality compatible but it became a glorified mess that read more like an angry orgy). How do you feel now?
I find this quite interesting. If this was true, the range of reactions to this news I feel would be pretty wide, from the this guy didn’t suffer anywhere near enough to the I hated him, but no one deserved this tribes.
Either way, to know the person, and either love them, hate them or merely have an interest in their fate in fiction is down to well written characters.
I’m sure that you can buy an extensive list of books that discuss character development, etc, as this is a fundamental part of any story. I’m going to try and keep it narrowed in on horror, the relationships between the character, reader and events in a horror story.
I think one thing we can all agree on is that in a horror story, bad things happen. We can be impartial to these bad things, for example, I can’t see anyone shocked and appalled by the death of a standard victim in a Friday the 13th movie, but if done right and if we’ve spent enough screen time with them, we might be invested in the protagonist and will them to survive.
If you have a strong, likeable and relatable main character, through which the reader is experiencing your world and the horrors you have placed there, the dread will seep through the story. The readers must feel danger and threat through the character.
On the contrary, if we write a character to be obnoxious, evil, cruel and a multitude of other negative traits, we’re invested in another way. We want the bad things to happen to this character! What satisfaction one can obtain seeing a villain suffer at the hands of karma. Again, for the reader to hate a character, the character needs to be fleshed out and three dimensional. Some fantastic villains of late that spring to my mind are the Mayor Big Jim from Stephen King’s Under the Dome, and Dick from Supernatural season seven. At times, I felt myself glued to the story just to see these guys hopefully get theirs in the end!
There are no hard and fast rules with the dynamics between character and story. The hero doesn’t have to survive. The villain doesn’t have to fail and get a comeuppance. But for a reader to become emotionally involved in the horror, the development of the characters is key.
Monday, August 26, 2013Part 5: HORROR, OR A CONTEMPORARY PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER WITH A DARK FANTASY-SCIENCE FICTION TONE WHICH IS ALSO A ROMANCE
So welcome to Dan’s book shop. This is your first day as book dogsbody.
Here is the new Edward Lee novel! In it, a young man falls madly in love with his neighbour. While she ignores his advances, the young man realises that it’s fate for them to be together, so kidnaps the girl and keeps her locked in his basement where torture and systematic rape abounds. In the finale, the neighbour gets loose and during the struggle, hacks off her tormentor’s head with a machete.
Okay, young whippersnapper! Where are we going to put this book?
Horror would be the obvious choice. Its aim is to make the reader uncomfortable by placing a character in a prolonged dangerous situation. While other considered horror elements are there, such as the rape and the gore, it’s the core drive of the book, once again to cause a feeling of shock or revolt, that for me would make it a fine addition to any horror shelf.
Where did you put it?
Romance? What the hell?
Okay, I know the main character is in love and he does some pretty romantic things before going bat shit crazy…but I wouldn’t call this a romance book. The aims of a romance book and a horror book are extremely different by their nature. This not to say that a horror novel cannot have touching, romantic scenes, nor a romance novel have its fair share of darker moments.
I am not for the straight forward labelling of all fiction, nor against the blending off different generic themes. Some of my all time favourite books, the Dark Tower series for example, are all over the show in terms of genre.
Looking at movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Child’s Play, the originals turned heads and unsettled movie goers. At the time, these were terrifying films that caught the public’s imagination. As the sequels rolled out, the emphasis of each film changed, moving away from terror and shock to entertainment and one liners. I love all the movies, but for different reasons. In editions like Seed of Chucky, it’s quite clear that this is a comedy movie with horror elements, as opposed to the vice versa of say, Child’s Play 2. No matter how many characters are set on fire or dissolved by acid, the dread isn’t there anymore and we have a different kind of atmosphere all together. Yet, this movie is still classed as horror.
The point I’m trying to make is this. Certain aspects could be considered as horror elements. For example, we could have a graveyard, a vampire and a stormy night. Straight away, we’re picturing the scene and thinking horror. However, any kind of story could be derived from this simple set up. Is the vampire waiting for its lost love? Perhaps the vampire is trying to find the vampire dentist as one of his fangs has a cavity. Without considering what you intend to put your reader through, you might not hit that horrific level, no matter how many traditional elements you throw into a story.
