I attended a lot of panels on horror at Worldcon in Dublin last year. Some were focused on themes, like body horror, but most were focused on publishing.
“Don’t call it horror,” was the basic gist of most of those talks. Horror “in-the-mix” was key to not putting the punters off. Say Grimdark. Call it urban fantasy.
“Horror is basically just a film genre nowadays.”
I find it hard, sometimes, to see the horror when it’s in-the-mix. I’m not a horror purist, I’m not saying I don’t enjoy these mixed genres. Most of the books, films, comics and tv that I love most aren’t horror at all. I don’t know that I can even explain, properly, why I found it so disheartening that horror had become a dirty word. Fiction that defied categorisation was surely the ideal. No?
Maybe it is. Generally. But not when it comes to me, making things of my own. Then, for better or worse, it has come to matter. To me.
I just know that, despite its current pariah status, I’d like what I write to signal itself as horror, rather than simply having elements of horror. In the mix.
And there were, gratifyingly, voices that echoed this at the Dublin Worldcon. I listened to Ellen Datlow and Stephen Jones, Ramsey Campbell and Joe Hill, all telling us to let our fear flag fly. To embrace the uncomfortable and the threatening in our creations, and not merely tint the story a shade of grim or dark.
So, I’m back to thinking about writing stories whose primary intent is to frighten. And the essential criterion is simple.
When the story ends, it has to leave me scared. Not scare me and then leave me. Fear should be the end point. What abides. At least I think so.
As I begin to resurrect my writing—and this blog—I’m looking back to something I wrote years ago, as a framework for how I’d go about making sure what I wrote was, first and foremost, about the fear.
What triggers abiding fear? Three elements:
- the unwarranted,
- made personal,
- proving unbeatable.
Personal is the magic ingredient, obviously, since the writer can’t always know what scares you.
I know what scares me. Jaws.
The film scares the living crap out of me. Even thinking about sharks makes my skin crawl.
I live on an island. More than that, along the Northwest coast of Ireland, where I am, a warm Gulf Stream makes its way south and small sharks can be fished off the piers of seaside resorts.
They’re here, they’re close.
And I can’t swim. But even if I could—in fact, I suspect maybe especially if I could—the sheer number of different fear factors in play when you consider the scenario of a shark attack, make for sickening contemplation.
They’re not slowed by the water in the way you are. They can’t drown like you can, even if you did find an opening through which to swim away. You might be tempted to think that, having read somewhere that a blow to the snout is how you drive a shark off, you’ll just lay fist to the monster’s nose and maybe have a chance of beating it. But there’s that water resistance again, making punching with any kind of force impossible. No matter which rational approach you take towards thinking your way out of the situation, the shark has all the advantages. But that’s not the really scary bit.
The really scary bit is when you realise that, thinking about surviving a shark attack, you begin from the presumption that you’d even know you were being attacked. That you would know when you’d done something, or went somewhere, that obviously left you open to danger, and you’d be somehow vigilant to the threat.
The bit in Jaws that’s truly terrifying is not the terrible destruction visited upon the three heroes in their little boat at the end of the movie, with Robert Shaw’s bloody death framed, close up, in the carnage of his shattered craft. It’s not even the boiling water of the first attacks—blood and chum fountaining around a screaming face and flailing arms.
It’s those smooth, unsuspecting legs, viewed from below and getting ever closer to the camera, and the body above insensate to what’s underneath it.
Not just in the terrible expectation of what is to come, the terror lies in the way in which you can’t work out what the victim has done wrong. There’s nothing she missed or wasn’t supposed to do, no crime she’s committed. She’s not even an individual; stripped naked of any distinguishing identity, she’s you and me, and what makes it so damn scary is that you’re running through the last time you were in the water, doing nothing out of the ordinary, never looking down, nothing to be heard, the huge invisible engine that drives those hideous teeth pushing silently, invisibly upwards, already smelling you, already tasting you, already a part of you in its mouth…
And the best horror lets you finish that for yourself.
In horror, you have to be able to spot your own, very personal mechanism of fear. The best practitioners seem to know how you want to be hurt, while simultaneously finding a way to give everyone else the same opportunity to be hurt according to their own peculiar preferences.
The very best (worst?) horror occupies unwritten gaps.
It’s not hard to find generic ideas about what it is that horror does for us. It reflects the violence and damage in political or community conflicts. It allows us to bring the supernatural to bear on the inexplicable ways we go about hurting one another, and consign our fears to unscientific mystery. It gives us a safe space in which to loose our repressed lusts for the most taboo of behaviours. It prepares us for death. And there are a whole host of horrors for each of those intentions.
Monsters for violence, beasts for perversions, witches to put the blame on, and spirits to carry the guilt we can’t get rid of.
Things we think everybody is scared of. Things anybody would be scared of. You’re thinking of one now. The one everyone thinks of. You’re scared of it right now. You’ve been scared of it forever.
For every meat a poison. You can’t actually tell people what to fear. Writers will dangle possibilities and the reader will bite or not. But if you leave enough room for them to conjure for themselves, then you can get a lot more bites than if you just throw bloody chum out the side of the boat.
Too much vagueness will just put the reader off, though. What’s the writer to do, then, if not to tell us what to fear?
There were three parts to abiding fear. Making it personal was one. And the takeaway, for me, is that the reader can do that. I think we do the other two.
I don’t write about sharks, though I could probably make a stab at it, but I do try to focus on horror that happens indiscriminately, like the shark attack, or that happens in the face of every rational attempt to forestall it. Horror where it’s clear that the intended victim is going to lose, and not because they deserve to. If I had to try to distill what horror does for us into a single idea, it would be that: it tells us we’re going to lose. Compete with, fight, defend against—maybe. But lose? Definitely.
And I don’t think you can mess with that bit, because for all the various competing definitions of what horror is, I maintain a single concrete definition of what I think it isn’t, despite any evidence to the contrary in the creations of other horror producers: I don’t think horror is about us striking back against our fears and putting them to rest.
That’s adventure, at least to my way of thinking. Killing the zombies, bedding the vampire, exploding the shark, exorcising the ghost: that’s when the horror story stops, no matter what the medium. It’s not that I don’t appreciate adventure stories, I love adventure. But for horror, I’m chasing that tension that exists in those dragging moments before the kill, and the great joy of writing short stories is that I can train the focus of my writing on just that period of time, leaving the rest to the reader to weave around it.
Because the great thing about defeat is, even when you go the whole way and show it explicitly, it doesn’t end. Success is an end; failures try again. Which leaves the door open to future defeats, one of which may very well be the reader’s own. Faced with that prospect, they’ll invariably paint it luridly in the colours of their own fears, hurting themselves in their own individual manner; a pin stuck in a personal pain that I could never hope to pierce by stabbing blindly from the outside. The demons the reader brings with them are just waiting for that loose end to swing from.
Filling those unwritten gaps, their fears rise inexorably from that black deep where the bone-white sharks live. And wait.