Daniel I. Russell is the author of Entertaining Demons, Samhane, Retard, Come Into Darkness, Critique, The Collector Book 1: Mana Leak, Mother's Boys and the huge collection Tricks, Mischief and Mayhem. Daniel is a HWA active member and represented by the Tobias Literary Agency, NYC. Daniel has also been the vice-president of the Australian Horror Writers' Association, special guest editor of Midnight Echo, associate and technical editor for Necrotic Tissue, and Shadow Awards judge.
You Sick Bastard: On Writing Horror
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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!