The word hybrid is thrown around when discussing these mash ups of genre, and when sci fi-horror comes along, I can think of one movie in particular that nearly, oh so nearly, balances these genres perfectly: Ridley Scott’s ALIEN from 1979.
I say nearly balances, as I feel this movie is about 60% horror and 40% science fiction.
The crew of an industrial ship are awoken from stasis by a distress beacon from a small planet, and being required to investigate, accidently bring a hostile alien life form on board that threatens the lives of the entire crew.
While we have the more traditional horror elements far gone from this movie, this is without doubt one of the most successful horror movies ever made. The dread is generated in spades using pregnant, over-weighted build ups, creepy surroundings and keeping the stalker in the shadows for most of the screen time (although one thing I adore in horror movies is when a rewatch reveals that the killer is actually on screen a lot more then you’d think but you never noticed the first time!).
The science fiction elements are certainly there: the spaceship, the planet, the robot, etc.
Yet when you sit back and compare the two genres in this movie, ALIEN is, at its core, a horror story within a science fiction setting.
The movie, while certainly to a lesser effect, could be played out with the crew of a usual ship finding a small island. Specific plot points would need to be written around (I don’t think ships have self destruct settings), but the story could fit this setting with a little wiggling. Likewise, the basic story could be set within an office block, a haunted mansion, a sewer network and still play out as it currently stands. This is by removing the science fiction elements from the story. The movie would be weaker in any other form, certainly, but the story would still work to some degree.
Now take out the horror and keep the science fiction. With no threat, danger, suspense or that word again, dread, this would be a whole new movie altogether.
I see genres like college/university courses. You can do a straight horror degree, or you can major in horror with a science fiction minor, and vice versa.Next time: We're going to be killing off your friends, family and yes, even your enemies! Stay tuned.
Sunday, August 25, 2013Part 4: Have you heard the one about the dead hooker?
Something that I’ve touched on but not addressed directly is the difference between fear and disgust. Is there a difference? And is one better than the other?
My readers will know that I’m certainly not one to shy away from blood and especially other bodily fluids! I’ll be discussing gore more directly in a later section.
Both achieve a reaction, if done well, and that reaction is very, very similar as our psychology treats them the same. You’re walking alone at night and hear footsteps behind you. Your brain, that beautiful piece of safety equipment, immediately screams DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! and you enter the ol’ fight or flight status. Your heart steps up, you breathe more, you sweat. Adrenaline surges through your veins. Your body is designed to get the hell away from danger, because danger is bad for you. Clearly. Danger has a bad track record for actually doing you well.
Now let’s look at disgust.
You’re walking down the same street but now it’s the afternoon of a fine day at the start of summer. Birds are singing and children are playing. It’s like a delightful scene in a Disney movie and nothing scary or shocking is going on at all.
But then you step into some dog crap. What’s your reaction?
You might cry out, jerk away from it, wipe it on a patch of clean grass as soon as possible. Should you get a good smell, you might even have a bit of a retch. Hehe. I can imagine some of you reading this with a wrinkled nose, being disgusted just by the thought of it.
On a base level, your mind is thinking aargh! Bacteria! Disease! Get it away! Like with a more immediate threat, the aim of your body is to get away from it as quickly as possible, so the reactions are very similar.
I stand by the belief that to write horror is to try your best to evoke this reaction by using any tools at your disposal. If you can shock, that’s fantastic. If you can disgust, that’s great too. Doing both at the same time has always had my vote!
Lionel Cosgrove: That’s my mum you’re pissing on.
Thursday, August 22, 2013PART 3: WAIT FOR IT...
Method one: The JAWS method.
Best film ever made! Ahem. Odds are that you’ve seen JAWS, which is a fantastic example of suspense and anticipation, as well as being a damn fine horror movie that was rated PG, so had very wide market appeal (I think it’s been raised now as I wasn’t allowed to show it at the high school).
