How to Alienate People By Telling Them You Write Horror

I get around, wheeling and dealing in my hip bohemian community. I’m a man about town, getting recognized in my seasonally inappropriate dark t-shirt and jeans.

“The tall guy with the bulbous nose? Yeah, I know him. Why, what did he do?”

When I go to the grocery store the clerks double bag my eggs because they know I’m walking, at the coffee shop the baristas know that I’m mostly harmless, and at Chipotle they always have a bowl ready because a burrito is just not enough meal for me.

Yeah, I’m kind of a big deal. I shake hands. I make connections. I interject into the conversations when I’m eavesdropping.

I have a talent for reading people. My subconscious Sherlock catches every tell, every raised eyebrow, and bitten lip. No signal is misread. No micro-expression is lost in translation. I see you there giving me the eye by way of the floor. Now you’re rolling those eyes right up into that thought cloud about me. I know what you’re thinking.

You might go so far as to say that I’ve got game… until I make the mistake of telling you I’m a horror writer. Then it’s all down hill from there.

I might as well introduce myself as, “A stranger,” or wear a sash that reads, “Creeper,” or show people a photo of all the mounds in my basement and ask, “Can you guess which ones are mine?”

At least that’s how it feels based on the reactions I get.

In his book On WritingStephen King recalls getting caught selling his first horror story at school. He was a bestseller even then. The principle confiscated as many editions as she could get her talons on. She called young Stephen into her office to review the evidence.

“What I don’t understand, Stevie,” she said, “is why you’d write junk like this in the first place. You’re talented. Why do you want to waste your abilities?”

Young Stephen was speechless. He had no answer apart from his hangdog expression. For decades after this encounter he felt ashamed of his work, as if the subjects he wrote about were manifestations of something wicked within him, something best reserved for abandoned Victorian asylums and horror conventions.

Horror Has a Stigma

I feel like young Stevie King whenever I make the mistake of pitching my fiction to a person of the puritan persuasion. Turns out there are a surprising number of devout individuals on the dance floor.

When you tell someone you’re a writer, they may ask, “What are you working on?” If your answer is, “A story about a woman trapped in a hotel with a demon.” they may follow up their question with, “Why would you write about such things?”

That one always stumps me, because I think the answer is self-evident: I do it because it’s entertaining. Any dangerous situation that activates our fear centers is instantly engaging. If that danger comes from someplace supernatural, in the great unknown where our nightmares thrive, then all the better.

I don’t think that automatically makes my stories bleak or nihilistic. Like any author I still have to strike a balance between hope and dread, I just skew a little further toward dread.

Still, I get it. Horror isn’t known for being the most emotionally engaging genre. It rarely enjoys prominent placement in Oprah’s Book Club. It rarely inspires readers’ life decisions. It doesn’t have the allure of a romance novel to inspire travel. It’s not going to give readers material for dinner party conversations.

Horror is the box wine of literature. Not that classy, but it will get you drunk.

I’ve spent many an evening defending my vocation when I should have been, well, dancing.

Should You Hide Your Affinity for Horror?

Is it possible to be a suave socialite when you spend your nights scripting secret ceremonies set in subterranean cellars? I have no clue, but I’ve learned something from all my time requesting songs from before half of the dance floor was born. Being myself is still the best practice. Not because people are more likely to be drawn to me, they won’t be, but because I’ll be rejected for the right reasons. I’d rather be brushed off for the asshole I am than for being a disingenuous creep.

If You Can’t Do Horror How Fun Are You?

I’m done catering to people with delicate sensibilities. From here on out I’m going to let my freak flag fly. I write horror, not socially acceptable thrillers with artisanal serial killers, but horrorhorror with ghosts, devils, and creatures made of tentacles, where villains win and bad things happen to good people.

If you won’t go anywhere near things that could give you nightmares then steer clear of here. If you don’t get the appeal of a ghost story around the campfire then I don’t want to share my S’mores with you. If you can’t stomach a schlocky piece of splatter house cinema, but you have time to keep up with the Kardashians, I doubt you’re that much fun.

In other words: if you ain’t into cool shit, you basic.

