My novel They Kill, my second release from Flame Tree Books, is now out. Like a lot of my horror fiction, the novel is filled with weird shit. Like, a lot of it. I don’t really label my horror in any specific ways, although readers, editors, and reviewers have called it surreal horror, nightmare horror, weird horror, and dark fantasy. And several of my short stories have appeared in volumes of Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. Any of these labels is fine with me, but I just think of my fiction as being my horror, fiction where the psychological states of characters are mirrored in the outer world – sometimes figuratively, sometimes quite literally. When I write this kind of horror, I walk a fine line between explaining exactly what is happening and making it seem plausible and allowing the images and concepts to speak for themselves without much, if any explanation. Not every reader or editor likes my approach to horror, but it’s worked pretty well for me over the last twenty-five years. But it first appeared in my work about thirty-three years ago, in a story that wasn’t horror at all.
I was an undergrad in college – we’re talking mid-eighties here – I wrote a short story whose title escapes me now. I have a vague memory of calling it “The Clearwater Monster,” but it could just as easily have been titled something else. But I certainly remember the story’s plot. It concerned two young boys who live near Lake Clearwater. One of the boys has a fanciful imagination (I wonder where I got that idea) and he likes to make up stories about a monster living in the lake and pretend that there really is one. The imaginative boy drowns in the lake one day, and his friend grieves. Years later, the friend – now an adult – returns to Lake Clearwater for the first time since the imaginative boy died so many years ago. The friend looks out upon the lake and is amazed and delighted to see a lake monster, just like the one the imaginative boy described, swimming in the water. He believes the monster is a manifestation of the boy’s spirit, who’s made his stories become reality and who’s appeared to say a last farewell to his old friend.
I showed this story to a guy I worked with at the university writing center. We’ll call him Bob (because that was his name). Bob read the story and gave me two pieces of feedback. One was that I should specify where the lake was located. I hadn’t done this because I wanted to create an almost fairy-tale sense that Clearwater could be any lake, anywhere. “But you have to say where the lake is” Bob told me. “You’re an American writer and all American writers are regionalists.” (And that, boys and girls, is why you shouldn’t take Lit majors too seriously.)
The second bit of feedback focused on the story’s ending, where the grown-up friend sees the lake monster swimming by, as if purposefully putting on a show for him.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Bob said.
I explained my concept to him and said that I didn’t want to overexplain it in the story because I felt doing so would rob the final image – and the character’s emotional reaction to it – of its impact. Bob insisted that the ending needed to be clearer, and since the story was an experiment for me, I figured I’d try to do what Bob suggested and see how it turned out. Giving Lake Clearwater a specific location was easy. I lived – and still live – in Southwestern Ohio, so that became my lake’s home. But as far as explaining the ending, everything I tried only made the story worse. A lot worse. Instead of depicting a moment of magic in a person’s life, a brief instant when he felt connected to his childhood friend once more, the ending became bogged down with authorial narrative, and the more concrete reasons I provided for the lake monster’s manifestation, the less magical the image seemed. Eventually, I said to hell with it and gave up on the story entirely. My creative instincts told me that my original approach was the right one, but the rational part of my mind decided Bob was right, my instincts sucked, and I moved on to other stories.
Bob’s feedback wasn’t the only reason I abandoned the story. I’d read a ton of how-to-write books back then. (This was long before the current wave of self-publishing, when only professional authors wrote writing guides.) So many of the books and articles I’d read advised beginning writers to always be specific, never vague, and they advised writers to avoid such literary tricks as leaving a story ending up to the reader to decide. They also warned that purposefully making a story too abstract didn’t make you brilliant. It meant you were an artistic poseur.
But as I kept writing, my urge to write these kind of abstract, imagistic stories grew, and from time to time, I’d give it another try. But when I did, I always made sure to offer at least some explanation/justification for the story’s central image. A couple of these stories sold to small-press magazines, back when the small press was really small, but most didn’t sell at all.
And then one day when I was twenty-nine, I decided to submit a story to a pro-level horror anthology called Young Blood. The concept behind the anthology was that all the stories in it had to have been written before the author’s thirtieth birthday. I wrote a story about a monster tree called ‘Yggdrasil” that was quickly rejected. Then I wrote a story called “Mr. Punch.” I’ve talked about writing this story a number of times over the years – in interviews, and in past entries in this blog. “Mr. Punch” was a total trust-my-instincts story, and when I received feedback from friends that the ending needed to be explained more clearly, I didn’t listen. I submitted “Mr. Punch,” the editor bought it, and it became my first professional sale. Later, Ellen Datlow selected it as one of her honorary mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.
