Written by: Marshall Moore, author of The Concrete Sky and The Infernal Republic
When I was 11 or so, I decided it was time to go upstairs and start reading books meant for adults. At my hometown library, housed in a 1930s-era mansion on the edge of downtown, the children’s section was in the basement. An insatiable reader, I’d devoured the books that appealed to me down there. That evening, I stood on the front sidewalk contemplating the upstairs-downstairs question as assiduously as a minor character in Downton Abbey. Why not? I thought. How much more difficult can adult books be?
Once inside, I next had to figure out where the hell to start. The first name that came to mind was Stephen King. I’d seen his books on big stands in bookstores, his surname blaring from every cover. This was 1981 or 1982: Cujo may have been his newest, but Firestarter was the book I found on the shelves, and its pyrokinetic premise sounded right up my alley.
“Are you sure you’re old enough to be reading this?” I remember the librarian asking when I checked it out. She quailed before what might have been my first-ever Level Death Stare. “Stephen King is… you know, scary.”
I read the book in one sitting. We’d gone to my great-uncle’s river cottage for the weekend, and the weather had turned clammy. There were too many people cooped up in a little two-bedroom weekend shack whose floors were carpeted with a garish hodgepodge of samples and whose plumbing was almost robust enough to ingest that much toilet paper. While we waited for the sun to come out and the fish to start biting, I found a chair, tuned everyone out, started reading, and — unlike the trout that weekend — was hooked.
Thus began my open relationship with horror as a genre. In the months to come, I sought out the rest of King’s available books; in the years to come, I bought his new ones in hardback, usually on the day of their release. Thanks to a horror-fan neighbor, I discovered Clive Barker years before he was huge in the States; he intrigued me not just because of the original, transgressive, often appalling nature of his stories but because by reading between the lines, I understood that he was gay — just as I was going through the process of understanding the same thing about myself. Dean Koontz fascinated me until I began to feel that he was recycling characters (different names, same personalities) and using his books to preach. Around the time his book covers lost his middle initial, I lost interest. I read the classics of horror as well: Stoker, Shelley, Lovecraft, Poe. I read other writers too — John D. MacDonald and Robert Ludlum come to mind — but the cold adrenaline rush of horror kept me coming back.
In parallel with the emergence of my taste in fiction, I was developing my self-awareness as a writer. I’d been writing stories since I was a kid. Discovering horror crystallized my writing focus but made me wonder if the genre might be limited in some way. As my teenage logic went, how many possibilities were there for a horror story? Ghosts, vampires, monsters, werewolves, zombies. Plagues and evil extraterrestrials. Psycho killers and dark gods. In other words, there were only so many cars for sale on the lot. Not being the kind of guy who wanted to drive the same bland Ford sedan that I saw in every other driveway, I asked myself how else I could unsettle people with my writing.
When a book got under my skin, I would often read it a second time with a colder eye to see how it worked. Lord of the Flies, 1984, Misery, Brave New World, Shadowland… perhaps these aren’t the Greatest Hits of Horror (well, a case could be made for Misery), but they stayed with me long after I finished them; they resonated. And to be even more truthful, in one way or another they all altered my head, one paragraph at a time. So did the work of Edward Gorey, which taught me useful lessons in elegant amorality, queasily balancing an icy flavor of justice and an equally frosty cruelty. Later, when I discovered Japanese writers like Haruki Murakami and Taichi Yamada, whose work is often subtly horrific without the blood, ghosts, and gore, I found even more clarity around where I wanted my work to go.
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King suggests that horror is popular because it is a way for people to deal with their own fears. Reading about a town being eaten by monsters is cathartic: the dwindling contents of your checking account, your worries that your significant other might be shagging someone else on the side, and your dread that your boss won’t give you the promotion you think you deserve all pale in comparison. They can be dealt with. But over time, I have begun to suspect that horror also works very well as a sort of magnifying glass. By subjecting characters (and, vicariously, readers) to extreme, horrific situations, we can ask and answer questions about ourselves. How people react in a crisis says a lot about them; how we identify with their reactions says a lot about us. Yes, other forms of fiction also examine the individual and society, but they do it more directly; horror works allegorically, on the level of the subconscious. Writing fiction that is thought-provoking and often disturbing allows me the same unconscious access. In a way, it feels more refined: the surgeon reaching for the scalpel instead of the chainsaw. And it’s kind of fun when a reviewer responds to my work (this has happened) with something like, “Oh my God, he actually went there.”
At the same time, I’m a firm believer in not putting the cart before the horse. I don’t write stories with psychological or social ambitions in mind; I write them because the stories present themselves to me, evolving and developing in my head over time, and demand to be written. As I write, I usually figure out what the story is about at its deeper, subtextual levels. Sometimes this doesn’t happen until I have finished the first draft and taken some time away from the story, deliberately not thinking about it. Either way, this guides some of the choices I make when I revise. I don’t want to beat the reader over the head with a moral because that would be too simplistic. But I do like discomfiting, squirm-inducing questions.
There’s a lot to be said for writing from the edge of horror. Just look at its practitioners, who get to choose the tropes and techniques that suit the stories they wish to tell. This has worked out rather well for Murakami: several of his books (Dance Dance Dance, Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84, Sputnik Sweetheart, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World come immediately to mind) flirt with horror without popping the question. His stature among authors has risen to the extent that it’s no longer a question of whether he’ll win the Nobel for literature, but when. Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, and Jonathan Carroll have staked out patches of interesting real estate at the periphery of the walled graveyard, as well, and no one would suggest that they are languishing in obscurity. Even if there will always be a contingent of readers with delusions of entitlement, the ones who rant and have meltdowns and post one-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads if their narrow preconceptions are not resoundingly satisfied, history tends to be kinder to unique writers who don’t easily fit in little boxes.
You can drop Marshall a line here, he may be game to answer your questions. Or, you can (and should) visit and bookmark his official webpage where you’ll find direct links to his novels, blog, contact info and more!