Taking the Brimstone and Blood Out of Horror

When it comes to writing horror a lot of readers and authors assume that the actual horror has to come from something otherworldly — vampires, werewolves, demons, etc. Otherworldly horror is cool but for some readers and authors it’s not something they enjoy. Personally, the second a demon appears in a scene I’m out. So it’s a good thing that horror is a lot more broad and versitile then that.

While the otherworldly is terrifying, the everyday is just as scary. In my opinion the otherworldly is scary because it’s the unknown. It’s unknown why they exist, why they want to harm or kill someone, and how powerful they will become if they aren’t stopped. It’ s human nature to fear the unknown which is why this works so well despite the fact that no one is ever going to be accosted by a real Swamp Thing at summer camp.

The whys may be known for the everyday threats (why a person snapped and went on a killing spree, for example) but it’s usually not known until afterward. In the moment it’s still unknown and terrifying. Add to that the fact that these are threats that actually could happen and that multiplies the fear factor. Take Silence of the Lambs. It’s not usually thought of as a horror film but Buffalo Bill and Hannibal are terrifying psychopaths. The scene where Bill’s captive discovers the bloody fingernails of previous victims in the pit? Pure horror.

Not comfortable with something that psychotic? How about this: In Joe Hill’s The Fireman (spoiler alert) the scariest people aren’t those with supernatural abilities. It’s the ordinary humans. High stress situations often bring out the worst in people and Joe highlights that in this book. The actions of the “normal” people are far more horrifying then those affected by the supernatural. Dan Wells does something similar in I Am Not a Serial Killer. In this book Dan pits a teenage sociopath against a demon serial killer. It’s a fascinating contrast! Yes, both of those examples are technically horror novels but I think that they do a marvelous job showing how the supernatural and everyday horrors can be juxtaposed to highlight the other.

How about something far more ordinary. What if your character has Alzheimers? Their memory fades in and out. As the story goes on they know less and less until they have no idea who their caregivers are. They think they’re being held against their will and try to escape but their captors catch them every time. From whichever POV you choose it’s a scary situation. The Alzheimers patient thinks they’ve been abducted while the caregiver is terrified of them getting lost in a nearby wooded area or hit by a car if they get out of the facility/house.

I feel I should mention that this type of horror should be used with care. Because you don’t have the safety of reality to reassure the reader it can linger in the mind. Also depending on the everyday horror that you use it might even overshadow the plot. It’s definitely something to be considered carefully before inserting it into your story. If that’s the exact effect you want, then perfect! But if you’re writing a light romance novel, having the villain go full Hannibal Lector on the heroine might be a bit too much. Plus it’s a good idea to at least hint at these elements being present in the blurb. A lot of real world horrors have real world survivors and the last thing any writer wants do is to unwittingly trigger a reader’s PTSD.

As terrifying as Lovecraftian horrors are, using real world horrors can make your stories far more terrifying. Whether you use a small one or a big one, it’s really useful and effective way to make your story interesting without falling into a trope.

Writing Pulp for the Modern Reader

I love the old pulp masters. I grew up reading Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, E.E. “Doc” Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and those authors made an indelible impression on my creative psyche. I devoured those stories, and they stuck in me down deep in the leaf mold. (See my essay “Cultivating the Fungus”.) The trouble is, if I go back and read those stories, I cannot help but do it with a modern eye, through my modern sensibilities. Unfortunately, as much as I loved it as a kid, a lot of that stuff doesn’t read very well nowadays. One must put on the Nostalgia Glasses to overlook racist and/or sexist passages and themes embedded in the culture of the times.

I used to think that adventure stories filled with barbarians, ape-men, Martian swordsmen, ancient demi-gods, and sloe-eyed femme fatales complete with heaving bosoms were just fun stories. They weren’t trying to make some sort of point.

Except that even the stories of Conan did have something to say. Robert E. Howard did have something to say. Many of the Conan stories were about the triumph of barbarism over civilization. Through his fiction, Howard made the point over and over that human savagery and brutality, barbarism, would not only win out over the forces of civilization, but it would rightfully do so. Barbarism was purer, more honest, more innocent, than the lies and treachery of civilization. Treacherous politicians and vile, self-serving priests schemed and plotted. Enemy warlords lurked at the outskirts, and only a stronger sword-arm and greater cunning could keep them at bay. In Howard’s stories, one is hard-pressed to find an honest, respectable “civilized man,” but if you do, he’s likely being victimized by other “civilized men.” It is only through the brute force and savage cunning of the barbarian that things are put right.

