Dreams, Hauntings

( Welcome, Coffin Hoppers! Read about prizes here: The Scream System!)

The Coffin Hop party here at the happy horror writer’s is in full swing. A group of people are bobbing for apples, and the costume contest is about to start. Let me put another log in the chiminea, and then I’ll tell you a story. A scary story. No Halloween party is complete without one, right?


My sister and I have a long, shared history of supernatural experiences. The most recent one happened earlier this year. We had a girl’s night out, just the two of us. When we came back to my place it was later than we intended, and still we stayed up talking. When we finally went to sleep it was after two AM. She took my little Yorkie into her room, and I put my phone on the charger in the kitchen, washed my face, and tumbled into bed.

I fell into a dark dream. In it, I woke up in my bed. Outside the house, there was what sounded like an eighteen-wheeler idling, followed by the terrible clattering, slamming noise. Someone was trying to get into the house! My sister ran into my room. I could see her silhouette in the door way, back lit by the lava lamp in the living room.

“Someone’s trying to get in,” she said.

I woke up then, for real. Loud clattering noises came from the front of the house. My sister appeared in the doorway.

“Someone’s breaking through the window in my room,” she said.

Together we walked across the house to the guest room where my sister was sleeping. We flicked on the overhead light and gasped. My cell phone – which I left on the charger in the kitchen – was scattered across the room! Battery, backing, rest of the phone – all in separate pieces. Worse though, was the window.

The metal blinds were twisted and tangled. It looked like something huge had fought its way through the blinds, bending and twisting every slat in the struggle. It was mangled, but the window behind it was locked, closed, intact.

My sister told me that what what woke her, even before the blinds went all poltergeist, was my little Yorkie.

“He was crying,” she said. “I’ve never  heard anything sound so terrified in my life.

Well, that costume party is starting! Oh, come on! A little ghost story didn’t scare you, did it?

Remember, even if you don’t have a costume, you can still win. Click here to find out how! Don’t forget to leave a comment with the phrase ‘Mother Nature isn’t just a metaphor‘ to win an ebook edition of Stolen Climates!


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All Round the Table, “What is Horror?”

Horror is the implacable reality of death. I once heard the phrase, “All love stories end in death.” I would simplify the statement, shorten it.

All ends in death.

As a genre, horror embraces that truism. It may do it in a nearly slapstick way, overdosing the audience with gore and gross. It may do it in a calculated, bloodless way, and approach the cold reality by gut-wrenching degrees. Horror pays homage to the innate and powerless truth of our existence: all ends in death.

Marie Loughin is chief of  The Emissaries of Strange (TESSpecFic), a speculative fiction group of which I am a member. Marie posed the question: what is the difference between horror and dark fantasy? The Emissaries are taking a round-table discussion approach to answering Marie’s question, each of us posting a response on our own blog on a predetermined day. Today is my day, and I am the fifth member of TESSpecFic to reply.

Marie’s answer is Aristotelian, giving a categorization of elements that must be present for a work to meet her definition of horror. I challenge anyone to come up with a work of horror that does not contain at least one, if not several of her elements. Marie’s elements are:

1)   Creepy atmosphere.

2)   Suspenseful.

3)   Victims experience psychological trauma (i.e. they are aware and helpless).

4)   Inspires fear and/or dread in reader.

Jaye approaches the question from a more Platonic stance. She locates the definition somewhere beyond the bounds of plot or story elements. The ultimate determination of whether or not something is horror, for Jaye, is to be found in the effect it has upon the reader. A work is horror if the reader is left with the question: “How do you live with that?”

Paul takes a Utilitarian approach to answering the question, stating that the purpose of any genre label is to help guide potential readers to a particular type of book. Definitions of “horror” or of “dark fiction” fall to the side, replaced by the  practical question of how to least mislead potential readers. The difficulty is that the definitions the publishing industry uses may not match the definitions that the general public applies; muddy as they are, these are the linguistic waters upon which our marketing terms float – or sink.

Kim chimes in with  characteristic metaphysical flourish, giving a response as Phenomenological as they come. She says the roots of what can be defined as horror are found in the psychological reaction of a person to reading a particular work. Horror is a core emotion, and as such is subjective. Like Jaye, Kim takes the onus of definition and puts it out there, in the reader. However, Kim agrees with Paul that labeling has a purpose, and feels the angst of trying to find the right term to categorize her work.

I argue that to fully define horror, you need to include the work and the audience. A horror story is the sum of its elements plus the effect it has on the reader. Of course, the same could be said of romance, sci-fi, dark fantasy. The difference between genres, then, would seem to be given by the specific, intended effect a collected set of story elements has on the reader.

I don’t mean to say that only the author’s intentions matter; no, the elements that the author arranged will have varying effects on different readers, although the general reaction might be in the same vein. In that sense, I agree with Paul that the labels matter because they help readers winnow their choices. I have a general impression of what I’ll get when I pick up a supernatural thriller, or a gaslight romance, or a steampunk fantasy. Do I think that a particular label, even these compound varieties in vogue of late, give me the full picture of what I will experience within a given book? Of course not. It is a label. It is a guidepost. It is not the substance of the work, it is not the thing-in-itself. I am happy to find that my gaslight romance has a dash of horror, or that my horror has a sprinkling of steampunk. The wonderful thing about art – and life, for that matter – is that labels can’t contain the essence of the thing. When it comes to books, not even the book itself can contain what it truly is. A story, no matter how labeled, does not come into true existence until it has interacted with a reader’s psyche. Only then is it real, and only then can it horrify.

