Types of Horror

Grand Guignol poster  from grandguignol.com

Grand Guignol poster
from grandguignol.com

Just now, I finished pasting Stephen King’s famous quotation on the three types of terror into my page on “Thoughts on Horror from the Masters” and I remembered that yesterday I was trying to remember the quotation, but could only recall a vague impression of it.   Thinking on that impression now, I think that it was just as valid and true a one as the one by Mr. King, but simpler, more compact, and easier to remember.  The concept is (I’ll refine this a little for the sake of clarity):

The three most common types of horror are:  suspense (knowing someone runs the risk of decapitation at any moment), terror (seeing him/her being decapitated), and disgust (watching the head roll down the stairs).

I don’t think this idea should replace Mr. King’s by any means, but should probably be viewed as a simplification of his rather lengthy statement.

There are also probably a hundred more different flavors (i.e. variations of the sensation) of horror but these are the three that seem to me to be the most common, at least in movies and other popular media.

Thoughts?  Comments?

Observations on the X-Files: Redrum, Season Eight, Episode 6

Relaxing by the front yard firepit on a chilly New Mexico evening circa 2013.

Relaxing by the front yard firepit on a chilly New Mexico evening circa 2013.

I recently purchased seasons  8 and 9 of the X-Files to complete my collection of the entire series.  As you can note above, I am up to episode 6 of season 8: Redrum.  No, it’s not based on The Shining or the famous line that sprang from there.   This is a completely original script and I think one of the best X-Files.   Why am I mentioning a Sci-Fi series in an article that should be about horror?  This article is about good writing, whatever the genre.

I will endeavor to avoid spoiling the story for you.

As we all know, “redrum” is murder spelled backwards.  This story is about a murder, but the alleged murderer finds himself traveling back in time to the day of the murder with the knowledge of how to prevent it.

I find the plot’s basic concept fascinating.  A prosecutor (and friend of Agent Doggett) wakes up one morning to find himself in prison for the murder of his wife, about which he remembers nothing.  As he is transferred to another facility for his safekeeping, he is assassinated.  However, at that point time starts to flow backwards for him.  Each morning he wakes up another day in the past (first he wakes up on Saturday, then on Friday, then on Thursday, etc.).  With each day he learns a bit more about his predicament until finally he wakes up on the day of the murder and he has an opportunity to prevent it.

Unexpectedly traveling back in time is not a common theme, but it’s not rare either.   I have to ask myself how Maeda and Arkin came up with the idea for this episode.  Maybe it was based on amnesia;  someone can’t recall his crime or immediate past and has to learn about it bit by bit, day by day, as the prosecutor does here.  Maybe it arose out of a philosophical question such as “if we could travel back in time, we could change our future but would the ultimate destination be the same and all we change is the route we take to get there?”   Maybe it was a thought that most stories show a protagonist going back in time to a certain point in time and then returning to the present; what if going back in time was not one big step, but several little steps.  How could we change our lives in that case?   What if as we traveled back in time, we knew as little about the past as we do about the future?  We wouldn’t be able to convince those around us that we are traveling back in time, because we wouldn’t know any history to prove our story.   They would believe us to be insane.

The whole scenario intrigues me.  One man goes back in time for unknown reasons while the rest of the world around him proceeds as normal.

I have to ask myself what their creative process was.

This scenario opens up so many questions and possibilities.   I love its originality.    If you haven’t seen it, I recommend renting it as soon as possible.

We never find out what causes the protagonist to travel back in time.  Like in a Stephen King novel, paranormal events happen out of the blue and at random.   But according to Lovecraft’s theories of weird fiction, not knowing the cause/origin of a horrible event, makes the event more horrifying, because the event could happen to any one of us at any time.

A common principle of writing is “to suspend belief” (some say “to suspend disbelief”).   In stories like this though, it is the natural laws of the universe that are suspended.    Everything else, all the world/universe surrounding the event. is quite believable, which emphasizes just how weird the event is.

The story was written by Steven Maeda and Daniel Arkin. A quick search in Imdb shows that Steven Maeda has an extensive list of credits as either a writer or producer for such television series as X-Files, Lost, CSI:Miami, Helix, Lie to Me, and many others.   Likewise Daniel Arkin has an extensive list of credits as a writer or producer for such shows as X-Files, Suits, Las Vegas, Alias, Medical Investigation, and others.  I will have to watch for more shows with which either one is involved.

