My kids love the concept of Halloween, so right now we’ve been talking about it a lot at my house. I didn’t celebrate it, growing up – wrong religion – but they have been trick-or-treating since they were wee bairns, and enjoy it as a time of costumes and candy. Transformation into favorite characters, or creating their own characters through dressing up. The Junior Mad Scientist started working on a paper mache Pumpkinhead more than a month before the event. For the kids, it’s a time to delve into the stories around them in a transformative way.
For me as an adult, I get messages from my reading and listening material that this is the spooky season. Part of this is marketing, part is, of course, what led to the genesis of a day of the dead. The season of life, light, and warmth is drawing to a close in this hemisphere. It’s time to contemplate winter’s drawing death.
Which is likely why we create works in the horror genre. Contemplation of mortality and the presence of evil in the world. At least, that’s what I think. Because the modern horror genre, what I have seen of it, tends to be a lot of squick and gore. Rather than a taut psychological game, they are aiming for the grossest possible themes. And it’s not a genre I read if I know what I’m getting into…
At work I listen to a lot of podcasts. My predilections being what they are, I have added a few (coff several) to my playlist. Some of them are bringing out Halloween episodes, and I’m reminded that no matter how dark our imaginations are, reality can always be darker. I have to wonder, listening to some of the more modern cases, if some of them were influenced by the modern horror genre.
I don’t think I write horror. Readers have informed me otherwise from time to time. Works where I was extrapolating on consequences, come across as situations beyond the character’s control, and that reads as horror. It’s the helplessness. Not that the character didn’t want a different outcome, but that they could not, within the confines of the universe I postulated, change what was happening. For me, I was writing realism. For readers, it was horror.
This morning I’m sitting in the warm dark on the front porch. The songs of birds and insects make the darkness musical. It’s the furthest thing from horror, if life were fiction. But I’m asking my First Reader and the JMS for their input into this… The FR tells me the original Frankenstein’s Monster was horror. You never saw what happens to the little girl who went into the lake. The JMS said she’s afraid of clowns, so she thought of IT (note: she’s not read the book). The FR points out that hack ‘em up movies are not horror, they are just disgusting. JMS came back explaining that she doesn’t watch horror, she can’t take the jump scares.
But how would you define horror? I asked.
JMS says she considers jump scares part of horror. That, and psychological horror. She hasn’t watched those, but she thinks those mess with your brain. Jump scares bother her a lot.
Have you ever read any horror?
I have not, she says. Wait, she says, I might have read technically children’s horror. I remember one of them, this dude had a wife who always wore a ribbon around her neck. One day she dies, and he took the ribbon off, and her head fell off.
So FR, how would you define horror?
Horror as a genre covers everything from jump scares to twisted mental torture. I don’t care for it. Most of it is very black. Some is typical hero stories where the hero defeats the ooobiegoobie. Steven King and the Amityville Horror were good at scarring you spotless – at least early King. Salems’s Lot, not Christine. Slasher movies are not horror.
I define horror as fiction having a strong element of helplessness: the main character set is completely unable to control the events. Death, darkness, and lack of hope… Although horror can have a happy ending, it’s usually at a greater cost than any other genre. And horror leaves scars.
So why do people read horror? I can’t say, exactly. I know from this unusual conversation with my family that we don’t, mostly. Sometimes by accident. I think that it’s a choice of people who want to feel better about their own lives – I find it depressing. I’ve been in situations where I had no control, no ability to make good choices, and it sucks hard. I’d rather not have that in my fiction as a consequence. I also realize that I am hardly a representative member of the reading public, too!
Which brings me back to something: why did I write horror? I didn’t set out to, I will point out. With Memories of the Abyss, I was writing near autobiography – at the very least, my nightmare from a specific period of my life. Sarah Hoyt encouraged me to ‘bleed on the page’ to add verisimilitude to my work. When she read that novella some time later she responded with ‘Good Lord, Cedar, I didn’t mean for you to open a vein!’ With Sugar Skull, it’s not proper horror at all, it’s Monster fiction. Mindflow is a story of mother-love, but my First Reader has a visceral horrified reaction to it. Snow in Her Eyes is simply a tale of death and family, certainly influenced by my listening to true crime recently (I’ll note it’s not a genre I read, I find the books mostly boring, as they delve into a lot of fluff to fill out the length). That’s not horror, it’s reality.
But I’ll leave it up to you all. I’ve made my ‘horror’ stories free for the season, one a week until Halloween, and I’m planning to release Lab Gremlins on Halloween! Sugar Skull is a wry little story about a young woman who works in a morgue. It’s just a job, and she can handle it. But her boss…