JAWS nails the suspense and this is largely done two ways. The first is the score by John Williams. I’m not going to bang on about how great the score is itself, which has reached legendary status, but I’ll briefly mention the actual use. You see, the theme heralds the arrival of the shark. It’s a textbook use of music in a psychological manner. You hear the theme and you start to look for the shark. Your eyes are to the water. You know it’s in there and it’s close. Already that dread is there just from the score. Spielberg was especially sneaky with this method. Remember the two big scare scenes? The head in the boat and the emergence of the shark following “Slow ahead. I can go slow ahead. Come on down here and chum some of this shit.” They work so well as the audience has had no foreshadowing. BANG! SCARE! But where was the music? Your mind has come to depend on that score as an early warning system. You don’t hear it and you don’t think the shark is around. The shock comes completely out of left field and generates a bigger reaction. You sneaky little fellow, Mr. Spielberg!
Another great use of anticipation is to hide the monster. When do we actually see the shark? About halfway in? The audience has to imagine this great menacing fish in the dark water, and especially in the first scene, the carnage it is capable of.
Now while this firmly sits within the less is more camp, keeping the more brutal elements off the page or screen and allowing the viewer’s mind to picture the worst they can…the complete opposite I feel can work just as well, but more on that very shortly.
Yes, the reader’s imagination can do the work for you, and if you find the right balance of giving them enough information to put the pieces together, the image can be more harrowing than something you yourself could have penned.
Here’s an example.
In 2012 I was asked to be the guest editor for the AHWA magazine Midnight Echo. We were looking at a theme, and as I knew I would be spending hours reading hundreds of submissions, I elected to theme the issue on taboos, hoping that this would inspire writers to push the envelope. Authors did not disappoint!
One of the stories I accepted for publication was called Saturday Night at the Milk Bar, by Gary Kemble. In it, a journalist follows a tip off and descends deeper and deeper into a dark, sadistic world, culminating at the scene in the Milk Bar. Here, pregnant/recently pregnant women are saturated with varying drugs, and the patrons suckle their milk to gain the secondary effects…but the real horror lay in the back room…where the babies were kept…
I can vaguely recall the conclusion in the first submission for this (sorry, Gary!) involving a barrel and men feeding on babies like vampires. All very harrowing, yes, but the story did such a great job of drumming up the dread, that the finale didn’t do the build up justice.
I chewed on this for a while. Could I suggest something more horrific to end the piece on a sickening high? If so, would it be brutal enough? Would it not be taking something away from the writer to stick my own ending on there?
I knew I had a corker of a story and didn’t want to ruin it.
What we did was this: The protagonist enters the back room…and cut to him the next morning, almost insane with what he witnessed. What did he see?
Ah, that would be telling!
We handballed the story to the reader and therefore it was up to them to create the horror that lay in the back room. The reveal wasn’t a let down or potentially weaker than we’d had the reader expect up to that point, as it was only limited by the reader’s imagination.
I recall King stating that the art of horror is to say to the reader, hey, there’s something horrible behind this door, and have them fear what that thing might be until the right time you choose to reveal it. Alas, if you reveal a six foot high scary bug creature, the reader might ask why this was not an eight foot high scary bug creature with more teeth and a chainsaw, as that’s clearly more menacing. It’s a gamble by the writer when withholding such information. Is your scare enough? What if you don’t reveal it all, as in the Milk Bar example above? I felt we did a good job with that story, but there’s the risk of the reader feeling cheated by withholding plot from them. Imagine an Agatha Christie novel where the murderer is never revealed.
Here’s my crate again. There was a yeti inside in CREEPSHOW, but what’s inside mine? There’s definitely something horrible in here that I shall be revealing in a few parts’ time. But what’s in it? What’s in the box?
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum…
Method 2: The INBRED method.
I love Alex Chandon films, from the sadistically violent Sick Room in Cradle of Fear to the psychedelic steampunk bizarro of Pervirella. I looked forward to his 2012 movie Inbred for quite some time, and it didn’t disappoint. For me, this absolutely creamed the second method of generating dread, so much so I’m awarding it the name of the Inbred method.
The movie is delightfully simple in its premise. A small group of young offenders and their two minders travel to a small rural village in the depths of Yorkshire (especially creepy yet familiar for a Lancashire man such as myself!) for a renovation/rehabilitation project. It becomes very apparent early on that things aren’t quite right with the locals, who are all bloodthirsty maniacs from the shallow end of the genetic paddling pool. Some of the group are slaughtered, as one would expect in a horror movie, but it’s the execution (no pun intended) were this movie shines. I’m not taking about the actual method of dispatch, but the delivery. Kills are paraded, victims humiliated and toyed with in front of a braying, enthusiastic audience.