Thoughts?  Comments?

“Summer Thunder” and the Horror of Tragedy

Relaxing by the front yard firepit on a chilly New Mexico evening circa 2013.

Relaxing by the front yard firepit on a chilly New Mexico evening circa 2013.

I picked up a copy of the latest issue of “Cemetery Dance” this evening and read the Stephen King short story “Summer Thunder”. This is a very interesting piece. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but the story is about a man, his dog, and his neighbor, who have survived a nuclear holocaust and are slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning.

This story was quite different from the other Stephen King stories I have read (which have been quite a few, though not all by any means). There is no supernatural factor in the story. There are also no twists or surprises. The story maintains the same pace throughout, just as the protagonists face the same things day in and day out until they die.

I would classify this story as horror-tragedy, because, even though it has very little of the blood and gore normally associated with the horror genre, it definitely has a horror “feel” to it, but that horror is subtle and understated. “Summer Thunder” sets up a tragic scenario and the horror finds its basis in watching these people suffer through no fault of their own. They were not involved in starting the war in any way; that was done by world leaders thousands of miles away. These are the common citizens, the “Everymen” that normally populate King’s works as protagonists, and who must pay the horrific price for their government’s actions. That is the tragedy and that is a large part of the horror.

What is also horrifying about the story is not the action described in it, but the scenario it describes, because this scenario is definitely one that could literally happen to each of us, should our government and/or other governments decide for whatever reason, to push the proverbial button. Each of us can (or perhaps should) see ourselves as the main character, who will be forced to watch his or her world disintegrate after a nuclear apocalypse.

That concept alone should be enough to bring the true horror of this story:  that this scenario is, and has been for a long time, a real possibility for each of us.

Thoughts?  Comments?

Just a few quick thoughts…

The blogger relaxing by the front yard firepit on a chilly New Mexico evening.

The blogger relaxing by the front yard firepit on a chilly New Mexico evening.

I was just sitting here trying to choose one of my many first drafts to work on for tonight, when I started thinking about the different “approaches” (for lack of a better term at the moment) to horror.  By “approaches” I mean a very brief synopsis of a writer’s general outlook on or method of writing horror.    Maybe a better way to express it would be to say the way the author approaches his genre (still not quite right, but I am getting closer to the idea).

An example would be to say that Poe’s approach was to bring out the horror in realistic situations (mostly, he did dabble in the fantastic occasionally).  “The Black Cat” is about a murderer who unknowingly seals up a cat with the corpse of his victim.  Nothing fantastic there.  “The Tell-Tale Heart” is about a murderer whose conscience drives him to confession.  “The Fall of the House of Usher” is about a family with an inherited genetic trait of hypersensitivity.   So forth and so on.

Lovecraft’s approach was to spin tales of the fantastic, especially about a race of elder gods who once dominated the planet millions of years ago and of which mankind encounters remnants on rare occasion.

Stephen King’s approach is to plant an element of the fantastic among ordinary people in ordinary places and watch them react to it.

Clive Barker’s approach seems to be to take something that is fantastic, bloody, cruel, evil and gruesome and either drop it somewhere a single character can deal with it or bring it out of the shadows where a character can deal with it.

Seeing these different approaches in relation to each other makes me think about how do I want to approach an idea or a draft I have of a story.  Do I want to drop the fantastic into the real or bring out the horror in the everyday or in realistic situations or can I come up with something else, my own approach, that is none of these?  That is the challenge of creativity:  to come up with something no one else has done.   Maybe I can just go with the purely fantastic.  Maybe I can try to find the real in the fantastic.

How many different ways are there to horrify an audience?

There is the real and the fantastic and all those subtle shades of gray in between the two.  Can there be anything else?

Thoughts?  Comments?

Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, and the X-files

mod 130419_0008I just finished watching an episode of the X-Files entitled “Chinga” [note to Spanish-speakers out there:  I don’t know who chose the title, so please forgive my language] from Season Five and I  noticed that it was written by Stephen King and Chris Carter (the creator of the X-Files).  The story’s antagonist is a talking doll that can force people to injure or kill themselves in gruesome ways.   Like many, if not most, of King’s stories, there is no explanation of how the came to exist.  All the viewer finds out about it is that a lobsterman pulled it up one night in a lobster trap and his daughter comes to possess it after he meets his own gruesome fate.

