Why do I like to write horror stories?

What does the future hold?

Next Friday, my second posting will be entitled To “e,” or Not To “e”, a discussion/justification of whether or not I should feel guilty about publishing my book for e-readers.  Will be posted by Friday, June 24th.

But without further ado…

 If you’ll notice, there are really three questions in the title to this introductory post, cleverly pieced together to hopefully gather your attention while hopefully not sounding too pompous and self-absorbed (as in my first idea for a title, “Why do I write?”).  If you didn’t notice, don’t worry, because I’m about to break them down.  Oh, and if this is the first time you’ve read one of my postings, you might want to plan for a few minutes.  In Word, this entry runs a little over three pages, single space.  But again, hopefully I’ve gathered your attention.

At this very early stage of my new blog, most of you are visiting as a result of a mild form of coercion and shameless self-promotion on my part.  Because of this fact, many of you have already heard the answer to one of these questions.  As a horror writer, why do I write the things I do?  And perhaps more importantly, should you be worried if you ran into me in a dark alley by yourself?  Without anything to protect yourself.  Far away from anyone who might help you.  Or at least… far enough.

Ever notice how many of Stephen King's characters are writers?

See?  Why does that sort of thing come out of my head?  Most of you know me as a pretty mellow, mostly gentle, and usually kind individual.  I’d like to say my affinity for the dark side came from watching the old “B” horror movies as a kid, then reading Stephen King and company through high school and well into college, but truth be told, maybe there’s something deeper, something I was born with.

Many of you have also heard about my imaginary childhood friend.

While most kids have imaginary animals, or other invisible friends, my imaginary friend when I was three to four years old, living in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York was The Little Man Outside with a Flashlight.  Although I don’t imagine that I’ll ever create anything as screwed up as Eraserhead, this is the type of friend I would imagine David Lynch had as a child.  And apparently I used my imaginary friend to scare the bejeezus out of a babysitter one very dark night.  So has it been there all along?

I know this is “chicken or egg” sort of stuff, but these days as an adult, I’m the type who knows the horror movies are fake but still gets a little scared.  And a little more likely to lock the doors.  I’m mildly superstitious.  And when the seemingly bi-annual predictions for Doomsday come and go, even though I feel mostly confident I will live to see the Day After Tomorrow (see what I did there?), I’m the type who is never quite comfortable until these expiration dates are passed.  I had a pretty minimalist religious upbringing, but I believe that even just a limited exposure to the Bible instills a fear that it’s all got to end sometime.  And growing up on the tail-end of the Cold War, I vividly remember the fear that seemed so prevalent in this country of death from a nuclear holocaust.  And I will always remember the bomb drills we did in elementary school.

So I’m guessing that as a result of some part of all the above, I write the types of stories that I do.  And when I don’t, when I take a break that starts to last too long, as oft they do, my nightmares will run me ragged, keep me awake and make me fear going to sleep.  Or even make me afraid to be awake.

I will never forget those two nights in a row when I lay awake in the middle of the night convinced that my whole life was fabricated by someone/something otherworldly.  I believed that nothing about my life was actually real, and I knew that I couldn’t wake up my wife to comfort me because she didn’t really exist either; she was implanted into my life by “Them,” and her trying to comfort me, convince me I had just been dreaming, was exactly what a masquerading wife would do.

The second night of this occurrence was a little easier (even though going to sleep that night had been a bit of a nervous proposition), but that first night it happened, I lay nearly paralyzed in fear and confusion for at least fifteen minutes before forcing myself to sleep, knowing that there was nothing I could do about it, hoping that I actually did exist and this was just some exhausted delusion.

I have to admit that there’s still an undeniable little part of me that wonders.

So you see, writing these stories isn’t really a choice.

But beyond that is something bigger.  And it addresses the second, more pretentious part of this title, “Why do I write?”  Well, for me, beyond the enjoyment of creating a story, I write in an attempt to answer one of the great questions of humanity.  How does the mind of another work?  Most of my life I have wondered this.  Whether it was in my teenage years, wondering if other kids had the crazy thoughts I had, or as an adult, wondering why some people find my thoughts so crazy.  There are multiple examples of film and literature reflecting this basic curiosity, with most of them telling us that it would be folly to be able to read the thoughts of another and that the insight we might gain into the human condition isn’t worth the tradeoff of all the other things we might learn about people.  Yet it is still an alluring mystery to me.  Because we can never really know what is going on in the mind of someone else.  Even when someone tells us exactly how they feel, even during those rare moments when we allow ourselves to be truly honest with one another, we paint over their words with our own perceptions, memories, associations, etc…  We are not getting an accurate representation, and as a result, we never get a true understanding.