This movie uses the polar opposite of the JAWS method to generate the fear. Absolutely nothing is kept off screen. Every axe chop and shotgun blast is right there in your face, blood splattering, bones shattering.
Some may argue that this is (…ah GOD! I HATE THE TERM!) torture porn, and is incapable of causing any kind of dread beside the dry heaves of the squeamish. I disagree.
While method one is secretive and method two is gratuitous, I would suggest that both share the same core aim: to have the imagination of the audience generate the dread. The difference is in the tense.
Method one deals with keeping the violence and brutally away from the viewer yet referring to it in the past or present tense. In the story discussed above, Saturday Night at the Milk Bar, we wanted readers to think, my God, what happened? What did the journalist see? We forced the reader to mentally fill the gap to complete the picture. I also recall a possibly banned advertisement for one of the recent Texas Chainsaw movies. The trailer showed nothing except a blank screen, but audiences had the pleasure of listening to a girl being chased, complete with gasps, begs, the endless revving of the saw and ultimately, death throes. Here the audience is thinking, what is happening to this poor girl? While the movies have been quite limited in their depiction of chainsaw death considering the realities of it, the viewers’ mind no doubt conjured a much more graphic picture, which may have led to the level of discomfort it caused and it’s resultant banning.
With movies such as Inbred, and certainly some of my own earlier works such as Samhane, the stall is set out early, with what could be called a violent prologue, or a ruthless starter before the main meal. Here, we shove it all in the audience’s face early on and say: this is it, guys and gals, and if you think this is bad, just stay tuned…
In Inbred, we are treated to a high class (yet definitely insane) couple having afternoon tea while in the background, a rough and muscled man cuts wood with an axe. After the woodcutter asks for some lemonade (and other things!) and is refused, he immediately dispatches the couple with the axe. Blood splatters the walls. Limbs go flying.
After watching the rest of the movie, it becomes apparent that the scene has nothing to do with the main plot. So why is it here?
It’s the barker’s cry before you enter the funhouse, the warning, the gleeful hint of the monstrous acts to follow.
You see, this generates dread in the future tense. As I watched the movie and kills became more outlandish and extreme as the minutes ticked by, my stomach was in knots, not because of the scene I had just watched, but in regards to what scene might be coming. How far is this director going to push the boundaries of taste? Are my limits going to be challenged here? This was the feeling of horror, wondering what was going to come.
So while I’ve kept my monster behind the door until the right time to reveal it and hopefully scare the pants off you, here I’m going to straight out show you what’s lurking there and guarantee you that behind door number two there will be something even worse…
Look! A random lion!
Dr. Lawrence Gordon: What's the last thing you remember?
Adam: Nothing! I went to bed in my shithole apartment, and I woke up in an actual shithole.
Tomorrow: A quick one on generating disgust.
As some of you know. a fortnight ago I completed the 12km City to Surf run in Busselton. A week after that I was trying to get into my regular training schedule, but my body was having none of it. My legs ached, and I just didn't have any energy. Unperturbed, I went out again this morning. Conditions were excellent.
However, I managed 3km and I'd had it. Again, sore legs and running on fumes. I stopped at the head of my street and was ready to call it a day.
Then I had a thought.
Before I could talk myself out of it, I turned around and carried on running. I managed another lap of town. While not my usual 10-12km circuit, 6 is better than 3.
Something that dawned on me while I was running is that I'm going to have to take my own similar advice as mentioned in part 1 of this guide I've been posting, and in a way, repeat this morning's run.
At the moment, and being honest, I'm not happy with the writing world. My latest work doesn't seem to be grabbing me the way it has before (but I have faith in the rewrite), a few other writers are taking great pleasure in the slightest of my failings (twats) and being in the middle of buying a house and having another son, writing seems to be pretty damn low on my list of priorities.
It would be sensible, and to some degree satisfying, to state right here and now that I'm on writing hiatus until these more important things are out of the way and things return to normal, and that absence might bring back the muse. My bitterness levels might lower. I could be writing with a smile on my face like the old days rather than a frown that the words on the page are utter shite. Yes. I'm sure that quitting writing for now is the best thing for all involved.