I find in my own writing that I like to provide an explanation or background as to how things originate.  This is just my nature.  I like to know the origins of things.  However, I have come to believe of late that, in terms of horror, that is a very nineteenth century  concept.

Lovecraft said in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”:

“A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and protentiousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only daily safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

For me, what Lovecraft is saying is that if the laws of nature are negated, then anything is possible and monsters like Cthulhu really could exist and are capable of doing us harm at any moment.  Combine this with his statement that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” and it becomes apparent that stories like “Chinga” derive much of their horror effect from the fact that the origin of the threat to a story’s protagonist(s) is unknown or that there is no explanation for the threat.

This would mean that one of  things that provides to “Chinga”  the element of horror that it has, is the fact that origin of the doll is unknown.  Therefore, any of us when we are fishing or scuba diving or swimming in any body of water, could discover a doll that would turn his/her life into a nightmare.   That is a scary thought.

Of course, this means that Stephen King would be one of the greatest practitioners of this technique, which I believe he is.

I think I shall try to experiment with this in the near future.

Thoughts?  Comments?


Horror at Project Gutenberg


The blogger on the banks of the San Juan River, Farmington, New Mexico, 2013

If you are an avid reader (of anything) and are not familiar with Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page), you are doing yourself a great disservice. As they state on their homepage:

Project Gutenberg offers over 46,000 free ebooks: choose among free epub books, free kindle books, download them or read them online.

We carry high quality ebooks: All our ebooks were previously published by bona fide publishers. We digitized and diligently proofread them with the help of thousands of volunteers.

No fee or registration is required, but if you find Project Gutenberg useful, we kindly ask you to donate a small amount so we can buy and digitize more books. Other ways to help include digitizing more books,recording audio books, or reporting errors.

Over 100,000 free ebooks are available through our Partners, Affiliates and ResourcesOur ebooks may be freely used in the United States because most are not protected by U.S. copyright law, usually because their copyrights have expired. They may not be free of copyright in other countries. Readers outside of the United States must check the copyright laws of their countries before downloading or redistributing our ebooks. We also have a number of copyrighted titles, for which the copyright holder has given permission for unlimited non-commercial worldwide use.”

As they state, most of these books are available because their copyrights have expired, making them usually quite dated.  However, for anyone with a bent for the historical, Project Gutenberg is a gold mine.  I did a quick search for “horror” on their website and received 169 titles in response.  For a few, the only relation to the horror genre was the word “horror” in the title (such as “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases–which is a horrible subject, but is non-fiction vs. horror fiction).  However, many are the classics or founding works of the horror genre, such as Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Vampyre: a Tale by John William Polidori, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, Fantome de’l Opera (Phantom of the Opera) by Gaston Leroux, many works by Edgar Allan Poe,  The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen, The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers, The Shunned House by H.P. Lovecraft, and many others.

Please take the time to visit this treasure trove of literature and of the horror genre, and if you are so inclined, please consider making a donation (via their website) to support their worthy cause.

Thoughts?  Comments?

Selections from The Writer’s Home Companion

Edgar Allan Poe, circa 1849

Edgar Allan Poe, circa 1849

The other day I happened to find my copy of The Writer’s Home Companion (by James Charlton and Lisbeth Mark, 1987), which I had lost/forgotten some time back. I have been perusing it since and have found several anecdotes on various authors of horror, which had not captured my attention when I purchased the book, because I was not interested in writing horror at the time.  I am quoting them below for your entertainment and consideration.   They provide a few insights and lessons into the art and business of writing as well as into the lives of writers, if not in the art of horror specifically.  If you would like to read more of the book, you can probably find a copy at your local library or half-price bookstore.

“Edgar Allan Poe opted to self-publish Tamerlane and Other Poems. He was able to sell only forty copies and made less than a dollar after expenses. Ironically, over a century later, one of his self-published copies sold at auction for over $11,000.”

Stephen King at Comicon, 2007 Photo by Penguino

Stephen King
at Comicon, 2007
Photo by Penguino

“Stephen King sent his first novel to the editor of the suspense novel The Parallax View. William G. Thompson rejected that submission and several subsequent manuscripts until King sent along Carrie. Years later some of those earlier projects were published under King’s pseudonym Richard Bachmann, and one was affectionately dedicated to ‘W.G.T.'”

