When I tell people I write horror, they invariably ask why horror. They joke about my twisted mind and how I’ll never babysit their children. They say it like babysitting their children is some kind of awesome experience that I’m missing. I don’t tell them that I’d never want to babysit their children anyway. Never. Ever.
While not a fan of their children, I’m a firm believer in the influences of childhood carrying over into adulthood. That’s why I’m a fan of horror and write horror.
From the moment I read The Hobbit as a young boy, I knew I wanted to write. Every professional decision I’ve made in my life is based on my love of writing. When the Army recruiter asked me what I wanted to do, I said I want to write. So, he signed me up as an Army photojournalist.
Uncle Sam shipped me off to Germany for a couple of years writing for Army newspapers. Then, I was sent to the front lines of the gulf war in Iraq in 1990-91, where I covered our soldiers during the desert conflict. When my five-year enlistment period ended, I started my civilian career as a newspaper reporter because I wanted to write.
A little more than five years ago, I quit the full-time newspaper business cold turkey and started working in the real world. The reasons behind that decision were I’m not getting any younger and I want to pursue writing fiction. Why didn’t I do that as a journalist? The truth is when you write forty hours a week at a stressful job in an industry struggling to adapt to the changes of the 21st century, you don’t have the energy to write what you love when you get home. At least I didn’t. I just had enough time and energy to eat the All-Star Special at Waffle House at 11 p.m., get fat, and sleep.
When I left the newspaper business and the stress, I lost those hundred pounds quickly and gained the energy to write what I love: horror.
As a kid and teenager, I grew up on movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Throw in a couple of the most gut-wrenching movies I’ll ever watch, the original I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left, you see where the seeds of a horror writer wannabe get watered.
As my quote for this blog says: “Life is horror.” So is war. The gulf war was brief, but real soldiers died. And when you drop bombs, those are real women and children getting blown to bits like afterthoughts in some insane mind. War influences you.
When you work for the media in the civilian world for a couple of decades, you realize the news covers the horror of everyday life. If you’re not writing about it, you’re reading about it. Every horrific crime, every tragic accident, every child getting molested, every death in the community. The obituaries aren’t exactly light reading.
Ultimately, what I read to escape the real world is what formed and fed my passion for horror. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was high fantasy, yes, but it was the horror of the epic that kept me interested. Gollum, the Ringwraiths, Shelob … they kept me reading. Ray Bradbury may be considered sci-fi but his short story collection The Illustrated Man rocked my world. Who knew short stories steeped in horror could be so thought-provoking and pack such a punch?
However, it was when I read Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life that I felt the same passion for a story as I did when I was that young boy following the adventures of Bilbo, Frodo, and Gandalf. Boy’s Life single-handedly reignited my love for writing. That book was my life. It was a magical mix of Bradbury and Twain with a touch of Tennyson’s heart. Set in Alabama, Boy’s Life should be required reading in every high school in America, but particularly in the South.
You know when people ask you what your favorite book is, and you say, “I don’t know. There are so many.” It’s the easiest question in the world for me. Boy’s Life is and always will be my favorite book ever. At the time, McCammon was labeled a horror writer, so I read his books and all the other horror I could find. I read King and Koontz, of course. But I gravitated to the grittier horror of Brian Keene (his Ghoul is an all-time fave), Jack Ketchum, Richard Laymon, and Bentley Little.
I was reading a lot, but how would I find my writing voice? What kind of horror writer did I want to be?
Then, I read Jeff Strand’s Dweller, a horror novel that chronicled the relationship between a boy and a Bigfoot-like creature for the entirety of their lives. It covered decades. The ending broke my heart. I didn’t know you could write horror like that.
Then, I read John Everson’s The 13th. A throwback to the horror of the 1980s when I grew up as a puffy-haired teenager. Filled with sex and sacrifices, blood and psychos. I loved how he could write what should’ve been stereotypical horror stuff, but his storytelling ability made it pop. In my review of his novel, The Family Tree, I wrote, “Everson is one of the best writers of modern horror today. He seamlessly stitches dread and suspense into well-worn horror tropes, giving the tried and true a sense of fresh and new.”
Strand and Everson. My voice is somewhere between these two greats, I thought. I’ll write 1980s movie-style horror with heart and humor.
Then, I bought Depraved by Bryan Smith as one of the first three books I ever downloaded on my Kindle. Set in rural Tennessee, Depraved makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like a Disney cartoon. I remember my Amazon review: “The author Smith thrusts the reader into a gut-wrenching tale of sickening lust and intense brutality where the worst-case scenarios get worse and the twists get more twisted.”
If Depraved was a movie, it would’ve been banned in sixty-nine countries and couldn’t have been rated because there’s nothing beyond XXX. After I read it, I thought I’m definitely on an FBI watch list now. This novel was insane, pornographic, stomach-churning, and visceral. Yet somehow Smith grounded it in a reality that made me believe this stuff could happen.
I knew I’d never be as bold as Smith in writing horror. No way. But the fact that he’s out there writing horror like Depraved is great for the genre. It’s like having a vigilante walking the streets killing the bad guys. You know you don’t have the cojones to do something so brazen, but you’re glad someone’s out there doing it.
So, there’s my recipe for becoming the horror writer I want to be. The ingredients: Mostly McCammon, quite a bit of Strand and Everson, some Keene and some Ketchum, a little Laymon and a little Little. Sprinkle a smidgen of Bryan Smith in there because his influence is somewhere in the back of my mind like a security blanket, reminding me not to worry about crossing lines with my horror. He’s got it covered.
I know I’ll never reach the level of the authors who influence me daily. They’re just too damn good. But I’ll have fun trying.
And that’s my answer to why I write horror.
The fact that you’ll never ask me to babysit your children is just an added bonus.