writing to horrify

Last week, I had the pleasure of addressing the Winston-Salem Writers to talk about horror fiction, Miserere, and my newest work in progress, The Garden. The group was wonderful and really engaged, just the kind of audience that makes any reading fun.

Since giving a reading has been a topic of conversation online of late, I thought I'd share with you portions of the talk and how I constructed it. For the two or three of you who read this blog on a regular basis (yeah, I look at the stats), you know that I talked about giving a reading and even did a blog post on the subject for Nora Peevy a few weeks ago.

Reading a transcript is very different from hearing someone talk, so I've edited this talk for the blog. I've also omitted the portions of the manuscript that I read. At no point did I read an entire chapter. I read a brief portion of chapter one of Miserere and though time did not allow for me to read from The Garden, I was able to talk about Guillermo in contrast with Lucian.

Writing to Horrify

Before I begin, I want to assure you that I have been to readings where authors put their faces into their manuscripts and they read their entire first chapter as if they're in a speed-reading contest in sotto-voice. I'm not going to do that to you. We're going to talk about writing horror and fantasy, and I will read you an excerpt from Miserere and, if time allows, from my newest novel, The Garden.

I would like to thank Jennifer Stevenson and the Winston-Salem Writers for asking me to participate in your wonderful serial horror novel. What an amazing undertaking. When she first asked me to write a chapter in two weeks, I really think a blood vessel burst in my brain.


Now that was horror. I had spent two years on Miserere’s first chapter, tweaking it here and there to make it as perfect as I could.

Two weeks to write a chapter. I was just awed. So I wrote the first chapter of Rady for you and look at how you’ve carried the story. Your ability to move through the mental gymnastics necessary to jump from one person’s creativity to another still wows me. All of your voices are so different, but all of you rose to the occasion to remain true to the story as you saw it. It’s a great exercise, I hope you continue.

Writing to horrify … man, that’s a job. What’s scary to me might not be scary to you and while personal definitions of horror often differ, I think that Daryl Gregory, in his discussion of anti-horror at the SF Signal blog, outlined the general structure of most horror novels beautifully.

In that blog post, Gregory gives the following five points as to what constitutes a horror novel in the literary sense:

  1. Darkness intrudes. The story may open with some comfortable status quo, but the protagonist gradually realizes that things are not as they seem. Then...
  2. The truth dawns. The protagonist finally grasps that the world is a lie. As John Clute said in Locus magazine, horror stories are those "which force you to peel off the rind of falseness, the falseness of our understanding of things, until you get to a true understanding of the world..."
  3. Characters struggle in the face of hopelessness. The protagonist forms a plan, takes action, and suffers losses.
  4. The world is restored. The evil is suppressed (always temporarily), and the status quo is returned.
  5. The protagonist is destroyed. The truth seeker is punished for their knowledge. They are driven insane, or are spiritually or psychologically damaged by their knowledge of the truth, or they die. [Lovecraft and Poe are excellent examples of this type of horror.]

My novel, Miserere, diverges from this structure in the last step. Rather than being driven mad by the horrors he is forced to confront, Lucian actually manages to achieve a state of grace when he confronts the truth, even though the truth is ugly, not what he wanted to see.

This is what Gary K. Wolfe has dubbed as the New Horror in the book Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature. In an essay written with Amelia Beamer, Wolfe and Beamer discuss “Peter Straub and the New Horror.” Wolfe uses Straub's novels to illustrate how Straub’s stories "seek to find room for something like the sacred." (Gregory, SF Signal)

However, I found all this after I had written Miserere. What initially inspired this novel was a dream I had where a tall, Slavic man in medieval garb talked to a boy dressed in modern clothing. Beyond the city where they stood was a dark forest and in the forest was a sign nailed to a tree that read: Jesus Saves. Beneath the sign was a fender from an older model car and on the fender was the bumper sticker: Nobody Saves You More Than Winn Dixie.

And within that framework, the first seeds for Miserere were planted. I wanted to capture that mingling of the sacred and the secular that we face in our day-to-day lives and translate it into a fantasy setting. I had initially wanted to write a young adult novel, but the story simply was not taking off from Peter’s point of view.

I had a writing instructor at that time who suggested that I try writing random scenes from different characters’ points of view to see which character spoke to me the strongest. When I did, I found it was Lucian. I redefined the story to Lucian’s point of view, Miserere became an adult novel, and that freed me to go more deeply into the horror of both the world I created and religion itself.

The ancients saw the heavens and the mysteries of the universe as a very dangerous place. Heaven, as well as hell, was comprised of wonders and horrors that would drive mystics mad if their minds weren’t fully prepared for what they would see.

I wanted my society in Woerld to reflect this, so I turned to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were just being translated when I was working through my world-building aspects of Miserere.

One of the Dead Sea Scrolls is called The War Scroll and essentially draws the battle lines between good and evil. The War Scroll describes a seven stage, dualistic confrontation between the "Sons of Light,” under the leadership of the "Prince of Light" (also called Michael, the Archangel) – and the "Sons of Darkness," aided by a nation called Kittim, headed by Belial.

