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Just Read: “Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction” by Douglas E. Winter

Craft of Writing, Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU, Writing


Are you a horror writer? Yes? Have you read Doug Winter’s essay, “Darkness Absolute” in On Writing Horror? If you haven’t, you should purchase that assemblage of essays collected and edited by Mort Castle and read Doug’s. It’s mandatory reading for horror writers. I don’t care that you didn’t know that. Get there, now.

“Horror is not a genre. It is an emotion.” (125)

Although I expect some might find this controversial, I think it is dead-on. What makes horror horror is the fear factor. Without it, there is no horror. Interestingly, I think horror is most closely aligned with romance in this regard. Romance is also an emotion. Without love, there is no romance “genre.”

Winter goes on to point out that horror “can be found in all great literature” (125). This is also true. Certainly, the seminal works like Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and the works of Poe are horror, without a doubt. But horror also shows up in “Heart of Darkness” by Conrad (horror of man’s descent into madness), Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (horror of political and social anarchy) and “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes (horror of loss of self).

Winter also touches on the need for reality in horror. He argues that we need normality in horror in order to bring out the horrific elements. Again, I agree. In the same way that alternative music can only exist if it’s different than the music played on Top 40 stations, horror is only effective if it can be contrasted with what is “normal.”

Other topics in the essay include subversion, monsters, originality and characterization. It’s a must-read for horror writers, but non-horror writers can also gain a lot from the information here. I really recommend this highly!

Just Read: The Shining by Stephen King

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU


I’m a big Stephen King fan. I’ve read most his books and loved most of what I’ve read. I’ve had a copy of The Shining for a very long time, but I’d never gotten around to reading it. So I was excited when I saw it on the reading list for the horror genre class (part of the excitement, I admit, was not having to buy a copy!).

King usually writes about the Average Joe and The Shining is no exception. Jack Torrance has more than his fair share of demons, stemming from an abusive childhood. He tries to do good, but sometimes (often?) fails. Jack  is just ripe for the picking when the Overlook Hotel gets hold of him.

I really love unreliable narrators. One of the fascinating things about this story is Jack’s descent into unreliability. The reader can actually watch as he becomes more and more unhinged. This is a brilliant from a craft perspective. We can see as Jack tries to fight it, albeit half-heartedly, and the turning point for him is clear. He just can’t fight anymore. He’s driven by his need for acceptance (by the hotel) and his weakness of spirit. It’s tragic.

While I was enthralled with Jack’s descent-into-madness, I was annoyed at Wendy’s reactionary hysteria throughout most of the book. Later in his career, King fleshes out female characters and makes them much less stereotypical, but Wendy pre-dates that time.

Danny, their son and the boy who shines, is typical of King’s child  protagonists. He is scared shitless, but driven to protect his family. In the beginning, he is so afraid as to almost be catatonic, but over time, he realizes he must stand up to the evil. There’s just no other choice. And like most heroes who make this realization, he tries to do what he needs to do. I liked Danny a lot as a character.

The thing that bothered me about The Shining was the constant point of view shifts. I tried very hard to ignore it at the beginning, but it became more and more difficult, particularly when the shifts started being so frequent that there was one five line paragraph that began in Wendy’s point of view and ended in Jack’s. But even worse than that, and the deal-breaker for me, was when we were in Danny’s point of view and Danny made references that no seven year old would be able to make. This was not in reference to his shining ability. As an example, when he’s in the ball room, he starts up the old clock:

There was a small, ratcheting series of clicks, and then the clock began to tinkle Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” (302).

Really? A seven year old boy recognizes a Strauss composition? Bzzzt. Sorry, wrong answer. Thanks for playing.

It’s the point of view issues that really mark the weak points in this book. And I wonder if King ever sits back and cringes over that. His later books don’t have this issue, that I’ve noticed. I do grant that I haven’t read any of his books in the last couple years due to time constraints, so the critical eye I use now might notice things the casual eye didn’t.