Or how about...no?
I think I might just turn around and try to do another lap, and if I can do it, so can you. Get writing, slacker!
Part 3 of the workshop, wherein Alex Chandon takes on Steven Spielberg, shall be arriving on this very page in about an hour. Need to grab a coffee and wash off this run stink first...
Wednesday, August 21, 2013PART 2: OH THE HORROR OF IT ALL…
Look what I’ve found! It looks like the crate from under the stairs in the Creepshow tale…well The Crate. I’m going to dust this off and pull it out. This crate will be useful in this part as I try to describe what, to me, horror is. What a wonderful device this crate is!
First of all, I’m going to stand on it. For now, the crate is my soap box. Now remember that I said in the last part how this is not black and white and more just my opinion? Yeah…let’s keep that in mind, because I’m very passionate about horror, but perhaps my personal definition of horror is vastly different to your own.
For example, a lady I know is very against horror. Actually, against might be too strong a term. Let’s just say that horror isn’t her cup of tea. When I delved deeper and asked what she deemed the scariest movie she’d even seen, her response was a surprising one. The movie, Scream.
While it was good to have a horror box office hit back in the mid-nineties and add another masked maniac to the impressive roster of icons, for the horror connoisseur, perhaps Scream does not evoke the same emotions that we experience with movies that push the envelope further, be it in gore or suspense, yet for my friend it was the limit for her, and she had no interest at all in seeing anything, shall we say, stronger.
Talking about such movies as Saw, Hostel, Human Centipede, etc, she didn’t want to even think about them. The interesting aspect here is that she didn’t consider those films as horror. I hate using the term torture porn, but this was basically what she was alluding to, that the movies were made to disgust rather than give the viewer the chills.
So what is horror? Should it be this had to define?
This whole discussion about what is and is not horror bugs the hell out of me. Horror is as strong as any other genre. I’m looking at the some of the talent on the bookcases beside me, and there are too many names to list. So if we have the talent…and we have the titles…why do I have the gut feeling that horror is considered the weaker of the speculative genres by the man on the street?
Because it’s hard to define, perhaps? I know that horror is certainly lost in the mix and does not have such a firm presence on bookstore shelves and coffee tables as it did in the eighties.
I know this is the case here in Western Australia, but go into a bookstore and look for the horror section. If this is an WA book shop, odds are there won’t be one. If you’re lucky and find a horror section, have a good look at some of the names and titles. I bet there’ll be a few head scratchers in there.
I find horror diluted and spread among the fantasy, sci fi and crime sections of bookstores, even as far as paranormal and the all-encompassing blanket of general fiction. It’s broken and buried, like the stores are ashamed to stock horror, or that horror isn’t fashionable enough, so they scatter it around the store as not to attract attention.
Yes, I’m not naïve enough to spout completely blinkered bitterness, and that market research and business trends have been considered, but I do believe that this confusion as to what constitutes as horror is a contributing factor, and that at times, authors and publishers are not helping the genre in their ambiguity.
An example of this self-imposed haziness: there was a book that came to my attention. I read the blurb and extracts and Amazon reviews. My impression was that, yes, readers have enjoyed this book…but it wasn’t for me. It was labelled as dark fiction and paranormal romance. The plot didn’t sound overly horrific in my opinion, and quite a few reviewers stated that they didn’t like horror, but loved this. At that time, I queried the publisher with a novel I’d just finished, and received quite a prompt and polite response stating that they didn’t even want to see a sample. They didn’t do horror at all.
Fair enough, I thought.
However, this book was submitted to all the major horror awards by the publisher.
So the readers are quite clear that this wasn’t a horror book, and the publisher made it crystal clear that this wasn’t a horror book…so why was it suddenly horror when awards season came around?
This is the hypocritical confusion that annoys me. You can’t please everyone. You can’t have your horror cake and have everyone eat it with gusto and not sick a little back up.
I’m going to attempt to paint the picture of my own view of what constitutes as horror. As previously mentioned, I appreciate that people have their own individual range as to what evokes the horror-reaction in them, for example, my range will be vastly different to that of my three year old son, but there is common ground, and I aim to cover it.
I’ll hop down from my soapbox. It’s now just an everyday crate again. I’ll sit on it while I thumb through this dictionary…
1. an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear: to shrink back from a mutilated corpse in horror.
