Tag Archives: horror

Straight into Darkness

Yesterday, Tom Petty died. The frantic media rushed out with the news, then walked it back, and now finally confirmed it. I am tremendously sad at the loss of this artist whose work I have loved.

I’m not the right person to speak to his place in musical history, but in my own story his part looms large. With The Tragically Hip, his tunes were the ones I played most often all through university and have continued to listen to right up to the present day. I think I like him for many of the same reasons I like the blues – most of his songs are about things we all have experience with. Feeling like an outsider. Being let down by people you care about. The world being a place that keeps pushing you around. Petty’s lyrics are clever and fun to listen to, his music strikes me as more down to earth than anything else, and he has been among my musical companions through a lot of good and bad times.

Music has, at times, a special ability to make good times feel better and bad times not feel so bad, and Tom Petty has done that for me time and time again. Thanks for the tunes, Mr. Petty.

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Even as the artists we love sometimes leave us, there are always new ones out there to discover. I have recently started reading The Bone Mother by David Demchuk, and although I’ve hardly cracked the thing I’m already very impressed by the quality of the writing, his skill with creating mood and conveying a sense of a time and place. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this book and need to stop myself sitting up stupidly late reading it.

Demchuk’s writing is also, undeniably, horror. From time to time I stray into thinking that what I write could be considered horror, too. Then, I will read the work of a real artist of the genre (among which I feel perfectly safe including Demchuk, already) and be reminded, that no, it really isn’t. ‘Supernatural thriller’ is a pretty fair label for my books, perhaps even ‘urban fantasy’, but they’re not horror. I hope they’re entertaining, and I hope perhaps there are some scares in there, but the stories are not horror stories.

What do you need for a horror story? It’s hard for me to really put my finger on it. In some ways, it is one of those ‘you know it when you see it’, or read it, moments. You will never have any doubt when you are reading a horror story, or watching one, or in one. It goes beyond just being frightening (because fantasy and SF can both cause fear, without being horrifying), and it doesn’t necessarily involve gore or violence. (Some good horror does, lots of stories splash blood everywhere without being the least bit horrifying.)

It’s very hard (for me, anyway), to define usefully. One thing that I think good horror has is a disturbing quality. There’s something about the characters, the situation, the resolution in a horror story that is pervasively unsettling. It challenges your comfortable assumptions about people and the world. It makes you question things that you wouldn’t ordinarily question. There are, of course, almost inevitably monsters, but the monsters may not be the real problem; it’s what the monsters reveal about ourselves and the worlds that we have built.

I think good horror makes us look at places that we’d prefer not to. That’s why it’s unsettling so much of the time; a good part of your being is telling you to look away, and you’re resisting that. Horror fiction makes you think about things you ordinarily wouldn’t.

Now, the scares are there, too. Part of the joy of horror stories is the joy of the roller coaster: the feeling of danger while knowing, ultimately, that you’re safe. The ride will end. You can close the book.

Where I think really good horror hits hard, though, is that it takes you to places, and makes you think about things, that don’t entirely go away when the book is closed. It’s made you at least reconsider some things that you would have preferred to consider immutable. It’s made your mind wander down a couple of dark and twisty paths that you would have preferred not to tread.

I’m not sure that I’ll never write a horror story, but reading The Bone Mother reminds me that no, I haven’t done it yet. I do love reading them, though.

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Of course, the real horror story is what happened in Las Vegas on October 1st. I have, I think, nothing at all to say except that the violence is awful and the loss of life overwhelmingly sad. I don’t think I will ever understand the ‘thing’ America has with guns, and as an outsider it’s not a debate I can usefully be part of. There are lots of points of view that I disagree with, but I can at still understand where they’re coming from, and thus have some idea how to start to engage with them. In this case, though, I see people posting on friends’ social media that ‘you’ll never take our guns, and God help you if you try’ and I just don’t understand it at all. I think gun violence in the United States can never really be solved as long as that mode of thinking stays so vital to so many people, but I also just feel, as I always do, that we have to stop killing each other.

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S.M. Carriere wrote a lovely review of The King in Darkness. You can read it here.

We’re under two weeks away from Can*Con! I’m so excited about this and looking forward to what I think will be a fantastic weekend for readers and writers of SFF. Details and registration here.

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George Romero

Today we had some really exciting news (that I’m gonna write about for the regular Tuesday blog) and some sad news with the passing of George Romero. Romero will always be best known for his zombie films, and it’s safe to say that without those movies, and the people who loved them, we wouldn’t have had Walking Dead and Shaun of the Dead and all of the many zombie-themed video games, books, comics and shows that many of us have spent way too much time on. Even if you’re getting a little tired of zombie-everything, anyone who has had a hand in bringing so much enjoyment to such a wide range of people did pretty damned well as a creator.

I remember that I *heard* a lot about Romero’s _____ of the Dead movies long before I watched them, and in large part because of that I had assumed they were stupid. It was my loss. When I finally came to watch them – through my love of the work of John Carpenter, who was influenced by and greatly admired Romero – I was very pleasantly surprised.

Because yes, there are zombies, and yes they’re looking to eat brains, and yes there’s a lot of people getting killed. But there’s consistently *more than that*, too. Romero was using his zombies to talk about issues he saw in society, and did it very well. To me the most persistent theme in his zombie films is that the real problem isn’t the zombies. Most of the time, the real problem, the real threat to the protagonists and their survival, is other humans, and their selfishness or stupidity or intolerance.  That one point, made over and over again, probably influenced the way I think about monsters and the horrific in my own writing about as much as anything else.

