Accidental Horror

I’ve never set out to write horror. It’s not a genre I read, nor do I want to read it, so when I have a reader inform me that I’ve written it…. I assure you, it’s quite by accident. Nonetheless, life is sometimes horrifying. What I do set out to capture in a story is life, human nature, and the way we react to one another. When I wrote Memories of the Abyss, Sarah Hoyt had suggested to me that I was pulling my punches when it came to emotion in storytelling. You have to bleed a little on the page, she told me, so go write that. When she had read the story, at a writing workshop if I recall correctly, the weekend I joined the Mad crew here in the blog, she handed it back to me. With a shudder, she informed me I’d opened a whole damn vein into it.

I took the hint and dialed it back. I’d already written Twisted Breath of God at that point – it’s one of the first stories I ever finished. (Note the operative word finish, there.) It simply explores first contact with aliens, and an outcome thereof. Miscommunication, cargo cults, and human nature, once again. And yet… readers tell me it is horror.

Much later I wrote Snow in Her Eyes, knowing that there was going to be an outsize emotional impact in what I was writing. Any time there is a child involved… much less what I’m not going to spoil for the denouement of the story and investigation contained within it. Let’s just say some of what I wrote into that fantasy story was pulled from the real world. Which is, after all, the most horrifying of all possible places. Most of the time, I’m writing escapist fun stuff. Once in a while, though, I write reality into my stories and that’s when the icy fingers of horror seem to stroke the cheek of the reader.

Even the latest release, although it’s my Halloween story, and the title alone is making readers vocally recoil from the idea of buying it – with one telling me they would have nightmares just off the title – is not horror. Zombie Maggots is two stories, in one novella-length package. Both of the stories follow humans choosing to fight against the consequences of someone else’s actions. Both of the stories end on hope.

Thing is, when I wrote the first story ten years ago, I wasn’t exploring the idea of the horror. I was chasing a hard science fiction bent into the zombie apocalypse. I was also reliving my first great SFF con experience, through exploring human characters as they reacted to being caught away from home and unprepared for what was coming at them. Using flies, and maggots? Seemed perfectly normal to me. What better way to deal with decay than the ecosystem of scavengers extant?

I do get the visceral repulsion people feel towards maggots. Having grown up on a farm, I’ve dealt with them myself. And they don’t really bother me. But again, I think we’ve established that I’m not normal. So for me, Zombie Maggots was not the horror. The terror in the story was intended to be more about navigating home again, reconnecting across a land locked down in pandemic panic.

Which was the odd part about editing that decade-old story for publication. I had made some predictions in it, and brother let me confess now: I was wrong. I did not foresee the reactions that would come about eight years later. When I wrote the second story, early this year, I had been through a pandemic (albeit one much, much milder than what I was writing about) and had a whole new perspective. I had to do some serious editing on the first story to align it with reality… and that had nothing to do with the science involved. Only the human reactions.

I suppose that is where the horror lies. Not in the parasites and scavengers who rustle at the edges of our perceptions. They may make us shudder at what comes after life. The real horror, though, is what life brings to us.

11 comments

  1. Congratulations!

    Re: the impact of pandemic… I just read Greg Bear’s pair of novels (Darwin’s Radio, Darwin’s Children), written only a few years before our recent fun excursion into mismanaged pandemic, and I have to say he caught a lot of the “official” reaction pretty accurately. If I had read them when they first came out, it wouldn’t have been nearly so depressing.

      1. I think what depressed me with *The Last Centurion* was the official reaction to the weather/climate dip, combined with everything else. Because I could see things like that happening far too easily, given certain current philosophies. SIGH. The joys of reading enough history to mutter “Here we go again,” when lots of other people seem to be running around, wailing, “We’ve never seen this before!”

  2. I had complaints about too much horror.

    Always when retelling fairy tales. The Girl and the Dead Man, say

  3. For me, the greatest horrors are not the alien monsters or the zombies, because they are acting consistent with their defined nature, but the once-humans, acting contrary to their humanity. Lord of the Flies and Children of the Corn are examples.
    Many of humanities’ true monsters were / are? acting without restraint “in the best interests of the people (as they defined them) / of society / of humanity.” Here are Mengele, Stalin, Pol Pot, Tito, Hitler, Mao, and others.
    I am not yet sure that the current proponents of a much reduced human population ruled by a techno-elite belong on this kind of list, as I am not sure that they can actually accomplish their desires. The attempt is monstrous
    Other monsters were those abusing the power they had over their people, often by indulging their supporters perversions. Here are the likes of Saddam, Idi Amin, and Countess Bathory.
    Vlad Dracul / Vlad Tepes IV as a historical figure has become a monster because the far edge of normal behavior that he indulged during his wartime terror has become “inhuman” when seen from a modern context.
    Intelligence,unlimited by civilization, seems to be the source of our current monsters. John in Indy

  4. You’re not normal?

    Welcome to the party. *passes a glass of something or other* We’ll be here until our spouses drag us home. We’ll start back up tomorrow morning whenever we can crawl out of bed.

  5. Thinking more about it, decaying stuff and things that feed on dead bodies (animal or vegetable) don’t bother me when they are in their proper places – the woods, on roadkill, recycling a dead cow, whatever. It’s when maggots, molds, and so on are out-of-context, for lack of a better word, that the horror element creeps in. Sort of like animated dead, or fantasy demons with anatomy that’s Just Not Right (five legs, compound eyes in a mammal face, things like that.) The proper order of nature is out of whack, and that triggers a visceral reaction.

    1. The contamination-avoidance theory of disgust (or horror) — don’t touch that, it’s not “right”. I agree that it is probably literally visceral as part of our inherited toolkit. We are the survivors of an awful lot of primates that were more choosy about what they ate or touched.

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