“Edgar Allan Poe perpetrated a successful hoax in the New York Sun with an article he wrote in the April 13, 1844 edition of the paper.  He described the arrival, near Charleston, South Carolina, of a group of English ‘aeronauts’ who, as he told the story, had crossed the Atlantic in a dirigible in just seventy-five hours. Poe had cribbed most of his narrative from an account by Monck Mason of an actual balloon trip he and his companions had made from London to Germany in November 1836.  Poe’s realistically detailed fabrication fooled everyone.”

Robert Louis Stevenson Portrait by Girolamo Nerli  (1860-1926)

Robert Louis Stevenson
Portrait by Girolamo Nerli

“Robert Louis Stevenson was thrashing about in his bed one night, greatly alarming his wife.  She woke him up, infuriating Stevenson, who yelled, ‘I was dreaming a fine bogey tale!’  The nightmare from which he had been unwillingly extracted was the premise for the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

“Amiably discussing the validity of ghosts, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley decided to try their poetic skills at writing the perfect horror story.  While nothing came of their efforts, Shelley’s young wife, Mary Wollstonecroft, overheard the challenge and went about telling her own.  It began ‘It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the Accomplishment of my toils.’  Her work was published in 1818, when she was twenty-one, and was titled Frankenstein.”

“Edgar Allan Poe was expelled from West Point in 1831 for ‘gross neglect of duty’.  The explanation for his dismissal had to do with his following, to the letter, with an order to appear on the parade grounds in parade dress, which, according to the West Point rule book, consisted of ‘white belt and gloves.’  Poe reportedly arrived with his rifle, dressed in his belt and gloves–and nothing else.”

Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, First Baron Lytton Portrait by Henry William Pickersgill

Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, First Baron Lytton
Portrait by Henry William Pickersgill

“Traveling along the Italian Riviera, Lord Bulwer-Lytton, done up in an embarrassingly elaborate outfit, acknowledged the stares of passersby.  Lady Lytton, amused at his vanity, suggested that it was not admiration, but ‘that ridiculous dress’ that caught people’s eyes.  Lytton responded, ‘You think that people stare at my dress and not at me?  I will give you the most absolute and convincing proof that your theory has no foundation.’  Keeping on only his hat and boots, Lytton removed every other article of clothing and rode in his open carriage for ten miles to prove his point.”

If you have anecdotes about your favorite authors that you would like to share, please do.

Questions?  Comments?

Impressions of Five Writing Styles

I was in the Farmington public library yesterday trying to pull together some ideas for a story, but I could not concentrate long enough to formulate many good thoughts, because I felt more in a mood to receive information rather than to transmit.

Within the last few days I have started reading a collection of Lovecraft stories entitled The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft:  Dreams of Terror and Death (an excellent work; read it if you get the chance), edited by Neil Gaiman.  While wandering through the stacks, I pulled out a copy of Stephen King’s From a Buick 8 and took it back to my seat.  I had started reading it several years ago, but never finished it.  I thought I would review it and maybe start on it again soon.   As I read it, I noticed an interesting difference between King’s style and Lovecraft’s. Lovecraft gives a lot more of the backstory of a work in a few pages than King does.

As it so happens, I had also passed by the John Updike section a little earlier in the library and I have a few of his novels, which I have never read.  I went back and picked up his Rabbit, Run for comparison.  I thought about the differences between these three and a couple of other famous writers and came up with what I consider to be an interesting observation  (though it might bore those of you who are more advanced in the craft of writing than I am):  it is fascinating to see how much information about a work’s backstory or the larger setting of a story an author can put in the first 2-3 pages or so of a work.  For what it’s worth, here are my initial subjective impressions of the five writers under consideration yesterday.

In the first few pages of Rabbit, Run Updike details how Rabbit Angstrom happens to walk upon a basketball game among six kids in an alleyway (circa 1960). He watches and then joins the game, and impresses them with his basketball prowess, having been a high school basketball star about 8-9 years earlier.  He then goes home to where his wife is contemplating cooking dinner.   Updike takes us through this step by step and we don’t learn a lot other than Rabbit was a basketball star in high school several years back  and at 26 he has a middle class life now with a job for which he wears a suit to work.  I know that Updike is a very respected writer with two Pulitzers to his credit, but this story gets off to a very slow start for me and I learn very little about Rabbit Angstrom in the opening pages.  There is also very little emotional pull in these opening pages to draw me into the story.

