On being a dark fiction writer

I guess if I wanted to have a fair chance of making a living as a writer, I would pen crime stories or perhaps romance for they sell in high numbers. The problem is that I don’t want to be a   “writer” I just want to tell stories. And with very few exceptions, the stories I tell reflect my passion for the Horror genre. Here is an example.

I am working on the outline of my fourth novel, “The Last Divorce.” A story I just have to tell, not because the plot drives me, but because the subject matter is something that I have wanted to put into words for…well for most of my life. The subject matter deals with a teen boy’s struggles with his parent’s divorce. Not just the struggles of that separation but the stigmatism it carries in the 1970’s. It deals with the shame and embarrassment of being “the kid from a broken home.” (A term that if a Teacher used today would result in immediate suits of defamation LOL). The story has the built in realism of my own experience and the experiences of many people my age.

So I outline the story idea. I think about the characters, they start talking to me, telling me their story and sharing the details of the events – the movie plays in my head and I like it. It’s going pretty well, until my mind starts working and I’m like “yeah, a killer in town is a great backdrop, but hey I know, what if it’s not just a killer? What if it’s something that looks like a man, but is really a monster, maybe a demon?” And off I go. A perfectly good mystery/coming of age story becomes a horror story…and with it, a big chunk of readership disappears. <Author sighs> (Stay tuned for my article “I don’t read that kind of stuff”)

The Horror genre has always been a little “iffy.” The original stuff, “gothic horror,” was not in its day considered “horror.” Tales like Shelly’s Frankenstein were Romantic Gothic’s and then later Victorian Gothics. Poe, who by my account was a “horror” writer is a part of the American Romantic Movement (what?!) and he is considered one of the fathers of the detective story. The closest we come to the word “horror” is when he is described as a writer of “mystery and macabre.” Even during the 18th and 19th century when there were many well-known authors dabbling in “horror,” (My upcoming post will provide some authors who might surprise you) the genre would still have to wait a while longer before it entered its own category.

In the early twentieth century, H.P Lovecraft helped define the “supernatural” tale as something distinct. Still the “post gothic” writing was constrained to mostly pulp fiction magazines like Weird Tales and Lovecraft himself was not a horror writer, but one who wrote “weird” fiction. Later he would be renowned for his work but when he died in 1937, he was mostly unknown and certainly broke.

The movie industry drove the genre and in many ways, movies continue to drive our perception and love of horror. Horror remains more popular on the screen then in the pages – more people have seen The Exorcist and Jaws than have read the book. There was a reading revival for modern horror stories again in the 80’s and in large part due to the works of Stephen King, whose stories returned horror to mainstream. That well dried up pretty quick and most American Horror Writers fled to the UK (well their work did) to make a living. People like Richard Laymon who wrote great stuff, classics like Ketchum’s “The Girl Next Door,” and great zombie stories like Brian Keene’s “The Rising,” have gone almost unnoticed. The last particularly interesting when one considers AMC’s hit The Walking Dead – based on a graphic novel. Keene’s ‘Zombie’ stories are clearly superior but comics are visual and easier to translate to the screen.

Even Mr. King seems to have departed the world of horror. His latest works have suspense, perhaps a small supernatural element, but they are a distance from Salem’s Lot and Carrie. My guess is that after Mr. King faced all his personal demons he had none left for us.

Perhaps that is what a horror writer is, a person filled with so many demons they simply must write about them – create worlds for those demons and monsters to live in – lest they be consumed by them. Perhaps every great horror writer is haunted and just one dark night away from the loony bin.

Horror is not dead. In truth, it is hard to say that a horror genre ever actually lived. Today it masquerades under sci-fi, fantasy, and suspense. You find King, Koontz, Keene, and Ketchum (I should change my last name to Kesposito) in the Barnes & Noble Literature section. In a way, horror is a lot like most of us… damn hard to place in a single category. Horror is less of a genre and more a philosophy I believe horror philosophy is the single, best place in which to demonstrate the greatness and the fortitude of the human condition (and the converse). I deeply believe that it is under the worst that we can truly know our best. And there exist no worse places than those we find in horror stories.

So I’m content to write in a “dead world” because I just want to tell touching, heart-felt stories…with monsters. For me, there is no Pulitzer Prize in the future; there are no “Of Mice and Men” or “Old Man and the Sea.” My stories do not lie in those brightly lit fields and shimmering oceans. My stories live in the dark corners, in the places where we avert our eyes, in places that seemed so real when we were children, in places where reality and insanity are difficult to separate.

Horror writing may forever live in a dead world. It may never gander the accolades of critics or the public, but that is not my objective and probably not the objective of any true horror writer. I write with the hopes that the reader will follow each word with mounting apprehension. That for a few thousand words they will find they “must” turn the page and see what they do not want to see… that they happen upon that paragraph or that sentence that brings a sense of dread…that my words follow them long after they close the book…, and that those words whisper to them in their darkest nightmares. And that in those nightmares they find some small bit of truth about who they really are.

Keep it sane

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