Part Four of a Four-Part Conversation About Horror Fiction With Christopher Conlon, Lisa Morton, Kurt Newton, and Norman Prentiss
For Part One of this discussion, please visit chrisconlon’s blog (at chrisconlon.livejournal.com).
For Part Two, visit Kurt Newton's blog at kurtnewton.wordpress.com.
Part Three is at nprentiss’ blog nprentiss.livejournal.com.
PRENTISS: When I was reading unsolicited stories for Cemetery Dance magazine, one of the most common canned phrases in cover letters was: “I hope you enjoy reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it.” The statement never rang true to me, but I guess it’s a nicer thing to say to an editor than, “I hope this story is as agonizing for you to read as it was for me to write.” When is writing fun for you, and when isn’t it fun?
MORTON: Well, if I was submitting to a humor magazine, I might use that…but for anything in our genre, it does seem somewhat strange. I think I’d opt for neither “fun” nor “agonizing,” but “vivid.” When the writing is going well, it’s an involving, lively experience, with the sort of intensified emotions that I sometimes experience in dreams. Because I enjoy that experience, I suppose I could call it “fun,” but that’s kind of stretching the definition. When it’s not going well, but the deadline’s there nonetheless…then, yes, it can be agonizing!
CONLON: Lisa hit it pretty well for me. The only time I might find writing agonizing is if I’m having to do something I don’t want to do, or feel no enthusiasm for. That rarely happens—maybe only in a book review or something, if I find myself more or less indifferent to what I’m reviewing. But in terms of fiction and poetry, I’m not one of those writers who finds the process painful, as William Styron always said that he did. Now, my stories, even when they’re not exactly “horror,” are often very dark in theme, sometimes autobiographical, and people will ask me if I found writing a particular piece painful. My answer: “Never!” I would never do it if I found it painful. I mean, why would I do that? I’m not a masochist. And yet I find the word “fun” wrong, too—some of the most brainless activities in the world are fun. The writing process can’t really be encompassed in that word. Not for me, at least. Lisa’s “vivid” is pretty good—but I might take it a step further and say “exhilarating.” And it’s often the darkest, most godawful moments in my stories that are the most exhilarating to write. It’s a very emotional experience for me, writing. Flaubert always claimed that he wrote in a mood of totally objective detachment, but I’ve never believed him. I suspect that he was roiled with emotion when he wrote about Emma Bovary. Now, revision — that’s something else again. One should be as objective and detached as possible when revising, yes.
NEWTON: Early on I used to dredge up so much painful emotion I did reach a point where I dreaded the process. Then I made a conscious decision that if I were to continue writing, I needed to “get happy.” Now “happy” to me meant to work outside myself and not relate everything on paper to my own personal woes. Doing this not only improved my attitude toward writing, it improved my writing. It took the pressure off by giving me the freedom to explore pretty much any type of character living any kind of life. For example, I recently wrote and sold a 6000-word story to Space and Time called “Nikola Tesla and the Resonating Frequency Transmitter,” which was probably the most fun I’ve had writing a story. So much so, I now have several Tesla stories in the works. So if there’s a lesson to be had in all this: horror can be a really dark and gloomy place to visit, you just don’t want to live there.
So let me throw this back to you, Norman. When is it fun for you, and when is it not?
PRENTISS: Although deadlines are effective motivators, I have to agree that they can suck the enjoyment out of any writing job (and self-imposed deadlines can often be worse than those imposed from outside).
I’ve had many good moments while writing—for example, when I hit on an image or phrasing that satisfies me, or when I get “into the zone” and the writing flows especially well for an hour or sometimes longer. For the most part, though, the idea of fun runs counter to my experience that writing is hard work—both the act of writing itself, and the struggle to make that writing time available. When I read stories with puns in the title (another pet peeve of mine), or with bursts of humor that don’t fit the tone of the surrounding horror elements, then I think “This writer is having too much fun.” It’s not the writer’s job to have fun, and it’s certainly not true that any fun the writer has would transmit magically to readers.