I continued writing and selling such stories, ones that – as a colleague at the college where I teach once told me – center on the “logic of the image.” Eventually, I tried to write this kind of story at novel length. The result was The Harmony Society, which was followed by my first Leisure Books release Like Death. (You can buy more recent edition of these books in both print and ebook versions – hint, hint.) Today, thirty-something years after writing about the Lake Clearwater Monster, this is the type of horror fiction I’m known for, stories that have garnered awards and appeared in various Year’s Best anthologies. Even so, I still occasionally have editors ask me to explain my stories’ central concepts a bit more. Sometimes I make changes, sometimes I don’t. It depends on whether I think a clearer explanation will make a story better.
I can write stories that are clear and easy to understand. I do it all the time when I write my urban fantasy or tie-in novels. But there are very specific reasons why I think overexplaining can be death for a horror story. (See what I did there?) Let me tell you why.
JOURNEY INTO THE UNKNOWN
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft
If you’re a horror writer, you’ve likely seen this quote a jillion times before. The word unknown is key here. Vampires ceased being scary as fictional characters long ago. They’re too known. Not only do readers – especially rabid horror fans – know everything about basic vampire lore, they’ve been exposed to images of vampires in media since they were kids. When it comes to horror, overexplaining and overfamiliarity have killed vampires (and werewolves and ghosts and . . .) with more finality than sunlight and wooden stakes ever could. This is why vampires relocated to urban fantasy and romance. Vampires are now primarily adventure and romance characters. They aren’t Monsters with a capital M. By not overexplaining a supernatural entity in a story – perhaps not even naming it – you keep readers guessing, keep them uncertain, make them uncomfortable, make your story not safe . . . Do these things, and you’re harnessing the power of the Unknown.
EXPLANATIONS – ESPECIALLY DETAILED ONES – AREN’T REALISTIC
I know this sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out. Imagine yourself as a character in a horror story. You’re driving down a country road in the middle of the night, and you see a full moon in the sky. You find this strange because you could’ve sworn a full moon isn’t due for a couple more weeks. You peer at this unexpected moon through your windshield, only to see its lid rise upward, revealing a single, horrible gigantic eye gazing down at you. Do you really think you’d ever be able to understand what the fuck was happening? That you could pull over to the side of the road, park, grab your phone and do a Google search for “big-ass moon eye” and a web page would pop up telling you exactly what the monstrous eye is and precisely what to do to defeat it? Fuck, no! In real life, shit happens all the time, and we hardly ever know for certain why it happens the way it happens. We just have to try to deal with it the best we can.
The movie Sinister is a great example of unnecessary and story-damaging overexplaining.
The monstrous fiend in the film is called Mr. Boogie (as in Boogeyman, of course), and the shit that he causes to happen is creepy as hell – until our hero consults a college professor who explains that Mr. Boogie is really an ancient god called Bagul who collected the souls of human children a thousand years ago.
Mr. Boogie was scary when he was a thing, a creature of unknown abilities and motivations, who might not have any motivation, at least none mere humans could ever understand. But Bagul? He’s just a fifth-rate god in some obscure mythology text. What could be more dull? (My guess is that Bagul shit was added at the direction of some dumbass studio executive.)
Overexplaining kills any sense of mystery in a story. There’s mystery in the Xenomorph in Alien. Not so much in the sequel Aliens. In that movie, the Xenomorphs are more numerous, easier to kill (at least as individuals), and their capabilities and life cycle are much better understood by Ripley (though not completely). The Xenomorph in Alien is a monster. The Xenomorphs in Aliens and every other sequel are basically animals. You could replace them with a pack of hyper-aggressive wolves and get pretty much the same story.
Alien: What is this thing? Where did it come from? What does it want? What can it do? How does it hunt? Reproduce? What can it do to me? How can I kill it?
Aliens: “Look, Xenomorphs!” Colonial Marines fire a shitload of bullets at Xenos, tearing them to shreds.
Now I love Aliens, and while I think of it as an action-adventure movie with monsters, I don’t consider it horror. Horror-adjacent at best.
Want an example of a fantastic horror story that is drenched in mystery and the unknown? Read Jack Ketchum’s “The Box.” You can also watch a great film adaptation of the story as one part of the anthology film XX.
BUT SOMETIMES A LITTLE DOESN’T HURT
Sometimes readers (and viewers) don’t respond well to stories that are only metaphor, so giving them some explanation can help. It’s like Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar – it helps the medicine go down. After I saw Darren Aronofsky’s Mother in the theater, I had to hit the restroom. The guy using the urinal next to me asked if I’d just seen the movie and if so, did I know what it was about? I told him what I thought, he told me his theory, and then when were finished and our hands were washed, he went into the hallway to look for other people who’d seen the movie to find out what they thought it meant. While it was weird to have a discussion with a stranger about a movie while we were both pissing, it was a good example of an audience member who was almost desperate for a little more guidance in how to view a story. So while I bitched about the Bagul stuff in Sinister earlier, a line or two that at least hints at an explanation can go a long way to help audiences who need something to hang onto when reading (or watching) a weird story.
