The Big Fat Why of Horror

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– why this writer veers towards the Dark Side

Had you asked me nine years ago, before I even had a sliver of reputation, Klout score or followers: what genre do you write? I had an answer ready for you without qualifications of any kind:

History (to paraphrase my son) is my jam, man. Since a dark and stormy night in Tampa in the summer of 2002, I’d been submerged in a historical novel set in Roman Britain and pre-Christian pagan Ireland that came, as all novels do, unbidden and all at once; a story of a hapless Roman tribune caught up in Imperial intrigue and Irish blood feuds, with a little help from the usual suspects; druids, kings, irascible Irish, a very real Roman Emperor and a hot-blooded Irish redhead with her own ideas, especially about that Roman tribune. At that time, I was reading everything I could get my hands on by Morgan Llewellyn, and I was quite inspired by her retelling of Irish legends, so inspired in fact, I thought that heretical, dangerous thought: I could do that …

But since 2002, and certainly since late 2008, I had been writing about all manner of things; feminism, motherhood, marriage, fashion, faith, paganism, madness and music. I wrote ex tempore, like a jazz improvisation, simply sitting down, starting Word and letting rip on whatever got my goat/boiled my blood/made me think on that particular day.

There I was, on yet another dark and stormy night, this one November 6th, 2009, when a short story snuck in on stealthy feet inspired by an early 90’s PR photo, and then a reader requested a follow-up. So I had to write that.

That – which became Chapter Two of Quantum Demonology, was the starting point for my initiation into horror. It wasn’t in any way premeditated, it just kinda happened. And if you know anything about my own literary proclivities, you might be aware my titans of literature are all to an extent writers of horror; my beloved Edgar Allan Poe as the diamond-encrusted platinum standard at the top, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Clive Barker, Stephen King and Anne Rice, along with a DK institution named Dennis Jürgensen.

I settled myself in cozily among them knowing great company when I saw it, read none of them while writing QD, and kept on going. I felt immediately at home in that dark landscape of my own making, felt it was the best place to plant my predilections and thought ‘wtf, let’s see where this takes me.’

Here’s where: to places I never even knew existed, to ideas I was unaware I had, and most of all, to an unexpected and hugely liberating conclusion; there was darkness in this heart of mine, and in that darkness, some mighty flowers bloomed.

I very much believe – and might even say, if any one asks – that horror is far and away the most elastic literary genre of all, even if the word ‘genre’ rubs my fur in several wrong ways. Genre implies limitation, pigeonholing, marginalization, and surely novels and stories should have wider horizons and maybe wider audiences, too? Books like Lewis’ The Monk or Bram Stoker’s Dracula were never written to be categorized as ‘horror’ – that handy-dandy label came much later. They were written as literature. Full stop. Just as any other work of ‘literary’ (read: “proper”) fiction.

The End.

Yet horror – here defined fairly narrowly as fiction dealing with themes of the supernatural, the monstrous, the macabre or the monstrously strange – can be a scaffold for anything you care to throw in it. Themes of decay, depravity or degradation can be seamlessly melded into larger, existential themes such as allaying that primeval, human fear of death and dissolution. You can haul out tropes of other genres and blend them in, too: erotic fiction, for instance, has all sorts of potential for the horrific and/or the psychologically illuminating. If you don’t believe me, I offer you Exhibit A: Anne Rice. I don’t do vampires – precisely because I feel Anne Rice wrote the definitive modern version of those creatures of the night, and I can’t add anything original to that – yet I can certainly appreciate and applaud her matchless purple prose and her focus of the eroticism of vampires, something Bram Stoker suggested with the finest of Victorian pen strokes and Christopher Lee embodied perfectly in his own Hammer rendition of that famous Transylvanian Undead.

