Saturday, August 24, 2013

What Kind of Sicko Reads Horror? by John Mulhall

I recently took part in an unofficial mini-reunion with some high school friends, mostly people I’d known from my choir days, many of whom I hadn’t seen in quite a few years. It was wonderful to reconnect with them again and learn about their lives. And inevitably, as one would expect, our conversations would meander through the common catch-up clichés: are you married, do you have kids, where are you living, what do you do for work? Typically, when we’d get to that last one, they would get very excited to hear that someone they knew had written a novel – one that they could actually buy and hold in their hands – and that I was doing book tours and conventions to promote it.

The expected follow-up question would then arise: “What is it about?”

               Now I, like many contemporary horror writers have been advised against labeling our books “horror” because, well…horror doesn’t really sell as well these days; not like it used to anyway; “paranormal” and “dark fantasy” are popular sub-genres that have arisen to target specific elements of what used to be the “horror” catch-all.  And so, obediently, I answer, “It’s a supernatural thriller.”

“Hmmm”, they’d most often reply, nodding cordially, obviously not truly understanding what exactly these words meant strung together. Is it a mystery? A crime novel? One person even said, “So…it’s a religious book?” Most of the time, when I’d say “supernatural thriller,” they’d just look at me for a moment as if I wasn’t done speaking, hoping that I’d fill in the gap. And then I’d add contritely, “It’s a horror book.”


And then came – often, but not always – the raised eyebrows. And the follow up questions, chiefly amongst them being: “So, why did you choose to write a horror book?”

While the reaction is not nearly as profound as it might’ve been twenty or thirty years ago, there is indeed a strange bias at work. Normal people suddenly become amateur psychologists, asking probing follow up questions, attempting to ascertain the point in my life wherein my fragile psyche was so irrevocably damaged that I’d feel the need to write – not just a short story, but a whole novel – in a genre typically reserved for the damaged and the deranged, the strange misanthropic lurkers who are unable to maintain eye contact and keep normal conversation, but who are absolutely first in line for the latest slasher extravaganza.

So, I guess the title of this post might just have easily been “What Kind of Sicko WRITES Horror?” Or perhaps they’re not being quite that judgmental. Perhaps I’ve just grown sensitive to the looks, the subtle nods, and glances down noses. Regardless, the bias, in my estimation, is this: you have to be a little damaged to write (or read or enjoy) horror.

To this, I say, unequivocally, “Bullshit”.

Before I go on, I think it’s a good time for me to say that I don’t consider myself damaged (any more than any of us are) and I’m absolutely not ashamed of what I write. In fact, I’m pretty darn proud to be a part of a genre that boasts such luminaries as Poe, Wells, Stevenson, Stoker, Jackson, Matheson, King, Koontz, Barker, Ellison, Lovecraft, Serling, and Hitchcock, and that’s just for starters. While I don’t count myself among their ranks, I am humbled to be at the same party.

I am much more dismayed by the reactions I receive because it typically means that the person I’m talking to holds a bias toward an entire genre of books, and that usually means that they don’t really know what that genre – horror – is all about. I think many of them assume horror equates to the blood and gore and sadistic torture that has taken the place of nuanced storytelling in much of the recent horror movie fare. Or that it is akin to the innumerable splatter sequels that became so popular in the eighties, and keep marching forward. If that’s the only way someone knows horror, then they don’t really know horror at all; it’s like judging a whole family by way of the two mischievous cousins you met at the roller derby.

Now, there has been many a case made in defense of horror, and I won’t delve too deeply into those here. Some say that we create fantastical horror because it’s a manageable proxy for the real horror that surrounds us on a daily basis; vampires and ghouls are much easier to battle than cancer. Others argue that horror storytelling provides a real emotional catharsis that is absolute necessary for our emotional development as human creatures. And for others, horror connects them with their innocent childlike self, full of imagination, hope, optimism, and yes, fear. But horror doesn’t have to be either empowering or hopeful to be powerful, necessarily; just look at most of Poe’s work.