Anyway, most of the time, if you want to find the real monster in a Romero zombie movie, it’s the people. The zombies are more a force of nature. By Land of the Dead, the zombies and the human protagonists even reach a kind of resigned tolerance. The zombies destroy the specific people who had been trying to wipe them out, and the (now-ex) zombie hunters let them walk away: “They’re just looking for a place to go. Same as us.”

So Romero wasn’t just (or even at all) making gorefests. He made horror movies that were supposed to scare you and thrill you, but he was thinking as he did it and wanted you to think too. I thought it was really impressive to have a guy who made monster movies encouraging his audience to see the monsters as the same as them, rather than just enemies to fight. That’s what I always think about when I write my own stuff, and that’s what I’m gonna think about the next time I watch one of George Romero’s movies.

Thanks for the tales, Mr. Romero. You had a lot to say, and you said it with zombies.

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Slightly Off

A few days ago one of my friends from the UK posted a picture on Facebook of a dinner they ate as part of an evening out – it was fries and a hot dog. (Hang in with me for a second here, I swear this is going someplace) What with this being a British hot dog, I was reminded of my own experience with those when I went to school in York for a year.

It was my first full day in England, I was still heavily jet-lagged and hadn’t eaten anything that didn’t come from an airport or a vending machine in at least 24 hours. I hadn’t been to anything to do with school yet, but I thought it was a good idea to go and explore the city. When I did, I came across a man selling hot dogs from a cart in the city centre. I was feeling pretty disoriented and dazed and confused and thought a hot dog would be a nice familiar set of sensations and so I bought one.

Boy was it not. It turns out that hot dogs in England are, for some reason, both longer and skinnier than the standard issue wiener here. The bun (at least on this occasion) more strongly resembled a thick slice of bread. The mustard was not the blazing yellow ooze we usually deploy here, but a (probably superior) product involving actual mustard seeds and a more reasonable hue. The whole thing left me feeling more disoriented and alienated than ever.

I had anticipated something I knew very well and had well-established expectations about. What I got was something that almost, but not quite, met those expectations, but was different in a number of really very subtle ways. I think this is often more disturbing and harder for us to handle than if something is a completely new experience. There’s probably some explanation here from psychology about how our brains work and look for patterns or anticipate input and then get upset when these things are undermined. I don’t really know, but I have found it generally true that things feel most alien when they are almost, but not quite, what I expect them to be. Even allowing for the jet lag, that hot dog in York was one of the most alien things I have ever eaten, because I thought I knew what I was getting and then got something that wasn’t quite it.

I didn’t directly take this hot dog experience (I mean really) and use it to inform my writing, but I think the same general principle holds true for writing horror and creepy fiction. I think we’re more disturbed by situations that seem as though they’re familiar, what we expect, and what we know, but are then just slightly off. A monster in some fantastic realm that is nothing like our own is likely to be impressive, and exciting, and we can agree it sounds pretty dangerous. But a monster that shows up on your street, or one that seems to be just like the person next to you on the bus, until it makes its move, is far more likely to really bother us. The world that conforms to our expectations of what is possible and what can occur until the moment that it isn’t quite right is scarier than one that is completely alien.

We like to think we know what the world around us is like. Experiences that suggest that that isn’t actually the case are the ones that, I think, really get to us. If you have the right (or wrong, I suppose) kind of brain these experiences are all around you. When you go for a walk in the park, and find a single shoe by the path, you know (or you’re pretty sure you know) that it was just lost or discarded. A far more unlikely explanation is that the shoe is all that’s left of the victim of some predatory creature that now lives in the woods here. And now the park feels very different.

I guess that’s what I have tried to do with The King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures – to make the monsters of the stories part of a hopefully familiar world around us. I think they’re more likely to bother you (in the enjoyable sense!!) that way. A lot of times people ask what the difference between fantasy and horror is, and I think part of the answer is that horror is supposed to unsettle you on some level, and I think we’re most easily unsettled by what hits close to home, and to find ourselves in a world that is almost – but not quite – what we think it is.

In any case, this entry is rather dangerously like advice (but it is not advice), but I thought I’d share the train of thought my friend’s no doubt alarmingly British hot dog triggered off. Thanks for reading.

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By chance, today’s blog falls on the anniversary of the Ecole Polytechnique shootings in which 14 women were killed by a man who was filled with hatred. I promised long ago not to let December 6th pass without taking a moment to remember. As should we all – bad things happen when we forget to oppose them. I think we’re rightly pretty proud of our society in Canada, but there is still so much work to do. There are still far too many women who are victims of violence and discrimination. We owe it to them all to do so much better. We can.

Fourteen Not Forgotten:

Geneviève Bergeron

Hélène Colgan

Nathalie Croteau

Barbara Daigneault

Anne-Marie Edward

Maud Haviernick

Maryse Laganière

Maryse Leclair

Anne-Marie Lemay

Sonia Pelletier

Michèle Richard

Annie St-Arneault

Annie Turcotte

Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz

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If you’re in Ottawa, you can now pick up a copy of Bonhomme Sept-Heures at the Heart Tea Heart tea shop at Merivale Mall. It’s a fantastic way to do it because they’ll even suggest which one of their amazing teas will go best with your read, and you could grab other titles from Renaissance Press and S.M. Carriere while you’re there! Give them a visit, in person and/or on the intertron here.

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