The book is still horribly frightening, even with the mechanical issues. One of the scariest things in life is the betrayal of a loved one. It can rock the entire foundation of a person’s life. And in this sort of horror especially, King is still a master.

Just Read: “The Dreams in the Witch-House by H.P. Lovecraft

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU


Ugh. Just ugh. All the Lovecraft stories we’ve read have had their difficulties, I think. I had issues with all of them. However, I didn’t hate any. Some I liked better than others, but I wasn’t disinclined to finish any of them. “The Dreams in the Witch-House” is the exception to that. I really wanted to fling it across the room (but I reserve the actual action for Dan Brown novels).

I hated this story. Lovecraft’s usual talent for setting is still present, but it’s not as impressive. There seemed to be more of a science fiction bent, which isn’t bad, but seemed more a focus than setting. But from a technical perspective, it just sucked. It was slow and plodding. All exposition and not a bit of dialogue. All telling and no showing. And no real point of view character. Every time I turned the page, I just saw two more pages packed tight with words: no breaks, no white space. Like someone stranded in the desert, I looked for an oasis and came up with nothing but sand. I just have to say again: ugh.

The story was, for the most part, predictable. The only thing of interest was where the witch and Brown Jenkins were doing their dirty deeds. Aside from that, the plot points were pretty obvious. I’d like to be able to say that it has to do with the fact that we, as modern readers, are now jaded. That all the devices and tropes that were so new back then are standard now. But I don’t even think it’s that. How could any intelligent reader not get that the abysses in the story were Gilman crossing dimensions? It was blindingly obvious simply by all the little hints dropped about the witch and her disappearing and reappearing. Ugh.

Normally, I’m pretty generous with historical reads. I know different eras had different expectations of books and stories. But I just can’t do it with this one. It’s almost enough to put me off Lovecraft altogether.

Just Read: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU


I’d bought Rosemary’s Baby years ago at a run-down second hand bookstore. It’s the sixth printing of the 1968 Dell paperback, priced at ninety-five cents. Ninety five freaking cents. Anyway… I read it back when I bought it and enjoyed it then. It’s been a lot of years, so it was nice to revisit the story. I knew the ending, so I was able to concentrate more on the details that a first pass doesn’t readily leave in the reader’s mind.

One of the most interesting things about the way Levin lays the story out is the way that everything seems innocent, but nothing truly is. With the foreshadowing done by Hutch, the reader looks at everything as sinister. But there’s so much and the conspiracy is so big that we can’t fathom that it’s really everything that’s sinister. Surely, the doctor recommendation isn’t. Surely Guy can’t actually be a part of what’s going on… surely…

I found Rosemary to be annoying in some cases, but true to her background. She lived a sheltered childhood, came to the big city and lived with other women (girls, really) and then seemed to go from there to Guy. Though she’s spunky, she’s clearly never been very independent-minded. At least, not in the long-term. She is at once gullible and suspicious. Once someone has her trust, she is loathe to see them in a different light. But for those she doesn’t fully trust, she waffles. And, again, I think this holds true to her character. I was very pleased with the well-roundedness.

One of the very interesting things about this novel is how centered it is in time. It references major events that really happened (Pope Paul’s visit to NYC, the newspaper strike, etc) and items that were popular in that time (Life and Look magazines, etc). So from a cultural or anthropological point of view, this book is like a little snapshot of life in New York City in 1965. Levin did a very good job with setting here. Modern city life is well-represented.

The ending strikes me as one of those post-modern, anti-happily-ever-after endings. It really underscores the concept that real life can’t be tied up in a pretty bow right before “The End.” It’s a rebellion against the tv trope of everything being hunky dory at the end of the hour. Real life is messy and sometimes you choose the least bad choice out of a slew of horrible choices. Sometimes it’s because you don’t have a choice and sometimes it’s because you don’t want to choose the really bad thing even if it might mean something good later. It’s the human condition.

