Creative Colleagues Roundtable: Horror Fiction

Spooky cover by Dan Scott

Spooky cover by Dan Scott

In the usual Creative Colleagues interviews, I drop five questions on a person involved in stories: writers, illustrators, musicians, nerf herders—you know the type. Yet sometimes I have just one or two questions, and I want a bunch of opinions.

That includes your opinions, so I hope you’ll comment.

Here’s a little incentive: After two weeks, I’ll randomly pick the names of up to six commentators (fewer, if fewer than six people participate). The chosen few will receive a code for their choice of one of the following Pathfinder Tales novels via audible.com: Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, Queen of Thorns, King of Chaos, Lord of Runes, or Elaine Cunningham’s Winter Witch (to which I contributed the back half).

Because ghost stories were one of my first “fandoms,” I often include a little Gothic supernatural in my work, notably in Prince of Wolves. And so for the spooky month of October, I posed a couple of horror fiction questions to some of my eerier colleagues.

Of the many sub-genres of horror fiction, which do you find the most appealing?

David Annandale: The sub-genre I find most appealing at the moment is the ghost story. Roald Dahl said something to the effect that this is one of the most difficult forms of fiction to do well, and I think he’s not far wrong. The ghost story has a fair bit in common with the mystery but has the added challenge of providing a solution that is not just satisfying but—rather than leading to comfort and resolution—makes things even more frightening. I realize this is an oversimplification of both forms, but it does summarize the qualities of my favorite ghost stories. These are tales that linger in the mind, becoming more disturbing the more one thinks about them.

For my money, one of the most perfect of all ghost stories is Edith Wharton’s “Afterward.” The premise is simple—a house haunted by a ghost you do not realize you have seen until long afterward—but there is nothing simplistic in the way Wharton plays out all the awful implications of that idea. The first time I read the story, I thought it was atmospheric, but I was a little disappointed in the payoff. A long time after, I began to understand exactly what had gone on, and it became really creepy. In other words, it was a story that embodied its own premise.

In a way, the same is true of Peter Straub’s terrifying Ghost Story. Here is a tale where the being we encounter is the origin of all ghost tales, and the novel itself is like a compendium of them all while still remaining a unified whole. It is as big and booming a story as Wharton’s is quiet and subtle, but no less layered a masterpiece. So the ghost story can range in tone from the whisper to the scream. As hard as it is to do right, it’s devastating when everything comes together.

Stephen D. Sullivan: I find two sub-genres in the horror/monster area most appealing. One is the classic Gothic Horror setting, which can range from the past right into the present, because it’s more about the atmosphere than the period. My Frost Harrow stories, for instance, are set in the present but can arc into the past.

I’m also way more about the monsters—ghosts, werewolves, undead, etc. or even Cthulhu—than I am about slasher-type fiction. When I wrote my novelization of White Zombie, I didn’t try to jazz it up with too much sex or gore and such; I kept it within the time frame when the movie was made and just hinted a little more strongly at some of the weird subtexts they had in the film. When finally I start working on my Cushing Horrors stories, they’ll probably be more similar to WZ and Universal’s movies—classic monster movie stuff.

My Frost works, conversely, are very modern in their outlook and can have more sex and violence. My two Manos novelizations run the gamut. Manos: The Hands of Fate has the kinky subtext of the film but plays for the comedy and doesn’t delve any deeper. In Manos: Talons of Fate (coming soon), I get to dig into the dark side and bring it out for readers to “see.” In the end, either way I go on the gothic/classic genre, a lot of it is about the monsters for me. Give me Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr., or even The Master, any day!

The other sub-genre I’m interested in is Giant Monsters. I’ve had a great time playing with that in Daikaiju Attack and shorter stories, like “Kaiju vs. Cthulhu” and “Kaiju vs. Kongu.” I have the advantage of being able to play my whole mythos out in advance, something the filmmakers never really did.

But, again, monsters. Give me monsters!

Wendy Wagner: I am drawn back again and again to the ghost story, which gets under my skin the way other forms of horror rarely do. Ghost stories have a wonderful sense of place that is utterly compelling. Moreover, they are often framed around a current of unhappiness that is so strong it has left scars on the surface of reality. What a terrible, powerful idea: that human misery can imprint itself on the world and keep inflicting itself on people who have no connection to the original trauma. A ghost forces the characters in the story to look into darkness. It’s horrible. It’s sad. I’m a determined materialist, but I would not want to live in a haunted house, no matter how fascinated I am by the notion.

Eddy Webb: I think ghost stories endure the longest. In some ways, vampire stories are a version of ghost stories, because they both relate to the human fascination with death (and indeed, some older ghost stories present the dead as if they were tangible). The idea that people can somehow exist beyond death and still affect this world is both appealing and terrifying, and that’s why so many versions of the undead exist in horror fiction. Death is, as Shakespeare put it, “the undiscovered country,” although horror allows us a chance to glimpse its horizons for a short time.

