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Writing Excuses 7.20: Cathartic Horror

Writing Excuses 7.20: Cathartic Horror


Key Points: Horror can help you get through hard times in your life because no matter what, your life is better than what happens in that book. Reading helps prepare us to better handle stress and problems in real life. Beware of the didactic, but be aware that horror stories are not about the horror, they are about how people react to the horror. Look for the human story behind the horror dressing. "The core story is what's happening to the people" -- Brandon. Look at what scares you the most, figure out why it is so scary, face the things that make you tick, and then you can write a really scary book. Create the sense that anything could be lost.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 20, Cathartic Horror.
[Mary] 15 minutes long, because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.

[Brandon] We have two guest stars this time. We have Michael R. Collings and Michaelbrent Collings. Would you guys tell us a little bit about yourselves and what you've done?
[Michael R] I spent 30 years teaching at Pepperdine University. I retired about five years ago when it became clear to everyone except me that I was no longer actually hearing the words my students were saying, but hearing other things. So they decided, for the sake of questions... I would start answering off in left field and they were talking about right field... That it would be best if I no longer tried to teach. Especially with teaching creative writing, because the students would get up to read a poem and I would hear, "mumble mumble dee dee mumble rhyme mumble mumble rhyme." That was about it.
[Brandon] That's what I hear every time Howard talks.
[Dan] Howard is Charlie Brown's teacher [in garbled].
[Michael R] Yes, but when everyone talks that way, it becomes a problem. In the six years since I've retired, living in Idaho, I have been writing, rewriting, collecting, and publishing a great many things that I started years ago. And a great many things that I have written fresh. I now have nine novels published, eight collections of poetry, both mainstream, horror, science fiction and fantasy. Three collections of short essays and short stories. I don't know how many books about science fiction, fantasy, and horror, especially Stephen King, Scott Card, and like 400 reviews. I write and write and write and write, and occasionally someone actually reads them.
[Brandon] Michaelbrent, tell us about yourself.
[Michaelbrent] I'm just glad to be here at the [pig garbled]. I was a scummy lawyer for almost a decade. About two years ago, I suddenly started making money. The last two years... As a writer, that is... The last two years, I have had 11 or 12 books come out on Amazon. Six or seven of them have been bestsellers in various categories. One was the number one horror and number one sci-fi title, it was called Run. Another one, it was called Rising Fears, did really well on the horror lists. I also wrote a YA novel called Billy: Messenger of Powers that's consistently been near the top 10,000 for almost 2 years. I also have two movies coming out that I wrote which are both horror movies.

[Brandon] Excellent. That's pretty awesome. Dan, you pitched the concept of this one, so why don't you go ahead and tell us about this pan... This podcast?
[Dan] Yes. I've been on a lot of let's talk about horror panels in my career, because you show up at a conference not dedicated to horror and they'll usually fit you one token panel and it's always the same people and it's always the same topic. So on one of these, I had the opportunity to be on a panel with Doctor Collings. It was fascinating. He gave what I thought... Not that horror needs defending, but he gave it the best defense I'd ever heard. He was talking about writing horror... Reading horror and then writing horror helped him get through some very, very difficult times in his life because no matter how hellish his life became, he was still alive at the end. He was still better than the characters in that poor book. So I'm actually going to ask him to talk a little bit about that, share some of that. Briefly, because we don't have a lot of time. But share a little bit of that experience with us, please?
[Michael R] Asking a former professor to share briefly is not an [garbled]. Briefly. Yes.
[Dan] This has been Writing Excuses.

