Some thoughts about writing horror in the face of real-world horrors
Within moments, all forms of media exploded with the story. Your regularly scheduled programming was interrupted, headlines in gigantic fonts dominated the internet, and social media was awash in the usual condolences. Right on cue, a knee-jerk reaction had people talking about stricter gun control, which provoked a vehement response from the other side which, quite frankly, came off as mulish and arrogant in the face of tragedy. For those on that side, you can relax. The NRA is the most feared lobby in Washington. It would take a united coalition of Republicans and Democrats to pass stricter gun control, and I don’t see that happening.
I’m not interested in debating that issue. I have my opinions and I’m sure you have yours, and whether they agree or disagree is immaterial, as it is a psychological fact that the act of debating usually only strengthens a person’s belief in their own opinions. Instead, I’d like to share my thoughts on what a fellow horror author posted on a group page: how can we, as horror authors, justify writing what we do in a world where real tragedies happen?
It’s story time.
I published my first story in 2010, titled “First Word” (there’s an excerpt here). I was living with my mom at the time, and she was very excited and wanted to read it as soon as I got a copy of the magazine. She hadn’t read the story before and didn’t know that it was about a scene of domestic violence in which a man kills his wife and older son. The real horror of the story is what happens with the younger son. Maybe I should have warned her, but she knew I wrote horror, but I don’t think she understood what that meant. She read it while I watched a hockey game, and upon finishing said, “Well that was a happy little story.” She paused, then said, “What made you think of that?”
My mom is a smart woman, so she should know better than to ask a question like that, but I answered her as best I could. I got the idea for the story in high school, while taking Psychology and learning about learned behavior, a.k.a. imprinting, and the two responses: imitation and rejection. Now, why I came up with the story I did instead of a story about a father donating his time at a soup kitchen and a son wanting to do the same thing is what makes me the artist that I am. For that, I have no answer.
Taking this story as a narrow example, I justify writing it because I believe that it says something important. Underneath the monsters, mayhem, and madmen (and -women), my main preoccupation as an author is exploring how people can treat others (and sometimes animals) so horribly. What I find isn’t always pretty. Sometimes even the “good” characters act in ways that they may perceive as right in the short term, but end up biting them on the ass later. Even the best of us justify behavior in ourselves that we’d condemn in others, and I think it’s important to know why. That’s the best answer I can give.