Robert McCammon's "Innocence and Terror—The Heart of Horror"

Innocence and Terror—The Heart of Horror

by Robert R. McCammon

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 grave?

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 me.

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 them to.

But, of course, there must be beginnings. Without those, where would we be as writers?

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 craft.

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.

Copyright © 1987 by Robert R. McCammon. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in the book How to Write Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction, edited by J.N. Williamson and published by Writer's Digest Books in 1987. Reprinted with permission of the author.
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