I started writing this book in January, and as of now, I’m sitting at about 25,000 words. Not bad for something written mostly during lunch hours, but still not close enough to where I’d hoped to be as 2012 wrapped itself up with the rest of the year’s gifts. I’ve always loved creating the atmosphere of a story, but I’ve always sucked at coming up with things with which to populate it. Most of my creative writing involves solitary characters who never encounter anybody and thus never have to speak. Their stories usually go on for a few pages and though by the end the reader can fully visualize the environment and feel the character’s emotions, most of the action takes place in the character’s own head. Heads can indeed be scary places, but you can’t pump out a novel where nothing actually happens outside of them and expect to do well. Especially if it’s horror. Unless maybe those heads start falling off.
One thing I’ve been wrestling with since beginning this process is the magic balance between literary fiction and mass-market appeal. I know the horror field. It’s ruled by one Stephen King whose stories have sold over 350 million copies and have been turned into movies, comic books, TV series and quilted toilet paper. He also cranks out 2,000 words every day, and I suppose when you’re producing that amount of material, your chances of something striking a chord with the general public are infinitely (well, I suppose about two thousand times) more likely than had you spent all that time perfecting the one novel. This is why I could never, ever do NaNoWriMo. I’ve tried quantity over quality, and it usually results in something I want to throw into the proverbial fire.
But then again, some people value story, others value style. Maybe I stick to the latter because I struggle so much with the actual ideas. Maybe those who can crank out five novels a year are brilliant when it comes to imagination, but find themselves lacking in the delivery. But maybe it doesn’t matter. I remember in writing class sitting next to a guy whose style couldn’t have been more different. His favourite author was Nick Hornby. His stories covered entire days in a single paragraph. He could convey character, setting and plot in a sentence. He was brilliant at something I couldn’t do, and though I didn’t dislike it, I didn’t – for lack of a better word – respect it in my personal sense of what constitutes good writing. To me, writing is all about building an atmosphere and planting the reader firmly inside a character’s head, where they are carried not through events but through emotions, noting the world around them as if transformed into nothing larger than a field mouse, every noise in the night or rumbling of the street far bigger and more sinister than it should be. There are people who’ll put a book of mine down after the second page because they’ve read 500 words and all that’s happened is someone’s gone down a flight of stairs. (Okay, yes, that’s in my novel, but I promise it’s the most interesting trip down the damn stairs you’ve ever read.)
But no matter how shiny the prospect is of one day having a book of mine sitting on a Barnes & Noble shelf, I can’t bring myself to effectively “dumb it down” for the masses. I was thinking about this last night in the bathroom. I’m going to go ahead and say I can’t remember what I was doing in there for the sake of moving on quickly. Most of the people I know share a similar stance as me on the music industry: the artists that win the awards, get cardboard cutouts of themselves stuck in every store and have their own line of dog food aren’t the ones who put something creative out into the world. They’re the ones who deliver cookie-cutter tunes and fit into the molds that best reach the mass demographic: young people with disposable incomes who haven’t yet developed an appreciation for artistic instrumentation or lyrical mastery. The music charts are ruled by those that cater to the mass demographic, picking their songs from the cauldron of guaranteed hits and wrapping them in formulaic, predictable, easily digestible packages. That doesn’t mean they’re bad – even I can’t resist a bit of David Guetta every now and then, and I think I once covered a Britney Spears record – it just means the level of talent is equal to the level of genuine respect and appreciation. And thinking of it like that, I don’t care if it takes me an entire week to perfect a single page. I don’t really care if my story is never picked up by a publishing giant. I want to strike a chord with those who value well-crafted sentences and imagination. I want to write something I personally respect. I know horror and poetic prose may not appear the best of companions, but I’ve fallen in love with the idea of fusing two worlds I’m so passionate about.
People are always surprised when I tell them I’m writing horror. I don’t look particularly troubled, I live in a turquoise room strung with white fairy lights, I play quite possibly the least badass instrument ever, Halloween means dressing up as superheroes, not vampires, and I own cats. Not ravens. I subscribe to science magazines, bake cakes, drink tea, cry when animals get hurt, and am quite possibly the most hopeless of all romantics. So why the attraction to the dark side?
It’s a dark world we live in.
Because in darkness, there lies the strongest hope. With all genres of fiction, the reader is invited to play a role. With mysteries, they must hunt clues, question characters and solve problems. With fantasy, they must suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves fully into worlds different from our own, accepting all their strange rules as reality. But with horror, readers must feel, imagine, and create these worlds themselves. After the pages have been turned, they are left haunted, questioning their own reality, secretly wondering what may lurk behind the bathroom door or what’s really making those noises in the hallway. A very real sense of uncertainty is developed through turning the familiar upside down. That’s the sign of great art, I always thought. Creating something so strong that genuine emotions are stirred within the viewer or reader. Making something that tangles itself around its recipient’s thoughts and makes them feel something real.
When situations are most dire, emotions are strongest. Fear usurps all other senses, but hope is magnified exponentially. Never does one realise how much their world is worth until it’s threatened with extinction. The reader is left with a changed view of whatever their situation may be; an unsettling disquiet lingers long after the chapter has been closed. Through horror, perhaps the strongest of all emotions emerge: hope and fear. These are the things that drive our most steadfast of actions, thoughts and convictions. And after all, only through being dragged through the deepest of darknesses can we truly appreciate the light. And creating that, I think, is quite beautiful.