2. anything that causes such a feeling: killing, looting, and other horrors of war.
3. such a feeling as a quality or condition: to have known the horror of slow starvation.
4. a strong aversion; abhorrence: to have a horror of emotional outbursts.
5. Informal. something considered bad or tasteless: That wallpaper is a horror. The party was a horror.
(I say thumb through the dictionary. This is 2013. I used dictionary.com)
Now this is what I find interesting. Look at the first entry: an overwhelming and painful feeling. The Free Dictionary goes with: An intense, painful feeling of repugnance and fear. Good old Oxford Dictionary: an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust. One word keeps cropping up.
Horror. Feel it!
Again, this horror feeling, which I shall simply refer to as dread here on in, is different for everyone in regards to the stimulus. I can get it from the nastiest books and movies, my friend got it from watching Scream, and my son can get it from the tiniest of spiders. The movie Scream does not kick start my dread, nor does say the movie Arachnophobia as it would with my son…so would I class them as horror? Yes. While they don’t inspire my own dread, they were created to at least try to scare the audience. It’s the intention to generate dread that I class as horror.
I can go a bit further along this path as this feeling of dread, and what indeed makes a successful horror book/movie in my eyes, is very specific for me. It’s the dread of anticipation, being unsure, nervous and afraid of events.
This is why I prefer the edgier horror. I don’t want to feel that any of the characters are safe at any time, nor do I want any restriction on how nasty a character’s demise might be. I want to be pushed. I want my own boundaries of taste questioned. This is why I enjoy the…ah I’m going to have to use the term again, torture porn movies so much. Not because I like to see a human being put through immense pain and suffering (even though…it’s only a movie, folks!), but because of that feeling on the first viewing. How far is this film maker going to go? How am I going to react to it? It’s all about the anticipation…
Side note: a defence plea for my sound mind. It’s a bit of a cliché, but as a horror writer I’m told most days what a sick bastard I am. You like Hostel? You’re one sick bastard. You wrote a scene where a woman is killed by a reverse birth? Sick. Bastard. Yet as I just mentioned, it’s a movie…or a book…or simply fiction, plucked from the aether. No person was harmed in the making of this thought. A reader once had a pop at me for killing a dog in one of my books, despite the dog being fictional and having never existed in the first place. I’m the sick bastard.
How is it, when I come and sit here every morning to write, coffee in my hand and sleeping crap in my eyes, my internet pops up with the msn home page…and this is perfectly fine? Usually it’s full of videos such as SEE MA'S DOG EATEN BY CROCODILE! or WIFE FILMS ABUSIVE EX SHOOTING HER IN THE FACE! or DEAD BABY FOUND IN HOSPITAL WASTE! Know what I mean? This is an entertainment/news page? Sweet Jesus. If I shoot someone in the face in one of my books, guess what? It isn’t real. To watch this really happen to someone? Sick bastards…but this is apparently sociably acceptable.
Guess my crate’s stint as soapbox is a reoccurring role.
The Dutch Businessman : A surgeon, he holds the very essence of life in his hands - your life. He touches it. He has a relationship with it. He is part of it.
Josh: Please just let me go, please...
The Dutch Businessman: You want to go? Is that what you want?
Tomorrow: The two tenses of dread!
Tuesday, August 20, 2013You Sick Bastard: On Writing Horror
YOU SICK BASTARD: ON WRITING HORROR WITH DANIEL I RUSSELL
In 2013, I was asked to provide my workshop on writing horror at a local writers’ festival. Now having been a teacher for a number of years I have no fear in getting up in front of people and talking about the thing I love, however, as I would be dealing with adults (who to be honest, expect more bang for their buck) and the workshop was scheduled for three hours…yeah, I decided I couldn’t just wing it and some official preparation and notes needed doing.
At the same time of putting this together, my publisher Joe Mynhardt at Crystal Lake Publishing, asked if I could provide an essay on writing horror for a book he was putting together. Two birds, right?
So as more and more time was going into this, I thought it might be prudent to gather my thoughts and flesh them out on paper. One, this would greatly assist me to host future horror workshops, and two, as an author, I hate spending time writing something that isn’t going to be published and read! I aim to make this available on my blog and together as a free ebook, Amazon pending.
