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.