Thanks for tuning in to the First Annual Ultimate Romance Recommendations list. By which I mean a List I Made and Which I May or May Not Do Again Next year.
Below you will see the favorite romantic fare in movies and books from some of my favorite people – many of whom also happen to be USA Today, NY Times, and Amazon bestselling, award-winning romance authors. These are the best of the best, and I’ve asked each for a few sentences on their favorite Valentine’s Day movie or book. These are books and movies guaranteed to set your heart to fluttering, your pulse to pounding, and make you fall in love right along with the authors.
The other authors who have participated are listed in alphabetical order by first name/internet moniker so as not to show favoritism. I’ll toss in my own personal faves dead last. SUSPENSE!
And without any further ado. . . Go!
Amelia Adams – “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It hits me on so many levels – the acting is phenomenal, the way it was filmed shows her inner thoughts and feelings through imagery and symbolism, and it gives a strong feeling of community and hope even through the darkest hours.”
Amelia Adams is the bestselling author of the Kansas Crossroads series. See her Amazon page here, follow her on Twitter here, or check her out on her website.
Jewel Allen – “My favorite rom-com movie is The Leap Year. It’s funny, the setting (Ireland) is beautiful, the characters (even the side ones) are a hoot, and the romance is swoony (that innkeeper scene!).”
Jewel Allen is the author of sweet romance. Her Amazon page is here, or you can find her on Twitter here, on Facebook here, or subcribe to her newsletter here.
Juliette Cross – “True Romance is one of my all-time favorite romantic movies. Reasons? 1-Badass, heart-pumping action told in typical Quentin Tarantino fashion. 2-Stellar acting with an all-star cast–Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, and more. 3-Wild, crazy, romantic love and an HEA.”
Juliette Cross is the author of paranormal and fantasy romance (angels & demons, vampires, and half-dragon men). See her Amazon page here, or feel free to stalk her on Twitter here, on Facebook here, or join her mailing list by clicking here.
Rebekah Ganiere – “Hey! So for my ultimate Valentine’s Day Movie I would recommend the very first romance movie I ever watched that turned me on to both romance as well as shifters at a very young age and that’s the movie Ladyhawke. It’s is a beautiful movie with a young Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer. And a hilarious young Matthew Brodrick.”
Rebekah Ganiere is the author of Books with a Bite. Check out her Amazon page
Josi S. Kilpack – “I love to watch and re-watch movies, some of my favorite romance movies are Return to Me, The Cutting Edge, and Sense & Sensibility–I think I’ve seen each of them two dozen times at least. My favorite on-screen kiss, however, is Ron and Hermoine in the final Harry Potter. Highly reccomended.”
Josi S. Kilpack is the author Regency and Historical romance, most recently Promises & Primroses. Her Amazon page is here, or find her on Twitter here, or at her website here.
Tami Lund – “My must-watch romantic movie is Sweet Home Alabama. I adore all of the characters, even Andrew’s mother, but Jake is my favorite. He’s such a not-alpha hero, and he’s sooooo adorable and dreamy. Even more so than Andrew, who certainly holds his own and is played by Dr. McDreamy himself (although I’m pretty sure he was cast in this movie before he became Dr. McDreamy, but I digress. . .)
“Anyway, the beauty of this movie is exactly that: You can’t help but love all of the characters, so you don’t really want Andrew to lose, but you really, really, really don’t want Jake to lose. It’s the most perfect love triangle I’ve ever experienced, and that is why this is my favorite movie to indulge in on Valentine’s Day. Or any day, really. . . ”
Tami Lund is the author of paranormal and contemporary romance, with a propensity toward romcom. See her Amazon page here, follow her on Twitter here, or find her at the Sexy Bad Lounge Facebook Hangout.
Ahley Merrick – “My all time favorite romantic movie is When Harry Met Sally. I love the friends to lovers trope.”
Ashley Merrick is is the best-selling author of the Mail-Order Brides Club series. Her Amazon page is , on Twitter here, or find her on Facebook here.
Heather Moore – “The Darkling Bride by Laura Andersen is a wonderful slow-burning romance set against a gothic backdrop that combines both past and present as century-old family secrets are uncovered one by one.”
Heather Moore is the USA Today bestselling author of a plethora of genres, most currently the Pine Valley small town romances. Find her on Facebook here, on Instagram here, or follow her on Twitter here.
Marianne Morea – “What says Valentine’s Day more than a fairytale romance? Especially one that combines the fairytales we love with a modern twist…even better if that twist is shrouded in paranormal heat and fantasy! Rebekah R. Ganiere’s, Fairelle Series, covers all bases. From Cinder the Fae, to Snow the Vampire Slayer to Red the Werehunter, these award winning, romantic suspense twisted tales will put the sizzle in your season!”