In the opening chapter of A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway describes the scene from the window of an Italian house used as a hospital as troops pass en route to the Austrian front over the course of about a year.   He also describes how the leaves fall from a nearby tree and how the dust during the summers turns everything bone white, both of which (to me) symbolize the deaths of myriad troops on the front.   In maybe 2-3 pages, Hemingway not only gives us the overall setting of being at the Italo-Austrian front, he also draws us in with considerable emotional impact of the tragedy of the watching thousands of weary troops slogging through rain and mud or trudging through dust and heat on their way to their deaths.

In Quiet Flows the Don (1940), Soviet author Mikhail Sholokhov (winner of the 1965 Nobel prize for literature) describes the lives of Don Cossacks from before the First World War up to the Russian Revolution.  In its first few pages, Sholokhov describes life in a village of Cossacks, describes the relationship between father and son, shows how the son is having an affair with another Cossack’s wife, and shows the history and underlying peccadilloes of the family back for circa 200 years.  While his style is non-emotional, one cannot help but to feel for the family and to be drawn into the story.  It is a hard book to put down.

In From a Buick 8, Stephen King tells the story of a mysterious car that is kept in storage at a Pennsylvania State Troopers’ post.  In his first few pages, King describes the main characters and how they interrelate and how they all fit into the world of that post.  King makes the reader feel as if he were seeing the post from the perspective from one of its members.  You know the same things about all the members of that tight-knit community as if you were one of them.   Though the opening is not on the grand scale of A Farewell to Arms or Quiet Flows the Don, one feels the story on a much more intimate level while on a larger scale than in Rabbit, Run.    In the opening pages of From a Buick 8, King makes the reader feel as if he were part of a small community, while Sholokhov makes the reader feel as if he were part of a village, and Hemingway makes the reader feel a part of an entire battle front.

Dreams of Terror and Death is a collection of short stories, but in it the unfinished tale “The Descendant” stands out as an example of Lovecraft’s ability to an enormous backstory/setting into a few pages.  In these few pages, Lovecraft describes how a young man brings a copy of the dread Necronomicon to an aging scholar and how the scholar begins to relate the history of a millennia-old castle on the Yorkshire coast that hides the entrance to the elder world.  The story, even in its few pages touches on black magic; ancient, forgotten civilizations; other dimensions; and probably a dozen other mysterious subjects that instill the sort of eerie curiosity into a reader that compels a person into the black recesses of an unexplored cave. You sense something dangerous is lurking just out of sight, but you cannot contain the urge to find out what it is.

The instilling of this eerie curiosity that keeps one on the edge of the movie theater seat or turning the pages of the novel is a hallmark of all good horror and of all good horror writers.

Thoughts?  Comments?

Poets and Writers: Authors on Short Stories

By chance, I surfed my way into Poets and Writers online today and was very fortunate to fall into their videos of “Authors on Short Stories”.    I was pleasantly surprised to find that perhaps the author who is the subject of many, if not most, of the videos is Stephen King, who answers questions, discusses the craft of writing short stories, and reads from his works.  You should not miss his talk on the difficulty of writing short stories and the trickiness of writing novellas.  There is also a video with comments by several current short story writers on the difficulty of writing short stories, which echoes Mr. King’s comments on the difficulty in writing short stories.

I was surprised, though I probably shouldn’t have been, to hear Mr. King talk about the artistry of Raymond Carver in writing short stories.  I have read one collection of Carver’s short stories (Where I’m Calling From) and they are nowhere near the horror genre, though they are great examples of mainstream literary storytelling as an art form.   

Mr. King’s point about Carver’s stories is that he was a master of keeping stories short, which Mr. King finds difficult to do.  He says that he often starts a story and before long it is ballooning into a novel.   Raymond Carver had a great ability to keep his stories very short.   As I mentioned, I have read a Where I’m Calling From and all the stories in it tend to be very short.  I am guessing in the 2,000 -5,000 word range at most.   Although I tended to find them boring at the time I read them in the mid-eighties, I have to admit that when I look back on them now, I am amazed at the depth contained in each.

Though I am only a fledgling writer with few stories to my credit, I am already learning that I share one thing in common with Mr. King:   I find that I often start writing a short story and before I am very far along with it, it balloons into a potential novel, of which I have about three or four that I work on from time to time.   In fact, as I have mentioned in a previous post, I have started exploring the distinctions between short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels, because so many of my planned short stories are developing into novelettes and novellas.