I’ll fall back on “satisfying” as the best term for my happier writing moments. I know that word sounds pretty bland, but when I feel good about something I’ve written, know it is something I’ll be proud to put my name on and can imagine people wanting to read it—well, that’s a pretty intensely satisfying experience.
MORTON: One of the questions I’ve occasionally wrestled with as both a writer and as a thematic element in some of my stories is that of the writer’s responsibility. As horror writers, we’re obviously hoping to disturb our readers…but what if we do more than disturb? What if we inspire nightmares, or—God forbid—even crimes? Are we prepared to accept part of that responsibility?
CONLON: I suspect some of us might be secretly pleased by that result, at least if the crimes in question didn’t rise above the level of misdemeanors. But I really don’t think that prose fiction inspires anyone to do anything in this age of TV and movies and the Internet, and if it does, well, so be it. My own stories are about people seeking emotional connection and love. My conscience is clear. I don’t know how writers who traffic in the gamier and more splattery sides of horror might feel about it.
NEWTON: As one who has found himself elbow-deep in the gorier aspects of horror, I think the only responsibility, for any writer, is to tell a good story. The struggle isn’t about the subject matter - even the most disturbing, unsettling taboo subjects are fair game - it’s about how that subject matter is handled. That being said, I think that operating under the title of “horror writer” doesn’t give us free license to offend, degrade, demean, or provoke at will, either. You have to know your audience and be able to recognize when too much is too much. Offend the reader and they won’t be back.
PRENTISS: I think most people, whether they’re horror writers or not, spend a lot of time coming up with disturbing or offensive thoughts. We all make choices about what we say aloud, or what we write down, but I believe those dark thoughts are in all of us to some extent. Which is a way of saying that I don’t think my fiction would turn people into monsters or raving lunatics—unless they had those tendencies already. However, I’m perfectly happy with inspiring nightmares now and then, and love hearing from a reader who can’t get a particular image out of his/her head.
Still, I think any writer should be careful about what he or she says. I’m a high school teacher, so I’m not planning to write torture porn anytime soon (or if I did, I’d write it under a pseudonym). Same thing with interviews and blogs and message board postings. Lisa, I laughed out loud at the “f*** the s*****” label you came up with to describe some extreme horror scenarios, but I’m not spelling it out where it could show up next to my name after a Google search.
MORTON: I apologize for possibly linking you to that F.T.S. thing, Norman—and, to answer my own question, I take full responsibility!
On a more serious note…I’ve always been interested in those stories of troubled—or even murderous—people (often young people) who are found in possession of favorite horror books. How would I feel if some kid on a killing rampage, for example, ended up being found with one of my stories, with passages underlined for instructional purposes? As much as I could say the kid was already psychotic and delusional, I’d still wonder if I’d been indirectly responsible for that kid’s actions. On the other hand, maybe we don’t hear about all the times that some kid turned to a book instead of a gun, so I have to believe it more than balances out.
CONLON: Well, as we wind down here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that, while all four of us have various things in common—some common anthology appearances, books from the same publishers, etc.—I have a manuscript before me right now called A Sea of Alone: Poems For Alfred Hitchcock, due to be published this fall by Dark Scribe Press. It appears to have been edited by none other than myself, and the Table of Contents informs me that this book has contributions by Kurt Newton, Norman Prentiss, and Lisa Morton, among others. Kurt, you’ve got an extensive background in poetry, including two Rhysling nominations. What role does poetry play in your life—the reading of it, the writing of it?
NEWTON: Wow. I happen to be working on a new collection right now for Naked Snake Press—my eighth collection and my first in over five years! So, why did I return to the shortest of short forms after swearing off poetry as a waste of time and energy, to put that time and energy into longer works of fiction instead? Not for the money (although poetry does pay a relatively high hourly rate). Not for the recognition (our niche is so small virtually no one except fellow poets know we even write poetry). Not for the girls (okay, maybe whispering sweet nothings does have its attraction). It’s got to be because I cannot NOT write poetry. It’s a disease. A sickness. A virus in my blood in the shape of words. Those little scenarios that form in my brain like miniature perfect storms just have to come out, or else they’ll continue to spin and swirl and make my life miserable.
