Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Hope Spot #1: Theories of Horror

This post originally appeared in the June issue of Sanitarium Magazine
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Did I get the memo? Am I aware, you might be thinking to yourself, that I’m writing for a horror magazine? So where did I get my head shoved into a meat grinder, to think that this column should have the word “Hope” in it?
The term comes from a website called TV Tropes as far as I’ve been able to trace it. It refers to the point in a story (or a life, but don’t be surprised if I treat lives as naught but stories we’re experiencing firsthand) where the dawn is breaking and the night is flying in retreat. Xe’s gotten a second wind or the cavalry is on its way…
And then the night swoops back in on vulture’s wings. The second wind runs out. The cavalry are slaughtered like a charge of the Light Brigade. The sands run out, and you are now on the other side of the despair event horizon.
That’s the hope spot.
This column is about horror and writing horror. It’s going to blend theory with practice, the philosophy of horror with the actual world- and story-building. We might talk about how an existentialist like Viktor Frankl would react to Lovecraft’s Mythos, and then start to construct a story that explores Lovecraft through logotherapy, or the concepts of the Look and the Other, or Nietzsche’s ubermensch. Those story ideas, by the way, will be free for the taking. Adapt or grab them wholesale as you please. They’re yours, they’re everyone’s.
That’s how this boat will usually sail, anyway. Deep Ones might capsize it every now and then and have us do something else. That’s the risk of getting sponsored by Cthulhu.

A Partial Theory of Horror

I think that I write horror the best when there’s something behind it. When there’s some kind of theme, something I’m wrestling with in the story, and I’m not just writing a random story, a sequence of events with conflict and well-rounded characters and things that must not be described.
Now, I’m not saying that this is the One True Way to write horror. People have a psychological need to experience fear, and whether they satisfy it in an uncontrolled setting or completely ignore it they can still suffer in some form or another. Horror stories are one of a number of modes that allow people to satisfy that need in a controlled setting, so even if you’re writing for simple scares and the only thing you’re calculating is how much something will terrify your audience, then good on you, dear reader. That approach still takes craft to do well.
What I’m saying is that this is the approach that works best for me, and so this is what I’m going to talk about.

In Practice: My Usual Themes

Probably because I come from a religious background, a lot of my horror stories serve as a metaphor for an experience with the divine. Because this is horror and not inspiration lit, though, what I focus on is the other side of the coin that usually gets forgotten today. “Be not afraid” was a favorite expression of every angel because they were downright terrifying.
“Awful” was originally awe-full: full of awe, worthy of respect or fear. It could be as wondrous as it could be terrifying, and frequently awful things were both.
We could sit here for six articles and talk about what I think about God, but that would be a tangent of unholy length and totally off-topic. Suffice it to say that I think that most of us know somebody, or are a somebody, who experienced something Weird.
There’s a rational explanation for most of it. Almost all of it. But then there’s that one solitary detail that just can’t be figured out, that doesn’t make sense under the present paradigm, but to admit that it was anything more than something Weird might also be an exercise in making assumptions.
This is the idea that I play with in many of my horror stories, especially the Lovecraftian ones. The protagonist was hallucinating under the effects of sleep deprivation and the trauma of finding a good friend dead… but then how does his phone have record of making a call after the time of death?
The only other explanation is… It’s ridiculous, is what it is. That kind of stuff just doesn’t happen. But when you sit down at night and you’re all alone and the embers in the fireplace are dying down, you can’t quite bring yourself to believe the “rational” explanation either.
A number of my stories are almost more vignettes or anecdotes than things with plot in them, depending on how strictly you define plot. The stories simply relate experiences, which is one of the reasons why they’re usually in the first-person point of view. There are these people who have experienced something, something that they can’t make heads or tails of
For obvious reasons, the inexplicable element in my stories is rarely wrapped up. If all stories are Doctor Who then my stories are usually from the point of view of the bystander who’s there for only a single episode or even just one scene, and never gets to have the full closure on the incident that the Doctor and his companions always enjoy (for the Whovians out there, the episode Blink would be a good approximation).

So what lies behind your writing? What gets the clockwork turning and the demons keening in your head? 

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