With few exceptions in Conan stories, women are for saving or reward. Nevertheless, Conan had a consistent almost chivalric attitude toward women. He was never a pillager. He never took advantage. It was the civilized men who did such things. But there was no doubt that he stood higher in status than any female. Conan was the Alpha of Alphas.

For modern readers, these attitudes are undeniably sexist, just as some of Lovecraft’s passages regarding foreigners and blacks smacked of profound racism.

I didn’t bother to think about this stuff when I was twelve, or even twenty. I just wanted to enjoy the stories.

A certain segment of the readership yearns for some imagined societal return to those days when women, non-whites, and strange religions knew their place. Things were simpler. We didn’t have to worry about all these weirdos coming into the playground and spoiling all the fun. It is not 1930 anymore, or 1950, or even 1970. Times they are a-changin’, and there ain’t nuthin’ gonna make things “simple” again (even though they were never really as simple as some believe). Those folks can keep reading the same old sexist, racist stuff and be perfectly happy.

All art, including writing, is a product of its time. Those of us who want to write fun, pulpy stories for the modern reader must have a modern sensibility, a sensibility that includes the wider, diverse possibilities of modern life. This modern life includes an equal place for women, for minorities, for non-Western cultures.

“But what about writing stories set in a non-modern world?” you might say. “How do I write stories set in eras where women are still second-class citizens, or in pre-Civil War America, or the Jim Crow South? Won’t they sound racist or sexist or whatever?”

It’s an easy trap to fall into. It all comes down to how you treat those times. Try using different characters than the stalwart white male. Turn the old sexist/racist tropes on their heads. Give agency to characters who traditionally are downtrodden. But most importantly, treat them with respect. That means knowing and internalizing their perspectives, their unique struggles, and avoiding racist/sexist tropes.

This isn’t just fan service. Such efforts not only result in richer stories, a richer literature, they personally enrich the author. No one can write from the perspective of The Other, with truth and honesty, and not be changed by it. We have walked a mile in somebody else’s shoes.

Could we still write characters like Conan today? Certainly, but he would not be received the way he was in 1935. To connect with a modern readership, you need to balance such a character with a few more spices, like Indian cooking. Characters of color or strong women can balance larger-than-life machismo. Or maybe we can have a Conan-like character who’s black or Lakota or Chinese. Rather than seeing “political correctness is so restrictive!”, recognize that you now have a whole new set of interesting tools for your writer toolkit, even though it might take effort to learn how to use them.

Writers can still write swashbuckling, pulpy fun, but we have to imagine that our audience includes people who are not fifteen-to-thirty-year-old white males (more and more we discover that audiences always included women and minorities, but they never had major characters who represented them). Nowadays, we should give readers of all shades, ethnicities, orientations, and gender variations someone they recognize, someone to root for. Give them a character whose boots they can imagine stepping into, so that their imaginations can fly free on your words.

About the Author: Travis Heermann

Heermann-6death-wind-front-coverTravis Heermann’s latest novel Death Wind, co-authored with jim pinto, was published in September 2016, by WordFire Press.

Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, he is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of The Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Apex Magazine, Perihelion SF, Fiction River, Historical Lovecraft, and Cemetery Dance’s Shivers VII. As a freelance writer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online, including content for the Firefly Roleplaying Game, Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and EVE Online.

He recently returned to the U.S. from New Zealand with a couple of lovely ladies and toting more Middle Earth souvenirs than is reasonable.

You can find him on…


Where’s the Humor in Horror?

I’ve always been fascinated by the juxtaposition of humor and horror in our psyches. The two seem oddly linked, both contrasting with and yet complementing one another in the experiences we have and the stories we tell. A saying (I’m unsure of the origins and will probably bungle my attempt at summarizing) that has stuck in my head for years is: “When we’re frightened or horrified, we have two choices—to scream or to laugh.”

Why are they so linked, though? Why do we try to find humor in horrific situations?