Marianne Morea is a native New Yorker and Urban Fantasy/Supernatural Suspense author whose stories embody the grit and complexit of the City that Never Sleeps. See her Amazon page here, or find her on Twitter here, on Facebook here, or contact her directly by clicking here.
Jo Noelle – “Jo’s favorite romance novel is Persuasion by Jane Austen. Every Valentine’s Day I reread The Letter! Noelle’s favorite romance is Crazy Rich Asians–it’s hysterical!”
Jo Noelle is one of the best selling authors in the Twickenham Time Travel romance series and in the Cowboys and Angels series. Check out her Amazon page here, or find her on Twitter here, on Facebook here, or sign up for her newsletter here.
Kirsten Osbourne – “I would recommend Notting Hill for any romance lover. So many times it seems as if things are going to work out for the couple, and something tears them apart again. You have your satisfying happily-ever-after ending, which will make any romance lover smile.”
Kirsten Osbourne is the bestselling author of 150 romance stories. See her Amazon page here, follow her on Twitter here, or hear about new releases by following her on Bookbub.
Virginia Smith – “A good love story needs more than romance to keep me engaged. I like sweeping novels that feature relationships with real depth. One of my all-time favorite novels is The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough. A multi-generational story of love, passion, tragedy, and faith, with an over-arcing love story that touched me deeply. The movie, not so much!”
Virginia Smith is the bestselling of The Room with the Second-Best View. See her Amazon page here, follow her on Twitter here, or on Instagram here.
Angelica Hart/Michaelbrent Collings – “I am one of those who will unabashedly tear up at a moment of true romance. I was recently introduced by Amelia Adams to the The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which had two words, perfectly placed, that had me getting misty. I love love LOVE The Return of the Man From Snowy River (and those who have read Not All Cowboys Are Cruel might see an homage or two in there). But my favorite romantic movie is The Princess Bride. Not just because of the romance between Wesley and Buttercup, but because the grandfather’s final words as he leaves his sick grandson’s room are absolute perfection.”
Michaelbrent Collings is the bestselling author of books ranging from horror to sci-fi to mystery to humor and back again. He is a produced screenwriter, multiple Bram Stoker Award and Whitney Award finalist, and has done other stuff, too. As Angelica Hart, he writes the Baxter Homestead Romances.
And there you have it! Hopefully some of the above recommendations have sparked interest, and even more than that, I hope you have a great Valentine’s Day and a year full of love, laughter, and life!
I wasn’t born there, but Thousand Oaks is my home town. I lived there over a decade, as a kid and a teen, before leaving to serve as a missionary in South America. I returned and spent a few more years there. It was the one place in California I really enjoyed being – a kind, happy place full of (generally) kind, happy people. In my later teens and early twenties, I would frequently rollerblade or ride my bike through the town at all hours of the night – I’ve never been a good sleeper, and would exercise sometimes at two or three in the morning. I never worried about being hurt or even bothered. It was a Safe Place. It was home.
Today it is a place not safe, a place in mourning. I have been to the Borderline Bar & Grill a few times – people went there for country and line dancing, and I had some friends play in bands there, and it was less than two miles from my house.
I am so happy that (so far at least) none of my friends was hurt. Selfish of me, I know, but there it is. I am so so so SO sad that so many others have friends who WERE hurt.
I think we live in a tremendous world. We live in an age where we have the power to call a friend who lives on the other side of the globe. We cure diseases that were death sentences a hundred years ago. We make machines that bring opportunity and entertainment to people everywhere. We live in a world of brightness and infinite possibility.
But there is darkness, too. I don’t know what happened – what set off the shooter, what “motives” there were, what happened leading up to the event that cost a dozen people their lives. And even when the reasons come out, I suppose I STILL won’t know what happened. Things like this never make sense to me.
People everywhere are going to glom onto this event as an excuse to push agendas. I’m no different. So here’s mine:
Nope, that wasn’t the wind-up, that was the pitch itself.
There are dangers out there. Pay attention, and do your best to avoid them.
There are people who need help in danger, as with one girl I heard interviewed who fell down and cowered on the floor until a stranger yanked her to her feet and dragged her to safety. Pay attention for opportunities to help someone like that.
Pay attention before the danger comes, too. Stopping it before it happens is always better than hoping it misses you. So many people in this “connected” world of ours feel disaffected, rudderless. That kind of feeling turns to fear, and fear in humans almost always manifests itself as anger, sooner or later.
Watch for the fearful. Pay attention. I’m not saying that everyone can be helped, or that kindness will cure all evil. But I AM sure that if we spent a little less time screaming about how awful [INSERT POLITICAL PARTY/IDEOLOGY/BELIEF SYSTEM/RACE/AFFILIATION OF YOUR CHOICE] is and a little more time looking for opportunities to ask how someone’s doing, and actually give a damn what the answer is, there’d be a lot less rage in the world.