[Michael R] I can do it best by giving an example. The most successful book I have published is called The Slab. It was... I guess since last April, it's been the top seller for my publisher, Wildside Press. Outselling everything except one anthology of Western stories. So I know what I have to write next. The Slab is about a family who moves into a house, and gradually discovers that the house is falling apart. In fact, the slab is cracked, and things seem to be living down there. In inner chapters, you discover that this house has had problems for many years. It is built on a crime. Every person, every family that has lived in it, has been destroyed. When I started writing The Slab 20 years ago, it was because I discovered that we lived in that house. It was falling apart. There were cracks in the slab. The western wall would rise and fall 3 inches depending upon whether it was wet weather or dry weather. In the summer, you could see stars through the crack between the wall and the ceiling.
[Michaelbrent] Don't laugh. This isn't funny. [Laughter]
[Michael R] It isn't. Then the roof started leaking. It leaked for four years, regardless of what we did. At the same time, I started getting tinnitus and hearing sounds like [sucking noise] all the time. So I would walk into a room and hear water running. I knew the roof would be leaking, and I knew it was not raining. I literally feared for my sanity. Then I discovered a number of things. One, that I was an undiagnosed bipolar, and had been one for most of my life, and simply assumed that everyone felt the way I did, but could handle it. And I was deaf, and had tinnitus which would not drive me crazy. So I started writing the story, and I couldn't finish it because it was too much for me. After I moved from that house, I thought, "It's my turn now!" [Laughter] I revisited it. Everything that happens in The Slab has... Well, except for the murder... Has some root in reality. In The Slab, there are some gerbils who suffer untimely ends. In reality, I kept trying to keep a fish tank, and didn't realize you don't put distilled water in a fish tank. They kept floating belly up on me! No matter what I tried in that house, it was horrible. So the horror of writing The Slab and re-creating those experiences even worse was my way of saying, "Okay. Things are now under my control. I'm okay. I recognize physical limitations, but they're not going to take over." Every novel I've done since I retired has at its core the idea that the horror is there because life can be terrible, but it could be so much worse.

[Brandon] I remember when I originally took the science fiction and fantasy writing class from Dave Wolverton/Farland, back in 2000, back before I had any clue what I'm doing. Now I have like one or two, but... He talked about this concept for all of writing. That the concept was, writing... When we read, and we experience all the tension and what's going on with the characters and how horrible things can be, that it actually inspires a chemical response in our brain. It's that same fight-or-flight response that gears us up to deal with this pain that's happening because we're feeling empathy with the characters when it's done right. Then when the release happens, when we put down that book, or when whatever happens to the characters happens, we have actually been changed physiologically to better handle stress and our own problems.
[Michael R] Well, if you think of science fiction... Someone once asked recently what would happen if aliens actually landed. The answer is nothing. We have been preparing for it for 50 years, and we know what to watch out for. As far as that physiological response with horror, it's the frisson of fear, that chill that just goes up the spine. I once noted that the closest relative to horror in literary terms is pornography, because they are the only two literary forms that are designed to elicit a physiological response. They're different, fortunately. With horror, if you're reading a novel and you go like that, the novel is a success. Or, if you're reading, as I did, Dracula for the first time, and you go like this to turn the light out, hover, and bring your hand back, the novel is a success. Because it has changed you. You have lived in that world, been part of that world, and you are now a different person than you were when you entered it.

[Mary] So what you're saying actually reminds me of the original fairytales. The original fairytales were significantly darker, and really, many of them were horror. One of the things that they did was teach us how to... They were cautionary tales. They taught us how to accept that horrible things happen, and how to approach and deal with them. I think that's something that the best horror can do for us as well. It's like, well, you're facing a serial killer. Don't split your party up. [Laughter]
[Michael R] Remember that fairytales were considered literal. You don't go in the forest because there are wolves in the forest. We see them only as stories. We are so distant from that moment when you could walk out of your hovel door and look up and see a castle on the mountain, that we fail to recognize the kernel of truth, the warning, in so many of the stories we take for granted.
[Mary] There's a Grimm tale that no one retells because it's basically there was an old beggar woman and she walked outside and there was a fire and she got close to the fire and then she caught on fire and burned. That is pretty much the entire story.
[Michael R] A Christmas story.
[Mary] Yes. It's heartwarming.
[Mary] But as a modern reader, I read that and go WTF? But for someone actually living in the period when people regularly caught on fire from getting too close to the hearth, that's a useful cautionary story. That's something that could happen to any of them.
[Michael R] My father's grandmother was reaching across the wood stove with her long lace trimmed gown and died. So it's not that long ago that these stories were real and admonitory. Don't do this. Now it's don't have sex before you're married or the monster will eat you.

[Brandon] We need to do our book of the week.
[Dan] Our book of the week is actually The Slab by Michael Collings. This is up on audible. I've read it. I haven't heard the audio, but I've read it. It is grueling and horrible and wonderful. It is a chore to get through the awful things that happen to these people, but I really loved every minute of it. So you can find that on audible. It's You get a free trial copy and a free copy of The Slab by Michael Collings.

