Let's talk about the tale of terror.
And about one particular tale of terror: in this story, a spirit of the
dead hauls its chains up a long, dark staircase, images of the past and
future flicker like wind-whipped candlelight, and a man falls wailing upon
his own grave.
Of course you've read that tale of terror called "A Christmas
Carol," haven't you? Oh, you hadn't ever considered that a horror
story? Why not? Because it had a statement to make about the human
condition, and tales in the horror genre don't? Well—wrong!
In "A Christmas Carol," Charles Dickens used the elements of
horror fiction to emphasize characterization and to explore the life of one
man in the space of a night. What would that tale be without its three
ghosts, its spectral time-traveling, or its unflinching glance beyond the
Unwritten, that's what.
I'm a writer of tales of terror. To me, the beauty and power of horror
fiction is that every tale is a reinvention of the struggle between good
and evil—and by that I don't mean necessarily the fight between angelic
and demon hosts, though God knows that goes on often enough, but also the
inner struggle in the heart and mind of everyday people just like you and
In horror fiction is the essence of struggle. You create characters and
cast them into the wilds of imagination. Some of them fall into tarpits,
others are lost in the thicket, but the characters who keep struggling to
the final sentence will be smarter and stronger, and so, hopefully will be
the reader. So, is horror fiction just a bag of bloody bones, or does it
have meat and brains? I think it's both meaty and brainy. If I
didn't, I wouldn't be writing this, would I?
I once participated in a seminar called "Morbid Literature." I
went knowing what it was going to be like. I wasn't disappointed. The
audience was full of people who wanted to know why writers of horror
fiction persisted in slopping gore on the page and calling it either
entertainment or even readable. They accused me of killing kittens and
hating orphans and being an all-around, demented, bad person who
should not be allowed within a mile of a schoolyard, lest I infect their
children with green mindslime. Nothing I could say would make a
difference. I talked about "A Christmas Carol," and they screamed
"Friday the 13th!" See, those folks had come to talk about morbid
literature, and that's just what they were going to do.
But they were reacting to a label, confusing fiction with film—and
they're two different dragons, believe me—and considering that horror
fiction by its own tag exists simply to scare the jellybeans out of
people, or make them sick, or cause them to run riot in their neighborhoods
and wear white socks with black trousers. Horror fiction is more
than mindless emotion—isn't it?
I think it is. The best of it, that is. What other type of writing
involves life, death, good, evil, love, hatred, the base and the best,
decay and rebirth, sex, God and the Devil? I mean, horror fiction is
IT! If you consider the authors who've used the elements of
horror fiction in their work, your list is going to include H. G. Wells,
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, Mark Twain, Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle, Edith Wharton, Flannery O'Connor....
Well, you get the idea. I have to use the label "horror fiction"
for the kind of work I and so many others write simply because we live in a
world of categories. But the term horror fiction implies writing
that socks the bejeezus out of the emotions while leaving the intellect
untouched. Horror fiction is perceived as going for the gush of blood and
the quick shriek, as a superficial exercise in typing, instead of logically
constructed writing; in other words—and I think publishers are at fault
for promoting the lowest common denominator—horror fiction is perceived
by its critics as about as much of an art form as those sound effects
records of screams that appear in the stores every Hallowe'en.
But...isn't it kind of fun to be scared? I mean, there's nothing
wrong with writing fiction simply to terrify, is there?
I like to read a good, go-for-the-gory-gusto horror novel every now and
then, but they don't stay on my shelves. I read them and toss them out.
The novels that stay do more than terrify. They resonate with
human emotion, though, and—yes, a kind of innocence—long after the
pages are closed.
Some of the horror-fiction titles on my shelves include Charles L. Grant's
The Pet; Peter Straub's Shadowland, and The Talisman,
written with Stephen King; Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire;
Clive Barker's The Damnation Game; and Joan Samson's The
Auctioneer. There are many, many more, and they stay there because, to
me, they're complete worlds between covers, worlds I want to return to and
explore again and again. The best of horror fiction contains chills and
frights, but it's not constructed around a scream but rather around a solid
core of human experience.
Humanity is what's missing from bad horror fiction. How can a reader feel
the delicious anticipation of fear if the book has no humanity, if the
characters aren't real enough to reach out and touch, if the world that
book represents is not detailed and colored and lavished with attention?
