John F.D. Taff Is Probably Smarter Than Us.
TODAY’S BREW: Swill. This cup’s for you, Chynna-Blue Scott.
John F.D. Taff is an old friend of mine from the days of The Nightmares Before Christmas. Now you can all have the pleasure of reading The Bell Witch, which I kinda freaked out about. I mean, look at this cover.
Also, John is just a class act of a guy. I’m proud he’s my friend, and honored that he considers my work to be good because he’s John F.D. fucking Taff. If you haven’t read his stuff, you don’t even know. Here’s a little bit about how his crazy mind works.
My Horror Manifesto
By John F.D. Taff
Julie is being the lovely person she is and letting me take up space on her blog to write about whatever I want to write about. So, I thought, instead of plugging my new novel, The Bell Witch—$3.99 at Amazon, paperback to follow soon—I thought I’d share with you my manifesto. Every writer should have a manifesto, I think, whether you’re pecking away in a Manhattan loft or in a tiny shed in Montana. As I am a writer, here then is mine.
You may not like everything you read from me, and that’s OK. I have done this long enough to know that every story is not for every body. I hope that some of the things I write speak to you, linger, make you uncomfortable in some way, even, I daresay, scare you. That’s why I choose to dabble in this particular genre and not, say, westerns or science fiction.
Horror writer. Mention the fact that you’re a writer these days, and you might get a half-interested response, akin to telling someone you make wine in your basement or host a local access cable show. The fact is, unless they’ve heard of you, unless they’ve bought your book, unless you’re currently on the New York Times bestseller list, you’re just a member of a huge group of people who consider themselves writers…a list that grows dismayingly longer with every blogger, Facebooker, Twitterer (Tweeter?) and half-assed web journalist.
Mention the fact that you’re a horror writer, though, and even that slight regard vanishes in a puff of smoke. Horror? Like monsters and ghosts and gallons of blood? That horror? The mention that you’re a horror writer is sure to get raised eyebrows at cocktail parties or contemptuous sniffs from academics who view horror as the literary equivalent of snuff films.
Why is that? Well, there’s a lot of contentious noise these days in the hallowed halls of horror; a lot of ridiculous (at least I think so) talk of what constitutes horror.
If horror even holds together as a serious, clearly defined genre in these modern times.
Even if it should.
And lest you think that we merry writers of horror fiction are shouldering this burden well, let me dissuade you from that quaint and curious notion. Much of the current collective effort of horror writers today is spent denying that that’s what they write at all. It’s as if many of them feel a need to explain or…good grief defend…what it is they write.
All of this meaningless mental masturbation sucks a lot of good writers in…and a lot of good readers. They spend countless hours arguing their views on countless forums—on the increasingly annoying Internet, at conventions and conferences, at signings and in the column inches of the decreasing number of print magazines devoted to…ahem…horror. All of this when their time might be better spent writing good stuff and reading good stuff. Who cares what it’s called.
Horror. Is it a true genre? Should it be? I mean, come on, it’s why you punched my dance card, so indulge me for a few more seconds before I let you loose.
Some dismiss horror because it’s become all about blood. Well, in the movies, at least—or so it seems to me—this is true. One of the most gorgeous turns of phrase has come out of this trend…torture porn. Lovely. But it’s true. From Nightmare on Elm Street to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and everything in between, many of the movies referred to as horror over the years have been thinly disguised reasons to film outright blood baths.
The Saw series is this sub-genre’s current idiot savant; so wrapped up in the minutiae of the Rube Goldbergesque ways in which it slices and dices its victims, it has forgotten to nurture things like plot, characterization or even one of the more potentially chilling villains to flicker from a horror movie since…well since his brood brothers Michael, Jason and Freddie came along.
Let’s be honest here, though. There is little more disturbing than violent death. And if horror is to be a true, full-fledged genre, then there has to be room for a wide spectrum of nuances within its framework. But I mean, come on, the needle has been pegged on “full-tilt arterial spray” for a few decades now. There have been a smattering of good horror films that have managed to squeeze through with nary a dismemberment (The Sixth Sense springs to mind), but they are few and very far between.
So how can publishers synergize (excuse me, but that’s their word) with Hollywood? Because, let’s face it, this is the atomic clock by which book publishers set their watches. But who wants to write, much less read, a book that has a plot, say, similar to Hostel? Not many, thank the lord. But publishers have hitched their proverbial carts to Hollywood, so what to do here?
The answer for horror, then, is apparently not coming from Hollywood.
Conversely, some dismiss horror because it has become sanitized for your protection, like a hotel toilet with a paper band around the rim. I’m in no position to criticize the author of the Twilight series. And why should I, other than grinding jealousy or abject poverty? Vast armies of people, most of them young and decidedly feminine, love her and love the work. But in making vampires too much like us, some authors have removed what it is that makes them frightening. Is any teenage girl truly frightened of Edward? Really?
So, the answer is not necessarily going to come from some new monster or some new way of looking at an old one.
Some dismiss horror because it’s become de-supernaturalized. Who can argue with that? It’s a cyclical thing, but most of what is called “horror” these days tends to be of the psychological variety or of the twisted, real world variety—Silence of the Lambs and its innumerable pastiches. Away with the ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. Give us slashers and serials killers and maniacs with mommy issues.
Again, this is OK. Some say these are scarier than the made-up monsters of our childhood, and while there may be some truth to that, it isn’t the whole truth. The fear these madmen bring is the fear of the known or maybe the what could really happen…the guy who sneaks up behind you in the parking lot and conks you on the head in order to haul you away and do various unpleasant things to you in the relative privacy of the pit in his basement.
But our dear monsters represent the fear of the unknown, the fear of what is out there in the dark that is profoundly mysterious and strange. In the best horror stories it is this fear, the fear not just of the unknown but of the unknowable, that makes the reader’s heart beat faster.
Finally, there are those, and you doubtless know a few, who dismiss horror as being a sign of a juvenile mind. Well, this is an old one. I remember getting this creaky sentiment from college literature professors who agreed with Henry James that a taste for Poe, and by extension any of his ilk, is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection. Well, that’s just utter bullshit, as Penn & Teller would say. The things that make up horror—monsters, ghosts, violence, retribution, a dark underworld, fate, blood and guts—have all been part of the best of our literature since Day One. They’re hardwired into us, part of every mythos, creed and religion in the world.
And yet, this is how a lot of people…smart people, literate people…think. Remember a few years ago when Stephen King was awarded the American Book Award? Remember the hue and outcry from the literary illuminati? You’d have thought the Jewish League was presenting Adolph Hitler with its Humanitarian of the Year Award.
Is Stephen King a bad writer because he chooses to write about vampires and possessed laundry folders and gunslingers from other Urs? No. Is Stephen King, indeed, a bad writer at all? No.
When horror is written well, as many authors do—as I aspire to—labels evaporate, and the reader is submerged in story. And isn’t that what any writer wants of his work? For a reader to be lost in the words, transported, lifted out of their life and into another.
It’s what I want of my work, whether it’s called horror or terror or suspense or whatever.
But let’s, for the sake of argument, call it horror.
Because I am a horror writer.
So, there’s my manifesto. Now go buy a book from me, either my collection Little Deaths or my latest novel, the historical ghost story The Bell Witch. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00ED5QAZW?ie=UTF8&camp=213733&creative=393177&creativeASIN=B00ED5QAZW&linkCode=shr&tag=booofthedeapr-20&=digital-text&qid=1375883458&sr=1-1