I believe that to create a story, or more specifically a fictional character, is an attempt to understand how other people think.  In a way, it’s like being a god.  Without going on too much of a tangent, I’ve entertained the idea that maybe when we die, we are reborn into the life of someone completely different than us, someone totally unfamiliar.  Someone of a different race or religion or lifestyle.  And we keep this cycle up until we get it.  All of it.  And when we have lived all of these lives and can have empathy for all types of people throughout history, then we are as God is.

And I may need more than one go at this life to understand people who trick out their low-rider, Tokyo drift, matchbox-looking cars and go racing past me on a small town main street with a muffler that sounds like a lawnmower on a bunch of cocaine.

Or people like Jim Jones.  Or the people who followed him, right up to the point of drinking the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid after giving it to their own children.

Or soldiers in combat, whether they enlisted or were drafted.

Or women.  I’m not sure how many lives I’ll need for that one.  I’ve often told my students that if they really want to test their writing prowess, try writing a character of the opposite sex.

[Footnote:  This is an easier task for women writers, I believe.  Men are pretty transparent.]

In fact, the more disparate from me, the better.  Some of my favorite characters have only been cameo appearances, but they are my favorite because I felt like I connected with them outside of myself.  While in reality, all of my characters have a bit of me in them, I really enjoy when I write a believable character whose only link to me is through their creation.  Their actions are dictated by who they are, not by me.  And sometimes, they will even rally against their creator.

Which segues nicely into my last point, the last question.  Why do I like to write?  As I mentioned, it’s not really a choice, but the truth of it that I love to write.  And in this one is some mysticism.  Stephen King once likened writing fiction to archaeology.  For him, he felt less like he was creating a story than unearthing an artifact.  I’ve always liked this idea.  As a student of Joseph Campbell’s Journey of the Hero (and subsequent adaptations for modern audiences), I am a firm believer in an undercurrent that makes itself apparent in the shared stories of all of humanity, seen as far back as the pictures in stone and cave walls.  A collective unconsciousness.  Patterns that replay themselves in our lives and decisions, from the mundane to the magnificent.  I could talk about this for hours (and probably have already bored many friends by doing exactly that), but I’ll make the connection here.  When I hear King talk about unearthing these stories, something about that strikes a chord with me because I’ve experienced moments where I realized I wasn’t in control of my characters anymore, moments when they rallied against their creator.

I’ve heard writers debate whether or not this phenomenon actually exists, but as a writer of the supernatural, I have to take the side in support of one of my favorite things about writing fiction.  This to me is what I could only guess to be like the runner’s “high,” a moment as close to Zen as a horror writer is allowed to get.  It’s that moment when one of my characters says or does something completely unexpected.  Often it is completely against what I had intended, and sometimes it is so huge that it completely changes the direction of the story.  It is as if they have their own free will.  As if they might actually exist in another plane or dimension or time.  Or simply as if the author has breathed enough life into them to allow them to sustain themselves, connect them with that current and let them sink or swim on their own.

Whatever it is, when it happens, it feels like a glimpse into the pattern, like I’ve tapped into something deeper, beyond our surface understanding of reality.  And I’m often left wondering who is telling the story for whom.

I don’t really know any of the answers to Life’s Big Questions.  But I love to keep asking them, and I guess my way of doing that is through story, to create varying characters of different personalities and throw those same questions at them.  Toss them into the current with the rest of us.  And of course, as a horror writer, those waters run deep.  And the light can’t penetrate through all the depths.  And there is darkness down there.

So that’s my story.  More than you wanted to know?  TMI, as the kids say?

What do I want from you?

 So what about you?  For the readers among you, are you just here to support me, or are you a horror fan?  Why?  Maybe another genre?  How about any of you authors out there?  What is one of your favorite things about writing?

And don’t forget to tune back in next Friday for To “e,” or Not To “e”

20 thoughts on “Why do I like to write horror stories?

