Weekly Musing: What Scares Me

As Halloween is coming up in just a couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking lately about what is the scariest thing I’ve ever read. I admit I don’t really read a lot of horror. I’ve never been the type of person who was into horror movies or scary stories. Not because I’m squeamish of the blood and gore, just because a lot of that stuff doesn’t really scare me. If anything I’m more apt to laugh at the ridiculousness. I’ve also never found many of the monsters in literature and movies to be scary. Probably because I know vampires, zombies, and werewolves aren’t real.

Yet this doesn’t mean I’m never been scared while reading something. Legitimate proper scared and not scared because the writing was bad or the story was terrible. The kind of fear which makes sleeping a bit more difficult for the next night or two.

Surprisingly the two of the scariest things have come from the Harry Potter series. No, it’s not Voldemort; he doesn’t scare me as I’m told upfront he’s the bad guy. Nor is it Professor Snape although there are times he bordered on creepy; again, though, that’s part of who he is. Plus the twist in the last book made me reexamine everything about him.

No, the two things from the series which sort of terrify me are Professor Umbridge and the Dementors. Professor Umbridge because she’s a dichotomy as she dresses all in pink, likes cats and chocolate cake, is mousy-looking, and has an office is plastered with all matters of cutesy things yet she’s the scariest teacher at Hogwarts. You wouldn’t expect someone who is about the age of a grandmother to be so evil, but she is.

Her extreme hatred for Harry makes no sense. Professor Umbridge is on a power trip and in league with Voldemort and uses the Dementors. She constantly abuses him and other students by carving into the back of his hands all kinds of horrible reminders. No amount of magic or actual medicine can erase it. She’s like the teacher from hell and you question why she teaches children if she can’t seem to stand them.

The Dementors are terrifying because at first they appear just to be your average ghost demons. But they are far more chilling and horrible. They suck out your soul, steal your happiness and intelligence, and leave behind a shell of a person. That scares the crap out of me as they are the floating embodiment of what depression feels like. These things leave you a mess, forcing you to relive the worse parts of life. No wonder they originally guarded the wizard prison and sided with Voldemort.

The Dementors are more terrifying than any other creature in the series. Not because they are difficult to defeat, but because they are scary to look at which can paralyze a person with fear. By the time you realize what they are and what they want, it makes it difficult to get away from them. Now they’ve got you and start working on taking away all which makes a person happy.

As far as an individual book or books that have scared me, this is a bit of a struggle for me. Last year I read a collection of short stories called Dark Hall Press Techno-Horror Anthology which surprised me how many of the stories got to me. I didn’t quite know what to expect when I picked this anthology up. I saw Techno-Horror and thought it would be about crazed cyborgs or computers that come to life and try to kill humans like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But, no, these were a collection of stories that were far, far more down to earth and subtle in their approach. Nothing is gruesome or bloody. Yes, there are some stories where the technology ‘turns’ on its owners but many of the stories are philosophical in that they point out how dependent upon we are on technology. If we allow it, or even if we don’t, technology can be master and we its slave.

Another book would be Needful Things by Stephen King. It’s Stephen King so one would expect to be scared by at least one of his books. Admittedly I have not read a lot of his stuff, but Needful Things stayed with me because the premise of the book is a creepy store owner rolls into town and sells people something that would bring them a lot of joy. These are small things, like a baseball card or a record, which happen to just show up in the store at the just the right time. The store owner doesn’t ask for money for the items instead asks the patron to commit a small prank on a neighbor. These ‘pranks’ explode into a small town full of violence.

The store owner is a master of manipulation and is clearly meant to represent the Devil. But that’s not what gets to me. What gets to me is how a small moment of happiness in our life can come at a larger price. It’s hard not to think twice about if buying that favorite book might set off a chain of unpleasant events.

I guess when it comes to what scares me as a reader I would say stories that are more psychological and rooted in reality. Characters who are not what they appear to be also scare me. Mental anguish within a character or something that causes anguish to a character terrifies me.

Perhaps one of the things the horror genre can explore other genres can’t is the idea of the hidden monster and scariness within us all. That dark side we don’t want to admit exists. Or the dark side we wish we could let lose once in a while.


Weekly Musing: Don’t Feed the Gremlins

Gremlins. Demons. Inner critic. Trolls. Whatever you call it all writers suffer from some sort of self-doubt. That annoying, nagging voice that does nothing but kill productivity and attempts to murder creativity. I refer to mine as gremlins and I like to think of them as resembling what happens to Gizmo if you feed him after midnight or get him wet. Yeah, that’s what sits on my shoulders whispering acid into my ears and scratches at my legs and arms. I hate those things and wish I had a flamethrower to incinerate them. Yet if I did get rid of them, they’d come back like a sequel.

They come to me at all stages of writing and on days I’m struggling with finding just the right words. I’ve had them pop up as I do research. They love that stage. Jumping around questioning me about the time period, is that where I really want a character to be from, look like, and dress. They pop up during just brainstorming. Their favorite phrases are “Um, that’s your idea? That’s crap! No one wants to read that!” As I start a rough draft, they dance around second guessing word choices, the story itself (again), dialogue, and did I mention the story?