I expanded on that imagery to include the "Daughters of Light" and "Daughters of Darkness," because why should the sons get to have all the fun? Using the concepts presented in the Community Rule Scroll, I worked toward creating my society of Bastions in Woerld.

Well, yeah, you say: that’s fantasy, not horror. The horror comes from the powers of darkness, not just as an external force but as the internal conflicts within and among the characters. Lucian, my protagonist, must confront the lies he has comforted himself with over the years, and he sees those lies shattered first by Rachael, the lover he betrayed, then by his sister Catarina. In other words, the falseness of his world is peeled away and he is left with a very ugly reality.

At the beginning of Miserere, Lucian remains where he is out of fear, and fear is an integral part of horror. Lucian’s situation is bad, intolerable in a lot of ways, but his terror of the unknown takes precedence over his terror of the known. One morning, Lucian argues with his sister Catarina and he walks out on her. As he evades her guards, he grows tired and seeks to rest in a small church.

He thinks of all he has lost, but most of all, he is consumed with guilt over his betrayal of Rachael, so it is she who is first in his thoughts. And this is from Chapter one of Miserere:

[And here I did a very brief reading from Miserere. I am leaving the last paragraph of the manuscript in place, because it leads into the next paragraph of my talk.]

Lucian rubbed the rust from his palms onto his pants and took up his cane. Above him, the sound of metal screamed against stone, and then silence. His way back was sealed from him forever.

And that is how most journeys begin—the protagonist is pushed into a situation where there is no going back and he is forced to face the truth and the horror of what he has set into motion. It is a fairytale, a story of one man’s sin and redemption, both of which come through his own actions.

I love fairytales; they are fantasy mingled with horror, pure and simple. All fairytales, true fairytales and not these watered down Disney versions, are dark. The Little Mermaid doesn't go dancing off singing "Under the Sea," she loses her chance to be human and is turned into sea foam. Every adventure carries risk, and sometimes the protagonist loses. In "Snow White," the evil queen is invited to the wedding where iron shoes are heated until they glow and are placed on her feet. She is made to dance in the snow until she dies.

With Miserere, I wanted to turn the typical fairytale on its head. Instead of the handsome prince rescues the beautiful princess from the wicked step-mother, I have the handsome prince is held prisoner by the evil sister and he must be rescued by the beautiful princess, who is no longer beautiful because she is ravaged by a demon.

With my next novel, tentatively entitled The Garden, I also wanted to twist another fairytale theme. I’ve always loved the imagery in "Beauty and the Beast." There are enchanted tears, rings, flowers, and lights. And a handsome prince disguised as a loathsome beast who is saved by a beautiful commoner.

Instead of France, I wanted my story set in Aragon in 1348. The loathsome beast is female, and the handsome commoner is male, and after that everything gets really scary.

The Garden begins on July 21, 1348 in Aragón, just after the battle of Épila. It is about a man named Guillermo Ramírez, a blacksmith who has been conscripted into the King’s army. Like Lucian, Guillermo’s actions set off his adventures, but where Lucian is an older man, more settled and someone who has already learned from his mistakes, Guillermo is younger and is in the process of learning who he is.

After the battle at Épila, Guillermo and several other caballeros are sent to search the town for plunder. Guillermo finds a silver bracelet, and though he is supposed to return everything to the King, he steals the bracelet for a woman that he is infatuated with, Christina.

So Guillermo returns to camp where he finds that Christina has been promised to another man and the wedding is only a week away. He becomes drunk and is enraged by his inability to flee the army and go home. After an incident with a superior officer, Guillermo kills the man. Now he must flee for his life. He becomes lost in a storm and finds himself in the ruins of an abandoned monastery where he encounters a woman who will only call herself Urraca.

He eats from her table and drinks from her cup and because of her beauty, he promises to stay with her. When he wakes in the morning, the beautiful woman is gone--and I don't know about you, but I've known more than one guy who has awakened to find himself in that situation--and Guillermo finds himself caught in the middle of a war between an ancient daimon called Ashmedai and a horrific looking angel that will only call herself Belita.

With The Garden, I want to explore love, both the scared and the profane, and I want to show you that the love we might consider profane is actually pure, and the love we consider as pure often comes with consequences and unattainable demands attached. I want to show you how a selfish man can learn to give and become, if not good, at least a better person.

Stephen King once said that “one achieves goodness at a terrific cost.” Horror shows us that payment in action and the conquest of evil in the individual often must be accomplished before the external evil can be defeated.

Dualism of the gods, demons, and ghosts in the night—these are all metaphors for our personal horrors. It’s safer to explore our fears through a possession such as Rachael’s where a demon gnaws her memory rather than look into the face of an Alzheimer’s patient, especially when it is someone we love.

Horror gives us escape, but it also forces us to see what we should examine most closely: ourselves and our motivations, however twisted. Nothing in life is cheap, and the truth carries the highest price of all.

On writing your stories, regardless of your genre, Stephen King is also the man to heed. He said that “when it comes to fiction, the writer’s only responsibility is to look for the truth inside his own heart.”

I hope you will do that in your own fiction, and if you do read any of my works, please remember, my truths are brutal, and I have a very dark heart.

I thank you.