The horror…the horror…

In Apocalypse Now, as Kurtz dies, he utters the famous line, “The horror…the horror…” which is taken directly from Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.


Supposedly, this is when Kurtz experiences a “supreme moment of complete knowledge” and realizes the consequences of his past actions in life.

I’ve found myself having a conversation about horror over the past week or two, primarily because I’m getting up in front of crowds of people and holding up a copy of my book, Vanishing Hope, and trying to promote it.

But I’m consistently bothered as I do this.  I’m a proud writer of horror.  I love the genre, I love how it makes me feel to read something that scares the heck out of me.  What bothers me is, I have this feeling, this dread, that as soon as I say, “It’s a horror story…” 95% of the ears and minds in the room shut down.  Why?  Because they hear horror and, depending on their age, think either of Friday the 13th movies, or maybe Saw movies, or, God help me, something like Pirhanha or some other really bad “how many ways can we kill someone” movie.

Because slasher flicks and torture porn aren’t horror to me and it’s not what I write.

But I know that I’ve chosen a difficult genre to try and push my works in, because most people carry this bias against horror.

So what is horror exactly?  To me, horror is made up of three areas: suspense, dread and wonder.

Every good story needs suspense.  I don’t care if it’s a romance, a western or a story with sparkly vampires (which, by the way are not horror).  That incredible build up of anticipation….not that things will turn out all right, but anticipating the hell that will be unleashed and how it will be dealt with.

The dread comes in by the author’s ability to dig up those things you’re scared of…including some things you never ever thought of as scary before, and make you confront them.

The wonder is the author’s skill at bringing together ordinary, sympathetic characters and putting them into horrible situations…then seeing if they can get back out again.

What I think a lot of filmmakers and, now unfortunately it’s bled (pardon the pun) into horror writing as well, so horror authors have to be included…what I think many of them miss is the fact that yes, in any typical horror story, something bad has to happen to someone, typically resulting in a death somewhere along the way.

I get that.  People die in horror stories.  People die in murder mysteries too, but the deaths are not the main story…the solving of the murder is.  And that, to me, is the issue lately with a lot of horror.  The deaths have become the main reason for the story, much like sex is the main reason for a porn film.  What little story there is in between all the humping and bumping and grinding is just there to glue those screw scenes together.  I’d argue it’s the same for your average slasher story as well.

It’s said that your biggest sex organ is your brain, a logic I happen to agree with.  I’d say your brain is also the biggest horror organ.  What I mean by that is, you shouldn’t necessarily be horrified by what you see, but more by what your brain is telling you.

One of the scenes that initially scared that absolute shit out of me was from Stephen King’s The Shining when Danny Torrance went into room 217.  Yes, he saw a dead woman in the tub that reached out for him, but the part that scared the crap out of me wasn’t the dead woman…it was the fact that the hotel was hoarding all these horrors and they were all around the Torrances all the time…but only Danny could see them.  That was the suspense and the wonder crashing together and mixing with the dread.

It’s not easy to do.  In fact, in all the time I’ve been reading horror, which adds up to a solid 35 years, I’ve actually only been scared three times.  Once by King’s The Shining, once by Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, and once by Ian Rogers’ Black Eyed Kids.

Each one of those authors holds a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf.  They transcended the cliches, they overcame the same tired tropes and each produced something not only highly original, but also some writing that actually got the job done.

It’s what I strive to do as well.

There’s another element to horror that I think most people never consider, at least not consciously.  I’ve read a lot of horror in my time…a lot.  Most of it crap, some of it okay and a very small percentage that got me.

Then there’s a bunch of other books–none of them labelled horror–that each not only scared me, but also left me feeling disturbed long after I closed the back cover on the books.

One was The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll.  It’s his 1978 memoir, chronicling his time on the streets of New York and his addiction to heroin…at the age of 13.

The next was two companion books.  Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff and Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by his father David Sheff. The titles pretty much speak for themselves.

Then there was The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout in which she talks about sociopathic behaviour and points out that as many as one in every 25 people could be a sociopath.  In my family of five, I firmly believe we have three.

Finally, just recently I finished Columbine by Dave Cullen.  The name of the town has become synonymous with high school shootings.

In each one of these books, I saw the worst that humanity had to offer and how ordinary people like you and I were just trying to either get through to them, or at least understand why they did the things they did.

In each case, I still experienced that same suspense, that same wonder and lots of dread.  But what these books also gave me that no work of horror fiction is likely capable of, is profound sadness and disappointment.

It’s scary to see that we don’t need vampires, werewolves, demons, ghosts or anything else that may go bump in the night.  There are real-life horrors right here in our world.  In our town.  On our street.

The things that man do to each other is worse than anything that can be imagined by a horror writer.  Stephen King once said, “Sometimes human places create inhuman monsters.”  Sadly, he’s right.

So, in the end, I guess that why I lead to read the horror that I do, and why I write in that genre…in some strange way, it’s my way of escaping the horrors of the real world.

Maybe this realization is my own supreme moment of complete knowledge.

The horror…

The horror…

The heart of darkness indeed.

