I recently got together with friends and fellow authors Lisa Morton, John Palisano, and Jodi Lester to discuss what frightens us, the horror genre, the writing biz, and all sorts of other interesting goodies. Here’s Part 1 of the discussion:
Q: What do you feel is the biggest misconception the public has in regards to the horror genre?
Lisa Morton is a multiple award winning author and renowned Halloween expert. She’s worked on dozens of films, has more short stories out than I could shake the proverbial stick at, and has recently released two books, TRICK OR TREAT? A HISTORY OF HALLOWEEN and the Halloween themed novella HELL MANOR. Check out Lisa’s site at www. lisamorton.com. You can also read an interview I did with Lisa earlier in the year here.
Lisa Morton: That horror and gore are synonymous. I always think about a conversation I had once while in line at a bank; I had on a t-shirt that featured an enigmatic graphic of a book cover, and the chatty lady in front of me asked me what the art meant. I told her it was a horror book cover, and she asked, “Is it your book cover?” I told her it wasn’t, although I did admit to writing horror. “So you like all that blood and guts?” she asked. I assured her I didn’t, and told her I was more interested in psychology. “But,” she said, sputtering in confusion, “that’s not horror.”
I think that horror=blood equation has come about largely as a result of horror cinema, starting with the slashers in the ’80s and extending through to the torture porn of the 21st century, but horror fiction has certainly fed into it as well, with the “extreme fiction” sub-genre. It’s unfortunate that non-horror lovers miss a lot of the best work in the genre because they just automatically assume it’s going to be all blood and guts. Someday I hope to have a conversation with another customer in another line where, when they find out I write horror, they ask simply, “Oh, so you like to scare people?” Because then I will nod and smile and say, “Yes, I do.”
John Palisano is prolific up and comer, the kind of writer than the old guard are both happy to have amongst their ranks and secretly afraid of. His novel NERVES is currently available. Read more about him here.
John Palisano: To me, the biggest misconception in horror has to do with sexuality. In particular, the way women are objectified. Last night I attended a horror film festival in Hollywood. Lots of good stuff, but…
In an otherwise amazing film, the lead actress falls dead on a trail. And it’s a cleavage shot. Lots of traveling shots behind the group, with this girl’s ass prominently bouncing for several seconds.
In another film, a man’s voluptuous wife is on their bed, wearing revealing lingere. He places a memory device on her head, and of course, the very first thing she’s interested in is reliving an orgasm he gave her. Like that’s true. The entire time the husband wears his suit jacket and a button up white shirt. Go figure. I’ve got no idea what they were talking about because her massive breasts took up 2/3rds of the screen and could not be avoided.
In another film, I laughed out loud as a woman, supposedly an ass kicker, comes around the corner. Guess what beats her around the corner? Her grey, missile shaped breasts. It was ridiculously telling.
Almost every filmmaker was a white guy, mid 30s-40s. So? Are these guys so repressed that all they can think about are boobs and butts? Or is it something worse. For so long, I’ve heard one needs T&A in horror films to ‘sell’ them to the audience. I find that patronizing, and immediately recognize it when it’s happening. Don’t like it. Pisses me off.
On the flip side, the films by the women I saw had almost no hint of sexuality at all. They either concerned little girls in white dresses confronting monsters with their personalities alone, or, well, that was the extent of it.
So where’s the balance?
Personally, a goal of mine is to accurately rep sex in my stories. Of course, I’m a guy, and that’s not always easy. Heck: I’m not a prude, and I love women and sexuality. However, when it’s pandering to me, and thrown in just because some wanna be filmmaker read online that’s what ‘horror fans’ want, then I get bored or I get pissed. If you’re being insincere, I’m done.
So, in the end, I just want to say there’s a ton of horror fans and horror artists who do not agree with this dull, uncreative thought of sticking cameras two inches from girl’s butts, or writing about it. It’s not scary: it’s distracting and annoying, unless it genuinely has to do with the story.
And let’s not talk about the two clowns who began texting during the second film. “Put those away,” I said. “Now.”
“Sorry, sir,” one of them said. “I was just checking the time.”
Time for horror to step up and speak out. Let’s evolve past this nonsense and frighten people. Leave the nudie shit to the blue industry. They do it better, anyway.
Jodi Renée Lester is a writer, editor, and transcriptionist. Her short story “Casting Lots” will be appearing soon in the anthology Songs of the Satyrs and “The Guixi Sisters” can be found in Midnight Walk: 14 Tales of Terror and Suspense. She is currently working on a novel as well as several editing projects, and is a member of the Horror Writers Association. She grew up in Southern California and now lives in South Carolina with her husband Mike. Check out her tale in the magnificent anthology MIDNIGHT WALK or visit her on Goodreads.
Jodi Lester: That it’s superficial, that there’s no art to it. I think what immediately comes to mind when most people think of horror are monsters, gore, and nowadays torture porn. Certainly that stuff exists and obviously there’s a market for it or it wouldn’t dominate the genre as it so often does. In movies, I enjoy a lot of that when done well—heck, even when it’s cheesy—but to me, that’s usually more fun than scary. Scary to me is exploring the unknown and the unexpected. What can’t always be explained or seen with the human eye—whether it’s natural, supernatural, or psychological—is fascinating, and that’s what I find horrifying. It truly is an art form to tap into a person’s psyche, the dark places we are afraid to look and are so rarely confronted with, and really get under one’s skin. The kind of horror that creeps up on you.