Maids of WrathI write an urban fantasy series called The Cleaners, which focuses on the somewhat absurd adventures of magically empowered janitors, maids, and plumbers who work for a supernatural sanitation company. The series begins with Enter the Janitor and The Maids of Wrath, with the third, The Dustpan Cometh, arriving sometime in the next year. Throughout the stories, the Cleaners deal with all sorts of strange situations, such as tromping through mystic sewers, facing down garbage golems in city dumps, or encountering fiendish dust devils in public restrooms. I tend to play up the humorous side of the stories as much as I can, enjoying the ridiculousness of what some might think of as modern-day wizards, mages, and witches taking down the forces of Corruption with mops, spray bottles, squeegees, and toilet paper.

Yet even as there’s plenty of opportunity to laugh or chuckle in the Cleaners novels, there are also plenty of times along the way where the situations they encounter can be truly horrific. People die—oftentimes in rather nasty ways. Creatures lurch and shamble about with all manner of slavering maws and grasping claws or tentacles that would leave a person searching for a clean pair of pants if just glimpsed in real life. There’s supernatural rot that can eat you from the inside-out, beings that embody decay and depravity, and no small amount of insanity-shattered minds that perceive reality through twisted perspectives.

And I have found that by bringing elements of both humor and horror into the series, it has grown stronger. Funny moments stand out more…as do their darker counterparts. Why is that?

I think a big part of it comes down to how we choose to build and release tension within ourselves. One of a writer’s jobs is to create conflict and tension within a story—to generate a growing pressure, whether between one character and another, a character and a monster, or just through the ambience of a particular scene. Yet that tension has to be released at some point. There needs to be a chance for characters (and the reader) to take a breath and gather themselves for what comes next. And humor—be it a side joke, a bit of witty banter, a wry observation of the irony of a situation, or a bout of good old slapstick—provides a readily available “pressure release valve” within a story’s narrative. On the flipside, if all is levity without any sense of consequence or the potential for awful things to occur, then that makes it difficult to get a reader to feel invested in a character or plot.

At the same time, we find solace and safety by employing humor in the face of the horrific. It shields us. It gives us the mental and emotional space we need to process or handle a terrifying or otherwise horrible situation without being overwhelmed and breaking down. And when we can point and laugh at a monstrous threat—even for the slightest reason—it gives us a measure of power over that threat and helps us feel like we still have a measure of control (whether that’s true or not is up for debate). Without even a small smile or soft laugh to break up a string of terrible events, characters and readers alike can become bogged down by relentless dread or dismay.

In another sense, humor and horror “season” one another. It’s like adding contrasting spices to a dish you’re cooking…sweetness can heighten the enjoyment of saltiness, and vice versa. Spiciness can increase our awareness and appreciation of smoother flavors. Humor or horror in-and-of-themselves can certainly be compelling, but when they are experienced together to varying degrees, we can come to see the effects of both all the more.

Now, you may be a writer who prefers to craft primarily horror-oriented stories, or you may be one who leans heavily toward humor. Either is fine, and there are plenty of readers who prefer genres favoring one more than the other. But don’t let yourself be limited by thinking horror and humor can’t coexist, or even enrich one another. If you’ve worked primarily within one of these emotional spectrums, try intersecting them at different points and see if the results don’t turn out better than you expected.

Bring in some laughs to occasionally drown out the screams. Of course, I’ll let you decide whether those laughs come from characters finding the strength to stand in the midst of terror…or from the evil clown chasing them down in the dead of night.



About the Author:

Author Josh VogtAuthor and editor Josh Vogt’s work covers fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel, Pathfinder Tales: Forge of Ashes, was published alongside his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor and The Maids of Wrath. He’s an editor at Paizo, a Scribe Award and Compton Crook Award finalist, and a member of both SFWA and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. Find him at JRVogt.com or on Twitter @JRVogt.

Oh, The Horror! How Horror Fiction Differs from Horror TV and Movies

I’ve already got a confession to make, and it’s the very first line of post. This is actually one of my biggest pet peeves: when people assume horror fiction is the exact same as horror movies. But can I blame them? Both are the horror genre, so why wouldn’t someone assume they were the same?

First, let’s take a look at horror movies. Georges Melies, a French filmmaker, created the very first horror film Manior Du Diable (The Devil’s Castle). It’s about three minutes long, and reminds me of a little bit of Jack the Giant Killer from 1962. Manior Du Diable is a quirky exploration of the magic of camera work and editing at the time, but it’s also a great frame of reference in which to see horror: horror deals with the supernatural, things in which we don’t quite understand, and the unexplained.