  1. Paul, I LOVE that you are writing good stuff I can read here on your blog (ie: not horror) because I’ve been trying to figure out how to reconcile my excitement over your spectacular idea of jumping into an ebook format (Go!!) with the fact that I just. can’t. do. horror. Death in real life, no problem – I can find the beauty. Horror fiction, however, would keep me up for days.

    Those were awesome words about why you write. (I think your imaginary friend Man With a Flashlight would have scared the pants off of my imaginary friend Kobi the Bear.) Regarding the nights you laid awake convinced this life wasn’t quite real and was designed somewhere else, and your ideas about reincarnation and lessons, well this is one of my favorite topics:

    I don’t think we ever talked about that whole near-death-experience-thingy when I was crushed under a car at 22? You can probably see its results in my life but I’ve only in the last few years started putting it into words. But one of the major points to come out of it was this: we choose this life’s lessons, flaws, traits, drives… ahead of time (Not Paul You but wise “God” You) for the lessons it would bring, one of many, many, many countless lives in our string of lessons . THIS life is the one that is a dream. And when we die we really do just wake up into a consciousness vastly expanded, into deeply familiar unity. The veil lifts. I felt like I was shedding this life like clothes stripped off and left crumpled on the floor, eagerly experiencing everything around me (IN me? OF me? Wait… there WAS no Me.) and not feeling particularly attached to what was left behind until it was time to turn my attention to it in the great review (that people end up calling heaven and hell, but it’s just an omniscient review).
    That’s how I experienced it all, anyway. Next time you’re laying awake pondering, go ahead and take it seriously because I think you’re onto something!

    Also, I love the photo header at the top of your blog. I think I’ve been there! That’s a cathedral basement in Lima, Peru. It’s the prettiest yellow color and you’d never know what awaits in the basement! Although maybe the basic human drive to arrange skulls and femurs in a pretty pattern (?) is indulged in other world locations too…

    Come visit us in Mexico any time. We’re caretaking an off-grid strawbale shack in the desert on the Sea of Cortez near a friendly fishing town and your beautiful family is all very, very, welcome – we’ll be there again this winter so come see us!!
    Love to all – Cami

    1. Cami, I just wrote a somewhat lengthy response to your wonderful comments, and wouldn’t you know it, it disappeared when I tried to post the response. Arrggg. That makes me crazy. Anyway, the gist of it was that I really appreciate your comments, going much more into the depths of this topic than I anticipated anyone would. I also talked about a similar experience that I had when I was in an accident when I was 17. Not nearly as severe as yours (which I remember you talking about, but not as in depth as your comments here), but in which, in the seconds following the impact of the truck broadsiding my car (which seemed to stretch into an eternity… almost literally), I convinced myself that I had died. And it was so easy. And there was no fear. Your comments about the “shedding this life” reminded me of this moment when I simply accepted that my “life” was over and I went on to wonder how everyone else in my car had fared.

      Obviously I didn’t actually die (not even a near-death experience), but in my MIND, I have already died, and I’ve told people that since that day, while I don’t want to die, I’m not afraid of it anymore.

      Anyway, thanks again. So great to hear from you, and I look forward to continuing this conversation in person someday. Maybe down there with you guys in Mexico. Or anywhere else. Our love to you, Trent and the kids.

  2. Carol Collier 07/08/2011 — 7:52 am

    Several years ago (many) we shared a thriller writing class with Bob Mayer at the Maui Writers Retreat. On the flight back to the mainland you outlined a quick horror story about a librarian (mousy, middle-aged woman, hair-in-a-bun-with-eyeglasses- type). You passed it to my seatmate (middle aged, glasses, psychologist). By the time we landed she had worked herself into a paranoid state, certain that you based the character on her. If you can create that kind of fear with a simple story outline, I’d say you have found your niche. My own stories teeter on the edge of full-blown horror, but I’m a sucker for happy endings. I continue to peddle my new voodoo novel, Bokor, to agents. If I don’t land one soon, the e-book is a great alternative. Congratulations to you for publishing and for creating such an interesting blog. See you at another conference someday–maybe one for horror writers. Good luck. Carol Collier

    1. Carol, awesome story about our trip back from Maui. I remember flying back with you, but I can’t remember the story idea. Damn! Wish I could. Hope all is well. Good to hear from you. If I recall, didn’t the novel you were workshopping at Maui have voodoo as well? Best of luck with the agents. I’m still on the search, myself, but I figured (perhaps erroneously) that trying to generate some sales would help my pitch. If you decide to go the e-book route and want to post a excerpt to generate some buzz on my blog, let me know.

