I’ve been catching up on my reading lately, partly because I am embarrassingly far behind, partly because it keeps my mind busy and content, and partly because I find reading good writing inspires me to write. I’m trying to catch up on classics, and so far, so good. The newest book I picked up to read is The Boneyard, also known as Night Visions 6, with an introduction by Dean Koontz. This introduction, I think, is insightful and passionate, and because I found myself agreeing with so much of it, I thought I’d post my thoughts. Readers of my blog (or, really, any interview ever conducted with me) will see momentarily, I think, why this intro spoke to me so strongly.
Koontz’s intro explains what makes horror fiction good but also frankly makes note of what is not so good — in fact, he goes so far as to say that certain tendencies of horror writers are detrimental to the genre as a whole, both in terms of the contribution to a lasting and significant body of genre literature, and also to the perception of the broader readership lifeblood that keeps any commercial fiction genre alive. He wrote the intro in the late 1980’s (the copyright indicates the first printing was in 1988 by Dark Harvest) but what really got me was how relevant, how true his words are in the context of horror now, and how, as writers spanning the scope of the genre from quiet horror to extreme and all that crucial middle ground in between, it’s our obligation to write horror fiction that actually SAYS something, that speaks to human experience.
“Good horror stories have a power equal to or exceeding that of all other types of fiction, and at times, their effect can be more profound than stories in other genres.” *
I believe this is true. I think that’s the draw, for me personally and probably for a lot of other horror/suspense/thriller writers. It’s a genre hinged on the effective presentation and manipulation of emotion. It seeks to get to the root of our most basic instincts, while providing an opportunity for us to reach and surpass our most elevated intellectual and spiritual selves. It’s a genre that forces us to look at the worst our species has to endure — or offer — in order to bring out the best in ourselves. My personal belief is that understanding that and implementing it in our writing is one of the differences between a competent level of talent and a more sophisticated one.
Koontz suggests that many books were written without conviction, by writers who don’t believe in the concepts about which they are writing. I don’t think he meant it so literally as to suggest we should believe in the real existence of breathing, otherworldly monsters, but he does say that writing about evil without a balancing belief in good rings hollow, because all our mythology, and religion as something of a subset of that, states that one can only exist if the other exists. We can’t write convincingly — and I mean convincingly enough to make writers BELIEVE — in evil if we don’t believe in the good that must exist as a necessary counterpart. Otherwise, the evil comes across as nothing more than shadow. He notes that Blatty’s The Exorcist was so wildly successful because Blatty, a devout Catholic, wrote about what he believed in. I think Koontz means Blatty’s belief not just in the tenets of his faith, but in the flawed, the innocent, the brave, and the selfless humanity that clings to faith and/or plunges headlong into belief in good’s capacity to overcome evil. He believed in the people he was writing about, and the forces, supernatural and non, that influenced his created world. I think this is essential; it is the crux of the advice “Write what you know.” It isn’t just about what you know in your head; it’s about what you know in your heart, what moves you on every level of being. I’ve always thought that horror is not just made up of stories about the evil in the world, but of the good in us to overcome it, or at least try to overcome it. Horror is about the elevation of humanity to some higher level, to maybe the higher spiritual place that, in all sincere truthfulness, defines what it means to be “human.” And I honestly believe that elevation doesn’t have to be sweeping, epic movement. It exists in some of our smallest gestures, simplest thoughts, even in the quickest flashes of the eye. We are our best when we are at our most emotionally honest, no matter how small that might seem externally. Horror explores that with both small and monumental triggers from the terror sphere.
Koontz mentions in his introduction that at the time of its writing, horror was experiencing a boom — and consequently, was overwhelmed with trash. He states: “Most books and stories have nothing to say; they speak neither to the mind nor heart; they are clockwork mechanisms laboring mightily to bring forth, on schedule, not a cuckoo bird but a vague shiver of ersatz fear.”
His argument seems to be that too many people write for one or the other extreme of the horror genre spectrum, catering to “hardcore fans” of horror and not to the broader public that makes up the majority of book-buying consumers. While saying he is not opposed to violence and gore in fiction and has in fact used it himself, he states: “Too many writers have turned away from their responsibilities as storytellers and craftsmen and artists, and instead of honing their talent and skills through hard work and polish, have tried to hold the reader by repeatedly shocking him, layering on the gore and violence with the misguided notion that vividly portrayed evisceration can substitute for storytelling, that splatter can compensate for lousy writing.” Further on, he explains that “Violence and its biological consequences are a legitimate part of all fiction, not just horror, but it is ultimately pointless to write about them to the virtual exclusion of other aspects of life and human interaction, and it is a sign of moral and intellectual bankruptcy to rely on them as the primary means of sustaining a reader’s interest in a story.”