But I think horror resonates with us at a deeper level, a primal one. I think we’re hard wired to appreciate the visceral reaction a good scary story produces inside of us: the surge of adrenaline, the elevated heartbeat, the sweaty palms, the rush of endorphins. We’re cavemen with no predators; for most of us reading this, we don’t worry about getting to work each day uneaten – at least, I hope we don’t. Horror allows us to tap into our lizard brain; the part of us hardwired for fight or flight, and then move safely on to the next activity in our day. It’s the same reason we enjoy rollercoasters or waterskiing or skydiving, except reading can be done from the security of our easy chair.

So do you have to be deranged to write (and read) horror?

No more so than being a rollercoaster junkie or enjoying a haunted house at Halloween. Except with horror writing, you often get lovable protagonists, memorable villains, wonderful prose, and much of the time, a deeper message, something to walk away with, to savor and return to. If you’ve avoided horror up to this point, I urge you to dive in. How cool is it to think that there is a whole genre out there ready to be discovered and enjoyed?

So, what kind of sicko reads horror?

Me. My friends. My mom. My colleagues. Parents. Children. Teachers. Students. My doctor. My handyman.

In short, damn near everyone.

When people ask me why I write horror, I have no answer. I never really made a conscious choice about what genre I would write in. It wasn’t a decision I wrestled with. The stories that fascinate me typically have horror elements at their heart. I have said before that I just love to see what humans do when facing off against an overwhelmingly evil force. Will they overcome? Do the seemingly impossible? Rise to the occasion? I’m an optimist at heart, so I think for me, the answer is typically yes. Writer G.K. Chesterson said, “Fairy tales don’t tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” I like that very much.

So, why do you read horror?

Geddy’s Moon
by John Mulhall

Tyler is an amnesiac, drifting aimlessly across the country, struggling to regain his lost memories. When he arrives in Geddy’s Moon, a sleepy town in the middle of the Kansas wheat fields, fragments of his past begin to resurface. 

But as he establishes new relationships in town, and spends time with the local librarian and her son, he finds himself tormented by nightmares that grow more unsettling each night. 

What horrific events took place before Tyler arrived in Geddy’s Moon? And could he have brought a terrifying – and possibly supernatural – danger along with him? 

As the pieces of his fractured memory begin to fall into place, he fears that it may already be too late to keep himself, and those he’s begun to care about, safe from a vicious evil.

Get it at Amazon

About the Author:

Geddy’s Moon is John Mulhall’s debut novel. In addition to being an award-winning video and event producer, John is also the author of several short stories, plays and a collection of poetry. He began developing Geddy’s Moon more than twenty years ago at age nineteen, but he promises his next novel won’t take quite so long. He lives in Newbury Park, California, where he is the President/CEO of a creative agency.


Anonymous said...

The great theorist, Edmund Burke ties in the concept of terror with that of experiencing the "sublime." Here's what he says:

"Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger … whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling." His point is that experiencing terror from a distance (i.e. by reading a book about zombies, and not necessarily having to face an actual zombie), heightens our emotions to the state of experiencing the "sublime," which is an unparalleled, almost euphoric sensory experience.

So there you go. That's why real "horror" (one that is nuanced, and not just getting off on cheap and gratuitous violence and gore) is appealing.

To be honest, I'm not a big fan of the commercialized horror genre (and definitely not a fan of sparkling vampires), but am learning to give in to the emotional upheaval that a really good horror story can bring.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

John Mulhall said...

I love that about Edmund Burke, the idea that horror produces a euphoric sensation, much in the same way a roller-coaster or sky-diving might. It's something I've long identified with.

Anonymous said...

Just a note - it is also available as a NOOK book at Barnes & Noble.

A long time fan of Koontz, I find well-written horror stories fascinating. The characters often face situations that take them dramatically out of their 'normal' world - how would you act in such a situation...what would you do...fascinating