Movies and radio excel at the “Lewton bus,” or what these days we call the jump scare. What special form of fear can writing produce that theatrical performance generally can’t?

Stephen D. Sullivan: One of the strongest types of fear that writing can invoke is that of building fear or existential dread—the type of thing that plays on your mind rather than something that’s physically revolting or startling.

H.P. Lovecraft was the master of this technique, and that’s one of the reasons his works are so admired to this day. How many times reading an HPL story did you want to say to the protagonist: Stop! Don’t go any further! You won’t like what you find! And yet, both the lead character in the story and we, as readers, stumble blindly forward, only to be cast into a black pit of fear and despair at the story’s end.

Whew! Thank God that didn’t happen to me! we come away thinking. And then we read another one.

As authors, we can build that suspense throughout a story to an extent that other productions can’t. Writing is communicating mind-to-mind, after all. Something bad is going to happen—but what, when, and to whom? And when it finally does happen, we can get a really strong emotional reaction.

Wendy Wagner: Some other great examples of mounting dread in short fiction is in Caitlín R. Kiernan’s story “Rats Live on No Evil Star,” where an odd man’s Fortean ramblings slowly begin to resolve into something we readers can see and understand, and “Sight Unseen,” by Joel Lane, a story about a man tidying up his dead father’s estate and trying to cope with his uncomfortable memories of childhood. That story builds to a really uncomfortable crescendo that left me with goose bumps.

Eddy Webb: Writing allows for a sudden but natural shift from physical horror to psychological horror in a way that is trickier for visual media to do. It’s certainly possible, and some classic horror films have done so to great effect, but writing is much more flexible in that regard. Here’s an example from my upcoming short story, “Blood on the Walls,” that illustrates that point (although I did cut part of the quote, as it contains a spoiler). Notice how, in a short space, the narrative goes from action to an examination of a character’s mental state and back to action.

“I need to calibrate the electric pentacle to counteract her vibrations!” I said. I realized I was shouting as the dripping sound had become louder, so loud that it drowned out all other noises in the room. “Stay still, Mr. Davidson! Don’t touch the pentacle!”

But my words were in vain. Here is a father, stricken in grief and broken by war. His mind survived only because he believed he could provide a better life for his surviving daughter  He crawled along the floor, his hands so damaged that he didn’t even feel the energy flowing through the wires as he tore them up.

This Month’s Roundtable

David Annandale

David Annandale write fiction in a variety of genres: SF/Fantasy, horror, thrillers. He writes non-fiction about film and video games and teaches courses on film, games, literature and creative writing. www.davidannandale.com.

Steve SullivanStephen D. Sullivan has been a monster kid all his life and a professional one since 1980, when he joined the creative team for Dungeons & Dragons. Steve is a frequent guest on Monster Kid Radio. His recent books include Daikaiju Attack, White Zombie, and Manos: The Hands of Fate. www.stephendsullivan.com.

Wendy N. WagnerWendy N. Wagner is a Hugo award-winning editor whose latest work is the Queers Destroy Horror! special issue of Nightmare Magazine. She is also the author of close to three dozen short stories and the novel Skinwalkers, a Pathfinder Tales adventure. Her website is winniewoohoo.com.

Eddy Webb

Eddy Webb is a writer, designer, producer, and consultant for video games and RPGs. His career spans over a decade, and even includes some awards. His story “Blood on the Walls” will appear in Ghosts in the Cogs by Broken Eye Books. There’s more of his ramblings at eddyfate.com.

 

If you’re an opinionated writer, artist, or other story creator and would like to participate in a future Creative Colleagues Roundtable, drop me a line.

 

3 thoughts on “Creative Colleagues Roundtable: Horror Fiction

  1. As it turns out, the only of genre of Horror I truly enjoy is Cosmic Horror. I really like the mystery, the investigation, and the unnatural scope of hopeless dread. At its best, you are drawn in knowing that all is lost, but you still want the protagonist to fight with their very soul. Because through their lost, we might be saved for one brief moment in time.

  2. I know you recently published a wendigo story, Dave. I am wondering if there are any particular sources for that which you recommend. I found Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Wendigo’ a really striking story. A lot of the elements in it are sort of ridiculous, and yet somehow that seems to end up making it more creepy in an insane kind of way by the end. I’ve also read a little book that I think was called ‘Cree Wendigo Stories’ that had some great elements in it, although the creepiness of the stories did not always come across in the way they were written out.

    Meanwhile I will have to check out some of these ghost story suggestions. (I’ve got a feeling that one with the palindrome title might also be in the insane creepy sort of category.)

    • I think I read Blackwood’s story decades ago, but I don’t remember it offhand. (I’ve found a copy online and will refresh my memory after this busy weekend.)

      For my story, Google was my friend. I remembered the basics of the Wendigo story both from myth and from history, but on the latter count I dug up far more detail from various Web archives.

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