From the Shadows

I still remember the first horror book I ever read. Scary Stories to Read in the Dark sat on the bookshelf in the back of my third grade classroom. I read over and over about just-missed encounters with hook-handed psychopaths and puzzle nights that foretold the murdering maniac crawling through the apartment window.

My horror education remained pretty basic till my teen years. It felt like something forbidden. Stephen King and friends seemed like corruptors of souls, as if being caught with a hardcover of The Stand might condemn your eternal soul. I read a lot of classic horror and science fiction, which I could argue as classic instead of genre. Stevenson, Dickinson, Wells, Verne, Poe, and a variety of classic terrifying dishes were read greedily, as if any moment, I would be found out.

What is the quickest route to the shadows? Tell someone there is nothing there in the dark worth their time. Their curiosity will be peaked, and they will go in search for what lays waiting just outside the narrow vision of the flashlight beam.

The truth, I found, is that horror has much to offer. Fiction has been described as a protagonist overcoming obstacles. Horror simply strips away the pretense. Horror does not tell the protagonist that he might come across some speed bumps. Horror says, “Bring your climbing gear and a clean set of underwear, because you’ll be crossing an H.P. Lovecraft-esque mountain.”

Fear is our most basic emotion. It dissolves the emotional defense façade and shows the truth of a person. Give me five characters and a haunted house. I will reveal the con-artist, the lover, the materialist, the brave, and the sinister. I am not a nihilist. I believe in good, but I also believe that a lot of what is perceived as good is simple lip service. Lots of people are friendly, good people when there is no risk to it. But are you Job? Do you keep the faith even when you’ve lost everything?

You don’t have to be a lover of the genre to see this. Look at any news cast of a horrible event and you will find heroes and cowards, not the image the person tries to portray, but the person truly there beneath when they can’t censor themselves.

Horrible things happen, and a person’s response exposes harsh light upon their flaws and strengths. But horror is more than just a lens through which to view characters. Fear can be healthy. Paranoia can be a good survival skill. Maybe your neighbor isn’t a homicidal sociopath who keeps body parts in the refrigerator. But he might be. Dahmer’s neighbors thought he was a nice enough guy. Being aware that such a thing might happen is not a bad thing. You can be friendly to people and still be cautious of the terrible capabilities of the human animal.

Horror exposes a person’s true nature, and it develops a healthy sense of paranoia of terrible possibility. Yet, even though these things are reasons I believe that horror is a legitimate genre of literature, the reason I write dark fiction is much more basic.

I am reminded of Stephen King’s answer to critiques who asked him why he wrote horror. “What makes you think I have a choice?” I didn’t set out to write dark fiction. I didn’t intend for everything I wrote to end in death or tragedy. It just does.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

2 Comments

  • Meghan Barnes says:

    Good post. Love that King quote. I work with a guy who writes psychological thrillers and insists that his story ideas are about real people he’s encountered in the world of clinical counseling. I’m not surprised, of course. We all write from personal experience. It’s scary, but it makes for good writing.

    • The things from our life are always the scariest because they can create a sort of visceral reaction. Ghosts aren’t scary because they are ghosts, they are scary because we are uncomfortable with what life holds after death. Vampires and zombies play into our fear of disease. When it comes down to it, the scariest things in our lives are just twisted versions of the things we hold dearest.

      I love that King quote, too. Although I don’t think he gives himself enough credit. The guy has written things other than horror that turned out very well. In fact, some of his best work doesn’t even fall within the genre, at least not solidly.

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