Having the Self Awareness to Horrify Others

I write short stories to experiment with new genres and techniques. Last August, I caught wind of an anthology that was opening for submissions. However, the genre, horror, was largely beyond my experience. I had read a few books, watched a number of movies, and even written a piece or two, but I was still stepping outside my comfort zone. Perfect! I brainstormed, scanning my consciousness for an idea that was shiny enough to start with that I could polish it into a true gem.

My inner eye first turned to the bestiary, drudging up images inspired by the abominations of Lovecraft, the near satirical creatures of B-rated movies and creeping things that I had imagined living in the shadows as a child. I paired monsters with characters, with milieus and with plots, searching for tension and conflict. I worked my way through what felt like dozens of combinations, fleshing out a few, but discarding most. Everything still felt flat, unexciting and unoriginal.

Frustrated, I stood up from my computer and wandered, trying to figure out where I was going wrong. The monsters I was creating were as good as any I had ever read, seen or made up myself. There was nothing inherently wrong with any of the elements I had assembled, and yet, I was not having a strong emotional reaction. How could I expect anyone else to feel when I did not?

As I prefer my horror in the form of movies, I turned to my collection, flipping through the pages of disks, looking for the echo of emotion that the remembrance of a truly good horror inspires. Das Experiment. Mr. Brooks. Untracable. Pathology. Of all my movies, these four psychological thrillers inspired the strongest reactions of anticipation and fear, the same emotions I sought to evoke in my readers.

For me, it was the difference of conscious intent. The creatures I had imagined were beasts, acting on instinct or hunger. The villains I had admired and feared were rational and extremely intelligent, acting for a variety of motives but all with horrifying cruelty and viciousness. It was the actions of humans and the human mind that I feared more than the brutality of beasts.

I spent hours over the following weeks considering what horrified me, coming up with a number of story ideas that I feel are gems in need of polishing. The difference for me was self-awareness. I found that I could not write something truly horrifying to others until I could first horrify myself.

About Nathan Barra

Though Nathan Barra is an engineer by profession, training and temperament, he is a storyteller by nature and at heart. Fascinated with the byplay of magic and technology, Nathan is drawn to urban fantasy and soft science fiction in both his reading and writing, though he has been known to wander off into other genres for “funzies.” He is an active blogger and posts twice weekly at NathanBarra.com. Nathan is always up for a good conversation, so please drop him a line through his contact page, or write on his Facebook wall (www.facebook.com/WriterNathanBarra).

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