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.

Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”

I’d like to welcome a friend of mind, Cammi Woodall, to the blog today. She is sharing with us her favorite author…

Remember that hope is a good thing, Red, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

Of all the authors who could have penned the above quote, Stephen King probably never entered your mind. What words do you think of to describe a King novel? Horror, terror, despair? Vampires and killer clowns running amok in small New England towns?

All true. Stephen King is, well… the King of Horror Fiction. Many of his novels include graphic depictions of violence and brutality.

Underneath these gritty themes, however, lies hope. Not just hope for some, but hope for all, no matter your appearance, age, background, economic situation, perceived abilities, race, gender… Hope for anyone willing to grasp it and never let it go.

Most of King’s stories revolve around ordinary people thrust into incredible circumstances. Whether it is a clique of misfit children battling a centuries-old evil, a veteran and his friends trying to dismantle a mysterious dome encircling their town, or survivors of an apocalyptic super-virus struggling to rebuild at the world’s demise, hope drives King’s characters in their fight against evil, whether supernatural or human-made.

My favorite story that best represents this theme of hope is a novella from the book Different Seasons, titled “Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption”. Told in the first person, the story is narrated by Red, an inmate at Shawshank Correctional Facility. While Red narrates, his tale is about his friend, Andy DuFresne. Accused of a double murder, Andy maintains his innocence. His standoffish manner and calm determination turn the jury against him and he is sentenced to back-to-back life sentences in Shawshank. He’s basically never getting out.

If you’ve only seen the movie based on this novella, you need to read the story. Books and stories unfold so differently from their cinematic offspring. The movie does a good job by casting Morgan Freeman as Red and letting him narrate over the action, but there’s just no feeling like words unfurling on paper, your fingers itching to flip pages to see what happens.

Red takes us through Andy’s years in Shawshank. A loner at first, Andy soon becomes a member of Red’s group after an incident while tarring a roof. This also leads to him becoming a financial ‘pet’ for the warden and prison guards. Before long, Andy is doing taxes and filling out legal paper work for the employees. The warden recognizes his intelligence and soon has the inmate conducting an elaborate money laundering scheme.

Despite his friends and new consulting position, Andy’s life in Shawshank is far from easy. I warn you: this is a Stephen King story about a men’s prison. These men are serving hard time for crimes they committed. While detailed descriptions are not given, what is conveyed in crude terms and language lets you know exactly what is happening. Andy is targeted by a clique of bullies who torment him. He fights but doesn’t always win. No matter, because he fights again. He is repeatedly beaten and abused, but each time rises to carry on. He never gives up hope.

One afternoon in the prison yard, Andy tells Red about a small town in Mexico called Zihuatanejo. Dreams of the azure waters of the Pacific and what his life could be sustain him through the gritty reality of imprisonment. He tells Red of a tree standing sentinel in a field in Buxton, Maine, shading a stone fence. When Red gets out, Andy asks him to go to that tree and look for an unusual rock.

A tragedy near the end of the book tears Andy apart and it scares Red. For the first time since he entered the gates of Shawshank, Andy seems hopeless. Red suffers through a fright-filled night, afraid of what his friend might do in his lonely cell at the end of the block.

I will stop there. If you want to read the story, it’s best not to know beforehand what happens to Andy.

Jump forward several pages and Red is now a free man. Time has marched forward without him and he struggles to match a new fast paced rhythm. He thinks how men often commit a new crime just to get back to the familiarity of bars and the routine of someone dictating when you can eat or go to the bathroom. He also thinks of a tree in a field. He thinks of his friend.

After weeks of searching, Red finds that tree in a sun-dappled field. He also finds a letter with the quote that opens this paper. It isn’t a long note, but powerful enough to make the ex-con cry. I cried too, because no good thing ever dies.

Our story ends with Red, a man rightfully imprisoned for 38 years, sitting on a bus staring out the window, a representation of the cell and bars where he’d been incarcerated. But he sees beyond the walls and glass to the endless expanse of sky before him. He is a man who hopes to see his friend again and shake his hand. A man who hopes the Pacific is as blue as in his dreams. A man, though beaten down and repressed for his wrongdoings, now sees the beauty of life and possibilities of his future.

A man who hopes.

That’s how the novella ends. In Red’s own words; I hope.

The first time I read Shawshank, I pictured Red on that bus reaching out with both hands to grab the beauty life holds for him. As I read each of his wishes, I couldn’t help but think of my own declarations.

I hope to touch the sky from the top of Machu Picchu some day. I hope my family and friends know how much I love them and depend on them. I hope I am using my talents and gifts in the way they were intended.

I hope.

Click to tweet: What words do you think of to describe a King novel? Horror, terror, despair?

Machu Picchu

Writing Prompt: As I stood in line at our local bank, I couldn’t help but stare at the man across the room. Could that be Stephen King? Only one way to find out. I stepped out of line and…

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