Scare Tactics: Horror writers consider their craft in the shadow of real horror.

by Dawn Stanton
From Pittsburgh City Paper Vol. 11, No 46

copyright © 2001 by Dawn Stanton

Halloween has passed, the pumpkin is rotting, and you’ve tucked (or thrown) away the mask. For some, though, the weirdness remains. Horror writers see it all around them. It scratches and gnaws at them, screeches and whispers, until they pull it out and put it down in writing.

“Writing horror gives you the opportunity to explore the darker side of your own emotions and to confront your own fears,” says David Niall Wilson, president of the Horror Writers Association. “Horror fiction allows readers to confront things that remind them of the horrors and pains of the real world from a distance. Unfathomable mysteries and unimaginable horrors are confronted, fought and overcome.”

Horror has been around as long as man and his fear of the dark. The horror writers of today trace their literary ancestors back to Beowulf, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, even to Shakespeare. Gothic horror was born in the 18th century with The Castle of Otranto (1764), The Monk (1796) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Everyone knows Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These and many others shaped the horror genre as we know it today.

But horror fiction really boomed in the late ’70s and ’80s — was in fact born as a genre during that time. Stephen King blew the genre wide open with his first novel, Carrie, in 1974, and a veritable army of darkness followed. The names of Peter Straub, Anne Rice, Clive Barker and many others quickly filled the bookshelves and the minds of readers with their nightmares. During this boom, the Horror Writers Association was founded. (It was originally called HOWL, the Horror/Occult Writers League, until 1985, when the current name was adopted.) Membership grew, the market flourished and the writers kept on writing. And then came the ’90s.

Horror never died, but it certainly took a blow. Publishers cut back their mid-list titles, which are books that are released but never promoted as — or are expected to become — bestsellers. Publishing companies had to examine the monster they had created: a genre saturated by mediocre writing and dominated by one or two household names. One of the first publishers to risk a return to marketing horror fiction was Dorchester Publishing. They revamped their Leisure Books horror imprint in 1996, increasing their release of horror titles every year, until the number had risen from 8 to 24 titles a year. “Horror is enjoying quite a resurgence these days,” says Don D’Auria, senior editor at Leisure Books. “Over the past few years we’ve seen an amazing growth among the small presses, the birth of new magazines dedicated to horror, and of course an increase in the number of houses who are starting or expanding their horror line. From our point of view, the market is very strong right now.”

Not all horror writers would agree. As Wilson jokes, “It’s a great time to write dark fiction — just don’t put it on your cover letter.” In other words, don’t call it horror, because that might make it harder to sell. Some writers are marketing their work under the guise of “thriller” or something else, while some others have moved to science fiction or fantasy to make their sales. Some who’ve toughed it out under the horror label lament the slump of the past five years; others claim to have noticed no difference at all selling in the market. And many horror writers immediately wondered what backlash the genre would experience from the all-too-real horror of Sept. 11.

“If anything, the attacks have made horror seem all the more benign by comparison — the monsters, ghosts, vampires and killers in horror novels don’t do anything as bad as what happened,” says D’Auria, whose office is located in New York City, as are many major publishing houses.

“No one will be the same, of course,” Wilson wrote in the Sept. 21 issue of an e-mail newsletter for HWA members. “The fiction will show this. The words written in the next 10 years, the movies we watch and the lives that we lead will have taken a different path, starting a few short days ago in the midst of insanity. Writers will have to learn to cope and heal and move on like the rest of the world.”

Local horror writers could perhaps be the most emotionally healthy people in the region. Not only do they examine their own fears, but horror writers also embrace their own dark sides: In writing a tale of murder or haunting, the writer becomes both victim and killer, haunted and ghost.

Michael A. Arnzen, 35
Assistant Professor of English,
Seton Hill College

“I was bored a lot when I was in the Army, in the field or whatever, and I used to read Stephen King novels all the time,” Michael Arnzen says. “I think Firestarter was the one I was reading when something just clicked, and I said, ‘I can do better than this.’ So I started writing and found out I couldn’t. I was terrible at it.”

But that was more than 12 years ago. Since then, Arnzen has published numerous short stories and poems, and his first novel, Grave Markings, won the Bram Stoker Award and the International Horror Critics Guild Award in 1995. For a professional horror writer, these are the highest accolades.

Arnzen doesn’t look like a horror writer, but more like a young college professor, which he is. He does have one telling attribute, though: his laugh. It’s a laugh that suggests a sense of humor just a little off-kilter. When he says something self-deprecating and goofy, something bordering on perverse, the laugh follows.

