I don’t want to start off on a bad note here – after all, you came to this blog because you and I share similar interests – but there are a few points I want to get off my chest from the start. Maybe you’ll agree, and maybe you won’t, but it’s a conversation worth having and, as a writer, I’m curious what people think. I think a lot of horror books and films today blow like Old Faithful, and I’ll try to explain why.
When I was a kid, I had a kick-ass collection of book-and-records. Anyone else remember those? They were comic books, accompanied by 45 rpm vinyl that you listened to while reading. As I poured over Robinson Crusoe, Davy Crockett, The Monster of Frankenstein, and Curse of the Werewolf, I listened to narration, dialogue, and sound effects playing back on the record. I somehow convinced my parents to buy me the monster records and they made a huge impression on me, more than the others. I can still hear the guttural snarls and tearing of fabric as a werewolf dug his way out of poor Jack Russell. The narrator drove me from page to page, immersing me deep into classic tales of evil that kept me awake for nights on end. I’ve thought a lot about why I loved them so much – and yes, the sensory experience of hearing the story played as I read had something to do with it, but there is more to it than that. There was real psychological terror inhabiting those classics that’s harder to find today, and I think it comes down to the human predicament.
Frankenstein is timeless because it’s a brilliant metaphor about man’s lust for power and the guilt we all feel about crimes against ourselves. An amazing writer named Kate Sykes once told me that monsters are scary, but what they represent inside each of us is terrifying. That’s pretty hard to deny, and when I read contemporary horror or watch a scary flick, it’s usually on that score that I’m left feeling disappointed. We all know the cliché, but it bears repeating again and again – the characters own the story. If their situation isn’t relatable through the common thread of the human condition then the story doesn’t sing. Scott Smith’s breakout novel, A Simple Plan, is a fantastic story because the characters willingly did something they knew was wrong, feeding off each other’s ideas that everything would be alright, making themselves believe there wouldn’t be consequences to their actions. There’s no way to avoid feeling anxiety as you watch their plan spiral out of control, accelerated by mounting greed, desperation, and the complications of family relationships.
Smith’s novel can hardly be called horror in the conventional sense, but it scared me more than many horror novels I’ve read. When I see my reflection in the face of the character who is driving himself off a cliff, I can feel the wind in my hair. And I want to scream the whole way down.
Somewhere along the way many genre writers have forgotten this, the importance of creating real suspense through good characters. That’s why I think a lot of the genre fiction (and film) sucks these days. I’m not saying it’s all bad, of course, and maybe my tastes have evolved over the years, but when I write fiction today, I’m really striving to create some opportunity for resonance with you after the story ends. If I didn’t leave even a slight imprint on your mind, then I’ve got work to do.
I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. When you eat are you satisfied? Or do you leave thinking about ordering from a different restaurant next time?