Off the top of my head, just about anything by Ramsey Campbell, and though not really genre authors, Joyce Carol Oates and Patrick McGrath, will definitely haunt you. But a great example of where art can be found in horror is in the work of a lesser known author, Stephen Gregory, who is masterful in his ability to take readers down these very dark paths. It is not usually the destination where Gregory delivers the most horrific moment; rather it is an increasingly dark and grotesque walk we take with the protagonist, often an excruciating one as we witness his decisions we know will not turn out well, trying urgently to send him telepathic messages, “Don’t do it. No, just don’t. Please don’t.” The trepidation is palpable, as we know the character will ignore us, and that is probably the only thing obvious about Gregory’s work. There are often several of these crucial moments, yet it is where these choices lead us that are unexpected and grotesque, often involving the protagonist and his interactions with nature in ways that I find not only original, but fascinating as well. The ability to make me feel so viscerally engaged in a story is rare, but to me, this is where the art in horror comes from.
Horror is not just about creating the most unique way of killing, the ultimate shock, or the goriest slaughter. There is a place for that in the genre because that’s what a lot of people like—the easy scare or gross-out. But it’s an art to plant a seed of horror, and let it take root and grow in the minds and hearts of readers. It is this type of unyielding horror that truly frightens me as a reader and I believe that’s where the true gems lie.
Brad C. Hodson: The fact that the entire genre is a slave (as far as the public’s perception goes) to the dictates of the film industry is a huge shame. I love a good, cheesy gorefest as much as the next guy, just the same as I love the occasional Van Damme movie. But, when it comes to literature, graphic novels, and other mediums, this represents such a small portion of the genre. I talk to people all the time who love Chuck Palahniuk, or books like “The Lovely Bones,” or even films like “Silence of the Lambs” or Kubrick’s adaptation of “The Shining,” never realizing that these are all horror. They don’t understand how they can be horror without some creature torturing nubile women in gory fashion in a dank, sepia tinged basement somewhere.
John mentioned the overt sexuality in a lot of horror as another misconception. Sex can be (and often is) so deeply intertwined with what scares or disturbs us, largely because of its primal nature and its ability to stir taboos. Sex is instinctual and can be dark and frightening and seductive all at once. So can fear. The two are very close to one another on the emotional spectrum and it’s natural, methinks, that they overlap some. Much of Clive Barker’s work is very sexual, for instance. If the sex were removed, would the work be as powerful?
However, the objectification and misogyny in the genre are all too rampant.
I struggled with this in DARLING. At its core, DARLING is about vice and sin and how our base impulses can fester and destroy us in horrifying ways. To leave out sex, one of the most powerful urges, wouldn’t have driven the message home as well. Given the nature of the book, it led to some places that weren’t very comfortable. When I came back to rewrite it, I had to re-examine what I was going for in those scenes. There were plenty of passages that I felt were gratuitous without adding to the work, and others that I wanted to handle better.
Rape, for instance, is a common symptom of the misogyny in horror. I tried to twist that a bit and have an attempted rape against a female character who shows strength and fights back. She gets pulled out of the situation by her boyfriend, not because she’s weak, but because she needed to turn and save him as well as they’re relationship is the only thing that gets them out of the building alive. I tried to show some of the actual psychological impact such an event would have on her while simultaneously trying not to play the scene for titillation. Those are my two big gripes about rape in fiction: the psychological impact is rarely realistic and the scenes are often written as borderline-erotic fantasies.
But that’s an extreme example, due again to the themes the book deals with. There’s so much horror that is bereft of gore, overt sexuality, or much of what the public considers important to horror. Take Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” for instance. That novel always crops up on lists of the best books of the twentieth century and for good reason: it’s a brilliant look into one woman’s fragile psyche. It’s also frightening as hell.
Then there are the “classic” authors that most people who turn their nose up at the genre are shocked to learn not only loved horror but actually wrote it. Henry James, Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, Toni Morrison, Truman Capote, Victor Hugo, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge… the list goes on and on.
It’s only been since around the mid-twentieth century that the genre became very distinct and that “serious” writers were heaped with scorn for daring to tell a ghost story. This is, of course, thanks to cheap B schlock cinema. Why no one watches a piece of trash like “The Life of David Gale” and thinks that all contemporary literature is shit is beyond me, but they’ll watch “SAW 18” and then piss on the grave of Edgar Allen Poe as the credits roll. It’s elitism, sure, but it’s a special kind of elitism born from ignorance. To me, breaking this misconception is something that needs to happen, not simply for the enjoyment of readers, but for the health of the genre. While we all write savage fiction from time to time, the misconception that all horror is “extreme” narrows the genre and weakens the opportunities those working within it have to make a living.
I think it was Harlan Ellison who once said that horror is a genre that allows readers to “explore a subject that they can only explore in dreams and through fiction.” The usual visceral reasons for experiencing fear aside, this is why I was drawn to horror. Due to personal tragedies, I’ve been pondering why people die, what happens to them after they’re gone, and what effect it has on those they’ve left behind since I was a child. While I write in almost every conceivable genre, I have found no other genre that allows me to explore those questions as well as horror.
Stay tuned for Part 2…