I have a love/hate relationship with horror. I hate having to explain why I love it. And when you move from being a horror fan to a published horror writer, it gets even, well, scarier. I make no claims to being a mass market author(still a goal, by the way), but I have enough published short fiction, as well as a bona fide small press novel(Skull Feeder, a warm, fuzzy title which further endeared me to some already dubious friends and family)to result in having to face this conundrum. From ‘Where do you get these weird ideas?’ to ‘I don’t think I can support your work anymore.’, I’ve heard it all. Since you’re reading this column, I can safely assume that you don’t need any explanations about dark fiction, movies, and television shows. You understand the thrill, the escape, the sheer fun of being scared. There are scientific theories, and it’s kind of nice to be able to share these with horror haters. Some of the same chemicals our little brains release when we’re in love, or laughing really hard, flood our bodies when we’re scared. An adrenaline rush is an adrenaline rush. Then there are the psychological explanations. Horror is an amazing escape. I think everyone will agree that the real-life horror show provided by 24/7 news, terrorism, mass shootings, the economy, and just the plain old ups and downs of life certainly gives everyone the need to escape and divert ourselves. Hey, considering the opioid crisis, it sure beats drugs.
I concede that horror is an easy target. The slasher horror that developed in the seventies with The Chainsaw Massacre ushered in a relatively new type of horror. A departure from the supernatural horror which had always been the sole representation of things scary, slice and dice films opened a new door. And what a big door that has been. While the initial entries in the Freddy/Jason/Michael Myers movies were genuinely scary, it’s hard to say that Halloween 72 has much redeeming value. These slasher films led to ‘torture porn’ like Hostel and Saw. In the realm of the written word, that meant Splatterpunk, which has now transitioned into extreme horror. Think James White Wrath and Edward Lee. The Painfreak Anthology. Not my particular cup of tea, but it’s a valid sub-genre that is very much part of the current horror scene. Most of us know that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula started it all. Then came Edgar Allan Poe, with his romantic, riveting prose, and the cosmological, layered, literary horror of HP Lovecraft. These authors continue to influence the genre to this very day. I love to point out that BOOKS started it all, not that I don’t greatly admire and enjoy movies and television. Back to books. Shelley, Stoker. Poe. Lovecraft. With a few exceptions like the wildly popular Rosemary’s Baby(Ira Levin)and The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty, the end of the revolutionary sixties and the beginning of the seventies were fairly light on horror fiction. Then a little book about a teenage outcast who had the ability to move things with her mind came along. I’m sure you’ve heard of the man who has terrified several generations, capturing an astonishing billion or so readers. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that millions of people who had not picked up a book after high school graduation became readers because of the one and only Stephen King. King came on the scene in 1974 with Carrie, followed by Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and his undisputed masterpiece, The Stand. That he continues to produce extremely popular published novels to this day is incredibly impressive. There is so much more dividing people’s attention.
Think about it for a minute: there was no internet. No cell phones, no MTV. Hell, there weren’t even any answering machines. We had three channels that ran shows from September to May before a wasteland of summer reruns. That absolutely heightened the impact of the King launch. I still remember sitting at an eatery enjoying a burger and a beer on a Friday night with my friends, everyone discussing that terrifying part in The Shining when Danny looks in the mirror. REDRUM. Need I say more? One could argue that tons of people(teenage girls and desperate housewives such as myself)discussed, say, the Twilight series, and if you were Team Jacob or Team Edward(Jacob, by the way. He’s alive. End of story. But I digress…), but King was fueled by sheer word of mouth and the good old-fashioned print media. People were brought together discussing BOOKS. Now you cannot go anywhere without seeing individuals enraptured with their phones. Are they relating? Maybe. Or they could be playing a game or bidding on something frivolous on E-bay. Sociological digressions aside, I think of that time as a renaissance in dark fiction. The way King creates such relatable, everyman/woman characters living everyday lives that are soon subsumed by otherworldly terror is a powerful thing. Whether it be ghosts or vampires or indefinable monsters like The Stand’s Randall Flagg, the reader is drawn in, living in such an easily identifiable world that you’re totally mesmerized. By the end, you wish the book wasn’t finished because you know how much you will miss the characters and their adventures. King didn’t just redefine the horror genre, along with Peter Straub and Ann Rice, he breathed nine lives into it. He continues to hold great sway, with current successful mass market horror authors such as Brian Keene, Robert Dunbar and Douglas Clegg showing King’s influence. Back to the internet impact. One of the ways it changed life as we know it was the establishment of small publishers. The small press existed before the internet, with what now seems like a wistful era of bygone days, with snail mail, paper submissions and the obligatory SASE(self-addressed, stamped envelope). While more markets provide more slots for writers, the absolute explosion of writers greatly outweighs the number of publishing opportunities. There is also self-publishing. While it no longer carries a complete stigma, and there are a few writers who have successfully been able to launch a respectable career in this mode, the emphasis is on few. The indie presses get the credit for giving some very talented writers--writers like Greg Gifune and Scott Thomas, who are so good they should be in every bookcase in the world. In these author’s works, we can see the influence of both Lovecraft and Poe, and of course, Stephen King. It could be said that even King’s own son, Joe Hill, owes much to his father’s oeuvre. And let’s not forget the ladies. It was a woman, after all, who wrote Frankenstein. Remember Ann Rice? This woman is a bona fide legend, with her surreal, hypnotic dream world of vampires, witches, and goblins. In the indie department, l would also highly recommend Sandy DeLuca for similarly powerful fiction. Ms. DeLuca, with a unique, distinctive voice, weaves a powerful web of surreal, nefarious events, and her body of work bears notice. We also have horror poetry, but that is for another column.