Sunday, 11 August 2013

Cat ate your tongue? Reading and writing horror

“Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places" - HP Lovecraft

Ah, wondering what to write about today in between thinking about my current project, which is a book starring those lovely, beautiful, graceful things we all know as zombies, I thought, well, that could be a cool subject!

The world lost a great writer in June with the death of Richard Matheson, aged 87. I knew he wrote I am Legend (1954), but didn’t realise quite how prolific he was. When I read the list, I thought, mmm, what have I been doing all my life? Sitting on my butt watching TV or something?

I remember one of my English teachers at Secondary School telling our class that we should write what we know. I always thought that was kind of boring. I mean, who wants to read about my childhood or what I ate for dinner last night, and how I needed to de-flea my cat (she didn’t really, so I’m making her look bad). I always thought it was more fun to write about what I don’t know.

Sometimes you learn things. Like yesterday, I was writing a scene and wanted someone to throw a grenade in a space the length of a train carriage. On Googling grenades, I discovered it’s not really going to work without blowing up everyone, including your main characters. End of book. I know many films don’t really go in for realism – cue men in their 60s who smoke a lot, running from a tank, throwing a grenade in close proximity with no apparent danger and shooting one-handed with a machine gun, before leaping on a motorbike and carrying on shooting said gun. Gung-ho, but really? 

Aiming for realism and creating stuff that a reader can believe and get sucked into, well that’s a challenge. And in horror, I think it’s a massive one. You’ve gotta scare the pants off the reader, who is just dying to be scared. And if it’s not scary they’re gonna laugh, like I giggled most of the way through World War Z, which was about as thrilling as my bag of almonds.

I always loved zombies. Well, let’s alter that slightly. Zombies always scared the crap out of me. I was watching scary films, graduating gradually from Hammer House of Horror with Christopher Lee vamping it up since the age of 11, which might explain a lot. Anyway, I’m kind of immune to horror films now, but the thing that always scared me was zombies. But, hey, they’re just so not realistic. Out of all the scary things you see in horror films, they’re probably the least likely to happen. You’re more likely to bump into a blood-sucking werewolf on his day off from the zoo. But zombies kick butt. I’m totally addicted to The Walking Dead and frequently yell at the screen, and this girl was spooked playing Resident Evil on her PlayStation. The music went boom boom, the perspective changed, heavy breathing filled the air and I froze, too scared to move my little guy around the corner. 

It is this kind of fear, suspense, sense of dread and grab-you-by-the-nuts thrills that we seek to achieve in writing horror. And it doesn’t come easy. The reader needs to believe it is happening to begin with to even think of being scared. So how do you make things that are implausible seem as likely to walk up to your door and ring the bell as the Avon Lady?

I’d like to write a scary book, but I’m not sure if it’s in me, but I’m giving it a go. The last time I tried to write a horror – also about zombies – it turned into a comedy called Day of the Living Pizza (homage to Night of the Living Dead), but it was okay because it was written for a ten-year-old boy. It was also a story for charity (included in The Gage Project, published by Inknbeans Press), and that’s another subject altogether – how writing something for a charitable cause can really inspire you and get you writing. I wrote Pizza in a couple of days because the incentive was there. And it was a lot of fun. I think any procrastinators (like me) out there will get that!

Anyway, back to scary... Horror isn’t normally the genre I pick when reading a book nowadays, but I read a lot of them as a teenager. I loved – and still do – Stephen King (well, who doesn’t?). Thrills are the thing I’m looking for and scary descriptions, and suspense that slowly builds until you just want it all over as the suspense is literally killing you or some of the characters, as the case may be. The Shining is one of those great horror books, including a scene that freaked me (if I say bath, you’ll know) and I loved many others – Carrie, Christine, Salem’s Lot, Pet Cemetary, Cujo (so sad), Misery and The Stand. Actually, listing them is making me want to read them. IT is also on my to-read list.

I think it’s hard to write endings. You watch so many films where the ending is an anti-climax, but I never thought that with King’s books. Keeping the reader hooked and giving them a slam-dunk ending is genius. When you can sit back and say “Well, I didn’t see that coming”, you know you’ve read a good one.