If you haven’t read Rosemary’s Baby, you should. Go out and find you a ninety five cent second hand copy!

Just Read: “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU


So here is my first introduction to something associated with the Cthulhu mythos. Granted, it’s a subtle reference, but it’s there. I think Lovecraft had a thing for marine organisms. Really big, ugly marine organisms.

Anyway, as I read Lovecraft, I’m enjoying subsequent stories better than previous ones. This is the first I’ve read where the narrator is a direct participant in the horrific events that happen. This really makes a difference. I still think there’s entirely too much telling and not enough showing, but it would be a novel if it went by modern strictures, rather than a short story.

Setting is still a character in this story. Indeed, Lovecraft seems on top of his game in bringing out the complete creepiness of the town of Innsmouth. The dilapidation of the town can be seen clearly in the descriptions. An interesting tactic that I think was a bit overdone was Lovecraft’s attribution of “fish” properties to things. A fishy odor is one thing, but he tended to drop fish or water references for lots of descriptions, regardless of whether it was an odor, something visual or even something aural. It was okay for awhile, but soon it became silly to attribute a fishy look to some inanimate object.

The ending I found interesting. Once it became clear that the narrator was one of the Innmouth people, I didn’t need Lovecraft to point out the things in the story that supported this conclusion (the Marsh woman who married the man by trickery, etc). I remembered those things. So having them told to me undermined the “ah ha!” moment I was having. I found this disappointing.

The ending also calls to mind the narrator’s flight from Innsmouth. He was never caught, so the reader is left to wonder: were the Innsmouth people chasing him to kill him, as he assumed, or were they chasing him because they recognized him as one of their own? That’s a question that won’t be answered, but I still find it intriguing. How would things have been different had be been captured before escaping? Would they have been able to convince him of his heritage? Would he have, instead, gone mad? Would they have kept him against his will? It leads to some interesting questions.

Overall, I like this story better than the others. The narrator is the protagonist, which I tend to prefer. Also, there’s more of a balance between setting and character in this story that is lacking in the previous stories. This really works, I think, because Lovecraft really was a setting mastermind, but when it’s all setting, I find the story itself to be lacking. Having a balance is ideal. Again, I would have liked a lot more action and dialogue rather than so much exposition (even the dialogue was exposition!), but on the whole, I didn’t hate it. 🙂

Just Read: “The Thing on the Doorstep” by H.P. Lovecraft

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU


So this is the third Lovecraft story we’ve read for class and I will say it’s been my favorite so far. I suspect it has to do with the story being more about the characters than the setting.

We’ve ascertained that Lovecraft was a master of the “setting as character” skill. And while I have great respect for that, I find stories of that nature don’t hold my attention for very long. I have the same issue reading Tolkien, another master of this. When the story was about the characters (Fellowship of the Ring), I went along just fine. But in the later books, so much time was spent on the setting, I just put the books down. My own interest seems to always lie in the characters and their journey.

“The Thing on the Doorstep” is much more character-oriented than either “The Music of Erich Zann” or “Pickman’s Model.” Another story told in first person. Lovecraft seems fond of telling a story from a bystander’s point of view. Granted, in this case, the narrator has a direct hand in the end of the story, however, most of the frightening build-up of the story is left untold because we only get glimpses of it through a third person’s eyes.

This is an interesting way to build tension, I think. In life, it’s often what we don’t know which scares us the most. When we don’t know how badly we did on a test, we imagine failing the entire class. When we don’t know the details of an accident a loved one has been in, we think of the worst possible scenario. when we’re waiting for medical test results, we imagine the worst outcome. When we don’t know what to expect, we get anxious and freaked out.

Sometimes leaving the horrible thing to the imagination is the best way to completely squick the reader. The more I read of Lovecraft, the more I think that was his kink. Because he chooses not to write from the point of view of the character who is being haunted/hunted/corrupted, but rather a bystander, many details of the possibly horrific things done are lost, because this bystander isn’t on the inside. And so the reader begins imagining all these horrific things.

