Genre Month: Horror, Part Two

By Cammi Woodall

It was a dark and stormy night. It automatically sets the mood, doesn’t it? Horror as a literary theme continued into the 1900’s and gained  in popularity.

The late 19th and early 20th century saw the rise of the Penny Dreadful, mass produced periodicals that made popular fiction available to a much larger section of the population than books. Lurid tales of werewolves, vampires, and ghouls helped spur sales. Due to their low cost, sales of the magazines skyrocketed. After purchase, the magazines could then be passed around for many to enjoy, escaping the uncertainty and fear of the Depression and the World Wars.  

During the 1960’s and 70’s, elements of horror in literature became more visceral. Supernatural and creepy overtones were no longer enough for the reading public. Intense moral situations, vivid descriptions of gore, and stories based on real-life tragedies flooded the best sellers list. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, The Amityville Horror by Jan Anson, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby contained graphic accounts of adult situations more extreme than previously depicted in mainstream literature. The public responded favorably, with several horror novels reaching epic sales during this time.

Click to tweet: What do you think is the bestselling modern horror novel of all time? Names like Stephen King or Clive Barker may come to mind, but that title goes to a book published in 1979. V. C. Andrews wrote Flowers in Attic. #horror #amreading

Due to intense moral dilemmas, the book was banned from many schools and reading fairs. The shocking tale follows the Dollanganger children. The unexpected death of their father is only the first of many calamities that follows the siblings through the five book series.

No article about horror fiction would be complete without mentioning Stephen King. He is the master of horror with over 50 best selling novels. Just a few of his titles include The Shining, Cujo, Carrie, Misery, Needful Things, Thinner, Salem’s Lot, It, and The Running Man. His tales range from a rabid dog terrorizing a town (a real-life horror we could all encounter) to a post apocalyptic America fighting a maniacal evil (something I hope we never face). Often knocked by critics, especially for his earlier work, King’s stories resonate with the reading public. People who do not typically read horror will read Stephen King.

Even kids want to get scared. R. L. Stine published his first scary teen novel, Blind Date, in 1986. (Tagline – It wasn’t a date! It was a nightmare!) It was an instant success. He went on to write the Fear Street series and the Goosebumps series. Both series spawned movies, television shows, and merchandise that were extremely popular. The Fear Street series remains one of the best selling Young Adult series of all time.

This article only touches on a few writes of horror literature, but I am running out of room! There are countless other authors to explore – H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Frank E. Peretti, Shirley Jackson, Peter Straub, RAy Bradbury, Dean Koontz, Joe Hill, Seth Grahame-Smith… Well, you get the idea. There are horror novels for whatever ‘fear level’ you want. Your public library is a great way to check out a new author and see if you like their style.

So, after this history lesson, you may be wondering. Why do we read or write horror stories? Isn’t real life filled with enough despair, mistrust, uncertainty, and cruelty to fill dozens of horror novels? Yes, unfortunately. I hope none of us will face a killer clown crawling out of the sewer, or have a family member converse with skeleton parts, or conduct cadaver experiments in our creepy lab. These are abstract horrors because they are not liable to happen.

But we will experience grief as we lose a loved one, terror if we are attacked, loneliness, despair, regret, anxiety, betrayal… By reading horror, you escape the everyday fears we face. Writing horror allows the author to exorcise demons they hold within. When you hold a book or an unfinished manuscript in your hand, your are the master of that tiny little section of your universe. The story can allow you to escape for minutes or hours; the heroes and heroines may save the day and defeat the horror. If it gets to be too much? Simply close the book. Stop writing or reading. You control the horror.

All this research has made me want to re-visit some old favorites. I think I will curl up with my dog-eared copy of It. Wait, do I hear a tapping at my chamber door? It is a dark and stormy night, after all.

Writing Prompt: The pounding on the door stopped. The sudden silence was more unsettling than the rattling door.

Genre Month: Horror, Part One

By Cammi Woodall

Ho, ho, horror! Not your typical December greeting, is it? My topic for today is horror literature. The first part of this article focuses on classical horror, up to the 20th century.

We are all scared of something. Maybe your fear is something concrete – spiders, clowns, darkness, thunder, taxes. Maybe you are scared of intangibles – loneliness, death, imprisonment, hatred, racism.  A typical definition of horror is ‘a painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay.’ Horror writers attempt to make some sort of sense of the senseless, bring order to the chaos, and scare the daylights out of you!