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12 thoughts on “The horror…the horror…

  1. This was really interesting. When my youngest child was in high school her favourite class (and the other kids favourite class) was something known as ‘serial killer class.’ I was absolutely horrified when she told me about it and was all set to go to the school and ask them if they didn’t have anything more helpful to teach than this garbage, but Grace absolutely forbid me! The kids all acknowledged their morbid curiosity and delight almost in knowing how someone could do such unbelievable things. I didn’t understand it then and I don’t understand it now, but accept that others do. I do have to tell you about the greatest payback of course. One night Grace and two of her friends were watching some kind of horror movie in December. Just at the climax when they were the most terrified, our Christmas tree fell to the ground in the midst of them, causing them all to FREAK! Now that is cool… Of all the horror movies Grace has watched and things she has read I think there was only one movie she was truly disturbed by. That’s one too many in my opinion, but it’s her choice.

    • Hey Elizabeth…now see, I would have absolutely loved a “serial killer class” but again, not for the gore angle. I find it endlessly fascinating to try and understand the psychopath. And horror movies in December? Yay! (Though technically, if you think about it, you could call the best Christmas story of all time–A Christmas Carol, or what everyone now calls Scrooge–a horror story. Three ghosts in one night? Of course that’s horror!)

  2. It was nice to meet you on the weekend, Tobin. It was also nice to meet another “horror” writer.
    I’m with you, true horror isn’t about the gore. The blood is incidental.
    I love your comparison of Gorror to porn!
    I’m an old school horror fan and writer. Yes I like werewolves but the ones I like are real monsters.
    I’ll share a great quote, “science fiction is the literature of ideas, whereas horror is the literature of emotion”.

  3. Okay, I have to admit I’ve never gravitated to horror. I have a hard enough time sleeping at night without adding to the struggle. But, you did convey a new way for me to look at horror. Suspense, dread and wonder. All things on their own that I do enjoy immensely…so I guess Tobin, you have opened my mind. I have a tendency to meet darkness and wallow in it from time to time, so why not cozy up to horror….right? (I think…)

    • It’s funny, you ask my wife and her automatic response is, “I don’t like horror.” And yet…you look on her bookshelves and it’s filled with serial killer stories. She was quite nervous to read Vanishing Hope, yet, when she finished it, she said, “That wasn’t as bad as I thought.” Of course it wasn’t! She’d read the story of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, two of the most evil people ever! If she could get through that, she could get through mine. And again, Annie, your way with words got me again. “I have a tendency to meet darkness and wallow in it from time to time…” I want to print that on a business card! It’s either that or Paul Simon’s, “hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…” I think I like yours better.

  4. Just for the record, the sociopath’s you are referring to are not in your immediate family…you are talking about the people you grow up with RIGHT DEAR!

    • Yes, they are in my immediate family…DEAR! But by immediate family, I mean my brother, my sister and my father…Though, with all those voices in your head, all three could be you! LOL!

  5. You’ve earned my respect! I may still not want to read or watch much of anything in the genre, but now, thanks to you, I understand what makes an excellent piece of work.

    “…you shouldn’t necessarily be horrified by what you see, but more by what your brain is telling you.” Ah so! Probably why The Ring appealed to me.

    Pierce Morgan interviewed one of the Saturday Night Live comedians about his book on his horrific childhood. You’d never know the guy lived such a hellish life judging by his comedy. Which brings me to the question…

    Do you write from the opposite of your reality?

    Because for me, I’ve had too much suspense and dread already from the corporate carnival, and wonder is the only thing that matters now. I am on a mad mission to find it under my nose and between my ears, and bring it to the fore on my blog for those who are missing it in their own lives.

    • It’s interesting that you mention a comedian having a horrific childhood. I won’t say my childhood was horrific, but I did experience things that no kid should ever have to go through. An violently alcoholic father (though never directly violent with me), a sister with insecurity and image issues who got herself pregnant and married a schizophrenic who’s made her live a life of squalor and also made her give up her only child…the easiest comparison there is that she’s in a Charles Manson-like relationship with this guy. And then there’s my brother…he’s a blog all on his own. And I don’t mean a blog post, I mean a full blog dedicated to him. But people wouldn’t believe it’s true.

      My wife often jokes that I must have been secretly adopted, because I’m so different from the rest of my family. But (I’m sure it’s much like the comedian with the horrific childhood), I actively chose the life I lead. I chose the attitude I have to go through life. And I don’t hide any of the stupidity I’ve seen. Instead, I try to make a joke out of it. If you can’t laugh about this stuff, somehow find something so ridiculous that you have to poke at it with humour, well, if you can’t do that, it’s gonna crush you.

      So, long answer to your question, I write from my reality. I guess it’s my way of dealing with it. When I write about the demons, I have the control over them. Not the other way around.

      Sorry for getting so intimate on our first conversation, but that was a really good question! Thanks for stopping by! For everyone else, check out Scrollwork’s blog here. It’s worth a look!

  6. You’ve inspired me to give the horror genre a try. I’ve previously had no interest in it but will keep an open mind and give it a shot. Will start with a little novella called Vanishing Hope…

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