The First Rule of Horror

There are No Rules - Edison

When it comes to horror, whether writing or filmmaking, or art in general, you can find many and diverse opinions on how to do it correctly. But you know what they say? Opinions are like armpits; everyone’s got two and they both stink.

Here are just a few of my humble thoughts on horror. Agree or disagree. That’s your prerogative, yet, it’s my sincerest desire that you leave the better for it, just by spending a little time with me here.

If we’re going to examine horror as a fiction genre, shouldn’t we ask ourselves first, “What purpose does fiction serve?”

A quick search on the new millennium’s public library, the Internet, will reveal a wide range of thoughts on the topic. The perspectives on fiction vary— from being absolutely useless, like a vestigial organ on the anatomy, to something larger and grandiose, elevating the human condition, as it were, in the eternal scheme of things… and everything in between. To list or debate the various views on the topic would not really get us anywhere, in my humble opinion, so we’ll dispense with it for the time being (do the search on your own and you’ll find philosophies toward fiction’s purpose as wide as the whole outdoors).

As for me, I tend to be a bit more pragmatic about things. If it’s not functional, fugetaboutit, as my friends in Brooklyn would say. Obviously, I think there is some usefulness in fiction in general, and horror in particular; otherwise, I wouldn’t waste my time with the stuff. So, what do I think is the useful purpose behind fiction? I’m so glad you asked, but I’ll try to keep it brief.

The Purpose of Fiction According to Vandcast

Fiction is an expression of communication that provides a venue to vicariously experience thoughts and feelings we might not have the opportunity to experience otherwise. Knowledge without application is useless; however, knowledge applied through experience begets wisdom. Wisdom fuels decisions in daily practice. It also provides inspiration and motivation for future generations. Okay, there’s my two cents.

Why Horror?

Horror is merely drama that most strongly elicits thoughts and feelings within fiction. It’s meant to shock. Here is what Wikipedia says about horror:

Horror is a genre of fiction which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle their readers or viewers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. Literary historian J. A. Cuddon has defined the horror story as “a piece of fiction in prose of variable length… which shocks or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing”. It creates an eerie and frightening atmosphere. Horror is frequently supernatural, though it can be non-supernatural. Often the central menace of a work of horror fiction can be interpreted as a metaphor for the larger fears of a society. [online source]

Does horror elevate the human condition? Does reading (or writing) horror make you and I better persons for having experienced the journey? I believe it does.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen some pretty horrendous things. I’ve spent a good part of my adult life in Southeast Asia and, I can tell you, I’ve seen some things by way of real life human atrocity far more shocking than any book or movie can convey. Therefore, for me, fictional horror is an escape (I’ll talk a little bit about that later).

The First Rule in Fictional Horror

Rules for Writing a NovelSo what constitutes good fictional horror? Here’s the first rule in fictional horror: there are no rules. You heard me right. There are no rules. Just writing this reminds me of a quote from W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

I love reading Stephen King. He’s an excellent writer and a terrific storyteller; however, if I followed his rules for writing, I’d come off as fake and wouldn’t be true to myself as a storyteller. Erica Verrillo wrote some terrific insights on why she doesn’t listen to Stephen King’s advice on writing. Check out here article by clicking here.

As far as Westerns or Contemporary novels, I love to read Elmore Leonard. Likewise, if I took his writing advice, I would never be as good as Leonard was, neither would I ever meet my full potential as a storytelling voice… because I would be spending all my time trying to be Bob Valdez or Chili Palmer, two of Leonard’s fictional characters.

I could go on and on with my favorite author’s but you get the picture.

Now, certainly, as far as storytelling goes, there should be plot structure, however sporadic it may be (in horror, you can get away with it a little easier than other genres). The story should start somewhere and go somewhere. And we should recognize that there are some people that are just not going to like the same authors you and I read. Believe it or not, there are people that don’t like Stephen King, Elmore Leonard or Cormac McCarthy. Thank God for that. There are over 7 billion people on the planet and, so far, not a single one of them is a clone (except in a few fiction books).

Anything and Nothing is Horror

One of the reasons I suggest there are no rules to horror is that it can be found in most places on the planet. Romance can be horrifying. The love or infatuation of anything can stop the warmest heart while the same experience can jumpstart the coldest heart.

Mainstream literary fiction can be horrifying. Peter Benchley’s Jaws can be horrifying to some while it may be trivial to another. To me, the book is pure horror. Nevertheless, I have a friend, Jon J. Cardwell, who is an author himself (he also does the covers for my books— thanks, Jon). He was a U.S. Navy deep sea diver in his first career. He saw the movie Jaws and read the book in the early 1970s. It didn’t bother him at all because he was driven by desire to be a Navy frogman since he was 7 years old and nothing, not even a Great White Shark, was going to stop him.

The Silliness of Horror

Here’s another reason why there are no rules to horror: it’s just downright comical when you think about it. Take, for example, zombies. What is a zombie, after all? They’re dead people, albeit reanimated. Their bodies are decaying, proving the Second Law of Thermodynamics, yet they live; they wreak havoc; they soldier on; they go on and on somehow until someone removes their heads with a shotgun blast or some such thing. The whole premise of the existence of zombies actually defies logic… yet, we nod to its presupposition, we smile at its entertainment value, and some folks even secretly shudder at the prospect of an actual zombie apocalypse.

This is why horror is an escape for me. I’ve seen some of the worst atrocities perpetuated by human beings on other humans, so when I read or write horror, I know it’s not real. It allows me to exorcise the demons of real life because I’ve captured them in a book or confined them to a TV or theater screen and can simply close the book, click the off button, or close my eyes whenever it gets a little unbearable. We can’t do that with real life. When it happens, even though you close your eyes, you can still smell it; and your mind and your heart knows it really happened. There are some things you just can’t un-see, so reading and writing horror is a bit of a release for me.

What Have We Accomplished?

There are No Rules - EdisonAlthough his quote has nothing to do with fictional horror per se, I think it can be applied here. Thomas Edison said, “There are no rules here— we’re trying to accomplish something.” What are we trying to accomplish? In may be different things to different people, but when our thoughts and emotions are startled from reading horror, most of us can put the book down and appreciate that we are alive. We can be grateful the situations and circumstances hadn’t happened to us and, because our minds were stimulated to such an alarming extent and our feelings were pulsating with madness for even a few moments, you and I can say, “I’m alive. I’m human.”


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