I like the rhythm of it, the challenge of creating and capturing an effective thought or feeling or vignette in so little space. It’s the HMS Victory in a bottle. It’s the Lord’s Prayer written on the head of a pin. What others see as a simple recreational exercise, I see as an enriching experience.
The poetry is usually the first thing I read when I receive a new magazine. I’m always surprised by what other poets are doing with the form. The reading of it energizes me and, as if in response, seems to spur on those miniature storms that take hold in my brain.
So what was I doing during that five year hiatus? Writing poetry. Sneaking away to have late night rendezvous with pencil and paper while my novel-in-progress slept blissfully unaware. I was bad, I know it now. But I can’t help myself. I’m a poet.
CONLON: Norman, I know that you have a background in Thomas Hardy, but I’m not sure how much poetry you’ve written yourself. Do you write a lot of verse? And what possessed you to write about Hitchcock?
PRENTISS: I used to write poetry quite frequently, and now dabble. After my graduate work with Hardy, I attended the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and earned an M.A. in poetry writing. My thesis was titled Wishing You Ill (and Other Mean Poems) — so you might guess that a good bit of the poems had a dark edge. I’ve added to the collection and tinkered with it over the years, and I’d like to publish it as a book someday…
As for Hitchcock, that collection seemed a natural fit for me. Love his movies, always want an opportunity to exercise the poetry portion of my brain. It gets my work in front of a different audience, but the other nice thing about A Sea of Alone is that it will appeal to horror and Hitchcock fans alike, even those who don’t read poetry regularly.
CONLON: Am I right, Lisa, in thinking that your piece in A Sea of Alone will be your first published poem? What possessed you to try this new form? And will there be more Morton poems in the future?
MORTON: Yes indeed, my first published poem. Hmmm…what possessed me to try this…well, I’ve always been kind of intimidated by poetry, quite honestly, but I’d had the experience with my dad in Bodega Bay when we’d talked about The Birds, and I thought it was something that could lend itself to poetry and fit the Hitchcock theme, so I decided to try it (and I had an extraordinarily patient and forgiving editor!). And now that I’ve realized it’s not something that’s just impossibly out of my reach, I absolutely would like to try more.
CONLON: Well, okay. It would seem that we’ve gone about as far as we can go on all this right now. Our stomachs are empty and our throats are dry. Beyond my thanking you all for your sterling participation in this discussion, does anybody have any idea how to end this thing? A song? A dance? A dirty limerick? Or shall I just shut out the lights and cue the sound of crickets?
MORTON: I’ve already potentially embarrassed Norman and I feel bad, so I’m going to refrain from the dirty limerick! Cue exit music…and thank you, Chris, for a great idea and for letting me take part in what’s been a fascinating experience!
PRENTISS (still blushing, apparently): Really enjoyed the conversation, and think it proves that if you put four horror writers in the same virtual room, they’ll disagree on just about everything. Seriously, though, I think the point is that horror is a big field, able to accommodate a variety of tastes and approaches. If readers don’t care for one type of horror, that’s no excuse to avoid the whole genre: there’s plenty more out there. For those who don’t believe me, try reading Lisa Morton’s fresh take on apocalyptic fiction, The Lucid Dreaming; or Kurt Newton’s amazing and heartbreaking novella Black Butterflies; or read Christopher Conlon’s fantastic noir/literary thriller Midnight on Mourn Street, or enjoy the great stories he edited in He is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson.
CONLON: Or try Invisible Fences, a wonderful novella by Norman Prentiss.
NEWTON: There once was a poet named Chris, / Who tried to get three horror writers to tell him what gives? / One blew nasty kisses, / While two told him to mind his own business, / Now Chris listens to crickets and that’s it!
CONLON: Jesus! Cue the damned crickets and let’s get out of here!