MACHETE MOONLIGHT


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Recognizing the Horror

Posted by JoeMynhardt on November 24, 2010 at 11:30 AM

Let’s get serious for a moment. If you want to write horror, you’d better know what it’s about. And I’m not talking about knowing what the newest blockbuster is called.

 

If you’re serious about your writing, be serious about your genre.

 

Get out there and find out what has been done in the genre before you decided to pick up your pen, or open that first empty word document, or subscribe to that free online email course.

I’m sure you’ve heard all this before, but how serious did you take it? I take it very serious. When I’m not writing, I pride myself on studying a bit of the genre. If you’re a true horror fan, it should be just like writing: Hard work, but worth it.

 

Take time to read the classics. M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, Conan Arthur Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Henry James; the original idea weavers. Even poems like Lord Byron’s The Giaour should not be missed. These legends broke the ground we build on today. A great place to start is Horrormasters.com.

 

Here are a few other writers whose work every horror writer should study:

              • John Connolly

              • Stephen King

              • Clive Barker

              • Bram Stoker

              • Robert Louis Stevenson

              • Graham Masterton

              • Richard Laymon

              • Joe R. Landsdale

              • Robert Bloch

              • Jack Ketchum

              • Peter Straub

              • Ramsey Campbell

              • Richard Matheson

              • Harlan Ellison

              • Robert Weinberg

              • J.N. Williamson

 

And it doesn’t end there, because horror is not only available in written word. Watch the classic movies from Ray Bradbury, Alfred Hitchcock, Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Strange Tales. See how the masters did it on the silver screen: Nosferatu, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein and The Haunting of Hill House. See what has been done before so you can know how to do it, but in an original way of course. Let’s call it “paying your dues”.

 

I’ll never forget that late night episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents where the prisoner hitched a ride out of the prison in a coffin, only to find out the man who was supposed to dig him out lay in the coffin with him. I was hooked on the macabre ever since. By the way, if anyone can recall the name of that episode, please let me know. Still haven’t found it.

 

I know the list is endless, but here are a few older movies every horror writer should be familiar with:

              • George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

              • Friday the 13th

              • Halloween

              • Texas Chainsaw Massacre

              • Psycho

              • Exorcist

              • Poltergeist

              • The Shining

              • Rosemary’s baby

              • The Thing

              • The Fly

              • The Birds

 

From short stories to movies, poems and late night episodes, see how things were done and ask yourself, “Why did they do it that way? Why did this specific scene work so well?” Then use these methods in your own arsenal of writing tools.

 

But it doesn’t end there either. Horror comic books, especially from the 50’s, are a treasure trove waiting to be reopened.

 If you haven’t tried them yet, get your hands on:

             • Dark Horse comics

             • The Mammoth book of horror comics

             • Tales from the crypt

             • Vault of Horror

             • From Hell

             • Essential tomb of Dracula

 For a more mystique, noir type comic, try Sandman Mystery Theatre.

 

And you don’t have to look much further than life itself to find horror in your own backyard. Study serial killers, history of haunted mansions, castles and graveyards, urban legends, disappearances, mass suicides and old folk tales. Watch crime shows, unsolved cases and paranormal investigations. Open yourself to a world of experiences and awaken your imagination. Make your best weapon the “What if” question.

 

Now I’ve mentioned earlier that the key is of course to be original. Which will definitely be a problem if you stick to one author’s books.

 

It’s getting more and more difficult to be original. Or is it? Look at the world today and find out what consumes people. What plagued people in the 70’s or 80’s hardly concern us now. Today’s people are more concerned about the supposed end of the world in 2012 and dealing with stress. Great authors have always been able to accurately represent their times through their stories. Why do you think there were so many American super heroes during the Second World war, or toxic born heroes and villains after the war?

 

Our times and point of view is so much different from those legends who wrote before us, so of course our stories can be different. No one else shares your exact life experiences. But if you don’t know what came before you, you might just fall into the pits of cliché that so many publishers know about and watch out for.

 

So if you’re able to tap into the fears trending the world today, you’ll not only be writing literary fiction, but you’ll also be grabbing the reader by the throat and pulling them into your stories. Why? Because they can relate. And that’s why people read horror. Because it’s someone else’s ordeal. And while they read your story, and hopefully a while after that as well, they’ll keep on talking about it and forgetting about their own horrors.

 

To help you do this, you should keep an eye out for what is trending at the moment with publishers. But then you’ll have to choose.

 

Do you write only what publishers want?

 

What they pay for?

 

Or do you write for the art of story telling? Isn’t telling the story more important than being paid for it? I guess that’s a question every writer will have to answer for themselves. For me, I like to follow one of the most important rules of writing, always try to sustain a balance.