Horror in literature actually dates back to ancient Sumer with tales of a supernatural being called Emikku who could inhabit dead bodies. Its roots began in early Church essays describing how to combat witchcraft and devil worship. Works such as Dante’s The Divine Comedy took these essays and put the Church’s warnings into a fictional account of the atrocities of Hell and Purgatory.

William Shakespeare might be an odd choice for an article on the horror genre, but the Bard’s work has several overtones of horror – the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father running around plotting and encouraging revenge, Hamlet’s slow descent into madness.  Alas, think of poor Yorick! Hamlet stands in a cemetery speaking to the skull of his dead companion while he contemplates the finality of death. It doesn’t get much creepier than that! His macabre elements still inspire authors today.

The first true horror book is often credited to Horace Wadpole.  His Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, was published in 1765 and contained the elements that would become standard for Gothic novels to come. A creepy mansion, underground passages, maidens in distress, ghosts, and mistaken identity depicted a supernatural fantasy at a time when most authors strove for realism. Critics considered the story in poor taste, but the public loved it.

The early 1800’s saw the rise of horror’s most well-known author, Edgar Allen Poe.  Poe’s use of short, staccato sentences and use of first-person view throughout his work heightened the tension, drawing the reader in to the terror happening on the page. Stories and poems such as The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of Amontillado, Annabel Lee, and The Tell-Tale Heart still enthrall readers today. Who can ever forget the epic poem The Raven, never flitting, still sitting, and the ever lost Lenore?

The 19th century saw a turn away from Gothic elements to what is considered modern horror. Tales such as Jane C. Loudon’s The Mummy, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and H.G. Well’s The Invisible Man relied less upon creepy atmosphere and drew inspiration from science and alchemy. Many of the novels during this time went on to become iconic classics immortalized in film, stage, and television.

No article on classical horror would be complete with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Both are available as public domain books, so no true sales figures exist, but together they are considered the highest selling horror novels of all time.

Frankenstein is considered by many to be the first modern horror novel, as well as the first science fiction novel. During a bout of bad weather and boredom, Shelley’s companion Percy Bysshe Shelley a contest for best ghost story. Mary was fascinated with galvanism, a scientific fad at the time of using electrical currents on animals and convicted criminals to stimulate muscle contractions. Study of her journals also reveal that she constantly thought of a baby she’d lost a few years earlier. Her emotional state helped her craft a true tale of horror, with both Dr. Frankenstein and his creation.

Bram Stoker spent seven years writing his masterpiece, Dracula. Many believe he based his story on Vlad the Impaler, and that is was the first vampire story. Actually, Transylvania and its famous nocturnal inhabitants had been popular in literature for many years. Stoker just took these basic elements and crafted a true tale of horror and suspense. His influence lives on today, with popular vampire stories like Joe Hill’s Nosferatu, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, and Stephanie Myers Twilight series.

Horror even spilled over into tales for children. The stories written by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen have been sanitized for today’s market, but children gathered around their mother’s knee or tucked into their cozy beds in the early 1830’s were familiar with very different versions of these beloved tales. The Little Mermaid suffered excruciating pain with each step, her feet bleeding, till she flung herself into the sea after her prince married another woman. The Evil Stepsisters cut off pieces of their feet to make the glass slipper fit, only to have their eyes pecked out by birds at Cinderella’s wedding. The Wicked Queen is forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance till she dies at Snow White’s wedding.

Click to tweet: Horror writers attempt to make some sort of sense of the senseless, bring order to the chaos, and scare the daylights out of you! Find out more about the genre known as “horror.” #horror #amreading

Not exactly the Disney versions, are they? Where are the grouchy lobsters or birds who help clean house? These stories often served as cautionary tales for children, much like modern day warnings of the Boogey Man.

The next part of my article tomorrow will focus on the 20th century. Stay tuned!

Writing Prompt – It was a dark and stormy night.

The World’s Greatest Villian

montesa_alteredvibrance_squareIt’s Halloween this week, a perfect opportunity to write the ultimate post on villains! I mean, Freddy Kruger, Jason, Saw, and their like – you can’t get any worse than that. Forgive me for inserting an emoticon at this point –> :-/ . Seriously, as far as villains go, these characters are caricatures.  Not only are they totally unbelievable as biological units, they have about as much depth as a politician. Yes, there’s a place for these ‘characters’ but they are not true villains. They are really much more part of the setting than they are characters and, outside the mind of an adolescent, uninteresting.

