From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy (and science fiction and horror and all other) authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for any author, so worth looking for.
After being asked by Writer’s Digest to put together a new online course called Advanced Horror Workshop (which starts up for it’s inaugural run on October 11, just a week from this Thursday) I went out into the world, as I tend to do any time I’m asked to write or speak on a given subject, to do some homework and gather some added wisdom. After all, I don’t have all the wisdom.
My shorter Horror Intensive course is specifically built around the writings of Stephen King, and his brilliant On Writing—a book I adore, by the way—but for this course I wanted to get a wider view on the genre and was delighted when I ran across On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association (Revised Edition), Edited by Mort Castle.
I’ve written here before on the subject of how I make notes in the margins of books I read (at least sometimes) and how I tend to see every book as research for something or other. In this case, starting into a book that I knew I was specifically reading for research, I practically covered it in red ink. Quotes from a number of essays have found their way into the online course, but I also ended up with bits tagged BLOG POST! and PULP. And throughout, notations like: FIND THIS BOOK or READ THIS!
This is my old school manual hyperlink system in action.
The book itself is a collection of essays written by members of the Horror Writers Association, and have appeared on their web site and other places, brought together by editor Mort Castle and published by our pals at Writer’s Digest Books in this revised form way back in 2007. That does mean there are books, movies, and games from the past eleven years or so that are skipped over, but that I can forgive, as can anyone who reads books. That said, I didn’t find any part of On Writing Horror in any way dated. What made a horror story scary in 2007 will make a horror story scary in 2018.
Contributors to the book include mega-stars like Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Harlan Ellison; horror mainstays like Ramsey Campbell, Joe R. Lansdale, Jack Ketcham, Yvonne Navarro, and Bruce Holland Rogers; and I found a lot of wisdom in essays by authors newer to the scene (at least in 2007!), authors (like Richard Dansky) that I’ve read (and worked with) in different genres, and authors I’ve never heard of but whose essays prompted me to write READ THIS! next to the titles of their books. Reading On Writing Horror is a process of discovery, on a number of levels.
For starters, here are the essays I pulled out for recommended readings for the four sessions of the Advanced Horror Workshop:
Session One—The Nature of Horror: What Scares Us and Why
- “Going There: Strategies for Writing the Things that Scare You” by Michael Marano
- “Reality and the Waking Nightmare: Setting and Character in Horror Fiction” by Mort Castle
- “Innovation in Horror” by Jeanne Cavelos
Session Two—Characters: Heroes, Villains, and Victims
- “Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death” by Ramsey Campbell
- “Such Horrible Things” by Tina Jens
- “More Simply Human” by Tracy Knight
Session Three—Monsters: Things That Go Bump in the Night
- “Take a Scalpel to Those Tropes” by W.D. Gagliani
Session Four—Writing Scary: Techniques for Maximum Horror Effect
- “The Dark Enchantment of Style” by Bruce Holland Rogers
- “A Hand on the Shoulder” by Joe R. Lansdale
- “Keep it Moving, Maniacs: Writing Action Scenes in Horror Fiction” by Jay R. Bonansinga
- “Splat Goes the Hero: Visceral Horror” by Jack Ketchum
If you’re considering taking the course and that sounds like a lot of reading over a month, well… I said it was “advanced.” Be ready to work!
And those were hardly the only eleven essays I culled from. I found something of value in all forty-eight essays (yes—there are that many), including the foreword and editor’s introduction, which, yes, like prologues, you should read!
Here are some random gems I pulled out:
To make the unnatural seem natural gives the writer the chance to explore new layers of allegory, irony, and even satire, within the complex arena of dark fantasy. The essence of our genre is not solely to tell a scary tale, but also to deeply unsettle and disturb the reader.
—Tom Piccirilli “The Possibility of the Impossible”
Writing about evil is a moral act, and it won’t do to recycle definitions of evil—to take them on trust. Horror fiction frequently presents the idea of evil in such a shorthand form as to be essentially meaningless—something vague out there that causes folk to commit terrible acts, something other than ourselves, nothing to do with us. That sounds to me more like an excuse than a definition, and I hope it’s had its day. If we’re going to write about evil, then let’s define it and how it relates to ourselves
—Ramsey Campbell “Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death”
Horror fiction deals in aberrations—aberrations of nature and circumstance, of fate and destiny, of the cosmic and the exquisitely human. Of these facets, the most memorable and compelling are the human beings who populate the writer’s fictional world. Through their eyes, the reader is able to behold existence from a unique and unexpected perspective. The reader is able to live another human’s endeavor in order to understand, avoid, or defeat an unimaginable reality, a loathsome monster, or a mind-bending situation.
—Tracy Knight “More Simply Human”
It’s also important—and this goes for realism, too—to engage all the senses. Not just sight and sound—these are the easy ones—but smell, taste, touch. Remember, we’re dealing with somebody’s pain here; we’re engaging the reader in someone’s experience of pain. And you can’t do pain properly without touch. The reader has to feel what the character feels when the blade touches the body, presses into the body, invades the body, and then finally roots around in there. In this kind of writing, it’s every inch of the way or nothing at all.
—Jack Ketchum “Splat Goes the Hero: Visceral Horror”
Horror is more than what makes a pulse race. There are other sources of horror besides fear; some are far worse than fear, and far harder to write about. I spoke to a horror writer I admire about a scene he’d written that was so full of anguish and loss that it had made my wife cry. He told me that the scene had been so brutal for him to write, he had cried at his keyboard while writing it. It can be dangerous to capture in words what skulks in the Mirkwood of your head. The nineteenth-century French writer Guy de Maupassant was tortured by what he imagined, and died crazy… a year and a half after trying to slit his own throat.
—Michael Marano “Going There: Strategies for Writing the Things that Scare You”
Whether or not you sign up for the Advanced Horror Workshop, if you’re writing horror or any genre that brushes up against horror, that calls for suspense or “scary parts” at all—fantasy, thrillers, mysteries, science fiction—this is a book you need to read, mark up, absorb, and reference.