Our instructor recently engaged us in a discussion of our own fears and how we translate that into our stories in order to help engage our readers. I think this is what Lovecraft is doing. He is engaging the reader in the story – actually, he’s enlisting the reader to help tell the story. When the reader is left to imagine the horrors that Lovecraft leaves out, he’s going to imagine things that are much more personal to him than Lovecraft could ever have imagined. And using a bystander as the narrator is the perfect way to achieve it, I think. This is pretty brilliant.

As far as the story itself, I really enjoyed it so much more than the previous two. I did have an issue with all of the telling. I’d guess that 60% or more was simply told. I suspect that if the scenes were shown instead, we’d have a novella instead of a short story. But I still felt compelled to continue reading. I would have liked to have seen more detail at the end, though.

Overall, I did enjoy the story and I’m looking forward to reading more Lovecraft to see what other similarities and differences become apparent.

Just Read: Hell House by Richard Matheson

Horror, MFA, SHU


This is the first story we’ve had to read that was written during my lifetime. It was nice to be able to judge it by mostly modern standards.

I enjoyed this book very much. It was creepy and sometimes gross and that makes me happy! Creepy for the win! The use of atmosphere in this book was outstanding. Something that I think modern authors (particularly aspiring ones) don’t use enough are the senses besides hearing and sight. Hell House utilized smell often (the tarn jumps to mind) and tactile feeling (the ooze in the steam room) to great advantage. It really made the scenes exceptionally vivid.

The book is written in something of an omniscient point of view, which really lends itself to head-hopping. This is one of my pet peeves and often I’ll put a book down because of it because it’s too distracting. Hell House had a large amount of head-hopping, but I tried very hard to ignore it, in the same way I ignored structural issues I have with Phantom of the Opera and characterization issues I have with Lovecraft’s work. I really wanted to enjoy the story itself. I found the head-hopping bothersome, however.

I did find that the story, overall, had a somewhat misogynistic flavor. All of the women in the story – Edith, Florence, and the female doctor from the 1940 experiment – are all emotionally or mentally taken in by Belasco and ultimately cause the undoing of the teams. The men, even if they don’t survive or are otherwise attacked, are overpowered physically or psychologically (as in driven insane, not duped or being overtaken by Belasco’s will). Barrett believes throughout the entire book that he is correct, with the only moment of question being when he’s attacked in the steam room. Even when he’s killed, he never mentally acquiesces to the will of Belasco. That is reserved for the women. This implies that a woman is emotionally and/or mentally a more vulnerable person than a man. It’s the Eve Syndrome.

It’s especially surprising, I think, given the time frame of this book. It was written, most likely, in the late sixties, published in 1971. So this was at the height of the battle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, the time where women really started taking charge of their lives, and when the abortion debate was getting into full swing (Roe v. Wade was decided by SCOTUS in 1973, but the case began in 1969/1970). Seeing the Eve Syndrome in Hell House was off-putting and somewhat disappointing.

Although I found both the head-hopping and the Eve Syndrome difficult to swallow, I still enjoyed Hell House. A few years ago I watched Rose Red (conceived by Stephen King) and I would say that he may have taken some inspiration for that mini series from Hell House, though I don’t know whether he actually did. There are a number of similarities between the two, particularly the “ghost hunter” aspect.

Overall, even with its drawbacks, I enjoyed reading Hell House and the writing was good enough to drag me through without too much problem. This one does not go on the Milk Crate of Sharing (where I put books for my friends to steal); instead, it will remain on my shelf.

Just Read: “The Music of Erich Zann” by H.P Lovecraft

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU


“The Music of Erich Zann” is the second Lovecraft story I’ve read. It’s about a young man who discovers an old musician up in the uppermost floor of his rooming house. This musician plays darkly. The narrator is drawn to try to befriend him in order to hear more of the music. When in the uppermost room, the narrator is drawn to look out the window but does not until the end of the story, wherein he sees not rooftops, as he should, but nothing.