So who really is the world’s greatest villain? For one thing, the world’s greatest villain is not fictional. I’m reminded of St. Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. It goes like this:

God is that being, than which nothing greater can be conceived.

Okay, to break that down: One can conceive of all manner of wonderful things about a being, powerful, eternal, perfect, etc… but unless it actually exists, it’s nothing. So Anselm’s argument demands that God exists. The idea is that God created a universe in which the logic that is part of his universe proves his existence. (Think about it, it’ll tie your brain in knots!) Not that I’m calling God a villain, but by the same logic, the World’s greatest villain must also exist. In other words, the World’s greatest villain is a real person.

Vlad The Impaler, looking stylish.

Vlad The Impaler, looking stylish.

So who is it? Hitler, some may say, or Stalin? Maybe some of the Roman emperors of the past? Vlad the Impaler – he is a pretty scary dude if you read about him, no joke. The Nazi’s in general? The Communists? Again I say, the World’s worst villain must exist and all of these folks are dead. Except for the Communists, and where they are now makes my blood run cold. But they can’t touch the guy I’m talking about no matter how hard they try. At least, not yet.

The world has plenty of bad guys, right now. Any number of African dictators or guerrilla leaders are truly horrible people. Middle Eastern dictators can be single-mindedly ghoulish as well, and I’m talking the rebel leaders as well. But for the most part, their reach is limited. The World’s worst villain should pose a threat beyond his borders. After all, if he’s not threatening us in some way, how scary is he? It would be nice if the world didn’t even have such a person, but sadly, it does. A person who is also embodied as a place.

This is pretty much the mood of the place.

This is pretty much the mood of the place…

Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Saw, and stuff like that is just stupid. True horror is Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption. Locked up for life for something you didn’t do. That is horror. That is terror. Flying loaded airliners into buildings. Creating mountains of skulls. Holding an entire nation hostage. Peddling hate to infants in the crib. Threatening the world with attack. All held together with an iron-fisted bureaucracy. There is such a place. A place where things like this happen every day. It’s a place we make fun of. A place where we don’t understand the people so we just write them off as crazy. It’s a long way off so we ignore the atrocities afflicted on her tortured citizens. How we can focus on Africa while the World’s worst villain goes unpunished and largely ignored is a problem I grapple with daily.

... and their fearless leader who recently has his ex-girlfriend executed for being his ex-girlfriend.

… and their fearless leader who recently has his ex-girlfriend executed for being his ex-girlfriend.

Where is this place? I wrote a novel about his Hell on Earth. It is The Killing Fields x50… years! This person, this place, is where all elements of the true villain come together in perfect harmony – much the same way, by some twist of our universe – a host of physics principles all come synergistically together, as if by design, to give life to the thing we know as the hydrogen bomb. Where is this place? This place is North Korea. This person, is Kim Jong-un. True terror. True horror. True villain. An entire people who are part of a real-life, low-budget slasher flick. A place where information is so tightly controlled that the seemingly psychotic actions of it’s beleaguered citizens make perfect sense – to them. A leader who believes his own propaganda and who has no more consideration for his subjects than a dog for its meal. A world where society is shaped by intimidation, torture, and death.

No laughing matter.

No laughing matter.

Amazingly, it is this true villain who is portrayed as a caricature while fictional caricatures are held up as villains. Maybe it’s a human defense mechanism against an evil so monstrous it is hard to hold in our head. As a species we do this from time to time. The child’s poem, Ring Around the Rosy, for instance, has an equally gruesome genesis – Black Death. Regardless, not understanding this villain, not understanding this villain’s desire and motivation, have allowed him, have allowed it, to persist for over sixty years. If you want to understand this villain better, and understand why it is not psychotic, I encourage you to learn more about it. There are a lot of non-fiction books about North Korea but surprisingly few novels: my novel, The Silla Project, and Adam Johnson’s, The Orphan Master’s Son are about it. They take very different approaches to dancing with this villain but both are good reads. And of course, his won the Pulitzer Prize and mine didn’t (even though mine has a higher rating on Goodreads, Oh YEAH!)

John C. Brewer is a novelist, physicist, rocket scientist, lifelong soccer player, motorcycle rider, husband, father, and the author of Multiplayer, an adventure for young adults, and The Silla Project, a North Korean nuclear romance. Find out more about what he is doing at johncbrewer.com.

– John C. Brewer