I’ve been writing stories for around 30 years now, so it’s fair to say it’s gone beyond a hobby or a get rich quick scheme. For better or worse, it’s a part of who I am. It’s something I do every day. If I give it a miss, for whatever reason, my day always feel a little emptier. Don’t worry, I’m aware of how sad that sounds.
Most people who know me, know I write. In fact, there’s a very good chance they’re sick of knowing about it. Occasionally, though, someone will ask me a question about it. The one I seem to get the most is basically a variation on “Why horror?”
It’s a fair question. There’s no escaping the fact that horror comes with certain preconceptions. If science fiction makes people think of UFOs, robots and green men, then horror conjures images of blood stained hockey masks, a wide variety of knives and possessed little girls.
What makes the question slightly more complicated to answer is that I never set out to write horror. All my early attempts were fantasies. It made more sense to me, especially as a kid. There was no sign of horror on my radar at all back then. I don’t think I even read much of it. Not beyond the obligatory, early smattering of Stephen King everyone passed around school. Salem’s Lot, I think.
As I got into my teens, there’s no doubting my fantasy stories changed. They grew darker. They became world weary and introverted. The main characters became fallible and drank a little more than they had before.
Books like Fight Club were making me sit up and pay attention to what a story could get away with behind your back and Neil Gaiman’s stories undoubtedly had an effect. They always included this perfect, slick black thread of pure fairy tale weirdness that felt like home.
I didn’t really stumble into writing horror until recently. I wrote my first ghost story as an experiment; a way to pass the time on a long car journey I’d failed to avoid. Coming up with the plot and the pay off, I found myself having fun. There was a rhythm and logic that felt instinctive. Tormenting the worrying lead character who had broken the rules, building up the undeniable atmosphere of doom. It was like I’d found a jigsaw puzzle where I didn’t need the picture on the box to help me solve it. Still, even as I worked on a final draft, I didn’t think of myself as a horror writer. That didn’t change as I wrote more ghost stories and self published them. Nor when I was signed by Kensington Gore Publishing or asked to contribute to Shadows at the Door. Horror was something other people did.
It all came to a head when I was working on my first novel, Something Needs Bleeding.
It’s a horror novel that deals with the idea that some fictions might have far nastier truths behind them than what the stories they tell on the page. I created a fictional author, Thomas Singer. I wrote his final five short horror stories and gave him an afterword. Something that tied together everything. A confession, in a way.
It made me wonder about myself. Where were my own ideas coming from? Why did I find things in the world that I could manipulate into scaring people? Why did I spot those things in the first place?
When I discovered the answer, I was surprised to say the least. It was all Kate Bush’s fault. Sort of.
I was digging through YouTube when I found the video to her song ‘Experiment IV’. My parents were huge fans of hers, so I thought I’d give it a watch. As it played, I was struck by something I didn’t expect. A powerful need to turn it off. I wasn’t sure why at first. There was just something telling me to look away before the end.
It took me a while to remember that my parents never let me watch the last minute or so of ‘Experiment IV’. There was some sort of gruesome face that used to appear then and, as a kid, they didn’t want me seeing it. They’d even show it to people when I was in the room and make me look away.
So, there I sat, 30 odd years later, still feeling uneasy about it. I ended up pausing the damn thing. I didn’t want to see the face. Not because it might scare me, but because I was remembering the story I used to tell myself about it. The music video you should never look in the eye. The music video that could take over your mind. The parents who’d become possessed by it and were spreading the corruption onto their friends, whilst trying to save their child from the same fate. There was no way the thing on the video was ever going to live up to that. It just couldn’t. So, I turned it off.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I got into horror because of 1980s music videos and, if I had, surely Thriller deserves a mention. No, seeing that video again made me realise I’d always had the capacity to spot something beyond what I was being shown. Something I could tap into and twist to suit my needs. It was like I had a raw, exposed nerve in my head that looked for the scary. The unfamiliar. That was where story lived for me.
So, I guess, that’s why horror. There are brilliant opportunities within its borders. Opportunities to tell stories about us and how we deal with the world beyond our understanding. Stories where characters are challenged and forced to confront themselves, their beliefs and their choices. Stories where an inconvenient past will rarely stay buried.
And at least now, whilst I’m writing about graves and curses, I know who to blame. Thanks for everything, Kate Bush.