A Vehicle for My Muse: Why I Write Horror
It’s a question that has been asked of me many times since I began writing in 1990, when I was thirteen. I’m not the first person to be asked that, usually with a tone of sadness. “With your talent,” I’m told, “you could write anything, yet you insist on writing horror stories.” I’ll return to that particular statement again, I promise, but for now I’d like to address that the question “Why horror?” is a common one. It can be asked in terms of a person’s viewing preferences: “Why do you like horror movies?” Reading: “Why do you read that horror stuff?” And, of course, the writing, which is what I’m going to focus on. Stephen King wrote a book in 1981 that essentially answers the question for him. It’s called Danse Macabre and I highly recommend it. But I guess each of us has our own roads to travel and I’m not Stephen King, so the question remains: Why write horror?
The question makes some assumptions. One is that I have a choice. It’s like asking me why I was born with brown hair, or why do I have so many moles? I don’t know. There’s something in me that’s just attracted to dark things. I think a part of it is because I have such a dark streak within, that has manifested itself as depression, obsessive thinking, and, at times (especially when I was younger) anger. It’s not that darkness and death and destruction is all I care about, either as a person or as a member of the audience. For most of my childhood, Star Wars and superheroes were my favorite things and I was terrified of stuff as minimal as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Yet, there was also a draw to the video.
When I was nine, I announced to my mother that I was old enough to start watching “thrillers” with her, which is what she called horror movies. I discovered this because of insomnia, which opened up the world of late night cable to me, with horror movies, B action movies, and softcore porn. My parents were sleeping and in the late-1980s, there were no parental controls. Either way, shortly after my announcement, my mother watched and decided to let me watch the first two A Nightmare on Elm Street movies in a double feature on HBO. I was terrified, but I was hooked.
Horror movies became one of my favorite things and, eventually, led me to reading The Shining by Stephen King when I was 13. Some dark times began when I was twelve. Puberty had hit and I’d begun to feel sad a lot. I’d never been the popular kid in school and now it was even more blatant. A few “friends” I had made fun of me when they came over one day and saw that I had my action figures set up in mid-story. By the time I was thirteen, I was struggling with the part of me that wanted to still play but didn’t want to be a baby. For me, the action figures and role playing I would do wasn’t just playing, it was a creative outlet, a way to let out the steam that was always building within me. While the action figures remained in shoeboxes under the bed, and playtime would be behind closed doors for several years to come, on the day of my 13th birthday, upon reading the first few chapters of The Shining, I decided to become a writer.
It wasn’t far-fetched. I’d already thought about becoming a comic book writer and artist, so the idea of writing without the drawing became appealing. Now, whether I began writing horror at that age because I was reading Stephen King or because I just liked scary movies already is beyond me. Had I begun reading Isaac Asimov at that time, would I have begun writing science fiction? Or had I read Elmore Leonard, would I have written crime novels? I don’t know. What I do know is that I began writing, thereby helping myself get the stories out that I wanted to tell.
Because for me, it’s the stories. They strike me, they compel me. I’ve been the vehicle for my muse for my entire life, from the time I was small and playing with toys or role playing, to right now, where I have a novella, a novel, and several short stories in various drafts, and ideas for no fewer than eight other projects in my head, all of them compelling me to write them. I must tell stories, and I must tell these stories.
So, why horror?
Well, from a completely mercenary standpoint, that’s mostly what I’ve published so far and I’m in the position, after about a dozen years, of still building a career. One of the ways to do that is to build a brand. One of the ways to that, is to build an audience. Horror is the genre in which I began my career and it’s where, right now, many of my readers are. What money I make comes from horror or dark fantasy stories.
From a personal standpoint, well…why do I have all these moles? The stories that have compelled me to write them are darker stories. Sometimes they come from current work and inform new projects. Here’s a for-instance for ya: So I’m working on the novel Shadowed and I’m getting nowhere with it. I know that maybe half of what I’ve written for it is pretty good, the other half is garbage. I’m about to move from the Greater New Bedford area in Massachusetts to Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood in Boston, and I’ve fallen in love with J.P. I want to write something that’s set there. Maybe…a ghost story? I don’t know why, but it feels right. But what would it be? And The Voice says, Take the characters from “Snow Day” and the characters from “Mommy’s Baby Don’t Need to Grow Up” and put them together. WHAMMO! I felt compelled to see what would happen. I drop Shadowed and begin working on the novel that I’m currently in the process of revising. During a draft of the novel, I had a dream featuring two teenage girls, one beautiful and ugly on the inside, the other ugly but somewhat beautiful on the inside. The beautiful one is a bully to the ugly one. However, the ugly one has two brothers who are ne’er-do-wells who I suspect are going to do something very bad for their sister, even though she doesn’t want them to. The two girls work at a candy store. WHAMMO! Another idea. While still working on the novel, I realize I should just take the abandoned Shadowed novel and keep the good parts by making it a novella. Strangely enough, Greg Gifune contacts me around that time to see if I have a novella that Shane Staley at Delirium might look at. Shadowed is rewritten and spurs me to write the idea about the two girls, which I know is going to be dark, dark, DARK. One story begot the other. Each one compelled me to write the next.
I am powerless. Yes, I could ignore the impulse. I could say that I don’t want to write that horror stuff, but I don’t see it as stuff. I see the horror genre, when done right, when done well, as a genre with endless possibilities. I also see it as a way to look in the blackness of the human soul and ask the important: Why? I also see it as a means to look into the light of the human soul, the thing that makes us persevere, the thing that makes us try to move on from terrible, terrible things. I think it’s important to sometimes look into the darkness to appreciate the light.
“But in a world where so many terrible things happen, why focus on them?” Why not? To ignore them is to give them power. We are afraid of that which we do not know. Let’s go back to my moles. Could they be cancerous? Well, I don’t think so. But what if one of them were? What then? What if I did, indeed, have skin cancer? I’d have to fight it. No question. Just as every single person reading this would. If I don’t talk about it, what good does it do?
Not everyone will agree with me on this. Several people I love and cherish disagree with me. As a writer, though, my job is to tell a story in an honest way. Unfortunately, sometimes the stories that compel me to write them aren’t pretty. And neither is life. My job is to do what others may not be willing to: look into the darkness, traverse its caverns, and to report back what I find. The goal? Well, hopefully to make you feel better about your life. In the best of situations, you can say, “Well, if those characters were able to make it out of that, maybe I can make it out of this.” In other situations, it may be as simple as, “Damn, I’m lucky I’ve never had to deal with that.”
In the end, could I write things other than horror? Yes. I have trunk novels that include a really bad space opera and a crime novel. I have ideas for at least three science fiction tales I’d like to write, two of them based on Shakespeare plays, as well as a crime novel I’d like to write. I’d love to write an adventure story and if I were ever asked to write a media tie-in novel for Batman or Superman or Star Wars, I absolutely would. I’d still love to write for comic books, especially one-shots or stand alone miniseries featuring those superheroes. And maybe someday, if I’m ever able to write full-time, I will. Or if the opportunity presents itself, I will.
For now, though, with the limited time that I have after teaching all day (and in between classes I must take to maintain my teaching career), I have to write what compels me, and if it’s horror, well, that’s how it is. I love it, I appreciate it, and I’m not afraid of it. Well, I am afraid of it, but that’s the point.