Closing Thoughts

Much of the above was “inspired” by actual events, not necessarily based on them. Don’t get me wrong. I get rejected a lot. Not for being a horror writer, just, you know, because.

The pulp bins of the 70s and 80s were clogged with forgotten horror novels. Writers dare not admit to working in the genre today. We’d rather say we write dark fantasy, or psychological thrillers, or bizarro fiction, but in our hearts horror is the genre we pledge allegiance.

It’s up to us to destigmatize it. Class it up. Horror is a great vehicle for gross out gags, but it’s also a great vehicle for morality plays, thought experiments, and reflections on current events.

The torture-porn films of the early aughts (Saw,Hostel, etc) have lowered the intellectual capital of the genre. We brave few who identify as horror authors have to raise it up again, even if that does mean pitching stories on the dance floor.

19 thoughts on “How to Alienate People By Telling Them You Write Horror”

  1. I’m not a horror author, but I have been a big horror fan since I was a toddler (I had my first zombie escape plan by 6), but I totally understand what you are talking about. It makes me so sad to see how horror is treated now days, especially with books. So many horror books now, for whatever reason, would rather label themselves as thriller. And it drives me nuts when I’m in a book store and now they don’t even have a section for horror anymore! Now it’s either crammed in to sci-fi & fantasy (seriously??) or labeled as a thriller and put in general fiction! AGH! It makes it so hard for horror fans to find actual horror when just browsing at the store! And I’ve noticed now that the plot blurbs on the back of books that are horror are sometime super vague about if anything supernatural or horror-ish is going on, again, making it harder for the horror fans to find your work! When I tell people I read horror, they make this face -> D: and then ask why would I read trash? >:( So annoying that people just automatically think horror is trash! It blows my mind that even romance novels are regarded as infinitely better then reading horror. Yes, ok, I freely admit I do read a lot of B-movie type books…. but they are FUN!! And isn’t that the whole point of reading in the first place? There are a ton of really great horror books out there. I wish people weren’t so judgey about horror books. :/

    1. I think it’s the industry insiders who are too scared to use the word “Horror.” They have long memories. Many of them saw the horror bubble burst in the early nineties when the serial killer thrillers took over. Author Grady Hendrix researched this phenomenon for his book Paperbacks from Hell. He said that authors were begging their publishers to rebrand their horror novels as thrillers.

      1. “Really…? What do you write?”
        “Well, it’s kinda tough to describe. I’m sure it’s not horror, although there are evil characters and their victims certainly experience horror. I mean, who wouldn’t during those final fifteen minutes dangling from a rope or the fleeting fifteen seconds after a dull butter knife saws into their carotid artery .The good characters tend to give balance since wrathful vengeance creates a warm fuzzy feeling by snuffing out wickedness in an even more gruesome manner. But they really are good people. Of course it has its share of mutts added from the spice rack. You know, on the fence between right-and-wrong, those comedic drunks because God has a supernatural sense of humor. Might could call it a thriller.”
        “Hmmmm…. I’d like hear…OH CRAP! I forgot. Gotta go check the air pressure in my mom’s bicycle tires. Good talking with you.”

  2. Yes to all of this! I too think horror needs a cultural revival. Everyone loved horror in the ’90s too, in books and movies. But I think you’re right – the SAW movies came out and people began equating horror with torture porn. Which is a type of horror, but certainly not the only kind. I’m constantly having to explain my book is creepy and scary, but won’t make you nauseous.

    (SAW 1 was the only horror movie where I’ve ever had to leave the theatre because I was going to puke. When I exited, I found a bunch of other people in the lobby for the same reason. All of us were horror fans, obviously, and we were surprised at our reaction. We all went back into finish the movie, but something had changed.)

    1. I think horror, true fantastical, nightmarish horror, is enjoying a resurgence in film. I’m just waiting for literature to catch up.

  3. Reblogged this on adaratrosclair and commented:
    Drew wrote: “We brave few who identify as horror authors have to raise it up again, even if that does mean pitching stories on the dance floor.” Totally agree. Drew also wrote: “Horror is the box wine of literature. Not that classy, but it will get you drunk.” Bwa, ha, ha! Then what is dark fantasy?

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