I like stories that stimulate my imagination. Explanations – especially unnecessarily detailed ones – don’t feed my imagination. On the contrary, they starve it. They keep me outside a story, when as an audience member, I want to be inside, interacting with it intellectually and emotionally. Remember our old friend Mr. Boogie? For most of Sinister, he was a mysterious, malign, inhuman presence, and this invited me to try to imagine what the hell he might be, what he could do, and what he wanted. But when I was told that he was just another pagan god, there was nothing left for my imagination to work with. The script told me what the story was instead of allowing me to help make the story. People attempt to define the difference between simplistic fiction meant solely for mindless entertainment and stories that strive to achieve more artistic goals. I’d say that inviting the audience to collaborate in the creation of the story by allowing room for their imaginations to interact with the text (or film) instead of merely spoonfeeding them everything, is a pretty damn good definition.
There’s nothing wrong with stories that are designed primarily to be fun. I’ve written two creature-feature novels for Severed Press – The Teeth of the Sea and Blood Island – and I created them solely to be enjoyable pulp adventure-horror. There’s no great mystery to them, no strange imagery or ideas dredged up from my subconscious, nothing but monsters chomping on people and people trying to escape being chomped. But these books are the kind of thing readers read once and then forget about. These stories don’t have any impact on readers, don’t make them think or feel, and – most importantly to me -- they don’t stimulate readers’ imaginations in any meaningful way. They’re the simplest kind of horror, Goosebumps for adults. They’re fun, but that’s all they are.
If you want to write more challenging horror stories – stories which I think get closer to the dark heart of what horror is instead of merely using horror tropes to create simple entertainment – try playing around with how much, or how little, you explain the weirdness in your stories and see what happens. Who knows? You’ll at least add to your toolbox of narrative techniques for writing horror, and you might just find a brand-new writer’s voice for yourself as well.
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
As I said earlier, They Kill has just been released, and is available simultaneously in hardback, paperback, ebook, and audio. Advance reviews have been good! Here’s one of my favorite review quotes:
“This is gory, unsettling and definitely strange and I loved every minute. It’s what a horror story should be and has reignited my love for the genre. Brilliant.” – The Bookwormery
Can’t beat that for a blurb, can you?
Here’s a synopsis:
What are you willing to do, what are you willing to become, to save someone you love?
Sierra Sowell’s dead brother Jeffrey is resurrected by a mysterious man known only as Corliss. Corliss also transforms four people in Sierra’s life into inhuman monsters determined to kill her. Sierra and Jeffrey’s boyfriend Marc work to discover the reason for her brother’s return to life while struggling to survive attacks by this monstrous quartet.
Corliss gives Sierra a chance to make Jeffrey’s resurrection permanent – if she makes a dreadful bargain. Can she do what it will take to save her brother, no matter how much blood is shed along the way?
Audio: Available soon.
Writing in the Dark – the Book!
I’m thrilled to have recently signed a contract with the good folks at Raw Dog Screaming Press to write a horror-writing guide named after this blog: Writing in the Dark. I’ll post information about release dates, etc., as it becomes available. For now, you can find the official announcement about the book here: http://rawdogscreaming.com/book-deal-tim-waggoners-horror-writing-guide/
I mentioned earlier that I’ve written a couple monsters-chomping-people books for Severed Press. I’ve also written a story for their anthology Prehistoric, which presents stories about dinosaurs eating people. My story, “Closure,” is actually a reimaging of a story I wrote for one of my college creative writing classes when I was an undergrad over thirty years ago. I thought it would be cool to see what I could do with the idea now, and “Closure” is the result. Check it out!
Trade paperback: https://www.amazon.com/PREHISTORIC-Dinosaur-Anthology-Hunter-Shea/dp/1925840875/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
My Alien novel for Titan Books, Alien: Prototype, was recently approved by Fox Studios, so it’s good to go! It’ll be out in October, and it’s also a fun monster-eating-people novel – but in SPACE! Why should you read it? One word: Necromorph. (Yeah, I got to invent my own alien species!) It’s available for preorder now.
Writing in the Dark Newsletter
Besides this blog, I also have a newsletter you can subscribe to. I send issues out a bit more frequently than I post here, and while the announcements about my current and upcoming projects are mostly the same, I include writing and publishing articles that are different than what you can read in my blog. The current newsletter has an article on “The Rule of Twelve.” If you want to know what that is, subscribe! You can do so by following this link at my website:
Newsletter link: http://timwaggoner.com/contact.htm
Excellent article, Tim. I agree entirely that a horror story or sci-fi story shouldn't have to explain everything. Let's leave some room for the imagination and room for debate.ReplyDelete
Funny how I hear your voice reading this to me...that doesn't happen too often, even though I know lots of writers IRL! ;-)ReplyDelete
Because I write straight crime fiction (as in no horror, not just hetero...you know what I mean!), I *have* to explain some things more, but I like things left to the imagination too - as a writer or as a reader.