(The image, which doesn’t scare me but whatever, is courtesy of hyena reality – good name! – at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)
Many people seem interested to know if horror writers believe in ghosts. Horror writers are known to skilfully evade such questions. I find the line of thought mostly irrelevant. I don’t think one needs to believe in ghosts to write horror. Horror is not about ghosts. It may star ghosts, but so could romance (Have you not seen Ghost?) or any other genre. Horror is about people. To write good horror, I think, it should suffice to believe in fear.
Stephen King says it makes him uncomfortable when people ask him why he writes horror, because it’s not a question you’d ask detective fiction writers or romance writers – they ask him that because there’s something nasty about horror. In the same interview he says that he sometimes answers the question with a flippant, “I was warped as a child.” which of course is not saying anything – many parts of childhood are more or less warped for everyone. (Today I watched a kid take immense pleasure in hurling stones at random pigeons going about their business. My point? Humans are born warped.)
Horror is so tricky to write. No good writer can write a convincing horror story if it doesn’t scare them. And imagine that, getting scared of your own writing. (And I don’t mean editing-nightmares.) A part of me wants to stop reading interviews and imagine a thirty-year-old Stephen King in a panic, shoving his typewriter (surely he has one?) into the fridge because The Overlook is turning steadily more sinister under his fingers. To create real fear, mustn’t you need to feel fear? Not just channel it, but to give in to it and let it guide you?
Peter Straub once described himself as having a connoisseur’s appreciation of fear. I found that uncharacteristically suave. (I don’t like Peter Straub in interviews, although Ghost Story is a marvellous rumination on fear. Dean Koontz, whom I have never read, gives neat meta interviews; but I feel that his books may not live up to my expectations.)
The term primal fear is interesting. On the face of it, the Lovecraftian (yes, there must have been others who said it) idea that it’s the oldest human emotion seems indisputable. One of my favourite blogs, A History of Emotions, talks about how this may not necessarily be true. It sounds very logical, but I want to side with Lovecraft. Fear is all instinct, an emotion you seem to have little control over, so naturally, you’d want to ascribe it to your animal-roots.
I don’t write a lot of horror, I much prefer mythology and fantasy. But when I do, I write at night. I arm myself with the cheeriest Gilmore Girls episodes, coffee and when handy, a cat. Then I type, letting the fear and self-doubt build on till I’m at the brink of freaked-out-dom. And just when I’m about to give up and delete everything, I switch to a particularly adorable (like this) Jess-and-Luke scene, pet my cat, take a swig of creamy coffee. I calm myself down, decide I am doing well, take a deep breath and continue. It’s torture, and fun. (Yes, I exaggerate, call it narrative license.) At night, it all ends up dramatically overwritten. In broad daylight, I edit. I try to accentuate the deeper messages. Horror, for me, is indeed about fear, but it should be the medium, not the goal.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to share my horror writing. Letting people critique your horror particularly puzzles me. How do you deal with reviewers squashing your nightmares? It is hilarious to me that there are brave fears and silly fears, and yet, I have called people silly for being scared of slimy green monsters, spiders, and oh my god, cats. Haven’t you?