Some people prefer to read their Horror within the autumn atmosphere surrounding Halloween. I’m more open to letting the right story pull me in, no matter the season. A couple of late summer Horror titles, Fiend, by Peter Stenson, and Floating Staircase, by Ronald Malfi, have been two of the best reads of the year, and in doing so, have made me think about story elements that I really enjoy in Horror. They’ve also inspired me to begin my next novel, but as I’m getting into this Horror/Magical Realism tale, I’ve written some scenes that are pretty repulsive.
This has me thinking about how to balance elements of Horror that I enjoy with ones that would turn me off, as well as probably a large contingent of readers. I’m in the camp of using one name for all of my different genre stories, but this latest tale is so edgy that I fear scaring off some of my readers who are more Magical Realism or Science Fiction fans than Horror. Okay, I’ll come right out and say it, my main character is forced to cut people by a kind of vampire that he moves in next to.
And we have my biggest fear: pain by blade. I’m more okay with the commonly used broadsword across the midsection that films mask to less gory effects. Most of the blood is hidden in this kind of attack, and while sometimes these type of attacks come off as cheesy, they are less replusive than throat slitting or stabbing. I like Horror, but I’ve stopped watching shows like American Horror Story because I just can’t stand to watch someone being stabbed.
So why does my story have to have cutting? Maybe it’s because that’s what scares me most. There’s a line in Floating Staircase about all the best stories being honest ones, so it would make sense that my character’s fear is not only watching someone get cut, but being forced to cut.
Does good Horror have to repulse? Is there much of a difference between being repulsed and being scared through our biggest phobias? Could you say the best writers make us face our biggest fears?
Fiend has moments of revulsion as the author describes the picking of scabs and some sexual experiences (I’m not a fan of experiencing sexual sensations through reading, call me prude if you like), but Fiend also has the terror of dying, which is my favorite Horror element to play on. I love a good survival Horror book, and Fiend hits that element hard and well. Add emotional connection to the characters at risk of dying and you’ve sold me. (My SF Signal review / AISFP 223 interview)
Sometimes, though, there are worse things than dying, and I think that’s where my story is taking my character. Worse than dying is being turned into a monster and losing his wife in the process. Worse than just being a monster is wanting to be the monster and worse than losing one’s loved one is wanting them to leave and or forgetting about them. This is what is happening in my story, and the torture element is crucial to that.
Floating Staircase highlighted two other areas I like in my Horror: moving into a new home with ghosts and a writer main character. Ronald’s language is my favorite at describing setting and situations in ways that evoke slow-buring terror. This was what inspired me to write this new story, but the ghost aspect became a neighbor who bleeds his victims to gain power and because my main character is of the same kind of elemental power, he forces my main character to cut young girls (hey, he’s the sicko, not me–this is what scares me the most and this is what came out of my attempt to write a scary story).
The question I keep asking myself as I write this story–it is a story, not just cutting people–is why I have to write it if it repulses me. Even as I write this blog post I’m afraid people are going to think I’m some kind of closet murderer or something. I mean, I’m not a (what’s the word for people who don’t have guilt?) because it really hurts experiencing an innocent child being hurt. To be honest, I experienced abuse as a child, though not to the kind that it would be on the news or anything. And I have loved ones who cut themselves and threatened to kill themselves.
So, why am I writing this story? I could stop and pick a different one, but what is a story if not for putting our characters in conflicts that expose their weaknesses? More often than not, their weaknesses and fears are our (the writer’s) weaknesses and fears, and the goal of the stories I tell is how they overcome.
One difference here is that the conflicts in my other stories relate to actual conflict in my life. This story is more of an illustration of a phobia than a working out of a problem–well, not this element anyway, there is the theme of a writer indulging in what separates him from his wife, sometimes to dangerous levels (which I illustrate through this dream state of cutting people).
I imagine some people reading this and thinking I’m onto something by writing a story that elicits such a visceral response. We’re supposed to write until we cry, right? Can that advice extend to writing until we say “No, please stop. I can’t handle this?”
And, I imagine some people will read this and think, “Man I miss the last producer. Isn’t this website supposed to be about Science Fiction?”
Whatever side of the aisle you’re on, what do you think? Have I gone off the deep end with this story? Is that a good thing?
Timothy C. Ward‘s first publication, Cornhusker: Demon Gene (A Short Story), is available on Kindle for $.99. He is looking for beta readers for his novel, Kaimerus, described as “Firefly crashes on Avatar and wakes up 28 Days Later.”
Stay tuned for next week’s interview with Jason Hough, New York Times Bestselling author of The Darwin Elevator.