When I begin to construct an idea for a novel, I begin with a problem to be
solved—not with a list of scares and scenes to be included for the sake
of the horror-fiction tag. I began Mystery Walk with the thought of flipping
the traditional idea of what constitutes good and what constitutes evil.
Usher's Passing is about a young man's struggle for identity. My newest,
Swan Song, is about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust and the
subsequent fight for survival. My work-in-progress is about the
inhabitants of a southwest Texas town whose way of life is rapidly coming
to an end—but, of course, there are horror fiction elements in it because
that's what I enjoy reading and that's what I enjoy writing. But I do
not begin work by outlining a list of scare scenes; those
scenes—the good-vs.-evil confrontation scenes—come about in a natural
flow of events, not because I've designed the events to satellite around
the scenes. Plot, character, atmosphere, setting—all those should be
thought out and judged on their merits apart from whether the book is
horror fiction or not.
Fiction is, after all, fiction. Good writing is good writing, and bad
writing kills a book on page one.
I mentioned innocence a little while ago. Innocence in horror
fiction? Yep. And by "innocence" I mean the author's sense of
wonder, at the characters and the setting and even the spooky elements.
WIthout that sense of wonder, a novel goes nowhere. I think most good
authors in any genre retain the innocence of a twelve-year-old kid just on
the verge of finding out what the world is all about. Those innocent
authors can take a reader anywhere, and the reader willingly goes wherever
the sentences lead because wonder can reinvent the world—and
isn't that what reading's all about?
Horror fiction must be more than scares. Yes, it's great to create a good
scare, and that can be difficult enough in itself; but the best of horror
fiction is about human experience. Maybe it's a kinked view of humanity,
and maybe gore splatters the pages here and there, but that's because we're
horror writers and it leaks out of our pens on its own. The best of horror
fiction is not that bag of bones I spoke about earlier; it's a whole body,
complete with beating heart and questing, introspective mind.
So: I think it's neither right nor wrong to simply terrify; yet the works
that have no more ambition but just to terrify are sorely lacking.
You can spot them from the first chapter. The characters are hollow shells
designed to ramble around a maze of scare scenes, and they have nothing to
say about the human experience because, of course, their creator has
nothing to say.
I say, don't sit down to write horror fiction. Sit down
to write fiction, pure and simple. If your voice has a horrific
edge, that will come out in your writing and the story will flow naturally.
But I've never, never sat down to write a horror novel. I've always simply
sat down to write, and what came out is what came out.
And don't be afraid to address complex issues, either. The
demon-possessed child, the old dark house, and the
crazed-killer-in-a-small-town-hacking-up-prom-queens have lurched off the
plot line horizon—and none too soon! I say, dare to be different!
Politics, the phone company, computers, urban sprawl, frozen yogurt,
whatever—a plot is stronger if the writer feels
strongly about it, if he or she feels something must be said
before the brain explodes. Urgency, immediacy, strength of
conviction—all play a part in designing a plot, no matter what kind of
novel you're working on.
Gee, I just heard myself, and I sound like I know everything. I certainly
do not. I'm a working writer; that means I'm still learning. I used to
think the writing would get easier, the more I did it. I was wrong. It's
harder now than ever because I keep pushing myself to write on a deeper,
more instinctive level. My first book, Baal, was a snap to do. It
also is extremely superficial. And aspiring writers, hear this: Your books
may stay around a long, long time. In some cases, longer than you'd like
But, of course, there must be beginnings. Without those, where would we be
Human experience. Detail. Deep characterizations. The innocence of
wonder. The risk of writing from the soul. The essence of struggle. All
these are important in writing, and all of them elevate a horror novel to
the status of a world between covers, waiting to be discovered and
rediscovered. They are elements not easily mastered—maybe never
mastered—but surely worth the effort if we're to continue to learn our
I'm proud to be a writer. My books are called horror fiction
because no one has yet come up with something more descriptive of what can
be humanity's most powerful and expressive literature. I want to do what I
can to benefit that body of work.
Writing simply to terrify? Sounds morbid to me. I know where a seminar's
being held on that subject, if you care to go.