I write dark fiction because I believe that the best examination of character occurs when a person is experiencing the worst of circumstances. Dark fiction is a place where we can make those circumstances pretty bad. It’s not that I necessarily want to “scare” my readers, that’s an added benefit, what I really want to do is scare my characters and explore those reactions. It follows that if the characters are my creation, then the only thing that might really scare them are my fears. My characters do not always respond as I believe that “I would.” Sometimes they surprise me. It does not matter if they are more fearful, nor if they are braver than I. They say that “courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgment that something is more important than that fear.” For me, that is what the journey into darkness is really about, one’s courage to face the demons of both our internal world and our external world. To explore character in the face of fear.
(You can read my commentary on phobia’s in films at my nightmirrors blog.)
An article in Live Science discussed the prevalence of phobia’s in the U.S. The Live Science article reads like a topic blueprint for any dark fiction writer. Just reciting a list of “scary” things, however, is not enough to make a great story. Often we see this error in horror films and horror books. A good idea is wasted because it never connects to the audience’s deeper feelings. The creator mistakenly believes that some gruesome depiction is enough to inspire dread. That is a lie that will never sell. As the creators of such things we may spread our emotions and our fears amongst our characters, but each of these emotions must first belong to us, before we can make them real for our audience.
Fiction writers are liars by trade. We start with one lie and then continue to build on it with more and more accounts of things that never happened. The stories that really speak to the reader, the stories that have them so willing to accept our fabrications are the tales that inter-twine the lies with a thread of truth. That truth for dark fiction writers is our own fears and phobia’s. It’s the courage to reveal a bit of honesty in all that fictionalization. If we are truthful and honest about those things that frighten us, then the reader feels it and they respond in kind. If we try to fake it, if we withhold our own fears, the reader experiences that flatness of emotion. The story may still be good and interesting, but it will never be great. The honesty in our deception is what the reader responds too. Whether they share that particular fear is not as important as their feeling that the emotion is genuine.
It doesn’t mean that a writer can’t include viewpoints that he or she doesn’t agree with. In fact if treated with fair objectivity, that’s exactly what a writer should do. Views, however, are a rational reflection (well sometimes), but the real points in our stories are those of emotion and that cannot be faked. Opinions can be faked, passion cannot. Objective observations can help expand the breadth of a story, but only emotion can add depth. Faking those emotions will not pass the reader’s test and a great writer cannot examine others until first he examines himself. It does not mean we need to write thick, syrupy romances. It doe not mean that a writer can’t veil these truths within characters or make their presence subtle. It simply means that they must appear and that when they do, they must be honest.
That ability requires the writer to see and appreciate their own craziness. Our business is the business of fear. Completely rational people need not apply. Those without the ability to at least consider fantastical monsters should pass on this particular room of loons. If you are brave and unmoved by things that go bump in the night, then you have no business writing horror stories. You can’t possibly connect the reader to a fear that you don’t experience. Any attempt to do so creates a story that “tells” us about fear, but lacks the ability to “show” us that fear.
To the outsider horror seems easy. Just create some monster and throw it into the plot line. The horror fan, however, understands that is not enough. After all, whom would write a book on building rockets without the actual knowledge to build one? And yet writers will delve into the depths of horror without the requisite emotion of personal fear. Others will try to write about things they believe scare others, but have no impact on them. Still others will not have the nerve to share with honesty their own fears.
At 47 years old, I know damn well there is nothing under the bed, but just the same I keep the covers tucked. Maybe that makes me a little irrational, but it is those exact irrational feelings that I write in my work. Does it make me a coward? I think it takes a lot of courage to call my wife over to kill that palmetto bug (non-Florida residents: Palmetto Bugs look like a winged roach on steroids). I don’t write horror because I am brave or because I have mastered my fears. I write horror because it allows me to put all those crazy irrational thoughts on the page. My fear does not paralyze me, it inspires me and often it just makes me laugh at myself – me the college educated business man who views a dark closet with suspicion.
Fear and phobia’s are the things that have made the genres Masters. Stephen King’s personal demons made his work exceptional. When I drink too much, I go to Denny’s and drown myself in carbs – Mr. King sat down and wrote novels. Poe’s fear of loss built on his resume of dead loved ones resulted in his epic stories and poems. Dean Koontz ability to convey “abuse” with such emotional articulation makes the reader wonder as to the conditions of his childhood. Kafka ( a horror writer of sorts) took his fear and confusion over tuberculosis and created The Trial. And of course, Lovecraft, the quiet measured man, recited in great detail the nightmare worlds that filled his dreams.
These writers teach us that the image of the monster may take many forms. Those forms can be as fantastical as a tentacled beast s or as mundane as an old broken down car. They can be as classic as the blood-sucking or flesh-eating undead or as unique as the writer can imagine. What matters most about these monsters is not their form, but the personal source from which the writer draws them forward into this world. A horror writer’s responsibility is to work from real fear. It is to take his or her own fear and to fictionalize that experience so that it might becomes everyone’s fear. And that can only happen when beneath the lies of fiction there is a truth that we can all recognize.