WHY DO I WRITE HORROR?
Written by R. Patrick Gates
The question, "Why do you write horror?" is one that I've been asked a few times, with the first time being from my mom. She wanted to know why I had to write such scary, depressing, dark stories instead of light and happy ones. When she asked me that question thirty years ago, I was just starting my writing career, and I didn't really have a great answer for her. All I could say was, "It's what I like." Over the years, however, I've had a chance to really consider the question – partly because I've been asked it so many times – and I've come to some realizations and conclusions.
I think the first and most obvious answer to the question why I write horror has to be, "Why not?" It's the smart ass answer but it's also valid. I've never looked down on genre fiction like horror, romance, science fiction, westerns, or mysteries. I think the majority of people think of genre or 'pulp' fiction as something less than "Literature." I have never had that bias. I think this has been partly due to the fact that I was greatly influenced by one of the greatest literary geniuses to ever have lived: Edgar Allan Poe. He invented the mystery story and the modern horror story, and a collection of his works was the first book I ever owned.
So, beyond the smart ass answer of, "Why not?" I have come to understand my motivations and inspirations for writing horror. As I said, the first book I ever owned was the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe, given to me by my sister, Mary, when I was five. She was ten years older than I, and was like a second mother. She taught me to read when I was only three years old, giving me a great advantage when I started school. I believe she picked up the volume of Poe's collected works at a secondhand bookstore, because it looked used (and looks even more so now). Since my fifth year, when she gave me the book for my birthday, I have read and reread that tome countless times. The first dozen or so times that I devoured the stories in that book, I remember barely being able to understand the language and vocabulary he used, but I was so impressed and influenced by his style and the mood and atmosphere. I remember reading, The Pit and the Pendulum and being scared to death by the atmosphere created without really understanding what was going on – the bigger picture of the story. The way Poe used language – repetition, vocabulary and sentence structure – greatly influenced my writing. I would not be inspired by another horror writer until Stephen King came along and provided the last bit of inspiration to get me seriously writing horror. I was reading his novel, The Shining, and I remember thinking, 'I can do this.' Reading him felt as if I was reading something I could have written. Of course, every writer I've ever read has been some kind of influence. Also, every movie and TV show has been an influence: Frankenstein and Dracula and the other monster movies of the '30s and '40s and '50s; the great sci-fi movies of the '50s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers; modern horror films like the Alien movies and Night of the Living Dead; TV shows like The Twilight Zone, The Night Gallery, The Night Stalker, and The Outer Limits.f Besides Poe, my favorite authors have been Herman Hesse, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, and Kurt Vonnegut, just to mention a few. They have all influenced me.
Even more so than books, movies, TV shows, and writers, the biggest influence on my writing horror came from the person who originally wanted to know why I wrote it – my mother. Rose Marie Lauricella was an incredibly intelligent woman who had the unfortunate luck to have been born in a time when women were not valued or given the same chances as men. I think if she were born in my generation or one later she would've done amazing things. The first and foremost thing I remember about my mother is that she was spooky. She was psychic and not shy about it. From a very early age I heard supernatural related stories from my mother – real, true stories. For example, when she was thirteen, she had her thyroid removed. She used to tell us how she died during the operation and went to Heaven where she met her mother and her grandmother, both of whom had died too young. They told her she had to go back to life so that she could have five children. And that's exactly what she did.
When I was six, we moved into a new house that my parents had been able to pick up very cheaply. I think my father thought he had garnered some sort of great deal with his bargaining skills, but soon after moving in we discovered the real reason the house was so cheap – it was haunted. The very first night in the house my mother met the ghost. My father worked the 11 to 7 shift at the time at a warehouse, so my mother was alone with us kids. I don't want to go into the whole story here because I plan to use it in an upcoming book, but suffice it to say that over the course of two or three weeks my mother was visited and scared every single night by the entity haunting our house. My father thought she was dreaming and to prove her wrong, contacted the real estate agent. When he did, he found out that the previous owner had died in the house. It was he that my mother was being visited by each night. Using her strong Catholic faith as a foundation and inspiration, she confronted the spirit one night and exorcised it... well, almost. The spirit stopped wandering through the house at night and scaring my mother, but he confined himself to the bedroom where he had died. Over the years each of us children had a chance to have that particular room as our bedroom and each of us experienced strange things. I, for one, loved to stay up reading late into the night, especially in the summer. Sometimes I would read all night and not realize it until I heard the birds singing at dawn. Once I moved into that room, however, if I stayed up reading later than 2 a.m. the light would shut off. No matter how often I turned it back on it would shut off again. On several occasions as I was in bed trying to go to sleep, I felt someone get in bed next to me and then I could feel the covers rising and falling with regular breathing. Years later, I met the daughter of the man who died there and she told me her family had to move after her dad's death because of him haunting the place. She told me he had died in my old bedroom at exactly two in the morning!