There are a number of similarities between “Zann” and the previous story I read. Both are centered around an artist who is, in some way, tortured. Pickman seems a willing victim, though still a victim, while Zann is most definitely unwilling. Zann is tormented by what’s out the window. He’s frightened, terrified. Demons or nothingness. These are what await humankind.

Like “Pickman’s Model,” the setting is a key character. It’s really this device which sets up the horror of the piece. I think it could be equated to the ominous music in a scary movie. The settings in Lovecraft’s stories set the tone and the ambiance; they lure the reader into a dark place where we’re drawn by the danger which lurks just past our field of vision. It’s really the anticipation which is most effective. I almost don’t want to know the ending, because that will mean that all the things my imagination is dredging up aren’t really what’s going on. I think, ultimately, this is the brilliance of Lovecraft’s writing. To a modern reader, the endings aren’t even remotely surprising… but what our imaginations can slip into the dark corners that Lovecraft paints – well, there’s the real horror, sport.

This brings us neatly to another similarity. In both “Pickman” and “Zann” the frightening thing is what’s not seen. In “Pickman,” the narrator doesn’t see the demon which is the painter’s model, but sees a photo and interprets its existence. In “Zann,” the narrator literally sees nothing and that is what is terrifying. The nothingness calls to him. It’s the dark corners, again, which are the frightening places. It’s what we don’t know – or what we didn’t know, but know now. It’s almost like a warning, that old proverb: Be careful what you wish for. Don’t look down the rabbit hole. You don’t want to know how deep it goes.

Both narrators escape the horror, but yet are still drawn to it in one way or another. For the “Pickman” narrator, he relives it in the retelling to Eliot and one suspects he relives it more often than that. In “Zann,” the narrator relives the terror by trying to find the original street where the rooming house was located. And he cannot find it. Yet he searches.

That’s what we humans do. We ride rollercoasters; we go to haunted houses; we skydive; we race cars; we rubberneck at accident sites; we watch scary movies. We search and we’re drawn to what ultimately terrifies us.

Just Read: Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU


It took me quite awhile to get into this book. I was probably about one third of the way through before I really wanted to continue reading. There are a couple inherent drawbacks to reading Phantom. First, it’s from an entirely different time. When this was written, books had a different flavor, a different format. So many things that would be considered mistakes making a manuscript un-publishable (head hopping, lots and lots of exclamation points) were common. Also, this is a translation. The book was written in French, originally, and I’ve found that there are always a few issues when reading a translated work.

So when I read this book, I tried to take those two things into account. I have to admit, the head hopping got to me. From paragraph to paragraph sometimes we were in different people’s heads. As a reader of mostly modern books, this is something that isn’t common anymore. We tend to usually have a point of view character. I admit that this issue was something that really kept tripping me up.

As far as the story itself, this really didn’t strike me as horror. Perhaps I’m jaded, but I found myself more interested in it as a mystery than horrified at it as a monster tale. I’ve never seen the musical based on the book, so I really went into it with fresh eyes and no pre-conceptions. I only had the vaguest notion of the story itself. But I was an avid reader of Stephen King (of course), Clive Barker, Dean Koontz and various other prolific and scary dudes who wrote in the 80s and 90s. So I think my sense of what horror is is very much based on those books I read as a young adult. And Phantom just doesn’t make the cut for me as horror.

I did get drawn into the story because I wanted to know what the actual deal was. I wanted to know just how crazy Eric was. I was a little disappointed in his virtue at the end and how he released Christine, but it really just compounded my confusion about who and what he was. It seemed as though Leroux wanted him to be this horrible bad guy, but then didn’t want him to be this horrible bad guy. I didn’t know whether I was supposed to like him or hate him. Subsequently, I did neither.

