Post by Jenny
Horror is a fiction genre that leaves me cold. Literally. I’m more than a bit squeamish and always wonder why and how horror writers do what they do. For that reason (and because today is Halloween) this month’s Last Monday Book is on writing horror, A Handbook by The Horror Writers Association, Edited by Mort Castle. The book is a compilation of essays written by HWA members. I always enjoy this kind of format, because it offers the perspectives, and lessons learned, of many different writers.
Any aspiring horror writers who fear that the genre lacks something in the legitimacy department will rest assured after reading Part I. This short section includes Joyce Carol Oates’s “The Madness of Art,” Stephen King’s 2003 National Book Award Acceptance Speech, and Michael McCarty’s “Why We Write Horror,” a collection of short answers to that question by the likes of Peter Straub, Ray Bradbury, David Niall Wilson, and others.
After delving briefly into the history of horror writing, the book addresses the nuts-and-bolts which concern all fiction writers: character, dialogue, setting, plot, pacing, et cetera. This is where the essay format works so well. Because each writer offers his or her keys to successful horror in just a few pages, the advice is succinct and to-the-point, but always seen through the shadowy lens of fiction’s dark side. The last third of the book deals with horror sub-genres (has there ever been a better title than Weston Ochse’s “Freaks and Fiddles, Banjos and Beasts: Writing Redneck Horror?”), publishing, and marketing, with an afterword by the great Harlan Ellison.
Not being a fan of horror, I confess that on writing horror was more useful and engaging than I thought it would be. As I read, I was struck by how horror fiction is such a balancing act. Yes, it’s often good vs. evil, but successful horror writers also know how human to make the monster, or how monstrous the human; how much to reveal, and how much to leave in the dark recesses of the imagination; what should shock, and what should simmer; and how to breathe new life into a familiar character—even an undead one. And, perhaps most importantly, how to avoid literal and figurative overkill. “Horror,” writes Douglas E. Winter, “is not a genre. It is an emotion.”
What have you learned from reading or writing horror fiction? And, in honor of Halloween, what is the scariest book you’ve ever read?