It is amazing how a story seems to take on a life of its own and grow whether you want it to or not.  It is very difficult to keep a story to within a limited number of words.   King mentions that this is one thing at which Carver excelled.  As I said, when I read Carver’s stories, I found them boring.  But now that I am pursuing the craft of writing much more seriously than I did then and I  reflect on King’s statement, I can appreciate the enormous difficulty Carver must have had in keeping his tales so compact.  I am only now starting to appreciate Carver’s artistry.  I should probably go back and read more of his works just to better my own writing.  I guess I am maturing in my art.

However, just because this post is turning out to be longer than I had intended does not mean that I am maturing in my art.  It just means that once again I am being longwinded and that I have a tendency to ramble.

If you have a chance, it would be worth your while as well to check out the works of Raymond Carver.  Though he is not an author of horror, he has a lot to offer to the study of writing as an art.

Thoughts?  Comments?

The Canon of Horror

"The Tell-Tale Heart" Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1935

“The Tell-Tale Heart”
Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1935

I was just musing that if a canon of horror literature could be developed, what should it include?   This would be a collection of say ten works that define horror literature and that everyone seriously interested in horror should read if he/she they wish to learn what horror is and should be.   This would not be a collection of the most popular works (whether novel, short story, essay, screenplay, theater, etc.) of horror, which would change constantly, but ten works which would define horror now and forever as the Bible does Christianity, as the Koran does Islam, and as the Analects of Confucius do Confucianism.   These should be eternal works that at the end of time, after the Zombie Apocalypse when no more books are written, the few remaining survivors of humanity can review all the literary works of all time and say, “These ten defined the horror genre.”  Of course, this canon will be forever debated, but lively, engaged discussion is the fun of a list like this.

To start off this conversation, here are my initial ten recommendations (subject to change as my reading progresses).  I will keep this list to one work from each of ten authors so that works by one author do not overwhelm the list.  This is not in any order of priority or preference–just as they pop into my mind.   Although these reflect my own reading (which tends to the past more than the present), I have added one or two authors I haven’t read, but from what I understand, have made significant contributions to the horror genre.

  1. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe
  2. Books of Blood by Clive Barker
  3. Carrie by Stephen King
  4. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  5. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft
  6. “Lukundoo” by Edward Lucas White
  7. “The Sandman” by E.T. A. Hoffmann
  8. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  9. “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood
  10. Psycho by Robert Bloch
  11. I am Legend by Richard Matheson

Thoughts on Speculative Fiction

Lovecraft in the Agony of ContemplationIllustration by MirrorCradle

Lovecraft in the Agony of Contemplation
Illustration by MirrorCradle

As I was driving about town today, I started reflecting on the difference between mainstream, so-to-speak literary fiction and speculative fiction (usually defined as consisting of the science-fiction, fantasy, and horror genres).  I recall reading somewhere, years ago, in the submissions guidelines for a mainstream fiction magazine, that mainstream fiction consisted of whatever did not fit into a genre.  Then, I considered that accurate and reasonable;  now I consider it somewhat snobbish.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more short-sighted and narrow-minded that statement becomes.

Speculative fiction, including the horror genre, deals with fantastic, often surreal, situations.  Mainstream fiction, if you go by the definition above, deals with anything not fantastic, not surreal, i.e. the real, events that could happen in the real world.  It would seem to me that the truly gifted writer would be the one with the greater imagination, the one who can conjure entire civilizations and fantastic creatures out of his mind alone.  My favorite authors for many years have been, and continue to be, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, based on their styles and how their stories can touch me.  However, if had to state who had the greatest imagination out of the history of writers, Tolkien would be at the top, simply because he was able to create an entire world out of his imagination (granted most of the ideas were based in Nordic mythology) and make it and his characters believeable.  Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos would be a close second.

Reading the guidelines of horror publications, I find that many of them do not want werewolf/vampire/zombie (w/v/z)stories.  They want something different, original.   That is a difficult challenge.   I could dream up w/v/z stories all day long, but creating something out of thin air, like Stephen King or Clive Barker does,  and to do it consistenly, is truly admirable. I have written one or two stories along the w/v/z line, but now I am taking up the challenge of writing something truly imaginative.    I have no good ideas just yet, but I am examining how horror authors of the past came up with ideas and what were their inspirations.

