Short of “Registered Sex Offender,” no three words seem to consistently raise eyebrows and result in awkward pauses and general discomfort than the following:
“I Write Horror.”
It’s the literary equivalent of farting in church, a close cousin to being an atheist in Alabama. When asked what I write by most in Polite Society, nine times out of ten Polite Society responds with all the enthusiasm of having a distant relative, drunk and out of mood stabilizers, show up on their doorstep on a Sunday evening.
There seems to be a general discomfort with horror writers, as if inspiration is secretly drawn from some locked chest of tortured animals kept beneath our desk, or from some unspeakable childhood trauma we endured. While I can’t speak for others, I certainly don’t keep a box-full of squirrels to squeeze for inspiration.
Polite Society is, however, right in its assumption that some childhood trauma shaped my own perpetual desire to dip into the darkness. I was, in fact, incredibly traumatized as a child. By a woman in a tent over a summer weekend.
Her name was Zelda. And she had a crooked back.
See earlier that week I made the mistake of borrowing Stephen King’s Pet Semetary from my friend’s mother’s bookshelf. It looked like a good read and I liked the idea of an undead toddler coming back from the grave. By that point in life I fancied myself a bit of a bookworm (keep in mind a year later I also bought Vanilla Ice’s tape), so bring it on. What’s the worst that could happen?
It turns out the worst that DID happen was that I spent every minute from dusk to dawn twitching at the sounds nature made from the darkness beyond the campfire. As my family slept in blissful ignorance only I was aware that outside the tent lurked a wretched form, a twisted hag with a tumorous back that wanted nothing more than to break mine like hers. By the end of that camping trip I only slept during daylight. I looked like a 11 year old version of The Machinist.
So in a way Polite Society is right. To this day Zelda still lurks, along with others, in the shadows of my mind just beyond the light. The trauma persists.
But Polite Society is spineless.
It prefers comfort and ignorance over awareness and terror. It walls itself in to where safe conversations and soft words don’t threaten to rattle the fragile glass house it’s built. Horror holds a mirror to the world and forces Polite Society to confront two uncomfortable concepts: Sanity and Death.
Don’t believe me?
Bring up mental health in a dinner time conversation. See how fast the conversation slows to a crawl when you have your guests try to define the boundary between sanity and madness. Poll your close friends on the decisions some mothers have to make in a disaster: to save one child and let another die, and how they chose which one to save. Bring up the drug war south of the border and the headless bodies being discovered on an hourly basis.
Or just ask someone, truly, to prove that they are at a dinner party and are not, in fact, in a padded room wearing the kind of jacket that straps to itself, rocking back and forth in a corner and asking a nonexistent server to refill their chardonnay. A crazy person would think they’re sane, after all, so see how far down the rabbit hole you can take them.
This is why I don’t function well at casual conversation.
If the spoken code for Polite Society is not to discuss Religion and Politics, then Death and Sanity are the party crashers that sneak in dressed as waiters. They may try to blend in but eventually they’ll out themselves and once they’re chased away the conversation will return to less threatening subjects. Life is stressful and scary enough. Why spend your emotional reserve on fictional monsters?
And that’s why I like writing horror.
I like spending my energy facing the uncomfortable.
It’s not because it makes me a bit odd. I’ve always been that way.
It’s not because it makes me feel superior. Truth is my demons have demons.
It’s not because I like to make people squirm. I prefer to make people smile.
It’s because all those years ago, back when I was in that tent and the light only reached so far into the darkness full of twisted shapes, I was paralyzed by fear. I was no different than Polite Society, wanting nothing other than to return to my walled garden of calm where the horrors of the world couldn’t reach me.
I was spineless.
I write what scares me because it allows me to conquer it. I talk about what scares me because it makes it less frightening. I enjoy going back to that dark tent because sometimes I can bring a flashlight and shine it out into the shadows, pushing back the horrors bit by bit.
And maybe one day Zelda will go away.
Or I’m really just in a padded room somewhere, typing this whole thing into an invisible keyboard and cackling to myself as my friends and family shake their heads and say: “He should never have read that book.”