Paul Tremblay, Sarah Langan and John Langan Talk About The Horror Genre, And Their New Class Kicking Off Monday
This is a first for LitReactor, and an exciting one, at that. This Monday, we kick off our first multi-instructor class, The Horror, The Horror: Writing Horror Fiction With Substance.
The class features four incredible writers from the horror genre: Paul Tremblay, Sarah Langan, John Langan, F. Brett Cox. Each instructor will spend a week teaching you the ins and outs of traditions and narrative conventions, but more importantly, they'll provide you with the elements you need to write a better horror story. And those elements can be used to create tension or dread in any kind of fiction--so don't think only horror writers need apply.
To familiarize you with the instructors and their takes on the horror genre, we asked Paul Tremblay, Sarah Langan and John Langan to tell us about the strength of the horror genre--and Tremblay also weighs in on how this class will be helping to support the Shirley Jackson Awards.
What do you feel is the biggest strength the genre of horror can lend to a story?
Sarah Langan: The world is a crazy place. Social mores insist that society fear those things that threaten the establishment. Rock music played backward, for instance. Who knew it wasn't really telling all those impressionable kids of the 80s to worship Satan?
But I digress. Sometimes, society's use of fear is Very Good. Strangers wielding axes tended to threaten the tribe. Taking care of cute babies tends to perpetuate the species. Everybody loves cute babies, even the ones that have colic and cry nine hours a day. They're cute babies!
This exploitation of fear can also be Very Bad. We fear the poor because we might become them, and because their existence is a testament to the unfairness of the societies we inhabit. Instead of admitting it's their poverty we fear, we call it disdain for their bad clothing, bad hair, bad hygiene, and obesity.
On the other hand, we love the rich. They've got great clothes, reality television shows, sparkling teeth, and trainer-fit bodies. Their houses burn more fossil fuels than most small nations, but on the plus side, they adopts lots of African babies, whom they pay lots of Caribbean nannies to raise. Makes perfect economic sense. In glorifying them, we scaffold existing social and political doctrine: there is no fix. Everyone has an equal chance for success, you just have to work really hard. All laws are fair in our perfect political machine. In other words, we cement the bars of our own prisons.
So where does horror come in? Well, when done right, it sheds light on our fears, showing us that they're not really that scary. Then it goes in for the kill, and shows us what we REALLY ought to fear. It pulls up the rocks so we can see the bugs-- the real effects of war and inequity. The damage done by unkindness. Most importantly, horror fiction, when great, does what all great fiction does: it allows us to see from someone else's perspective for just a moment in time, and in doing so, it deepens human sympathy. It tears down prison walls.
John Langan: The shorter answer to this question is that the horror genre itself is the biggest strength the horror genre can provide a story’s writer. I recognize, though, that this response treads the line between obfuscation and obnoxiousness, so the longer answer may be of more use:
While there have been essays written claiming that horror is, in fact, not a genre, but an emotion, and while that claim and variations on it continue to be bandied about (often by people I respect very much), horror is, in fact, a genre—which is to say, a kind of fiction, a selection of works that we can group together because of certain family resemblances. Those resemblances occur at all levels, from plot to setting to character to style to theme. What results is a sort of fuzzy set, at whose center we can place works on whose identity as horror the majority of us can agree: Dracula, say, and The Haunting of Hill House, and The Shining, and at whose margins we can locate those works over which people of good will may disagree: Wuthering Heights, say, and 1984, and The Collector. The yield of this set is a history, a tradition, with which the writer interacts. (I almost typed “with which the writer may interact,” but there’s nothing conditional about it: even if you’re not [consciously] aware of it, when you enter into a genre, you’ve entered into a relation with its history.)
It’s this interaction that I feel is the strength the horror genre—any genre, really—offers the writer. It brings her/him into contact with the efforts other writers have made with the stuff of the genre, offering examples to be learned from, whether in imitation, rejection, or some balance of the two. It shows how other writers have met the challenges posed by the material of horror, the lengths to which they’ve been able to stretch that material, the range of subjects they’ve been able to find a place for in their work. Make no mistake: though it’s my view that the horror genre is as capable of profundity of expression as any other kind of fiction, I also believe that a horror story must always concern itself first and foremost with being a horror story. Before your vampire story can be a clever trope for the relationship of big business to the consumer, it must succeed in evoking our unease at the general manager whose skin always seems too white under the fluorescent lights, whose suit never seems to fit him properly, who listens to his customers’ complaints without once blinking his bloodshot eyes. It’s in helping you to craft horror stories worthy of holding their own with the best of what’s come before that the horror genre’s promise lies.
Paul Tremblay: Since my colleagues were so eloquent, I’ll get right to the skinny: Some of the greatest questions posed by art and literature include: What's next? What decisions are you going to make? Do you know the consequences of your decisions? How will you live through this? How does anybody live through this? Horror, when done well, is specially equipped to address those questions in an intellectually honest and emotionally genuine way.
The best horror is transgressive and subversive. It explores taboos, the limits of empathy, and what makes you feel uncomfortable. The best of horror, just like the best art, is decidedly not safe.
The proceeds from the class will go to the Shirley Jackson Awards. Can you tell us about that?
Paul Tremblay: The four instructors are members of the Board of Directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards. The Shirley Jackson Awards were established for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic. The Shirley Jackson Awards are voted upon by a jury of professional writers, editors, critics, and academics, with input from a Board of Advisors. The awards are given for the best work published in the preceding calendar year in the following categories: Novel, Novella, Novelette, Short Story, Single-Author Collection, and Edited Anthology.
We're in our fifth year of existence thanks to the gracious support of the Jackson family estate and the speculative fiction community. The proceeds from this course will help ensure we're able to continue celebrating horror fiction and the work of Shirley Jackson.
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