 

With the arrival of the internet, researching your genre has become so much easier. Not just to find treasures of yesteryear, but to keep up to date with what’s happening right now. Read blogs and newsletters and subscribe to online as well as printed magazines. Join facebook and befriend other writers. Check their status updates regularly for blog entries or horror fiction news. And if you can, attend conventions and chat with other authors, publishers and agents. Writers forums are also vital, but be careful you don’t end up spending more time chatting than writing.

 

So be active in your genre. It will give you a world of knowledge and the confidence that comes with it to write good horror. Who knows, after all this research, you might even find out you’re more interested in writing for stage, radio, comics or movie scripts. There’s more money to be made in horror comics anyway.

 

So start helping me and other writers by adding a few more great movies, books, short stories or genre tips in the comments box below.

 

Thanks for reading my guest blog. Will drop by from time to time. In the meantime feel free to drop in at my own website and blog.

 

All the best,

Joe Mynhardt

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9 Comments

Reply RossWarren
12:00 PM on November 24, 2010 
Great stuff mate. Welcome to the drew. Everyone should start with 'Darker Than You Think' by Jack Williamson, a horror novel several decades ahead of it's time that has hardly dated
Reply Shaun Hammel
10:26 PM on November 24, 2010 
That AHP episode is called "Final Escape".. you can watch it for free in its entire here:

http://www.hulu.com/watch/13935/alfred-hitchcock-hour-final-escap
e

I have to admit Im pretty weak on classic horror literature and films.. Chances are if a horror film is black and white I havent watched it or in an attempt to got really bored, really quickly. Im pretty well versed in EAP, some MR James and I read Carmilla and didn't care for it. HP Lovecraft, well, ambivalent is a good word for my feelings on that guy. Ive also spent a good bit of time in Bitter Bierce's Brain. But I think I make up for it in my strength of other literary, film and music genres. Some writer far superior to me (I think it was Vladimir Nabokov) once said that it was better to know a few great authors deeply than to be derivative based on a multitude of hacks. But even hacks can be fun. And useful. And one man's 'hack' is another man's genius.

Style to me is of utter importance. You can break the 'all the ideas have been used before' syndrome with style. It doesn't come easy. Style is deeply personal but it also involves what Joe is getting at-- studying the masters, whomever you find your masters to be. However many, however few.
Reply TomHodden
1:21 AM on November 25, 2010 
Just to show not everybody has the same priorities in genre history, I was flabbergasteds you missed M.R.James, Arthur Conan Doyle and HP Lovecraft from the list, but highlighted some of the writers influenced by these.
Reply Shaun Hammel
1:25 AM on November 25, 2010 
In the beginning he wrote:

'Take time to read the classics. M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, Conan Arthur Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Henry James; the original idea weavers.'

He did in fact mention them.. lol
Reply JoeMynhardt
9:50 AM on November 25, 2010 
I was really shocked when I started reading Conan Arthur Doyle's non Sherlock Holmes stories. Really good stuff.

I think it's worth saying that it's not always so much as how they wrote the stories or movies, but just enjoying the actual stories and finding inspiration in our genre.

Whenever I feel a little unmotivated, nothing gets me started like a horror story. That or music.
Reply TomHodden
10:34 AM on November 25, 2010 
LOL. I was a bit vague, yeah I liked he mentioned them, but as work to be "read", not "studied", but to my mind they are definately a "studied" catagory. Not a complaint, just always a nice surprise to see other people have other priorities.

As for Sir ACD, I think it is very telling how much of his fictional sory of the Marie Celeste has replaced the facts of the Mary Celeste in most peoples minds.
Reply JoeMynhardt
11:16 AM on November 25, 2010 
I must've misworded it Tom. Those first ones are exactly the guys I believe should be studied. But like Shaun said, everyone should read a bit of their work and decide for themselves which ones to study. For instance, Lovecraft isn't the best guy to study when it comes to characters.
Reply TomHodden
11:17 AM on November 25, 2010 
JoeMynhardt says...
I must've misworded it Tom. Those first ones are exactly the guys I believe should be studied. But like Shaun said, everyone should read a bit of their work and decide for themselves which ones to study. For instance, Lovecraft isn't the best guy to study when it comes to characters.

More likely I mis-read than you miswrote.
Reply JoeMynhardt
1:55 PM on November 25, 2010 
Oh, and thanks Shaun for letting me know about Final Escape. Will definitely watch it. Ordered the first season on monday as a xmas gift to myself. Sucks that this episode is in season 2. :-)