I bought the house and was renting it out to a friend who needed a place to stay while building his own house. His three-year-old son claimed there was a mean man living in the upstairs bedroom, and he was scary, but there was also a nice old lady who kept him from hurting the boy. My mother had died in the house just the year before this incident, so I am certain it was her.
When I was growing up, it was a regular treat to have my mother tell us the ghost story – we always referred to it as, "Ma's Ghost." Especially whenever there was a thunderstorm, or a power failure, we'd light candles and my mother would tell us the story. At one point she got into fortune-telling, using her psychic gifts to read regular playing cards. She was very good at it until one day she told the fortune of a coworker and saw that the woman's husband was going to die from a brain tumor. She debated telling the woman and decided that if the tables were turned she would want to know, so she told the woman. The woman didn't believe her and got angry at my mom for saying it, but within a year her husband died... from a brain tumor. She blamed my mother who got so upset that she gave up fortune-telling and never did it again.
As far as I was concerned, however, the dye had been cast. The supernatural, the psychic – horror if you wish – was a part of my life. In some ways, I think I really never had a choice! Maybe, if my mother had been a romantic, or into science, I might've been a different writer. Her stories were not the only influence she had on me. When I was twelve and in the habit of acting out books I had read, she made a suggestion that would change my life. My little brother and I were sneaking out of the house to go dig for buried treasure and build a raft and sail it down the river ala Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, when she caught us (I think she thought we were the ghost come back). When I told her what we were doing, she suggested that instead of acting out my fantasies, I write them down. And that's what I did from that point on.
It wasn't until I read Stephen King's, The Shining, however, that I made a conscious decision to write horror. There was something about his narrative, the way he tells a story, that reminded me of me, and I thought (what an ego!) that I could do as well as he.
Beyond personal reasons and inspirations for writing horror, I think, especially in light of current events, horror may be the most valid form of literature for modern life, alongside science-fiction. In fact, I think science-fiction and horror have melded to the point where they are almost the same thing. Sci-fi and horror are perfect mirrors to reflect upon modern life and problems. They provide such a vast field of opportunity for the use of analogy, anecdote, irony, metaphor, symbolism-nearly every literary device - to shed light upon what it means to be a human being in the twenty-first century.
For some reason, whatever it is, most people enjoy what I call the 'safe scare.' They like being frightened while knowing that they are really not in any danger. Studies have shown that during times of great stress, civil disorder, and the threat of violent times, (sound familiar?) horror becomes hugely popular. Why? I think it's because it's an outlet; a way of letting out life's stress. Also, horror is, for all its darkness and violence, very life-affirming. Nearly always, good wins out in the end in horror - if only life were that way.
I believe horror is great literature, and – the be-all and end-all bottom line as to why I write it, though you may think me twisted is...it's fun!
R. Patrick Gates has been a teacher and writer for over thirty years. Besides Tunnelvision, which is currently being published in a 25th anniversary edition, he is the author of Grimm Memorials and Grimm Reapings, (which have achieved cult status and been called 'horror classics' by Rave Reviews) and seven other critically acclaimed adult horror novels and at least ten young adult thrillers. Mr. Gates resides in Massachusetts with his wife and dogs, and dabbles in painting and acting in his spare time. You can find him online at his website.
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Tunnelvision (25th Anniversary Edition)
One fine day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys got up to fight.
Back to back they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And came and killed the two dead boys....
The empty airwaves of the mind...
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What happens when you lose sight of the forest for the trees?
Wilbur Clayton has a personal connection with Jesus - Murder! Abused for most of his life, Wilbur and Jesus are out to make amends and take revenge. With Grandma in his head and Jesus on the TunnelVision, Wilbur knows what must be done and who must be made to pay for the sins of the father...
The only thing standing in his way are a cop with a gift for details and deduction, and a young genius whose reenactments of his favorite books are about to become all too real.
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