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“The three types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there …” — Stephen King
The horror genre is something that I’ve always been fascinated with. Luckily, I don’t think I’m the only one. People like to be frightened. If they didn’t, Stephen King wouldn’t have a thousand novels and you wouldn’t find every horror film ever made running on AMC at this time, every year. Seriously. Click over to AMC, I can almost guarantee Halloween, or one of its sequels, is on right now.
And horror has adapted. Yes, you can still find the slasher movies and those “gross-out” moments that King references. But it’s mental now. “Found footage” movies can be terrifying because it seems so normal, so everyday. The more real, the better. And the scarier. It’s the dark basement where the only thing you can hear is the beating of your own heart. That’s real horror. The kind of stuff that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, as if someone was standing inches behind you.
But writing horror isn’t so easy. With any type of fiction, it’s difficult to think of something that hasn’t already been done. With horror fiction, it’s especially true. Creepy basements, loud noises from the attic, hidden rooms, Indian burial grounds, old hotels, multiple personality disorder, etc.—it’s all been done before, and it’s all out there. These clichés shouldn’t restrain you, however. They’ve simply defined the space you’re working in. You know what’s there, now create your own story.
Below are Ramsey Campbell’s thoughts on “Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death” in On Horror Writing, edited by Mort Castle. Be sure to read it all the way to the end. That last sentence is breathtakingly creepy.
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Some people . . . claim that there’s nothing new in horror. In a sense, that may be true. More than sixty years ago, H.P. Lovecraft drew up a list of the basic themes of weird fiction, and I can think of very little that the field has added to that list since then. But that’s by no means as defeatist as it sounds, because the truth is surely that many of the themes we’re dealing with are so large and powerful as to be essentially timeless.
For instance, the folk tale of the wish that comes true more fully and more terribly than the wisher could have dreamed is the basis not only of “The Monkey’s Paw,” but of Stephen King’s Pet Semetary and of my own novel, Obsesssion, yet the three stories have otherwise far more to do with their writers than with one another. That suggests . . . that one way to avoid what has already been done is to be true to yourself.
That isn’t to say that imitation never has its uses. Here, as in any other of the arts, it’s a legitimate and useful way to serve your apprenticeship. . . . If you’re writing in a genre, it’s all the more important to read widely outside it in order to be aware what fiction is capable of. It’s less a matter of importing techniques into the field than of seeing the field as part of a larger art. Depending wholly on genre techniques can lend too easily to the secondhand and the second-rate. There’s only one Stephen King, but there are far too many writers trying to sound like him.
It’s no bad thing to follow the example of writers you admire, then, but only as a means to finding your own voice. You won’t find that, of course, unless you have something of your own to say. I did, once I stopped writing about Lovecraft’s horrors and began to deal with what disturbed me personally. I began to write about how things seemed to me, which was more important and, at first, more difficult than it may sound. I tried (and still do try) to take nothing on trust to describe things as they really are or would be.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that the horror field is riddled with clichés. The house that’s for sale too cheaply, the guy who must be working nights because he sleeps during the day . . . , the attic room the landlady keeps locked, the place none of the topers in the village inn will visit after dark—we can all have fun recognizing these and many others, which is by no means to say that they haven’t been used effectively by masters of the craft. But I think there are more fundamental clichés in the field, and I think today’s writers may be the ones to overturn them.
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Take the theme of evil, as the horror story often does. Writing about evil is a moral act, and it won’t do to recycle definitions of evil—to take them on trust. Horror fiction frequently presents the idea of evil in such a shorthand form as to be essentially meaningless—something vague out there that causes folk to commit terrible acts, something other than ourselves, nothing to do with us. That sounds to me more like an excuse than a definition, and I hope it’s had its day. If we’re going to write about evil, then let’s define it and how it relates to ourselves.
All good fiction consists of looking at things afresh, but horror fiction seems to have a built-in tendency to do the opposite. Ten years or so ago, many books had nothing more to say than “the devil made me do it.” Now, thanks to the influence of films like Friday the 13th, it seems enough for some writers to say that a character is psychotic; no further explanation is necessary. But it’s the job of writers to imagine how it would feel to be all their characters, however painful that may sometimes be. It may be a lack of that compassion that has led some writers to create children who are evil simply because they’re children, surely the most deplorable cliché of the field.
Some clichés are simply products of lazy writing. Tradition shouldn’t be used as an excuse to repeat what earlier writers have done; if you feel the need to write about the stock figures of the horror story, that’s all the more reason to imagine them anew. . . . It’s only fair to warn you that many readers and publishers would rather see imitations of whatever they liked last year than give new ideas a chance. But I’ve always tried to write what rings true to me, whether or not it makes the till ring. If you don’t feel involved with what you’re writing, it’s unlikely that anyone else will.
There’s another side to the field that is overdue for attack by a new generation—its reactionary quality. A horror writer I otherwise admire argued recently that “it has been a time-honored tradition in literature and film that you have a weak or helpless heroine”—implying, I assume, that we should go on doing so. Well, tradition is a pretty poor excuse for perpetrating stereotypes (not that the author in question necessarily does); time-honored it may be, but that certainly doesn’t make it honorable. In fact, these days, so many horror stories (and especially films) gloat over the suffering of women that it seems clear the authors are getting their own back, consciously or not, on aspects of real life that they can’t cope with. Of course, that isn’t new in horror fiction, nor is using horror fiction to define as evil or diabolical whatever threatens the writer or the writer’s lifestyle. But, at the very least, one should be aware as soon as possible, that this is what one is doing, so as to be able to move on. I have my suspicions, too, about the argument that horror fiction defines what is normal by showing us what isn’t. I think it’s time for more of the field to acknowledge that, when we come face-to-face with the monsters, we may find ourselves looking not at a mask but at a mirror.
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You can read more from accomplished horror authors, such as Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Harlan Ellison, David Morrell, Jack Ketchum, and more, in On Writing Horror, edited by Mort Castle.