But the actual definition of horror is much different. Horror means a very strong feeling of fear, dread, and shock, or anything that causes feelings of fear, dread, and shock (Merriam Webster).

Unlike Manior Du Diable, more contemporary horror classics focus on the later part of the definition: shock. Friday the 13th. The Exorcist. Saw. We cringe in the theater seats at these movies saying, “Oh no. Don’t do that!” and “Oh no, don’t go in there!” We cover our eyes and peek out between our fingers. We see characters getting their limbs torn/ripped/chopped/pulled/blown off. Blood and gore are a cornerstone for many a horror film, in particular the B-movie variety. Some films even go so far as including triggering subject matter, like rape and violation. But most horror movies are going after the same effect: to make the audience jump in their seats, to scare audiences. A lot of thought, time, and care is put into production in order to achieve just the right music, lighting, and make-up effects for the big scary moments and the big reveals in order to make the audience all but pee their pants.

Horror literature seems to take the definition of horror more figuratively, deeply exploring the things we find scary or shocking, things we might not be able to explain, and examines them in depth. Instead of going for the screams, horror writers go more for effect. Where horror film may adopt the literal definition of the word horror (fear, dread, shock), horror literature seems to capture more of the thrill. Part of that could also be a byproduct of the medium. While movies are a more sensory experience with sight and sound, with books, the reader is allowed to imagine as much or as little as what’s on the page. It takes time to read a book, and the mind has more time to come up with possibilities and presumptions about what’s coming. More telling, popular horror literature deals with different subject matter. While a movie’s big focus may be the blood and gore, horror lit still needs to stand on its own two feet as a story. That means strong characters and character development, some element of the fantastic, whether it be a human hell-bent on murder or a vampire, and a bare-bones foundation of a story that is more than a cheap thrill.

I’d argue it goes much deeper still. It comes down to a question: what is the purpose of a horror movie and what is the purpose of a book in the horror genre? In movies, we are given very little time to empathize with our characters before the action begins. Because it isn’t necessary. When a moviegoer pays their money to see a horror flick, they are banking on the promise that they will get a good scare. When a book buyer pays money for a horror book, they pay for a more cerebral experience: they will spend hours with the characters, get to know them, and feel what they feel as the book progresses. In a horror movie, we are watching horrible things happen to the characters. In a horror book, we are experiencing the fantastic, the uncomfortable, right along with them.

I should note that I’m not trying to diss horror films. One of my favorite movies is a horror film (The Thing). And there are many exceptions to the points I’ve brought up here. There are some horror movies that I find downright artful (Let the Right One In and 28 Days Later… come to mind), and go beyond the stereotypical horror genre. And there are certainly horror books where the only purpose is to shock and cause dread to the readers. But I’d argue you’re going to find that those are the few and far between.

The horror genre is more saturated with books like The Shining by Stephen King that, while dealing with horror elements, also deals with Jack Torrance’s fear of succumbing to alcoholism. You care about Jack Torrance as you read The Shining. The Walking Dead, the long-running comic book series and the TV show, doesn’t just deal in zombies. The Walking Dead is about what happens to humanity and how humanity changes in the wake of near-extinction and the constant threat of death. I Am Legend (the book by Richard Matheson, one of my favorite books) is about the loneliness of being the last of your kind. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice has less to do with vampires and more to do with the question of what it means to be mortal. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is not about the monster, but what it means to be human, the power of science, and the power of creating life from death.

From Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein
From Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein

Finally, the most notable difference between horror movies and horror literature has to do with who the bad guy really is. In most horror films, there is a clear line between the protagonists and antagonists. Us vs. Them. Predator vs. Prey. One force hunts the other force down. Horror books, I’d argue, more so examine the darkness that comes from within, and duality of our own nature. We can be both the good guy and the bad guy. We can have good intentions (just as Victor Frankenstein did in bringing back the dead), but instead create a monster of ourselves. What horror literature looks to achieve is to strike empathy within the reader in the most dire and uncomfortable of circumstances, not necessarily to shock or scare, but to say, “Here’s the darkness, let’s go in and look around together.”