  3. Valerie Noel Ciardi 07/15/2011 — 10:46 pm

    I just finished your excellant ebook The Imaginings . Thank you for the FANTASTIC read.
    Valerie Noel Ciardi

    1. Wow, Valerie. More importantly, thank YOU. I’ll look forward to talking with you in more depth. Any parts that you didn’t like, or that you felt dragged? Hope you and the boys are having a good summer. Can’t believe it’s almost time to go back to school. I’m disappointed that I won’t be teaching Michael next year.

  4. Great stuff… as you might already know, I have written a few blogs on this subject. One about why I write, another about why a nice girl like me reads and writes the kind of smut I do and another about how writing about bisexual sex vampires is writing what I know. Even then, I have never truly covered all the reason’s why I write. I guess I could write a thousand page book on it. Funny, I am just finishing a long novel based on insane research I have done on Jim Jones, cults, war and extremism. I produced it as a play in New York when it was just a story about a dangerous cult but after 9/11, I did more research, more soul searching. I added a whole third part to the story for my novel. I think we are drawn to humanity and just when I think I should be content being a mother and having a lovely day job, I am once again drawn to the nagging curiosity of how and why people do the things they do. Yes it helps to clear things up, about ourselves and about the world. It is also a great cathartic activity. I feel cleansed when I’m done writing and sometimes I do it just go on a little adventure. And sometimes…. well, there’s always more and more reason’s

    1. Lacey, awesome comments. I didn’t actually see all of your posts. I will definitely go back and check them out. Yup, writers are crazy apparently. I’d be very curious to know more about your Jim Jones story. He’s a fascinating individual. I also have a back burner project that involves him… or some likeness thereof. PBS did a great two hour documentary on him (although I’m guessing you’ve already seen it). If you haven’t seen it, it’s totally worth it. I bought it and wrote it off as research. Crazy, but charismatic.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by. Look forward to checking out your other posts.

  5. Obviously directed here by your comment. Yeah, I see the commonalities, all right. Talking about the fears of nuclear war especially touched a nerve with me, and I realize that’s why I still have nightmares of the apocalypse, having been exposed to The Day After when I was seven. My dreams weren’t really safe after that. It’s had a huge influence on my writing, one that I didn’t even acknowledge until now.

    I recognize those night terrors, too – thankfully medication has evened those out a lot. Overall a really great response to the question of why we write, though! I dig it.

    1. Much thanks for taking the time. I vaguely remember The Day After as being one of many that played into these fears. It was a pretty scary time to be a kid (probably an adult, too, although I’m sure more of them suspected that no one was going to start World War III, at least not with nukes).

      I may have to look into that medication. Although as of late, I’ve been working on enough writing stuff to keep my night terrors at bay. Or maybe I’m just too exhausted. Maybe a little of both.

  6. Hi Paul,
    I read your post in The Horror Society and popped over here to read your bl;og entry. Whden I was growing up I didn’t have any imaginary friends. What I had instead where dark monsters lurking in my basement, a theme I revisit in a few of my stories. I also would hide under the covers, because everyone knows that’s the best defense against monsters.

    I wrote a blog on my site about why I write, if you’d care to read it. It was the aesthetic statement for my MFA thesis.


    1. Larry, thanks for stopping by (and committing the time to read this rather lengthy post :)) No imaginary friends? Interesting. Someone just asked me if I thought all horror writers had imaginary friends. Apparently not. Mine obviously wasn’t the typical childhood imaginary friend.

      And yes, the covers are the safest place to be. The impenetrable fabric that is cotton.

      Thanks for leaving the link. I’ll swing by.

  7. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get three e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thanks a lot!

    1. Could you tell me which post you commented on and what name you used? I think I’ll just have to delete the comment, and hopefully that will fix it.

  8. Interesting blog post. People love to read horror story books because of the mood it create. Particularly people afraid to read horror stories but at the same time they are excited to read ebooks that related to ghost.

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