As I mentioned, he discusses the other end of the genre’s scope as well, and while he seems to believe that generally speaking, quiet horror is better written, it still can create the same emotional, moral, and intellectual void and prove just as empty if, in an attempt to distance itself from its more bloody counterpart, it strips away human association and meaning.
His essential argument is that the problem with these two extremes of the spectrum is that they don’t take into account the broad range, complexity, and variation of the human experience, that both filter and condense into a narrow world-view, and discount an all-encompassing consideration of humanity’s myriad emotions, thoughts, and motivations. It’s all horror without joy, all hate without love, or all bones without flesh and blood — essentially all black or white without even shades of gray, let alone a rich rainbow of colors. He’s not saying splatter and quiet are wrong approaches; rather, he’s saying all of one and none of the other is the wrong approach, because it’s invariably exclusionary. Successful, lasting works of horror literature are both “quiet and noisy,” encompassing what is best in both genre extremes, with “scenes both subtle and coarse.”
I tend to think the most effective horror fiction has enough violence or gore to substantiate the horror element, to establish the threat to the protagonists, but still enough subtlety and craft of language to foreshadow, to suggest, to surprise, and to bring together all the little complex threads of theme and atmosphere and description. These things let me feel the story rather than just have it related to me. These stories move me, speak to me, sometimes on a number of levels both obvious and not. These are 3-d renderings of fantastic fictionscapes rather than 2-d stick drawings.
I believe Koontz’s reasoning for why so much fiction seems to stiffly stuff itself into one end of the horror genre or the other is applicable and even possible to extrapolate to the web. He states that many horror writers attend fan conventions, and “learn the wrong lessons there.” Hardcore horror fans, while often great folk, solidly supportive of the genre and indeed, I’d say, the small press that supplements a great deal of the genre, are still only indicative of a small part of the book-buying public. These fans, though, are in the forefront at book signings, conventions, readings, and other events, and they have a very specific taste that they encourage writers to cater to. Says Koontz: “Writers in both camps [splatter and quiet horror] make the mistake of believing that hardcore convention-goers are representative of the larger book-buying public. They’re not.”
It’s not just conventions, but message boards and social media, too, where writers fall prey to this way of thinking. Particularly nowadays, when writers are so much more accessible by email and web, when there is so much interaction between writer and reader, writer and organization, even writer and misguided writer, it’s easy to forget there is a book-buying ocean out there outside of the Internet horror-hangout fishbowl. Any writer who’s spent time reading Amazon reviews, message board “What Are You Reading?” threads, or the like may find it easy to form a narrow idea of what readers are looking for. And while these Internet avenues are something to consider and include in your overall promotional plan, even a big message board is still only representative of a small portion of the book-buying public.
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m sincerely grateful for every reader and fan I have. I value their feedback on my work and appreciate their support very deeply. But Koontz has a valid point for any writer looking to make a career of writing to consider: “The true audience, the mass audience that makes careers in the long run and ultimately determines what books and stories will last, is more catholic in its taste, open to a broader range of thought and experience. The lasting works of horror will be those that reach that broad audience, that speak not to narrow views of the human condition but to open minds.”
Oh, how freakin’ true that is.
This means that we can push the horror envelope by redefining what the genre is, by moving beyond slashers with a hate-on for hot teens or women freaked out by whispering in old country houses on the edge of nowhere or any of the other old tropes that horror has been selling and reselling and remaking. We can broaden horizons, explore outside our comfort zone of genre expectation. We can even do something with teen slashers and house-whisperers so long as it’s different, so long as it looks at a wider slice of life, a broader cross-section of society, a fuller range of emotion and conflict. There may be only so many limited plot lines, but hell, there are sooo many writers, each and every one of them with a unique perspective on life. THAT is another part of “what you know.” That is the newness, the freshness you can bring to the genre. That is the middle place of the genre from which your very specific take on theme and subject will speak to a broader range of open minds.
I know this is a very long post, so I’ll just add Koontz’s closer, which as writers, I think we need to take to heart.
“If we treasure this field, we must speak the truth about it at every stage of its development. … The truth is, if we separate into cliques and encourage one another in the development of narrow schools of fiction, if we praise illiterate work for the sake of friendship, if we place more importance on networking at conventions for the advancement of our careers than we place on the painful act of creativity in the solitude of our dens and offices, we are contributing to a prolonged adolescence of the genre and perhaps to its ultimate dissolution as a viable literary force.”
Why yes, what Dean Koontz said, times eleventy.
*Quotes taken from Dean Koontz’s introduction to Night Visions 6, (c) 1998 by Dark Harvest and 1991 by Berkeley.