[Brandon] Okay. So my question for the podcasters then is, as writers, how can you use this? How does this inform you, Dan, as a horror writer? The knowledge of how this works? How can our listeners use this concept to make better fiction?
[Dan] Okay. One thing that you have to be very careful of, if we're talking about horror as catharsis and horror as lesson, is you don't want to become didactic. But what it can do is let you... Give you a new perspective on something. This is why, for example, every zombie story is really not about zombies, it's about how people react to them. Because that's where the real story is. That's the lesson, so to speak, that gets taken away. Now if that lesson hits you over the head too closely, then your audience is going to be upset. But something in 28 Days Later, for example, where the real bad guy turns out to not be the zombies, it's the military guy who wants to grab power. That's really what that's about, is reaching too far, grabbing too much power, exerting too much authority. Once you know that about horror, then it helps you find the real story behind the monster. The monster is set dressing. The monster is what allows you to tell the real human story inside of a horror story.

[Brandon] There's a greater lesson here for all science fiction and fantasy writers. I once was doing an interview with... I guess it was a blog thing, where I was posting with someone. I called all the fantasy, all the world building, all those things, dressing. It really offended them because they're like, "Well, obviously you don't understand the genre. Obviously you're not a great... You're just throwing this all away." In my opinion, they didn't understand storytelling. I love fantasy. I love the magic, I love the world building, however, these things are all dressing. The core story is what's happening to the people. You can actually take that dressing away and tell... Most fantasy books, you could write as a science-fiction epic with changing actually very little. The reason being that science fiction and fantasy do often reach for the same sort of core roots of storytelling, for how people react and what we're looking at. That is what we're talking about here. Understand that everything you're doing, the horror, the fantasy, a lot of the stuff we talk about on this pan... This podcast is all about what you do after you know how to tell a story that is gripping.

[Michaelbrent] If I can jump in, because Dan told me jump in. I lost... I will level with you guys, and I hope you take this seriously because this is not a joke... I lost a child. It was one of the worst things, obviously, that's ever happened to me. I wrote a series of screenplays, one of which sold and is going to be coming out as a movie, and books, Rising Fears, The Meridians, Run, which all dealt with the worst thing I could think of, which was losing a child, a family member, or a circle of friends. Because having been cut off, I understood how horrifying it was, in the real meaning of the term. So not only was it a way of getting control, but once I faced that kernel of horror, I... Not to sound really crass, but I could exploit it. I could use it, because I had looked at it. Once you kill the dragon, you get to use the dragon's scales as shields and armor. The same thing applies in your storytelling. Once you look at the thing... If you're writing horror, especially... Once you look at the thing that scares you most, and figure out why it is so scary, you will be able to scare the [tingling sound] out of anybody. Okay? But you really have to face yourself. It is cathartic, because in seeing it, you come to understand it, you can deal with it better, but first you really do have to walk into that darkness. I'm not saying you have to like smoke cigarettes and wear black and brood all the time. But you have to really face the things that make you tick, because, like my father very aptly said, horror is designed to elicit a primal response. Primal is not the accouterments and ornaments we put on in culture and civilization. Primal is the base stuff that really makes you tick. It is impossible to write a scary movie or a scary book unless you have enough self-awareness to at least know what scares you. If you can't figure out what scares you, how the heck are you going to connect with another human being to scare that person?
[Brandon] That was wonderful. Brilliant.
[Mary] I have...
[Michael R] One other point. You have to be willing to follow those perceptions wherever they lead you and to whatever end it leads you, even if it means killing one of the children that lives in this house. For that reason, my daughter-in-law will never read The Slab, and I don't want her to.
[Michaelbrent] And I who have never forgiven you.
[Michael R] Oh, I'm sorry. It was such a cute kid.
[Michaelbrent] I called my father... There is a kid that dies... I called my dad... In The Slab... And I yelled at him. Because he knew what I had gone through, and he should have prepared me. But it made it a really amazing, powerful piece. The same... I sold a movie called Barricade. The first thing the studio person said when they were talking about buying it was, "Do the kids really die?" Which is not a popular way to end a movie in America. We had a long talk about it. We ended up dealing with the ending in a variety of ways, but at the core, it wasn't whether they die or not, it was facing that threat. Because really, the bad thing about losing a kid isn't the lost kid, it's the fact that you could lose another one. You have to be able to create that sense of anything could be lost. The things that make you most you could be taken. That's what is scary.

[Brandon] We're out of time. This podcast has been wonderful. Thank you both. I think I'm going to make our writing prompt the fairytale that is unadaptable. [Laughter] About the woman who starts on fire by getting too close to the fire. Dan?
[Dan] The modern retelling of the old lady who gets lit on fire and dies. Okay.
[Brandon] Yeah. Modern retelling of the old lady who gets lit on fire. Go look up that Grimm fairytale. [Laughter] Thank you guys all for listening. Thank you, audience, for listening through two hours of Writing Excuses. [Applause] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: catharsis, characters, didactic, dressing, horror, lesson

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