“I think of what I’m doing as hilarious, even though everyone else is saying, ‘How could you? You look so normal.'” Arnzen laughs. “There’s a good Robert Bloch quote: ‘Horror is the removal of masks,’ and I use that as my working definition. Horror pulls the masks off everyday life. It shakes us out of our complacency by looking at what is normal in an abnormal way. But there’s a funny side to that, too, because it’s uncomfortable. A lot of people laugh when they’re uncomfortable.”

Can horror be funny? Should horror be funny? Arnzen, at least, thinks so. Not just funny, but fun. This philosophy has led to his most recent experiment: short, dark poems called Gorelets, written specially to fit onto the screen of a Palm Pilot. Readers must “subscribe” to receive the poems, which Arnzen sends on a random day each week. His Web site touts them as “Jack Handy meets Stephen King.” (For details, see http://members.home.net/gorelets/.)

He says the Gorelets are a personal challenge for him because he has to find a way to fit each poem onto the Palm Pilot screen. But because poems don’t even have to make sense, they’re also liberating. “Grenemean,” which accompanies this article, is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.”

“I knew there was a psychological thing I’d repressed,” Arnzen says jokingly, referring to the similarity between the two poems. “That’s it: I’ve been trying in poetry lately to return to children’s poetry stuff where it’s pure wordplay — suggestive and meaningless. That’s the thing: to have fun with the language.”

One thing Arnzen is serious about is the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “I kept saying, ‘I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this.’ For a couple days, I was just stunned. I didn’t know what to think about anything. I didn’t want to go back to everyday life. It all seemed so meaningless, like how important is it for me to grade a paper if it’s the end of the world? I don’t want to die grading somebody’s paper. Talk about horror — what a way to go.”

Arnzen pauses, and takes a sip of green tea. “I saw Stephen King and Peter Straub on The Today Show, and Katie Couric was asking them about the terrorist attacks, and King had an interesting thing to say. He said that everybody’s so confused, the world seems so chaotic, that they’re looking for ‘boxes’ to put it into. The news is one box, but what we do, horror writers, we put it in an even smaller box. Manipulate it, play with it, learn from it, but contain it. That’s important.”

Lawrence C. Connolly, 50
English Teacher,
Sewickley Academy

You won’t find his name if you do an authors search on Amazon.com, even though three of his works have been optioned for film. The most recent, Traumatic Descent, is currently in pre-production as a film by David Slade, to be titled This Way to Egress.

Lawrence C. Connolly, a slight, gray-bearded man in a light gray suit, arrives at the bookstore café where we agreed to meet and orders an espresso. He is soft-spoken, thoughtful and articulate.

“I started off writing science fiction,” says Connolly, “and wandered into this path when I realized that horror lets me set things in the ‘here and now’ more often. My first story was published in Amazing Stories Magazine in 1980, and I’ve been writing ever since.”

Connolly’s stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies: 100 Fiendish Little Frightmares (Barnes & Noble), Year’s Best Horror Stories XI and XII (DAW) and Borderlands 3 & 4 (White Wolf), to name a few. His most recent work, a novelette entitled Great Heart Rising, will appear in the January 2002 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Despite his accomplishments, Connolly says he’s not sure he considers himself a writer in the horror genre. He tries not to define his work in a limiting way, but many publications label it “horror.”

“I think this genre really started in Tuscany in the 14th century with Dante Alighieri,” says Connolly. “He didn’t know what to call his stuff, so he called it comedy. The reason for that is that he said his works begin in chaos and end in harmony. His works are about the human spirit facing the absolute worst, and learning and coping and coming out triumphant.”

Connolly recounts how The Divine Comedy reflects the journey of Dante’s life. Dante was born during a time of peace in Florence, Italy, in 1265. The young Dante grew up and rose, as part of the Guelph clan, to be elected one of the six highest magistrates in Florence.

But then the ruling Guelph party split into two factions, and the Neri faction exiled Dante from Florence in 1302. Dante, a man who had it all, lost it all. He wrote The Divine Comedy during his exile, a reflection on the hell that had become his life.

Connolly speaks with such sincere interest in the subject, it’s obviously an integral part of his philosophy about writing. He finishes the espresso after his talk about Dante and stares out the window a moment, into the dark parking lot.

Asked what effect he thinks the Sept. 11 attacks will have on horror fiction, Connolly turns his attention back. It seems he’s been waiting to talk about this.

“What I think we’re experiencing right now is people beginning to realize that you do have to go through things that are unthinkable in order to get to the things that are worth thinking.