So now here is a question of the night:  if you are trying to write material outside the w/v/z tradition, how are you coming up with ideas?  Have you put any new slant on horror?  Do your inspirations come from dreams or from looking at real-world object and then allowing yourself to explore the possibities if something about that scene was just a little bit different?

Thoughts?  Comments?



Beyond the Veil of Reality

Face of Horror Houseby Horror House

Face of Horror House
by Horror House

Last night, I watched an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch House” on the Masters of Horror series (season 1, episode 2) on Netflix .   Afterwards, being late and time for bed, instead of finding the story on Project Gutenberg or some other cost-free source so that I could read it firsthand, I read a summary of the story on Wikipedia to see if the adaptation was at least reasonably accurate.  It seemed to be, even though the story was set in the modern day and the ending varied significantly from the original.  But, in accordance with today’s tastes, it was rather bloody and cruel in ways I am sure Lovecraft never intended (I say this after having read a considerable amount of his most famous works).

The most interesting aspect of the story to me was not the story itself, but speculating on how Lovecraft came up with the story’s concept.

I understand from the Wikipedia article that Lovecraft had recently attended a lecture and read up somewhat on non-Euclidean space.   Apparently, he was intrigued with the idea of existence on different planes.  Somehow he came up with the idea that the different planes of existence might intersect and beings would be able to move from one plane to the next.  This is the concept that the protagonist of the story, Walter Gilman (a graduate student in Physics) is studying when he moves into the Witch house, which was a boarding house in the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts, but three hundred years ago was the residence of a witch.  Gilman, as I interpret the TV story, notices that the corner formed by the intersection of two walls and the ceiling in his room coincides with the intersection of three dimensions.  It is this intersection that the witch who previously resided in the house and her familiar (a really nasty creature combining a rat with the face of a man) uses to re-enter the house in the modern day and create havoc for Gilman and the other residents.   I won’t give away the ending, but it is a good story and probably one of the more reasonably accurate adaptations of a Lovecraft story that you are likely to find.

What I found most interesting was speculating if  how Lovecraft came up with the story was to be looking at the intersection of three walls in his house and wonder if different planes of existence could intersect like that and, if they could, could creatures use the intersection to move from one plane to the other?   I am always fascinated by how writers come up with ideas for their works.   Did you ever wonder what spurred Richard Matheson to write I am Legend or Stephen King to write Carrie?

I know that some authors of Horror  (such as Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, and Arthur Machen) were intrigued by the idea of a plane of existence beyond what we take for reality, that what we perceive as reality may actually just mask the true reality.  Apparently, Lovecraft was thus intrigued as well and used his ideas of a possible alternative reality as the foundation for what others would later term “the Cthulhu Mythos”.

After having contemplated this since last night, I have been asking myself, what did these intelligent men see in their interpretations of the everyday world that would lead them to believe in the possible existence of an alternative reality?    Based upon my experience with humanity, I have come to realize that some people have some downright bizarre concepts of the world around them, but how did these concepts originate?  What causes their perceptions to be so radically different from mine?  Is it a matter of genetics that causes their synapses to be linked together differently?  Do they have slightly different body chemistries influencing their thoughts?  Is it that they simply encountered different views of the world as they grew up?  Is there a reality that they can perceive but I cannot–in the same way as I can see the workings of God in everything about me, but others do not and thus call themselves atheists and agnostics?

What are your thoughts?

Fascinating Habits of Writers of Horror


Some writers have interesting habits.

I have always found one of the most interesting aspects of studying the lives of famous writers to be the personal habits they have while writing.   The habits show the writer’s personal side and perhaps give an insight into how their creativity is ingrained in their natures. Following are some examples of the better known habits of mainstream authors (the few examples I have collected of “horror habits” follow these).

Hemingway said that he, at least in his Paris years, wrote for four hours each day before going to work at the Kansas City Star office, he wrote using pencils and a spiral bound notebook, and he started each days writing by sharpening twenty pencis.

F. Scott Fitzgerald never rewrote anything less than nine times.

Thomas Mann was very disciplined and rose and dressed in a suit each day as if he were going to work at a bank (even though he was going only so far as his living room), started each day at the same time (I think 8:00 a.m.), wrote for four hours, broke for lunch for an hour, wrote for another four hours, and then ended his day, by going back to his bedroom and taking off his suit.

