I had planned on a different post entirely - “Part 4 - J. N. Williamson By Way of Gary Braunbeck” – but another thought has been dwelling on my head this week, so I decided to blog about that, instead.
And before I say anything else: I’m nobody. Have very little to give credence to what I’m about to say. Very lukewarm to modest publishing credits, a love of horror, genre, and weird fiction, and an all-consuming desire to read. That’s it, and this series isn’t an expression of my superiority or expertise, but a sharing of discoveries along my own path, as I’ve discovered them.
Given that, I feel the following is an important topic, for any horror writer interested in submitting to future editions of The Midnight Diner, and for young horror writers in general.
And that’s the overwhelming importance for horror writers to actually read a broad sampling of horror at some point in their career. It’s something that has become, for some reason, a lot more important to me lately. We’ve heard and read often the opinion of established and rising authors alike that it’s important to read outside your chosen genre, and this is very true. I’ve stated often enough how grateful I am for a job – teaching high school English – that exposes me to a wide variety of the classics every year. Because good storytelling is just good storytelling, after all.
But I’ve become convinced that someone calling themselves a horror writer should not only be immersed in the history of the genre, but also be aware of trending works. Young horror writers should all be reading in their genre, in it’s past and present.
And I’m not exactly sure who I’m blogging this to, really. Maybe me. Maybe the former me, maybe to young horror writers just starting out in the genre who are like that former me. I called myself a “horror” writer, because I read Stephen King and Dean Koontz (still do!). When I felt really daring, I read Peter Straub, and on occasion, John Saul. But that was it. My knowledge of the horror genre was so very shallow, which affected the kind of horror I tried to write. Worse, I think maybe I’d seen more horror movies than I had read horror novels & short stories, and it showed.
I remember the first story I submitted (not sold) to the first edition of The Midnight Diner. It was bad, folks. Combined all the worst elements of the Blade movies, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, every vampire/vampire-hunter movie I’d ever seen, and some comic books I’d read. And it got rejected. No, check that: it got trashed. As it should’ve been. But apparently the editor thought maybe some promise existed there, so he invited me to submit again.
So, I decided it was time to write a kind of horror story I’d never tried before. I noticed the Diner had a Cthulhu category, so, for the first time, I read up on a category of horror I had previously known only a little about.
I may’ve discovered Lovecraft and Cthulhu late in life, but it made a difference. Just reading several of those short stories, researching the mythos nudged my ideas into new, different directions. Out of that, I produced the first story I ever sold – “The Way Station” – which netted me decent money, also an Editor’s Choice Award.
So maybe I’m writing this blog to a young writer now – maybe someone thinking of submitting to future editions of the Diner – who has been writing the same zombie or vampire or werewolf story, over and over. Or, (as I eventually found out), rewriting that same Lovecraftian/Elder Gods/Ancient Ones story over and over. Maybe I’m saying to them: “Read more horror. New horror. Old horror. Weird fiction. Folktales, myths. Mix it up. Diversify, and push your ideas in new directions.”
Another important reason to read a lot of horror – all forms, past and present – is to weed out ideas that may be overworked, and at least confront us with the reality these stories have been done before, and need to be retooled in new ways. For this, I reference Brian Keene’s keynote address for AnthoCon 2011, “Roots:”
A horror writer should know the genre’s history for several reasons. First and foremost, they should know it so as not to repeat the mistakes of its past. They should draw upon that history, letting the books and stories that have been written in the past inspire and inform and shape their own work. You know that novel you’re working on about Nazi ghosts haunting a tank? Graham Masterton beat you to it back in the Seventies. If you’re writing about vampires, you’ve probably read Dracula — but did you also read the works of Les Daniels, or Salem’s Lot, They Thirst, Vampyrrhic, or Lot Lizards? Maybe you saw Ramsey Campbell at a convention and were told he is one of the most important living authors, but you’re not sure why. This is unacceptable. Maybe (and most importantly) you want to become a better writer by studying and understanding the various styles of writers that came before you. The only way to do that is through reading.
You need to read fiction that has inspired and informed and shaped the genre into what it is today. Like those 28 Days Later-style zombies? I bet you’ll love Jim Starlin’s Among Madmen or Simon Clark’s Blood Crazy. Perhaps you enjoy the exploits of occult detectives such as F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, or my own Levi Stoltzfus. But have you read Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John the Balladeer stories or William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost Finder? Like John Carpenter’s The Thing? Yeah? But have you read John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?
When I heard Brian give this speech at AnthoCon last year, I thought: “Geez. It’s like he’s talking to me, four years ago.” So maybe that’s who I’m talking to, now.
Another reason why I believe it’s important to read lots of different kinds of horror is that its tradition, its history is one of the things that makes the horror genre special. This is something I knew instinctively, but honestly hadn’t really thought about much before this past year.
My recent quest to build my knowledge of the horror genre and its history certainly brought these thoughts to the forefront, but it was some recent nonfiction reading – Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror – that crystallized my thoughts in the following passages. First, he calls horror a “post-modern art”, because post-modern artists:
“…whether for purposes of political criticism or for nostalgia, postmodern art lives off its inheritance….it proceeds by recombining acknowledged elements of the past in a way that suggests that the root of creativity is to be found in looking backward (emphasis mine)” pg. 211
“…the contemporary horror genre….differs from previous cycles (of horror) in certain respects that also bear comparison with the themes of postmodernism. First, works of contemporary horror often refer to the history of the genre quite explicitly. King’s IT reanimates a gallery of classic monsters; the movie Creepshow by King and Romero is a homage to EC horror comics of the fifties; horror movies nowadays frequently make allusions to other horror films while Fright Night (the original, thanks) includes a fictional horror show host as a character; horror writers freely refer to other writers and to other examples of the genre; they especially make reference to classic horror movies and characters.” (pg. 211)
“…the creators and the consumers of horror fictions are aware they are operating within a shared tradition, and this is acknowledged openly, with great frequency and gusto (emphasis mine) pg. 211
Now, I’ve gone through several “phases” in consuming horror fiction. First, what I’d call the “populist” phase: my shallow King, Koontz, Straub, Saul years. Then, I widened my scope and spent two years reading everything Leisure Fiction published, back before they went belly up. During this time, I read lots of small press horror, too.
Then, a year ago, I stepped down as Review Editor for Shroud Magazine and focused entirely on “old school” stuff, endeavoring to build up my own “history of horror”. For awhile, I avoided all new horror, almost with a sniff of disdain. Almost a year later, and while I’m nowhere near finished exploring horror’s history, I’ve returned to reviewing for Shroud Magazine, reviewing, in particular, new titles coming from Samhain Publishing, the new home for horror’s editing giant, Don D’Auria, and many former Leisure authors, plus a new crop of horror authors, too.
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad (of horror), and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”