So here goes. If you’re a horror writer yourself, or have read books in a similar vein to this one, I’m sure I’ll be re-treading familiar ground at times. You also might disagree with some of my thoughts. You might be a vastly more successful author who seriously disagrees with some of my thoughts, but hey, that’s cool. Nothing here is set in stone. My aim is to generate some thought and discussion, not to inform you what’s right and wrong.
Thanks for coming and bringing your laptops, or pen and paper if you’re going old school. Quill and parchment if that’s how you choose to live your life…
STARTING OUT ON A DARK PATH
When I sat down to write this, I wondered if this would be a self-indulgent text. I really am going to talk about the subject and not myself, but I feel this next bit is a necessity, as it shows insight on a few of my approaches and beliefs within horror writing. I would never state that a certain approach is the only right one, or that writing is black and white with a set formula to follow to guarantee success.
I was in the pub on Friday night, and a couple sat down next to me at the bar. They ordered a drink each and the woman asked for some wedges (and literally a minute later the wedges weren’t there and the man complained, sigh).
“I’ll get these,” said the man, handing the money to the barmaid.
“Well now that I’ve signed up for that writing class,” said the woman, “I can afford to get them when I write and sell my novel. Our teacher says that if we do what she did, we’ll make some serious money. We could eat out every night if we wanted to.”
I started to chuckle until I realised she was deadly serious.
Writing is never about the money, and if you’re writing solely for the money I don’t believe you can reach your full potential as a writer. You need to experiment, find your own way and put onto paper what your soul craves and not what your wallet demands. I’ve written stories that I knew would be a very tough sell because of length and subject matter. So why did I write them? Because you have to try different things and write what you need to. I’ve tried to write more commercial stuff, but the heart – the love – just isn’t there. If you as the writer aren’t feeling it when you write the thing, readers won’t feel it when they read it. More power to you if the work that sits right with your heart is also commercially successful!
So yes, nothing here is gospel. Feel free to take parts of this book and run with it, put your own spin on it or completely ignore it! You’re the writer, and no one can tell you what to write. What I offer here is simply some tips on how to open up what might be new avenues of horror, techniques that have been successfully done before, and again with the risk of being indulgent, hopefully have you know a little more about me and how a nice, quiet guy can tap into such darkness.
Hey. I’m Daniel I. Russell and I’ve been writing horror for ten years.
I always wanted to write. I started trying longer works in primary school…but became distracted by the increasing number of illustrations. High school gave me an outlet to write, and yes even be graded and have some quantitative feedback! Yet stringent guidelines for each assignment meant each story couldn’t be in the horror genre, but bugger me, I tried!
I put writing aside in my formative teenage years and into my twenties as I went down the band route, and could often be found with a bass in my hands rather than a pen or a text book. I went on through college and university, obtaining a mixed science degree. I returned to my joy of writing after entering the teaching profession. I’m not going to bullshit and waffle on about shaping young minds, etc. In that year I was a mere substitute teacher, or as some might see it, glorified babysitter. If you had a good class who were quietly getting on with their work, you had fifty minutes of thumb twiddling…or if you wanted to look busy…story brainstorming!
And might I add that this was in a very rough school back in Merseyside in the UK. There’s no job quite like teaching that can make you feel so…impotent. I have a lot of respect for teacher’s ability to keep cool. I think we’ve all seen some obnoxious student thinking he’s God’s gift and making life unbearable for others, and in today’s cottonwool wrapped society, he’s allowed to get away with it, and you, as the adult and apparent authority can do nothing really substantial, tied up by the tape of bureaucracy and professionalism.
Ahem. I’m not saying I became a horror writer because I wanted to hit kids though. Check my Working with Children file. Clean as a whistle.
I have a keen interest in psychology, and I guess that looking back, all this manifested and suppressed anger and frustration had to go somewhere. No one would have been any the wiser. No, I believe that my self therapy came in the form of my earliest tales. The first few stories were of normal, everyday people who, due to their weaknesses rather than wickedness, met some untimely and grisly end.
I certainly wasn’t writing about sticking an axe through Johnny’s head because Johnny got sent out of my class that afternoon. Not directly, anyway.