Writing horror has other nefarious – and salutary – effects on this writer: it has enabled me to face my demons – or a good many of them. Clad in fictional garb and folded in by brute force with other preoccupations and obsessions, my demons and I are finally on speaking terms, and more to the point, I know who and what they are. I know where they live, and I know how to conjure them. Whether it’s the Demon of Relationships (d-o-n’t fence me in!), the Demon of Inferiority (screw that one and do it anyway, because there will always, always be better writers and better people than you) or that Demon of Claustrophobia (I have, I was surprised to discover, an absolute terror of small, constricted spaces) I have yet to tackle in fiction (give it time!), they all look so much better in daylight and on the page. It’s monumentally cathartic for me, defangs them and takes away their power over me, if hopefully not their power to terrify a reader.

Which leads me to that other thing about horror: if you’re very lucky and pitch your prose throw just right, you get to scare the bejeezus out of people. In my case, that also means that if I can’t scare myself while writing, I can’t scare you, either. Careful reading of many horror books since QD’s publication has taught me one major thing about horror, and this, too was a massive surprise:

You don’t have to spell everything out. Know just enough to get yourself in trouble, and show just enough to ignite a reader’s imagination. Do it right, and they will do ALL the rest for you, roaring conflagrations included.

Scaring myself – whether by word or by deed – is a favorite occupation of mine. I’m one of those blithering idiots who thrive on intellectual adrenaline, whose idea of a great time involves letting go, in conversation or in writing something I have not one idea about, all of it is my equivalent of bungee jumping into an abyss. The terror is absolute. The rush is incredible when it works, and ya know … sometimes, it does. Or so I like to believe until an editor tells me otherwise.

My problem with ‘horror’ – or what the publishing world chooses to define as such – is precisely the pigeonholing, the narrow focus, the mentality of ‘it never sells’, and the all-pervasive underlying idea that horror is a sideline adolescent-minded phenomenon on the suspect fringes of ‘proper’ literature. Even Stephen King, the modern age’s Grand Old Man of Horror, has passed the baton to his son, Joe Hill, of whom I’ve read all of two books, but what I’ve read has been promising, although I wouldn’t call it all-out ‘horror’.

I read a great many things on any given day. History books, sociology, pop culture reference books, biographies and even literary fiction. Some of those have been borderline unreadable if not incoherent as novels, and apparently, I’m an imbecile, philistine dolt who is not at all in on the know or has any kind of literary street cred whatsoever if I can’t understand them. To the ghost of David Foster Wallace, that means you. James Joyce, you’re no exception, either.

But in the past two years, I’ve also had the distinct, sharp thrill of being introduced to writers I never even knew existed, writers who have taught me more than I thought possible, writers who have made me laugh and think new things, writers who have upended conventions and preconceptions, even my calcified own. All of them share one common theme.

They’re all (if not all exclusively) horror writers, likely for many of the same reasons with which I justify my own brand of madness. Like mine, their demons are gnawing away in the dark, waiting to be brought to light by right or by might. Their stories may differ and their focus may shift along other, weirder spectrums of unspeakable, but we all have That One Thing in common:

Darkness lies in our hearts. Be afraid! Which you are, right?

For a far better angle, I recommend the all-out schamazing Chuck Wendig’s blog, and this post in particular.

Illustration: Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Sexy – Sexy Writing

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–  on the perils of rolling with Cousin Id

Whenever I’m asked done of those ‘how did you’ questions about ‘writing sexy’ (which is never defined by the questioner, strangely enough), I often joke that if you can write about perfume or sex, you can write about anything.

This isn’t strictly true, but in an age that has a celebrated UK prize for Worst Sex Scene, I figured I might as well hedge my bets, especially in a book that has so darn many of them, each of them pivotal to the overall story arc, as I came to discover when I revised the book for publication.

The fact is, sex sells. As a favorite arch-villain says in a favorite TV series, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power. (Now you know!)

So one thing my publisher and I agreed upon straight off was to turn the amp up as high as the writer could bear. In this post-Fifty Shades age, the readers who might read my book are becoming more jaded, more blasé and demanding in their judgment of what constitutes a ‘sexy’ book.

Therein lies a treacherous peril. Because of that blasted, wretched, execrable piece of clit lit called ‘Fifty Shades’, its two sequels, and its countless imitators.