But that’s just the beginning. There have been many, many days when I have been editing my work, the time you need your inner critic, when the gremlins start becoming destructive. Their words go beyond constructive criticisms to berating my abilities and dreams. These are the most frustrating and upsetting times for me as a writer. If I can’t figure out how to contain the gremlins, things can quickly spiral downhill.

So what do I do with deal with these bastards? The first thing I try is to refer to my list of 13 Commandments. It used to be 10 then became 12 and recently ballooned to 13. I need a lot of self-reassurance. These help remind me that what I am experiencing is temporary and will go away.

If that doesn’t work, then I turn to my spouse and vent to him. Since he’s not a writer, he doesn’t quite understand why I go through these phases and as frequently as I do but he does his best to be supportive through listening. Unfortunately I can’t ever promise him this will be the last time.

And sometimes the best thing for me is to just let the gremlins come and do their thing until they tire themselves out. I don’t mean to suggest I actually listen to them. What I mean is I allow them to talk but instead of fighting back, wasting all my mental energy, they are given time before (hopefully) slinking away.

Yet even though I know all writers suffer from gremlins, demons, whatever, I still think I can somehow prevent their appearance. I’ve always had a philosophy of learn from other people’s mistakes. That hasn’t worked with my writing gremlins. I can read articles and interviews by fellow writers on how they deal. None of them have ever mentioned how to get rid of them because there is no way to get rid of them. No matter what level of personal success a writer enjoys, the gremlins are never satisfied so don’t feed them and don’t encourage their greedy appetite.


Weekly Musing: I Have Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself, Maybe

Personally, I have a lot of fears and anxieties. Some of which I’ve been able to overcome the past few years as I get older while others I know I will never outgrow. I don’t see that as a bad or good thing. We all have fears and anxieties. It’s how we choose to cope or overcome them that matters.

But this isn’t one of those personal philosophical postings, rather I would like to discuss my professional fears and anxieties. Not so much ‘will I get published?’, ‘when will I get published?’, ‘will people like my work?’, etc. I do feel anxiety about my abilities. All writers and artists do, it’s why we can become quite nutty, but I know I can study how to improve, get advice from fellow writers, listen to the feedback from the writers group I’m in.

There are certain subjects, topics, and types of writing that frighten me: violence, in particular rape, sex scenes, fan fiction (I feel massively childish by wanting to express my dorkiness), unsympathetic characters, abuse in any form, and anything resembling experiences I’ve gone through in real life.

As a reader, I get squeamish at times reading certain scenes or reading experiences of a particular horrible character. If I can, I try to skim these passages even though I know these scenes are part of story and character development. Emotionally, it can be too much to take. Oddly enough, I don’t mind gory horror I guess because I know zombies aren’t real, vampires don’t exist, and there are no such things as werewolves.

But as a writer, I should be paying attention to those uncomfortable scenes. I should be studying the mechanics of the scene. I need to learn to step back from the scene emotionally as a reader, and don the intellectual cap. Does it go too far to make its point? Or does it not go far enough? Is this being done purely for shock value?

There is also the inevitable fear at the back of my head of ‘What will my family and friends think if I write this?’ That is harmful and stifles creativity. Not everybody is going to like my work and that includes family and friends. We each have our own personal tastes. I am merely the tool for the stories and characters in my head. Yes, I do create the stories and characters, to some degree, but even though I may plan out the story, once I sit down to write, the characters are the ones in control. They take turns into areas I hadn’t thought about, do things I don’t want them to do, and yes, some of those are some bad things. When I have tried to reign in some of the bad things, I’ve noticed that just creates a huge impasse. It’s when I start struggling. It’s when the writing feels like it is losing authenticity. And at the end of the day, the story needs to be authentic.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing , mentions receiving an angry letter from a reader accusing him of hating animals. In one of his books, a character kicks a dog to death. The scene was meant to show how brutal the character was, his disregard for life. It was part of character development. It wasn’t inserted in for shock value. He responded by noting he does not dislike animals nor does he advocate animal abuse. The character’s actions were not a reflection of his personal values.

It is incredibly easy as a reader, and I still do it this day, to believe that whatever a writer composes, it is an accurate and true reflection of the writer as a PERSON. I wonder if this is because writers are very often inspired by real-life events either in their own lives, the lives of those around them, or what they read/see. The lines are blurred even more with creative non-fiction which, by its very definition, is true life but with creative twists.

Writing, like all forms of art, can be a very cathartic release but it is important to keep in mind no matter how much a story could be based in the reality, it is NOT the writer’s own personal values on the page. We read stories to follow the paths characters take. We read stories to immerse ourselves in a different world, a different time. We read stories for entertainment. We read stories to reflect on our own moral compass.

In my opinion, the best stories I’ve read are rooted in realism. The characters say and do things I personally would never do but is the truth for the character. I can become sympathetic to a serial killer who murders because he was terribly abused in childhood. I can also become unsympathetic to a passive, mousy character who never stands up for themselves.

So as a writer, I need to work on emotionally allowing myself to push my creativity outside my comfort zone. Like everything else with writing, it is a long, never ending process full of successes and failures.