But then comes the inevitable question: “What do you write?”
I’m a woman. I have long hair. I wear lots of skirts and dresses (because I have a bad back and trousers play hell with it). I’m a mother. I’m a Girl Guide leader of 15 years standing. They’re not expecting me to say: “I write horror and dark fiction.”
Their reaction is often surprised and their response is usually a variant of: “Oh, you look too nice to write horror.”
But that’s the thing: anyone can write horror. Writing horror doesn’t make you a bad person, and it’s not bad people who write horror.
However, that seems to go against popular opinion. I know many of my fantasy, sci-fi, and romance acquaintances happily share their latest publication with their family and friends. When I’ve got a new book coming out, I usually send out an email to family and friends saying: “Hey. I’ve written a book. It’s here, but you probably won’t like it. There’s a lot of blood and death and horror in it.”
I’ve had family members say to me that they can’t understand why I write horror because they think that I’m “too nice to write stuff like that.” But here’s something I’ve learned about the horror industry: the writers of the most terrifying, gory, and obscene books are actually some of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet. When in horror, you really do not judge a person by their books.
Adam Nevill’s books are terrifying and, in some cases, frighteningly plausible. I couldn’t finish Apartment 16 because I read it when pregnant and it made my morning sickness worse. Yet when I had travelled from Leeds to Brighton via one bus, two trains, and while six months pregnant to get to a convention, Adam Nevill was the only person I met on that journey who saw how exhausted and ill I was and offered to help.
Priya Sharma is an up and coming horror writer who gets plaudits wherever she goes. She’s one of the loveliest, chattiest people I’ve ever met, someone who always asks after my mother and my daughter when we meet up. I’d swap muffin recipes with her as much as I’d ask her to brainstorm unpleasant ways to kill off characters.
Jim McLeod is a large, well-built Scotsman who runs the Ginger Nuts of Horror and is one of the people that I have, on occasions, made a bee-line for when I’ve been at a convention and some arse is making unwelcome advances. I feel absolutely safe in his presence.
And those are just three examples I could list out of dozens of lovely people I know in the horror genre.
Horror isn’t written by complete psychopaths but by genuinely nice people. Which, I guess, leads the question of “why do such nice people write horror?”
One of my daughter’s six-year-old friends once asked me why anyone would want to write horror, adding, “I don’t like being scared.”
And I told him that the reason people write horror stories is the same reason that people used to tell fairy tales: as a means to develop and grow within a safe environment. We use tales and horror stories to examine terrible situations that can – and do – occur in life, and by examining them in fiction, we can feel more confident about how to deal with trauma in real life.
In the modern world, we live relatively sheltered lives, but we’re only ever a few steps away from death, disease, and disaster. Before vaccines, there were so many ways in which you could die; today, many diseases have been eradicated, but there’s always the fear that, one day, something will crop up that is fast, deadly, and can’t be vaccinated against. Apocalypse fiction explores this fear and, by journeying with the characters, we can hope that some might survive – and that some of those survivors might be us.
For most of human history, dying relatives have passed away at home. Just because we have hospitals and care homes right now where the terminally ill can be looked after, doesn’t mean we aren’t still frightened of the thought of death in our own houses.
Horror is for those with open minds, who want to be aware of the risks inherent in the world around them. For a comedic take on this, rent out that old classic film Scream and watch how a bunch of teenagers try to enact and survive their own horror scenario. They use horror movies as a blueprint of what to do and not to do in the event of someone trying to kill you.
For a more recent and serious examination of this, read Christina Henry’s The Girl In Red, where the protagonist finds that while her knowledge of horror movies can help her be prepared in a crisis, such knowledge can work against her. She doesn’t take risks that might be crucial because she knows exactly what happens to the solitary girl who goes into that apparently abandoned building...
My writing often focusses on fairy tales, because I feel they, too, are sanitised by modern society. For example, at the end of Snow White, the evil queen is not vanquished by the prince, but turns up at the wedding and is forced to dance in red hot iron shoes until she is dead. And while Little Red Riding Hood might escape from the wolf, it’s through her own cunning and not in the form of a saviour huntsman – and, in some retellings, she ends up eating her own grandmother as part of a stew first.
Our current society might have distanced itself from death and terrible deeds, but it’s still necessary to visit such dark places in our minds. Reading and watching horror teaches us how to survive the worst of humanity and nature, and can ultimately prepare us for whatever life throws in our way. Writing horror isn’t about getting joy from terrifying people; it’s about reminding them of the terrors that society has hidden away. Terrifying the reader is just an added bonus.