Back to Richard Matheson, I was astonished to find that he also wrote The Shrinking Man, Hell House, What Dreams May Come, Bid Time Return (filmed as Somewhere in Time, which made me cry), A Stir of Echoes and Duel (also wrote the screenplay). On top of that he penned TV episodes of The Twilight Zone and wrote the scripts for The Devil Rides Out and The Raven, amongst others. Looking at his books, they cross genres – horror, thriller, romance, supernatural, etc. That’s just cool as I’ve heard people say you should stick to one genre when writing. Where’s the fun in that?

But what is horror fiction?
It is intended to scare or startle the reader and create a feeling of horror or terror. The atmosphere is usually eerie and frightening, and it doesn’t have to be supernatural. The origins of the genre lie in the gothic horror stories/poetry of the 18th century and the publication of Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole in 1764. The novel included elements of the supernatural and it was popular. Wikipedia notes that “a significant amount of horror fiction of this era was written by women and marketed at a female audience, a typical scenario being a resourceful female protagonist menaced in a gloomy castle”. That surprised me.

Common themes in horror:
Madness, ghosts, vampires, zombies, werewolves, cruelty, a protagonist who is cast out of society, the idea of having a double, good versus evil, disgust, satire of society, thrills, build up of suspense through heavily detailed passages, female victim common, disfigurement of self as parallel to personality inside or contrasting it, sexual aggression and a feeling of dread.

Little history:
The Gothic tradition blossomed into horror literature in the 19th century. Books you may have read include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). I read all of these in my teens and at college, and Dracula is the only book that contains a scene that ever made me jump (I won’t give it away!).  Not all of these writers stuck to the horror genre in their writing.

In the 20th century, horror took off with many cheap periodicals around. Tod Robbins wrote horror fiction for mainstream pulps such as All-Story Magazine. Other publications included Weird Tales and Unknown Worlds. HP Lovecraft was prolific and his novel Cthulhu Mythos “pioneered cosmic horror” while MR James “is credited with redefining the ghost story” (Wikipedia quotes). EC Comics published series such as Tales from the Crypt. HP Lovecraft wrote about the idea of the living dead in Cool Air (1925), In the Vault (1926) and The Outsider (1926). Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) would also influence the zombie genre.

Contemporary horror embraces in such novelists as Stephen King (IT/Pet Semetary), Brian Lumley (Vampire World/Necroscope), James Herbert (The Rats/The Fog), Dean Koontz (Watchers/Midnight), Clive Barker (Books of Blood/Damnation Game), Ramsey Campbell (The Hungry Moon/Obsession) and Peter Straub (Mr X/The Throat). Obviously, there are many more, but I’d be here all day! 

Other notable novels off the top of my head:
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill – I love this; much scarier than the film and a much better ending.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
Perfume by Patrick Suskind; really got under my skin and great writing style.
Return of the Living Dead by John Russo
Ring by Koji Suzuki
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Watchers by Dean Kootz

I love poetry so I’m including gothic for its imagery:
The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
La Belle Dame sans Merci and On a Dream by John Keats (love him)
I would add Dante’s 14th century poem Divine Comedy with its journey through hell
TS Eliot’s The Wasteland or Ash Wednesday (love him too)

Excerpt from Ash Wednesday, so you can see what I mean by terrific imagery and build-up:

“At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.
At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man's mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.”
(TS Eliot)

A few quotes from two horror writers:
HP Lovecraft:
"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

“The process of delving into the black abyss is to me the keenest form of fascination.”

“Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places.”

Stephen King:
“Death is when the monsters get you” – Salem’s Lot.

From On Writing:
“If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write.”

 “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

“When asked ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘One word at a time’, and the answer is invariably dismissed. But that is all it is. It sounds too simple to be true, but consider the Great Wall of China, if you will: one stone at a time, man. That’s all. One stone at a time. But I’ve read you can see that motherfucker from space without a telescope.”

“You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”

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