Our Panel was really, really smart. That shouldn’t be surprising, after all most of them are current or former teachers and all have been in this business for over a decade, but when Gregory Frost started with Horace Wapole’s “The Castle of Otranto” and Siobhan Carroll countered with The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis and started talking about how Ann Radcliffe claimed her works of “terror” were superior to Lewis’ works of “horror” because terror stimulate readers through imagination and perceived evils, while horror closes them off through fear and physical dangers, I figured out we were probably going to be speaking a little deeper than Kevin Smith’s Cabin in the Woods remake. The best part of the panel was just how much knowledge and different perspective each panelist brought to the conversation. In addition to Greg and Siobhan’s historical approach, we gained Rick Chillot and Dina Leacock’s commentary as long-time writers and editors. Donna Cavanagh, whose Humor Outcasts runs an annual contest called Humor Meets Horror, where horror writers are invited to share their work for a chance to win prizes, had a great view as both a humorist and horror fan.
There was no “Horror” genre before Stephen King (but “genre” doesn’t really matter). As a reader who came of age in the 70s and 80s, I’ve always assumed that the “horror” genre has been around forever. Turns out I was wrong. While horror themes have been part of the literary scene since the time of greek legend, the horror “genre” wasn’t born until after 1974s Carrie, when publishers saw they could make lots of money by lumping them together in the bookstore. (Genre’s in general are really publishers’ constructs, meant for marketing purposes). The creation of the genre, unfortunately nearly killed it, as bookshelves became filled with identical foil-embossed black covers wrapped around identical tinfoil plots.
But genre, by it’s very nature limits art. As Siobhan states, “genre promises the pleasure of the familiar.” We like genres because it helps us put things into comfortable buckets. But horror and humor are really everywhere, from Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation – a novel that “reads as if Verne or Wellsian adventurers exploring a mysterious island had warped through into a Kafkaesque nightmare world” (Kim Stanley Robinson) – the The World According to Garp, which contains a singular scene of unrelenting tension and horror embedded in it’s quirky world.
Why good Horror is so often funny. Some of the humor-horror connection is obvious, whether it be the vampire roommates in What We Do In the Shadows or the outright parody of horror tropes in the Scary Movie series or Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, those movies were made to make you laugh. Horror is best though when the vein of humor runs more subtly. Sometimes that can be found in satire, we touched on the riffs on our rampant consumer culture found in Fido and Dawn of the Dead, but most often it can be found in bleak absurdism. We talked about an Italian anthology called Tale of Tales that featured the tale of “The Flayed Woman.” The gist of the tale, in which an old woman is willing to be flayed believing it will bring her youth and beauty is at once horrific and funny, simply because it’s so ridiculous.
We talked about how the links between humor and horror may be biological. After all, when you find yourself caught in a tale with your pulse rate rising, fight or flight isn’t necessarily an option. Sometimes, all you cant do is laugh uneasily, relieved that the big bad passed you by. Another thought, brought forward by Rick, is that humor and horror both bypass the thinking part of your brain and make you react.
There’s lots of good, new stuff out there. The panel has several recommendations for who to read now. We already touched on Jeff VanderMeer. Paul Tremblay received several shoutouts, both for “A Head Full of Ghosts” as well as “The Cabin at the End of the World.” Nathan Ballingrud was touted for his ‘quiet’ horror filled with creative new monsters. And of course, if you really want to get to know the genre, read the classics…
Other Random Stuff
- No one knows what the next ‘great’ monster will be. Just tell your tale.
- Know the difference between dark humor and light humor, and mix them well in your stories. The darker humor should make your readers laugh a little uneasily!
- Don’t force it the humor nor the horror into your story. The audience will bring it upon themselves to bring both in your tale.
- Revisit those classics. Many great horror tales are adaptations of earlier stories. ‘Salem’s Lot was simply Dracula retold. Play with perspectives and plot elements.
- And finally, think more of the horror effect vs. the genre. You don’t need to fit it into a small box. Write your story and it will ring true!
Lot’s of fun again with a whole lot of smart and talented people. I can’t wait to do it again (and on that note…)
Write What you Know (and even what you don’t)
Saturday, December 1, 2018
1:00 – 3:00
Open Books, Elkins Park, PA