Let me start by stating this first: I have an immense respect for the cultural impact of precisely what E. L. James has done: She got women thinking – and talking – about what turns them on to such an extent it’s become a cultural touchstone. I’m far less happy that she has hugely misrepresented the inner workings of BDSM, and in so doing given vast numbers of people all sorts of wrong impressions on how such relationships actually work. And really livid her heroine is such a passive, naïve nincompoop of a cardboard, two-dimensional ‘character’.

Worst of all to my literary mind is the woman couldn’t write it without hauling out the most tired, overexposed clichés in the Oxford English Dictionary. It may be effective, but it sure ain’t pretty… and I only made it through Volume One before I wanted those hours of my life back.

So it follows that any comparisons to that particular collection of prose curls my toes in all the worst ways. That’s not what I set out to accomplish.

I have my own idols of erotic writing and certain standards I try to live up to. Erica Jong, Anne Rice, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Colette, Apollinaire, Pauline Réage, certain passages of Huysmann’s À Rebours and À Bás, Baudelaire’s poetry… I could go on. All of these writers have inspired me to such an extent, they’ve become the gold standard for the kind of writing I felt I could send out into the world without blushing.

Yet in the reviews I’ve received and in the comments and emails that have followed in the wake of Quantum Demonology, that s-word keeps recurring. Sexy.

Thank you. I tried. And this is how.

To begin with, I’m not exactly a blushing virgin. A wide range of experiences has been much more of a bonus that I ever expected. (Thanks, guys!) Interpret that as you please.

Second – and I can’t emphasize this enough – the character of Dev as he’s portrayed in the published book is not based on anyone I know or have ever known. In the first draft, there were many references to a former (toxic) boyfriend I once knew, but you can bet your booties I took every single reference out when I revised it for publication.

Third, in complete opposition to Hemingway’s maxim of ‘writing drunk and editing sober’ and contrary to what you might think, every draft I ever wrote was written in a time of absolute celibacy. If it weren’t, I’d be far too busy to write… 😉

Celibacy does astonishing things to the creative imagination. As Anaïs Nin once noted in a similar context and I’ll paraphrase, when you’re starving on a desert island, you don’t dream of three McDs cheeseburgers, you dream of sixteen course haute cuisine extravaganzas with all the wines to match.

But the biggest caveat in writing ‘sexy’ is this one: it has to fit the storyline, suit the characters as they’re written and the overall arc. Because if it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong in the story to begin with.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, OK, you might think. But how do you write about it?

Thanks to my training as a graphic artist, I’m very keyed into the visual. In other words, I have to see what I write as a movie (NOT that kind) and choreograph it in my head with lights, mood, ambience. I also have to remember that it’s far more erotic to imply and suggest than to spell everything out in graphic and boring detail. The trick is to set one tiny cog in motion in the reader’s mind and watch the domino effect from there. That way, I’m not spelling out s-e-x-y, the reader’s imagination is. Which is far more effective than anything I could write.

Next, I have to write it out as I ‘see’ it in my mind. Most of what put the ‘sexy’ in Quantum Demonology was rewritten and revised a minimum of eight to ten times before I sent it on. Some were just skipped altogether at the time and finally knocked out two hours before the deadline in exasperated desperation and a lot of despair. All of them written with a great deal of pencil chewing, cursing in several languages, teeth gnashing, figurative banging my head on my keyboard and sheer, utter agony – not because I’m a prude, but because it’s the hardest writing you can do, bar none. And if it didn’t work for me, it didn’t work at all.

Strangely enough, one of my readers of draft three mentioned ‘the very depths of depravity’, which surprised me no end. I thought I hadn’t been depraved enough, debauched enough, sawed through that branch of a sure thing hard enough to freefall.

In other words, I felt that somewhere, I wimped out. I feel a little less so now the book is out to judge or condemn, but I do know enough to realize that I could have been far more depraved, except it would have been far less successful as a book if I had.

I’ve received many compliments on that ‘sexy’ book. But the two biggest compliments of all came from two male friends of mine – one a most excellent acknowledged writer himself – when they both said my words had turned them on…

Which means I finally got something right!