Stop apologising for horror fiction

In 2019 I finally bought a car with Bluetooth connection and it transformed my daily commute. Rather than putting up with radio, I listened to podcasts and interviews. In those early days I hunted for interviews with (and speeches) by Stephen King. A common theme among them – and an old one, too – was the purpose of the horror novel. For the best part of 40 years, King has been asked to explain why he writes them, why people like them, and what, if anything, they contribute to our understanding of humanity.

An awful lot of high-flown ideas are attributed to the horror story and if you’re interested in availing yourself of them, I highly recommend King’s book on the subject, Danse Macabre. The most commonly repeated one seems to be this: the small, controlled horrors in fiction or movies help us cope with and understand the real-life ones.

I find this assertion absurd.

Between 2010 and 2019, my wife and I went endured a surfeit of true-life horrors. Most were health-related – her mother died from leukaemia, her father and brother were diagnosed with bowel cancer (but survived), she developed multiple sclerosis – while some were awful situations caused by other people. Having spent nearly a decade going through the wringer with one thing or another, it became clear to me that imagined horrors and true-life ones have almost nothing in common.

Good horror fiction, like any other fiction, can take a reader away and make him forget his woes for a while. It can also serve as an allegory for something else, make us ponder the nature of life and death, wonder what (if anything) comes next, push the boundaries of imagination. But even though I’ve read dozens and dozens of horror novels over the years, not one helped me cope with my mother-in-law’s slow demise from blood cancer or made it easier to put my dead dog in the back of my car while ants crawled up my arms. Conflating the two (as so many journalists and armchair psychologists have over the years) and claiming that it is an unhealthy interest is, at best, ill-informed.

Writing about horror and experiencing it for real are as disparate as writing about sex and actually having sex. I suspect horror writers have tried to attribute a higher purpose to their fiction because reporters and critics so often back them into a corner and demand to know why they write such things. In their eyes, “because it’s entertaining” is as an inadequate answer. Even someone like Bret Easton Ellis, whose novel American Psycho was primarily about style and subtext and largely tedious, found himself having to defend his use of horror.

I find it curious indeed that interviewers want to know why authors fashion make-believe and often fanciful horrors, yet have no qualms about the much more realistic atrocities depicted in so-called ‘literature’. No one queries the fictitious cruelty in The Grapes of Wrath or the wanton murder in The Godfather or the realistic depictions of racism in everything from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Crazy in Alabama. Horror fiction shouldn’t need special dispensation or a practical reason to exist, and horror writers need to stop apologising, stop rationalising, stop justifying what they do. It is as valid a form of literature as any other.

Story to appear in Night Terrors #2

My supernatural terror tale ‘The Old Coach Inn’ is set to appear in Night Terrors #2 from publisher Scare Street.

One of 13 short stories in this 150-page anthology, it’s about a young family that blunders into an old feud between owners of an out-of-the-way motel.

The paperback is available right now and the e-book version will go live on September 14.

Once you’ve read it, be sure to check out the ‘story behind the story’ and learn the unusual inspiration that led to ‘The Old Coach Inn’.

Supernatural horror tale coming soon

Yesterday I signed a contract with Scare Street to publish my short story ‘The Old Coach Inn’. It will appear in one of the publisher’s upcoming anthologies, possibly before the end of 2020.

It’s an unusual story inasmuch as the core concept came to me in a nightmare. The only other tale I can think of that came from a dream was my sci-fi/horror story ‘The Larval Stage’, which appeared in Andromeda Spaceways.

I’ll post more detailed information once I have it.

Story to appear in Lethal Impact anthology

As alluded to last week, my apocalypse story ‘Blood and Light’ is scheduled to appear in the upcoming Lethal Impact anthology from Dragon Soul Press. The official launch date is September 30 and pre-orders should be available from August 30.

Cover art really sets Dragon Soul Press apart from the pack.

To promote the anthology, Dragon Soul Press will hold a special launch-day Facebook event, where readers and fans can interact with the authors and ask questions.

‘Blood and Light’ is a coming-of-age tale set in an apocalyptical milieu. If Tim Winton wrote The Stand instead of Stephen King, it might have come out a bit like ‘Blood and Light’.

I’ll add more when I can, but in the meantime – how gorgeous is the cover art for DSP’s anthologies? It’s only a fledgling small press, but I’m predicting big things to come. Watch this space.

Complacence is the enemy of success

A hint of what’s to come in ‘Blood and Light’…

This morning I received an acceptance email for a story of mine, ‘Blood and Light’. When it appears in an anthology later this year, it will represent my first paid publication in nearly two years. (I had a short piece appear in the venerable AntipodeanSF, but that’s a non-paying market.)

The period prior to this publication drought, ironically, was easily my most successful since I sold my first story back in 2005. During 2017-2018, I cracked Aurealis for the first time after a decade of trying (and that story, ‘Howling Mad’, was selected for Tangent Online’s Recommended Reading List), I appeared in Andromeda Spaceways for the second time with ‘The Larval Stage’, The Fiction Desk awarded me third prize in its annual ghost story competition for ‘Highway Memorials’, and I even found a new publisher for my novel, Invasion at Bald Eagle.