This was how I started out ten years ago, and the way I approach horror and even the way I approach writing, has changed and evolved over that time, but more on that later. I want to say a few more things on starting out.
As I said, I finished high school with good grades in English Literature and Language, have a degree, and have hundreds of books in cardboard boxes stashed all over the world like hidden weapon caches. I have a good education and am well read. I wanted to be a writer and had all the qualifications to just get on with it. Surely?
Wrong! I started at twenty-three having not written fiction since I was sixteen. I had every confidence in myself, knowing the way around a comma and speech marks. Yet my first few stories were torn to shreds, sometimes by people I’m still friends with now.
I believe the late, great Richard Laymon penned this in his own guide to writing. At a dinner party, while mingling, he fell into conversation with a brain surgeon. When asked about his profession, Laymon informed the doctor that he wrote fiction.
“Oh I aim to do that,” said the brain surgeon. “Once I retire.”
“Really?” said Laymon. “When I retire from writing, I aim to be a brain surgeon.”
This is a common misconception that anyone can be a writer if they just had the time. You know the saying that everyone has a good book in them? I agree that everyone’s life, no matter how mundane on the surface, would make a good book, and I daresay that everyone has some great story ideas in them. That doesn’t go so far as being able to write a good book, and if the writing teacher of the aforementioned woman in the bar is selling this like snake oil, she might have some disgruntled customers in a few years’ time.
Still reading? Jolly good. For a moment there I heard cries of “The nasty horror writing man says I can’t write!”, which isn’t my point. What’s that? The cry came from me? At age twenty-three?
If I hopped into my time machine to 2003, took my younger self to the pub and told him how much work it took to get where I am today (and let’s get this straight, if my family were supported solely via my sales and royalties, the CSA would have taken them by now), I probably would have quit. No, I know that I would have definitely quit.
In the time it has taken me to write all these stories and novels, I could have developed a body to die for, learned a new instrument, become a painter, obtained the second degree I’ve had my eye on for a while, etc, etc, etc. Writing is a vampire of time and motivation.
I finished my first novel. That was some hard yakka, like running a marathon after training for the two hundred metre dash.
“I’ve been going for ages… How far have I gone? That all? How much have I got to go? Ah fuck…”
I believed (and hindsight makes me look back, shake my head and say dumbass) that if you finished a novel and It was halfway decent, it would be snapped up. Why? Because it was such an ordeal, such a mountain to climb, that surely there can’t be that many out there, and that degree of effort had to be rewarded.
That’s not quite how the publishing world works.
So imagine, and I bet some of you don’t need to as you’ve been through this, that after putting in so much hard work and time, you produce a book…that nobody wants. Not a sniff nor a nibble. Polite rejections. Not quite what we’re looking for at this time.
So what do you do?
Throw a wet and go the pub and drink and say that the publishing world is full of authors and agents and publishers all sucking each other off? That you can’t make it because you’re not a name? Not in the clique?
At least, I probably did.
But what do you do next?
Simple. Get better.
While we’re talking in general about writing here, as I guess my sorrowful tale of a young man trying to make it in the big city of publishing isn’t unique, I wanted to get this in. The rest of this book, and the workshop it accompanies, will be about horror. I’m not wanting to get into technical aspects of writing, how to submit, on writing a query letter, etc, but these stories of the early days I feel are worth mentioning as we all have our first steps. I’d be keen to hear yours. Why do you write? Why horror?
Times have changed and self-publishing is bigger than ever. I would be a hypocrite if I said I was against self-publishing, as I intend to self-publish this very guide, and have independently released reprints to make a little more scratch (get behind me, CSA!). But I passionately recommend against self-publishing early on. Odds are you’ll need your writing arse booted into shape, and this can only be done by editors and your peers with experience. Publish too early and you’re risking putting out shoddy product. Submit to publications. Join forums. Meet people in the writing community that aren’t family or friends and can offer genuine feedback. You’ll know pretty soon if your work is fit for public consumption.
Writing takes a hell of a lot of time and effort, the thick skin to accept rejection, and the drive to soldier on in the face of failure. For the sake of art, one does not simply walk into Mordor.
Still with me, Frodo? Then let’s head into darker territory.
Larry: [a vicious, bloody boxing match is on TV] Is this upsetting you?
Julia: I've seen worse.