I’ve written stories in quite a lot of different genres. Mentioning any particular type of fiction gets a certain reaction, especially if the person you’re talking to is not specifically a fan of that genre. They might smile politely, they might ask if your work is comparable to a well-known book, character, or franchise in the same genre (usually Star Wars or Star Trek if you mention science fiction, Harry Potter if you talk about fantasy), or they might ask a silly question. But one genre is likely to get the strongest and strangest reactions of all. That would be horror. (To be fair, I’ve heard that erotica gets some weird reactions too, but since I haven’t written anything in that category, I can’t speak from experience, but horror has to be at least a close second.)
Some people get excited by the revelation that I sometimes write horror. You find fans of dark literature in the most unexpected places sometimes. That’s always a pleasant surprise. But you get the opposite a lot too. Some people tilt their heads and give you a look like you just started speaking in tongues or confessed to a five-year-long murder spree that stretched across seventeen states. The most common reaction that comes from those who find it surprising that I write horror is a simple question: Why?
Most people who know me, whether they happen to be relatives, friends, coworkers, or just casual acquaintances, seem to think I’m a nice person. I try to be nice. I’m polite, have never intentionally hurt another person, and try not to offend anyone unless it happens in the process of some sort of debate (in which case I will state my opinion and speak honestly about any topic). So I can understand why some people, especially those who don’t often read horror and might have some erroneous notions about the genre, would wonder how I could want to put myself through the process of taking the darkest and most gruesome thoughts in my mind and putting them into words and eventually casting them out into the world where others can read them. Why would I go down that road?
The answer is that writing horror, and reading it too, can be a very rewarding experience. Here are some of the reasons why.
Horror brings out the best of its characters. At the core of all fiction is the responsibility of the writer to put their characters through hell. It’s essential in telling a story to make your characters go through tough experiences. Otherwise, what’s the point? Without struggles or difficulty or high stakes, a story is boring. In horror, the stakes are highest, lives are at risk, and the danger is turned up to maximum volume. I find that the events at the heart of my horror stories tend to break the chains of the characters’ lives, setting them free from the mundane or dull elements of life and throwing them headfirst into the unknown, which is not necessarily a bad thing to have happen to someone.
In my novel, 100,000 Midnights, the lead character, Eric, leads as boring a life as you can imagine, never really fitting in, until he gets pulled into a world he never knew existed, a world populated by vampires and other creatures of the night. He goes through a month of gruesome, dangerous, life-threatening experiences but it makes him stronger, gives him a fuller life to live, and even shows him what love truly feels like. Without the horror, where’s the story?
In my other horror novel, Chicago Fell First, which is due out around Halloween of this year, a group of strangers are brought together by a series of very horrific events and tested as hard as anyone ever is, but those who survive are, perhaps, better for having been through it.
If I’m going to bring characters to life, I might as well have them face the worst of things. If they make it to the end of the story, what they’ve learned on the way there can be looked at as having truly been earned.
A second reason that makes horror worth writing is purely selfish on the part of the writer. It provides a release, gives us a method by which to take all our darkest thoughts and most disgusting ideas and put them to good use. As we write horror, that blank page on the screen and the keyboard at our fingertips dare us to go there, dare us to not hold back, to push all our darkness out into words and lay it out there for the world to see. I’ve written scenes that have made me nauseous, and I see that as a success! I can wake up in a cold sweat after a terrible nightmare…and make something out if for which people will send me money. I think that’s a pretty good reason to write horror.
And third, and maybe this is the most important driving force behind horror writing: I hope it sometimes serves as medicine for the reader.
What I mean is that life can be pretty frightening sometimes. Turn on the news and you’ll see war, disease, crime, debates over gun control, incompetent politicians, religious fanatics, and an assortment of other awful things either happening or on the verge of happening. And that’s just the worldwide, publicized stuff. I have no idea what’s going on in the personal lives of anyone reading my books. They might be facing illnesses, worrying about money, going through a hard ending to a relationship, or struggling through any of a number of types of hardships. Just as hearing a happy song can make a broken heart ache even more, but a sad one can make you feel like somebody somewhere understands just how you feel, I hope getting lost, even for a short time, in a world filled with monsters can dull the pain of real life just a bit. Scared of life’s terrors? Maybe the best medicine can be reading about somebody else having a worse time. Maybe the exaggerated, dramatic experiences of the teenagers fleeing the homicidal maniac or the victim about to be bled dry by the vampire or the citizens of Chicago on the run from hordes of zombies can do for the frightened reader what the deepest blues music does for the brokenhearted lover. I hope that’s the case.
So for anyone who’s mystified about why a seemingly nice guy would want to write about some of the worst things imaginable, there are a few good reasons. I hope that answers the question.
Aaron Smith can’t stand to go a day without writing. He’s the author of more than twenty-five published stories in genres including mystery, horror, science fiction, and fantasy. He has written stories featuring well-known characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Allan Quatermain. His novels include Gods and Galaxies, Season of Madness, and, most recently, 100,000 Midnights.