“[The terrorists] have given us a reality check. This is the world we live in, unfortunately. There is danger out there. And people are saying it’s incomprehensible. And it is, it is. What we need to keep in mind is what Dante was exploring in the 14th century. When the worst happens, keep on with life. There will be an end, and the end is not death. It is enlightenment.”

Connolly sounds more like a philosopher than a horror writer. He says he has worked consciously over the past 21 years to have his stories end with the harmony of Dante’s. “I don’t think people ever get tired of a good story. I do think, however, [that] writers who are interested in exploring shock for shock’s sake have just been trumped. Writers who are interested in exploring the resilience of the human spirit have just been vindicated.”

John Alfred Taylor, 70
Professor Emeritus, English,
Washington & Jefferson College

“The basic idea of horror is that it’s got to be horrible,” John Alfred Taylor begins. “Scary. Of course that could cover anything from psychological horror to supernatural horror. It’s pretty wide. There are things that today you have to put in the horror genre that earlier were simply seen as entertainment. Look at what happens in Oedipus or when in Euripides’ Bacchae poor old Pentheus is torn to pieces, and Dionysus sits there smiling, thinking: ‘I got my results.’ We’re carrying on the same tradition.”

John Alfred Taylor has been carrying on that tradition for more than 40 years, having written both horror and science fiction in many forms since 1958. He has a bibliography 18 pages long, listing works published in anthologies and nearly five dozen different magazines — some of them now defunct.

“I sometimes have a feeling that if someone prints a story of mine, the magazine’s going to die,” he says. “I write a little more science fiction right now because the market is better for it. Most of my sales lately have been to Asimov’s.”

In fact, Taylor’s latest publication is a story called “The Game of Nine” in the September 2001 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. Taylor calls it a “science-fantasy-horror” story about the end of the world.

Taylor is a stout man with a white beard. He got hooked on horror early. “When I was 10 or 11, I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs [and] John Carter stories. I was 15 when Tower Books put out The Best Supernatural Stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Like the stories of M.R. James, I bought them right off the dime-store counter. Then August Derleth’s Sleep No More came out. This is the stuff I like to read. Of course I read an awful lot of other stuff, everything from low-brow trash to pretty high-brow stuff.”

He says his influences go “all the way up to some of the splatterpunk people. I’ve written some very Jamesian stories. There was a magazine called Ghosts and Scholars that is a James-centered thing. They printed a couple stories of mine.”

Taylor and are I are sitting on his back porch, overlooking a pretty yard and a small patch of woods beyond. Squirrels play below us, birds chirping in the trees … not exactly the setting you’d envision for a discussion of horror. However, Taylor says sometimes the norm is defined by the abnormal or horrible — in stories and in life.

“Horror [fiction] is consoling because it isn’t the real thing,” he says. “Think of the two big genres that flourished in the ’30s: screwball comedy and monster movies.” He believes that writers should “make people think a little about possibilities they haven’t thought about before, especially in terms of science fiction. Imagination always demands that you are as inventive as possible, that you don’t cheat on a reader, and that you do your best. Of course one tries to be as self-critical as possible, because you don’t want other people to be.”

What about moral obligations? “If you think about moral obligation in terms of what most people would say, well, people used to write that kind of stuff ad nauseum. Horatio Alger, when he wasn’t groping young boys, wrote about how boys raised themselves by luck and pluck and hard work. The moral obligation is to put characters you can identify with and believe in situations, and see how they work out. It’s moral in the end because it will teach you what things are like for other people.”

Horror writers are influenced by the same culture — technology, politics, art and current events — as everyone else in America. Their writing reflects that culture, warts and all.

Maybe you think you don’t need their trash (as in the question, “How can you read that trash?” posed by the parents of many a horror reader). But that trash is a welcome escape for millions. And it is steeped in a tradition that includes Euripides, Dante and Shakespeare.

Horror of the 21st century makes its home in new places: online, in small press magazines, and in anthologies. Arnzen’s experiment with the Gorelets is just one example of horror’s rebirth. Stephen King was one of the first major writers to experiment with selling an e-novel online, The Plant.

Don D’Auria, senior editor at Leisure Books, is a vocal supporter of the genre. “In general, I’m very optimistic about horror’s future. New fans are discovering new authors, the number of horror titles being published is growing, and there’s a large, growing pool of talented new writers out there.”

David Wilson, president of the Horror Writers Association, agrees. “As long as the thought of a dark, powerful figure in the shadows makes you look over your shoulder and wonder if you should run — or turn and embrace it — horror will have a place in our lives.”