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No Bones About It: How to Write
Part I: The Seeds of Horror
by David Taylor
It all began thousands of years ago in some dark and
smoky cave with a tale-teller chanting to his awe-struck
tribe huddled around a sputtering fire. He told of
strange beasts, angry gods, and dark magic afoot in a
dangerous world. In other words, horror stories.
All known societies have a rich history of these
supernatural myths and legends. Their purpose, like fairy
tales for children, is to explain the threatening
universe beyond the cave, to simplify a confusing world
seemingly dominated by forces greater than ourselves.
But we're civilized now. No more of that "moon
eating the sun" business. We know an astronomical
event when we see one. Why, we don't even throw virgins
into volcanoes anymore to keep them (the volcanoes) from
Yet we still love our horror tales. Today they enjoy
unprecedented popularity. In the past twenty years more
horror novels have been published than in the entire
previous history of the printed word. Stephen King has
over 100 million copies of his books in print, with Dean
R. Koontz nipping at his buttocks.
Horror is everywhere in our post-print media, too. The
genre's three archetypesthe Vampire, the Monster,
and the Ghosthave been immortalized in the
breakfast cereals Count Chocula, Frankenberry, and Boo
Berry. On TV, horror is used to hawk everything from
floor polish to charge cards. Horror films remain one of
Hollywood's most bankable genres. And don't forget that
the music video which ignited the best-selling album of
all time, Michael Jackson's 1982 "Thriller,"
was nothing if not a little shop of horrors.
The first task for a writer looking to publish in this
genre is to understand the reasons for such enormous
popularity, to fathom the complex social and emotional
elements which fueled the horror "boom" that
began in the early 1970s and continues today. Like
Freddie Kreuger and Jason, horror refuses to die. And to
write it successfully, we need to know why.
When H.P. Lovecraft observed in the 1930s that the appeal
of horror was narrow because it required imagination and
detachment from life, the Rhode Island recluse couldn't
have anticipated the profound threats to our imaginations
and lives the last decade of this century.
Can anyone doubt that we live in a horrific world? Middle
Eastern madmen overflow with pent-up doom, the AIDS virus
stalks our globe, and above Antarctica there's a hole in
the ozone layer that's the size of the continental United
Someone should wake up Lovecraft and tell him that
imagination and detachment have become requirements for
maintaining one's sanity today. Our need for horror
stories parallels our sense of alienation, helplessness
and fearas common today as pop-up ads on AOL.
Horror provides a way for us to deal with these emotions.
It lets us confront them in a make-believe world, gain a
sense of control there, and bring a little of it back
Horror in Your House
But a horror writer need look no further than his own
backyard to find his subject matter: the misery of our
inner cities, the cold-eyed insanity of Timothy McVeigh,
children who kill and are killed. There's real horror in
loneliness and rage, in twisted love and jealously, in
the rampant corporate greed that threatens to rot us from
within. Much of today's horror is about these dark stains
on our souls, the cancers of our minds.
Since Lovecraft's time we've fooled ourselves into
thinking that the universe is fully explainable in terms
of natural laws which are discoverable through science.
Once we understand these laws, the reasoning goes, we'll
be the undisputed masters of the universe and our lives
in it. Yet, at the same time, we suspect and hope that
there are still occult forces out there that we can never
fully understand. We are driven to seek them out because
our science and rationalism threaten to rid the universe
of all mystery.
the Beast Within
But there's another appeal of horror that we mustn't fool
ourselves about: The innate violence of our species,
distilled and pure as plutonium, fuels horror literature
and serves as metaphor for the everyday brutality lying
beneath the surface of our lives.
This compulsion to violence is another legacy from our
early hominid ancestors, who fought off extinction on the
African veldt. Eons of biologic evolution have ingrained
the savage instincts of the hunter into us, yet our
current lives provide little opportunity for its
expression. In many ways we have become automatons
regulated by the corporation's clock and must suppress
our savagery, paying the price in ulcers, heart disease,
and social psychopaths like the D.C. snipers.
The emotional and physical violence of horror literature
acts as a safety valve for our repressed animalism. What
commuter doesn't cheer for King Kong as he rips the five
o'clock train from its tracks? Who hasn't wished to
strike out against the nameless, faceless regulation of
our lives, a conformity that threatens to turn us into
unthinking, unfeeling workaholics? Who doesn't see in
Frankenstein's monster, who was refused the affection he
craved, the expression of our own innate hostilities?
Few of us in this complex, technological, alienating
world have not felt at times misunderstood,
unappreciated, alone, and dehumanized. Horror stories are
a convenient and harmless way of striking back, of giving
in to those mysterious and feral forces, allowing them to
take control and wrack havoc on the stultifying
regularity of our lives.
A safety valve. One which allows us to exercise, in the
words of Stephen King, "those antisocial emotions
which society demands we keep stoppered up .. for
society's and our own good." We can also understand
why this literature appeals so strongly to adolescents in
the process of rebelling against authority and social
conformity. Horror literature, like rock 'n' roll, is
strenuously antisocial and especially popular with teens
experimenting with the extremes of their emotions.
Walk on the Dark Side
Horror also appeals to the morbid in us. We hold an
inescapable fascination with the grave and the dark
mystery of death. At the instant of our birth, the
countdown to oblivion begins as each passing moment
brings us closer to death. It is said that Voltaire
possessed a clock which, in addition to chiming the hour,
intoned the solemn words: "One hour nearer the
Death is the one aspect of life that cannot be denied.
And as Stephen King observed, the reading of horror and
supernatural tales is a form of preparation for our own
deaths, a "danse macabre" before the void, as
well as a way to satisfy our curiosity about the most
seminal event in our lives except birth.
Search for God
So perhaps the ultimate appeal of horror is the
affirmation that it provides. The opposite of death is
life. If supernatural evil exists in this world, as many
horror stories posit, so must supernatural good. Black
magic is balanced by white. The Wicked Witch of the West
met her match in Glenda, the Good Witch of the North. If
the fallen angel Lucifer lives and is at work in our
lives, so must be God.
In a starkly rational world that would banish such
beings, horror literature gives them back to us: their
magic, their power, the reality they once held in simpler
times. As critics over the years have noted, fantasy
literature works like religion in our lives. It helps to
satisfy our need to believe in forces greater than
ourselves, worlds different from our own. It touches that
part of us that dreams of what never was and can never
be. But for a brief and magic moment it is real and we
And are filled with awe.
© by David Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
Taylor's horror and dark suspense fiction has appeared in
anthologies such as Masques, Pulphouse and Scare
Care; and in magazines like Cemetery Dance,
Sci-Fi Channel Magazine and Gorezone. His
1990 short story "Lessons in Wildlife" earned
an honorable mention in that year's "Best Horror,
Science Fiction and Fantasy" awards. Author and
coauthor of five horror novels, David's latest works are
a collection of short stories, Hell is for Children,
and a guide to nonfiction writing, The Freelance
Success Book. Both are available at http://www.peakwriting.com
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