Then, almost overnight, the wheels seemed to fall off. Between mid-2018 (when Digital Fiction Corp agreed to reprint Invasion at Bald Eagle) and early 2020, I managed a handful of shortlist rejections on stories and a couple of full manuscript requests on a novel I had finished in 2017. I didn’t understand how I could go from nailing three hard-to-crack markets in comparatively short order to becoming unpublishable almost overnight.

The truth was, I had become complacent and… I was going to write lazy, but that’s not quite accurate. My second child was born in 2016 and between that, my wife’s chronic health problems and a number of other family issues, my head wasn’t in the game anymore. Although I didn’t realise it, I was coasting – expecting to achieve the same level of success without putting in the hours. And if there is an immutable law of writing fiction, it’s that you get out what you put in.

With my son a little older and some of life’s pressures easing, I knuckled down in early 2019 and began to write harder. This often required anti-social behaviour, another unfortunate reality of the authorial existence. Back in the day I used to do a lot of writing and editing on my train commute, but with those uninterrupted periods no longer available to me, I simply had to find time elsewhere. While ostensibly on holiday with friends in Queensland, for example, I wrote a long sci-fi story, ‘Bigger’. Just before the coronavirus lockdown I began a novel and, thanks to a hermit-like existence, completed it in just three and a half months – record time for me.

Little by little, I started to see the fruits of these labours. In 2019-2020, stories were shortlisted at a couple of pro-paying markets and I had a number of very positive rejections of the “this is a great story, it just doesn’t suit our editorial requirements right now” type. Sportsmen talk about ‘having the yips’, where something easy suddenly becomes difficult. For nearly two years I was the basketballer who couldn’t nail a free throw or the cricketer who kept edging the ball to the slips. I can’t tell you how happy I was to finally hit one right on the button.

‘Blood and Light’ has a zany and complicated origin story, which I’ll share once it is published. In the meantime, though, it’s just nice to be back on the field.

Shortlisted for Australian Shadows Awards

Last year I published an essay in Aurealis #119 titled ‘Suffer the Little Children: An analysis of parental horror in Stephen King’s early fiction’. Grandiose title or not, it has been shortlisted in the non-fiction category for the 2019 Australian Shadows Awards. All winners will be announced on the Australasian Horror Writers Association Facebook page on June 6, at 7pm.

I’m up against some stiff competition in the category, not least the formidable Eugen Bacon, who has taken the Australian speculative fiction world by storm over the past three years.

To see the full list of finalists, click here.

The power of good character

“Luke… can you give me a h– Er, never mind.”

I was part of the generation that grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy and one of the first movies I ever saw at the cinema was The Empire Strikes Back. For many years it was my favourite film and I must have watched it more than 30 times.

Forty years after its original release – to the day, as it turned out, although that was pure coincidence – I sat down to watch it with my six-year-old daughter, the latest ploy to fill in time during the corona virus lockdown. We had watched A New Hope earlier in the week and she was eager to see the second movie.

She sat glued to the screen for the first 100 minutes and all was going well until Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader faced off in their light sabre battle. When poor old Luke got the chop, my daughter turned to me in horrified disbelief and wailed, “He cut his hand off!” Then she burst into tears and refused to watch anymore. She still doesn’t know Vader is Luke’s father.

“Huh,” I said to myself as she stormed off, “I guess Empire is a bit too scary for a six-year-old.”

But on the flipside of that parental guilt trip I thought, “Hang on, she didn’t bat an eyelid when Obi-Wan Kenobi wielded his light sabre to dismembering effect in the Mos Cantina and she made only a passing remark when Luke slashed his way out of the ice cave on Hoth. Both of those scenes also showed blood, whereas when Luke lost his hand it was a clean cut. So why such a different response?”

The answer was obvious: my daughter had spent the best part of three hours getting to know Luke Skywalker. She had discovered R2-D2’s secret message, lost Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, joined the Rebellion, and destroyed the Death Star right along with him. She had joined him in his Jedi training on Dagobah, watched him grow and become more confident with the Force, and set out to rescue his friends. So when Vader hurt Luke, he also hurt her.

That’s the power of good characterisation and, as so many critics and fans have pointed out, it’s also why there is such a vast gulf in popularity between the original trilogy and the prequels and sequels. Plot, dialogue, special effects, music – each one alone is dispensable if the others are strong enough, but good characterisation is non-negotiable. It’s what connects a movie (or novel) to the audience and if that connection is strong enough, a viewer will tolerate any number of deficiencies in other areas.

The original Star Wars trilogy is the perfect example of this. No one cares about the cornball dialogue and occasionally dubious plot developments, and when George Lucas ‘improved’ the original trilogy with digital effects, everyone just sort of shrugged their shoulders. But when he decided to make Greedo shoot first in the classic scene from A New Hope, fans were outraged. Why? Because it betrayed the roguish anti-hero quality of Han Solo’s character. That’s not how he would behave!