I think Phantom would do well as a modern re-telling. I suppose there are a number of books which pay homage to this story, but I think a close re-telling with modern writing styles would make it a really interesting and attention-riveting book. So overall, I was a bit disappointed in the horror element of this one and once I suspended my issues with the writing style, I did like following the mystery of who the O.G. was and how it all got resolved. I probably wouldn’t read it again though.

Just Read: “Pickman’s Model” by H.P. Lovecraft

Horror, MFA, Writing


Spoiler alert: The ending is revealed in this blog post.

I’m a horror reader. I spent my teens and twenties devouring horror books like a dragon devours little men with tiny swords. I couldn’t get enough of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Brian Lumley, et al. But one glaring hole in my horror reading is the lack of Lovecraft on my shelf. I don’t know why, but I just never got around to reading the “classics” of horror. So when I found out we would be reading Lovecraft for my Horror Genre Reading class, I was excited.

Our first Lovecraft short story is “Pickman’s Model.” It’s a framed story in that the first person narrator is telling the story to the audience (really to a person named Eliot). He’s explaining why he stopped visiting with a particularly gifted artist prior to the artist’s disappearance. Though the artist was gifted, he had a habit of painting increasingly disturbing canvases featuring dark subjects such as demons and changelings.

In his last interaction with the artist, the narrator is led to a dark part of town and down into a basement which Pickman is using for his alternate studio. In this studio, he paints even more grotesque and frightening paintings. And eventually our narrator, after being scared out of his wits there, returns home to discover that Pickman’s most recent painting – of a huge, frightening demon gnawing on the head of a human – which he saw at the studio wasn’t developed from Pickman’s imagination, but was a real thing, a real model. This is the twist ending (obviously Lovecraft does it much better).

Modern audience are jaded. After all, we’re used to twist endings, a surprise plot twist that we’d never expect. So for a modern reader, the ending is a bit anti-climactic and I imagine some will find it disappointing. After all, so many stories end in this manner. But what the modern reader has to remember is that this story was written in 1926. This was before the “I see dead people” and “Who is Kaiser Soze?” stories of today. Now people expect a twist and are sometimes disappointed if there isn’t one.

So is there nothing for the modern audience? The ending isn’t entirely unexpected, but the vividness of the tale itself is something worth experiencing, as well. The framed story concept makes this even more interesting, because it seems as if we, the readers, are in a conversation with the narrator. He even addresses Eliot as if answering questions within the conversation itself, though we never see Eliot’s inquiries. We are Eliot.

This style leads to an atmosphere of excited dread. The narrator is conveying all of these terrible things he’s seen with specific details but also with the horrified enthusiasm of someone who has been fully and truly freaked out. A reader can’t help but keep reading faster in an effort to rush to the end to see what happens. I think this is a brilliant example of how to build tension in a first person narrative.

Of course, Lovecraft is renowned for his graphic descriptions of all manner of beastie. And “Pickman’s Model” is no slouch in this area either. But what I found is that Lovecraft is very sneaky. As the narrator is being shown the paintings in the personal gallery on the way down to the studio, the descriptions of the scenes are vivid and very detailed. Each room he goes through has more and more disturbing images and Lovecraft describes one or two pieces from each as we go along with the narrator. And they are very graphic. Yet when we get to the final room, the studio, and the final, horrible painting . . . there’s not much detail. It is a giant thing with red eyes, bony, scaly claws, a dog face, flat nose and curling lips. Oh and the body is caked with mold and the feet are half-hooved. And it’s gnawing on a human body, head first. But the description is almost skirted in favor of a ranting about the part that made it most gruesome – the painter’s technique. So the most horrible parts, the things that make it truly terrifying to the reader are left to the reader’s imagination. I find that brilliant, as well.

We have, I think, one or two more Lovecraft works to read later in the term. I’m looking forward to seeing how they compare to “Pickman’s Model” particularly stylistically.