Hunter Thompson and Henry Miller were at the opposite end of the discipline scale and might write for days, then not write again for days or weeks, before going on another binge of writing.  Thompson might write some lines on a napkin while having lunch at a restaurant, then take the napkin and force it through a fax to get the work to his editors at Rolling Stone.

 Here are the tidbits on writing habits by authors of horror.

Thomas Cotterill, another WordPress member, wrote this interesting article on the habits of Stephen King.  I have read elsewhere that Stephen King normally writes a first draft, which he runs past his wife, Tabitha, makes some changes and then sends it out to friends for their inputs, and then writes a final draft, which he sends to the publisher.

I have yet to find anything detailed about Poe’s habits, but I did find this general description on the website of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.

“Edgar A. Poe, one of the Editors of the Broadway Journal. He never rests. There is a small steam-engine in his brain, which not only sets the cerebral mass in motion, but keeps the owner in hot water. His face is a fine one, and well gifted with intellectual beauty. Ideality, with the power of analysis, is shown in his very broad, high and massive forehead — a forehead which would have delighted Gall beyond measure. He would have have [[sic]] made a capital lawyer — not a very good advocate, perhaps, but a famous unraveller of all subtleties. He can thread his way through a labyrinth of absurdities, and pick out the sound thread of sense from the tangled skein with which it is connected. He means to be candid, and labours under the strange hallucination that he is so;  but he has strong prejudices, and, without the least intention of irreverence, would wage war with the Deity, if the divine canons militated against his notions. His sarcasm is subtle and searching. He can do nothing in the common way; and buttons his coat after a fashion peculiarly his own. If we ever caught him doing a thing like any body else, or found him reading a book any other way than upside down, we should implore his friends to send for a straitjacket, and a Bedlam doctor. He were mad, then, to a certtainty.”               — (Thomas Dunn English, “Notes About Men of Note,” The Aristidean, April 1845, p. 153. At this time, Poe and English were still friends, and the tone of this item is happy and jocular. In reviewing this issue of the Aristidean in his own Broadway Journal, for May 3, 1845, Poe comments “. . . the ‘Notes about Men of Note’ are amusing” (BJ, 1845, p. 285, col. 1).)

Dean Koontz says this about his own writing habits on his website:

“I work 10- and 11-hour days because in long sessions I fall away more completely into story and characters than I would in, say, a six-hour day. On good days, I might wind up with five or six pages of finished work; on bad days, a third of a page. Even five or six is not a high rate of production for a 10- or 11-hour day, but there are more good days than bad. And the secret is doing it day after day, committing to it and avoiding distractions. A month–perhaps 22 to 25 work days–goes by and, as a slow drip of water can fill a huge cauldron in a month, so you discover that you have 75 polished pages. The process is slow, but that’s a good thing. Because I don’t do a quick first draft and then revise it, I have plenty of time to let the subconscious work; therefore, I am led to surprise after surprise that enriches story and deepens character. I have a low boredom threshold, and in part I suspect I fell into this method of working in order to keep myself mystified about the direction of the piece–and therefore entertained. A very long novel, like FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE can take a year. A book like THE GOOD GUY, six months.”

Here is an interesting interview by M.R. Hunter with Richard Matheson in Lastheplace.com.  Apparently, Mr. Matheson does not have a computer, but writes everything in longhand and then has it typed up.

I have yet to find anything on Lovecraft’s writing habits, but here is a link to HPLovecraft.com that details his personal interests including his unusual dietary habits.

Lord Dunsany had the most eccentric habits of which I have heard.  The Wikipedia article on Lord Dunsany states:

“Dunsany’s writing habits were considered peculiar by some. Lady Beatrice said that “He always sat on a crumpled old hat while composing his tales.” (The hat was eventually stolen by a visitor to Dunsany Castle.) Dunsany almost never rewrote anything; everything he ever published was a first draft.[7] Much of his work was penned with quill pens, which he made himself; Lady Beatrice was usually the first to see the writings, and would help type them. It has been said that Lord Dunsany would sometimes conceive stories while hunting, and would return to the Castle and draw in his family and servants to re-enact his visions before he set them on paper.[citation needed]”

If you know of a source for information on the work habits of one or more horror writers, please share it.   If you are searching for a topic of an article to write, I would like to suggest writing on the work habits (or interests) of horror writers.  It would be fascinating to see if there is a common thread among them or if they vary from the habits of mainstream authors.  For example, I have found out that Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and Bram Stoker were members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Anyway, I am now officially rambling.

If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, please share them.