Thursday, April 21, 2011

Do We Need to See the Monster, Part 1: Defining Myself as a Horror Writer

I have a confession to make.

Five years ago, when I began actively pursuing a writing career, I had a hard time deciding I was a horror writer.   When asked, I 'd say I wrote "weirdly speculative suspense/thriller/ghost stories sorta like Dean Koontz and Stephen King."

Also, like a lot of young horror writers, my main influences at the time were Stephen King and  Dean Koontz, with a smattering of John Saul.  I had just started sampling Peter Straub, (and was quickly hooked), and had just heard of this Brian Keene guy who wrote for some publishing brand called Leisure Fiction (which sounded vaguely like a porn publisher).

I had a hard time accepting the horror label because also like a lot of young writers, I associated "horror" primarily with slasher flicks and gore-fest movies, only I didn't try to write like slasher flicks and gore-fests, because I didn't (and still don't) really like those kinds of movies.  Actually, I kinda detest them.  Just aren't my thing.  So at the time, my perception of "horror" didn't fit what I wanted to write.

But I didn't seem to fit in anywhere.  At the time, I was aiming for the CBA (Christian Bookseller Association).  I was growing in my faith, figuring out who I wanted to be as a person and writer, and I'd just read Waking Lazarus by T. L. Hines and Comes A Horseman by Robert Liparulo,  found them very well written and pretty intense for "Christian fiction".

However, after two years of reviewing CBA books, I found T.L. and Rob - along with Travis Thrasher - to be exceptions to the norm for CBA fiction.  Plus, I'd seen all the pictures of CBA authors attending Christian Book Conferences.  They looked like they were at tea parties, for goodness sake.  Not exactly my scene.

SO, along came this speculative journal called The Midnight DinerThey had a Lovecraft category, and I'd sampled Lovecraft and Cthulhu, liked it, and wrote a mythos story.  Not only accepted, it took Editor's Choice honors.  Then, along came a publisher named Shroud, and their anthology call for monster stories.  I wrote one called The Water God of Clarke Street, and it was accepted.

Then came Shroud's call for novella pitches for this Hiram Grange series.  I hesitated at first.  This was it, wasn't it?  No one could mistake Hiram Grange for anything other than a horror/dark fiction series, and this wasn't a short story.   Writing this would plunk me solidly into the secular market, as well as the horror genre.

So I took a deep breath and plunged in headlong, and haven't regretted it since.

I am a horror writer.

But I quickly realized - especially after back-to-back stints at Borderlands Press' Writers Bootcamp - that I was a horribly undereducated horror writer, something that was underscored in my recent night out with Paul Wilson and Tom Monteleone.  

SO, I widened my diet.  Discovered writers like Gary Braunbeck, Nate Kenyon, Mary Sangiovanni, Ron Malfi, Ramsey Campbell, Mort Castle, Norman Prentiss, Rob Dunbar, Rio Youers; discovered Ray Bradbury's early work in The October Country and realized that HE could've been considered a horror writer, also...

I could go on.  Bottom line, after discovering these writers, I realized, truly and fully....

"Hey. I'm a horror writer."

So I went out and wrote some short stories, started submitting them.  They were mostly rejected.  I can see why, now.  I'd decided I was a "horror writer", so now I was writing stories that were OBVIOUS HORROR STORIES.  No subtlety.  No depth.  Maybe those stories would've sold ten years ago when there were a lot more paying markets, but they just weren't selling now.

This is about the time time I discovered Charles Grant, and instantly fell in love.  His prose enchanted me.  He was like the "dark chocolate" version of Ray Bradbury, if that makes any sense.   His Oxrun Station novels have become my crack.  I MUST have more.  But, I've discovered something about Grant's work, what I've consumed so far, anyway.

He rarely shows us the monster.  Especially in his Oxrun Station novella collections.  There's a vague, flitting "evil" or "darkness" that eventually takes advantage of his characters' weaknesses and consumes them, but he doesn't ever SHOW us - not in what I've read so far - what it is that plagues Oxrun.  He focuses primarily on the characters and their weaknesses.

Same is true in his novels For Fear of the Night and Stunts.  The "monster" is very vague and shadowy, never coming into the light.  However, three of his novels so far DO show the monsters: The Nestling, Symphony, and my current Grant read The Tea Party.  I've found that as much as I love his Oxrun novels, I've liked these three the best.

So I love Grant's prose.  I love his elegance, his sense of rhythm and lyricism.  But....in the end...

I want to see the monster.

And I want to beat the monster.   As much as I love Grant's work, the monster very often wins.

Now, other side of the spectrum (and I really hope he doesn't think I'm pimping on him too much) is F. Paul Wilson and Repairman Jack.  I like Paul's prose just as much as Grant's.  It's lean.  Mean.  But not emaciated.   The Repairman Jack stories move at a break-neck pace.  And, even though his novels aren't all "happy-go-lucky", we get to see the monster.  And, even if he gets knocked around pretty bad, suffers some wounds (especially after Gateways), we get to see Jack beat the monster.

So, the question I leave you with for today, which I'll expound on tomorrow when I take a closer look at the Oxrun Station novels is this:  Do we need to see the monster?  Do we need to know what it is, explicitly?  And do we need to beat it, or can resolution of the story's conflict still be found without beating it?