To answer Marie, I would say that horror has the intent of making the reader feel the inevitable approach of death. Dark Fantasy, to me, would have the intent of giving the reader the option to believe there is something beyond death, something beyond the boundaries of our implacable outcome. By my own definitions, I would have to class Marie’s novel, Valknut: The Binding, as Dark Fantasy.

Please visit the other Emissaries for the full round-table discussion  – and don’t forget to mark your calendars to catch Penelope and Jonathan’s upcoming posts!

Marie Loughin: Just what the heck is “Horror,” anyway, and how is it different from Dark Fantasy?

Jaye Manus: What is Horror? The Answer is in the Question

Paul Dail: Potential Perils of the Horror Label… or … The Difficulties of Defining a Genre

Kim Koning: Shivers down my spine…

Jonathan D. Allen: Monday, May 14

Penelope Crowe: Tuesday, May 15

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Why Horror?

To Americans of my generation, nothing says horror like 9-11. My generation has not survived a World War or endured the Great Depression. We were here for 9-11, though, and were shocked, frightened, angered and, yes, horrified.

Everyday we experience varying intensities of horror. There are kidnappings, rapes, evil bosses, impossible loves, untimely death, home devouring wildfires, debilitating ills of both body and mind. Each to their own, all are horrifying. Even if the vast majority of us escape the truly gristly or damaging forms of terror, we are all visited by suffering and we are all going to die. What then is the purpose of heaping more horror on this monstrous pile? Why does the horror fiction genre exist, and why is it prevalent in print, movies, and television? What is the place of horror in a horrifying world?


Horror in a Horrible World


One could posit that horror exists to entertain. I personally find the entire spectrum of horror from literary terror to B-movie campiness to be enjoyable. Yet I don’t think that entertainment alone is sufficient to account for the prevalence and attraction of horror. Comedy and romance entertain, and often manage to do so without anyone being eviscerated, walled-in, or chased by someone wielding an axe. If entertainment were the entire answer, there wouldn’t be any reason to go for the gross-out.

Given that horror fiction entertains by scaring readers, perhaps the purpose of the genre is to satisfy a craving for the sensation of fear. Well-executed horror brings on a breathless jumpiness via induced fright. The reader is terrified in a situation devoid of any real threat. I am not a psychologist, but it seems reasonable to hypothesize that reading horror expends some psychological energy that would otherwise be channeled into fearing reality.

Like all fiction, horror offers readers the opportunity to evaluate the fitness of choices made by characters. Should that pretty blonde run or should she hide? Should she really be doing any of this in her cheerleading outfit? Would I wear that, no, but would I hide? Would I sacrifice someone else in my party for my own survival? Would I stay behind to give the others a chance? Did you notice how quickly and how naturally the questions shifted from third to first person?

The introspective horror connoisseur gains insight into her own core values because horror fiction invites contemplation of psychologically and physically perilous scenarios. Analogies can be traced from fictional scenarios back to very real threats. Bad things can happen on an otherwise unremarkable September day; bad things can happen any time.  Horror fiction gives readers an opportunity to examine how they might react if faced with an awful reality. There is a practical value to a deep and mindful experience horror fiction.

How many of you have gotten the post-horror jitters? Or asked your husband if just for one night, you might sleep with the lights on? Or heard noises in your house that you’d never noticed, and found the rooms you know to morph into ominous territory? When well done, horror fiction is capable of making me much more aware of my surroundings, at least until the adrenaline aftereffects subside. This period of hyper-awareness allows a horror aficionado the opportunity to experience the full richness of all five senses. It demonstrates how much we miss in daily life, and how much more we can apprehend when we are attuned to our surroundings. Survival has a lot to do with awareness, and horror fiction gives a good way to practice fundamental observational skills.

The purpose of horror fiction, it seems, is at least threefold. First, it serves to depressurize the psyche by expelling fear before it can become paralyzing in real life. Second, it begs the reader to examine moral and literal actions that might be taken under duress. Third, horror fiction incites a deeper awareness of one’s surroundings. All three of these purposes lend themselves to practical application with intent to survive.  To wit, a person who has discharged emotional energy is calmer and more prepared to be rational. Rational choices are in turn generated by brains which have been given the opportunity and material to think things through. The actions that result from rational choice are greatly aided by close attention to the surroundings.  Sometimes it makes sense to hide, sometimes it makes sense to run, but in order to know which to choose, you need to know where you are and what is out there to help or harm you.

In short, we generate and consume fictional horror because we live in a world full of real horror.  We horror authors aren’t ‘adding’ to the horror, but preparing ourselves and our readers for the day we confront the darkness.  And, as far as survival toolkits go, horror fiction just happens to be the most entertaining one around!


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