Love doesn’t cure all evils, because evil DOES exist – and it exists to rend and destroy what’s beautiful. That’s its nature.
But fomenting a culture of anger, where people are either “my people” or “that idiot/scumbag/ignorant fool” is psychotic.
I’m not giving excuses for the shooter – though I fear someone will read that into this little message. All I’m saying is that events like what happened in Thousand Oaks are happening too much. We’re doing something wrong, when things like this happen. And when they happen often, it’s a sign that things have to change on a large scale.
Change isn’t brought about in congressional votes, or presidential edicts. Change doesn’t happen with new legislation. Those things are results at best, and more often are just side effects.
Change happens when we wake up in the morning, when we see the first person of our day and make a choice to engage or to ignore; to condescend or to seek to understand. Change occurs when we reach out to someone and try to REALLY UNDERSTAND what they’re thinking – or when we “listen” to them only so we can find the first “stupid/rotten/ignorant/evil” thing they say and then we pounce on it in the knowledge that doing so will “cure” them.
Change happens when we hear someone we disagree with, and try to understand why they think those things, rather than barreling in with both barrels loaded and ready to fire our “better” understanding.
I am glad my friends and family are okay.
I grieve for the people with friends and family who were killed, and for those dead themselves.
Today I will try to smile a bit more. I will try to listen to people instead of just waiting for them to pause so I can say MY Very Important Thing. Today I will hug my family tight, and remind my children that there are dangers out there… which means they should be careful, and that they should do what they can to be such bright and kind and wonderful people that they inspire the universe to be a brighter and kinder and more wonderful place.
My heart, prayers, and tears go out to you in Thousand Oaks. Things like what happened last night should not happen. Ever. And I recognize that I can’t stop them. But I can do my best to make sure that everyone I meet – EVERYONE – knows I appreciate them as a human, and as a thing of inestimable value. Whether I agree with you or not (and I disagree with my wife/best friend all the time, so I have no doubt you and I will disagree about Big Important Things as well), please know that I appreciate you in my life, and please know – if ever your days are dark – that the way to conquer that darkness is not to make others join you in that darkness, but to find it in ourselves to make more light.
“Why do you love horror?”
Better yet: “Why do you write horror?”
This last is a question that I hear often – even more often than most horror writers, probably, given that I’m a guy who doesn’t look like he’s planning on how to make a wallet out of your face-skin, have no terrifying scars or eyes that have “Will Kill For Food” written across them, and (most of all) that I am a deeply religious person who teaches Sunday School in between writing about monsters.
Yet despite these incontrovertible facts, I’ve not only read and watch horror, I actually make my living writing stories that make people cringe and shudder.
So… that question makes sense. Why do I write – and read, and watch, and just plain love – horror?
My answer: I write horror because horror is the genre of morality, and the language of hope.
When was the last time you read an involved discussion of good vs. evil in a piece of literary fiction? How often do you find a discussion of the possibility of something infinitely greater than ourselves, and of our relationship to such a thing, in a science fiction epic? Not just a strawman discussion, either, but an honest-to-goodness throw-down over questions that have plagued us as a species since the first moments we learned to speak: Where do we come from? Why are we here? What, if anything, happens after?
Horror is uniquely positioned to ask these questions. And not just that, but to discuss them on a deep level that both assumes their importance and (just as critical!) states that those huge, radically important questions actually have answers.
In other words, horror matters. Which is also why it is so polarizing, because things that matter… well, people care about them. That means they get angry if you disagree about the importance of those things, or think you are caring about the wrong things (or even about the right things in a wrong way). Things that matter are things close to the heart. Things close to the heart are, by nature, the ones that can hurt us.
And the things that hurt us… well, of course, they’re the things we most fear. And, more often than not, they’re also the things we most love.
There’s the dichotomy of horror: it is a genre that finds its footings in blood and fear – and some horror positively wallows in those things – but which, ultimately, is a kind of storytelling that defines goodness for the reader.* Horror tells us stories of morality: of the dangers of walking dark paths; and, ultimately, it reminds us that we live in a world of hope.
Some will read this and scoff. “But I read [insert name of book/story/movie/whatever here], and it was just blood, blood, blood!” Or, “What about every movie that came out of the 1980s? Just one kill after another, with the occasional pause for teens to get it on and show some skin!” Or even, “How can you claim that something like Hereditary (one of the darkest movie scripts ever written) is hopeful?”
But here’s the thing: horror, in order to actually be horror, must cause fear in the reader. It has to evoke a sense that what we are seeing or reading or hearing is deeply, unsettlingly wrong. But “wrong” (and its far darker offspring, “horrifying”) does not exist in a vacuum. “Wrong” is something that cannot be understood or even noticed unless we first understand – at least a little – that thing called “right.”
Horror stories, by nature, exist to show us the opposite of the way “things should be,” and so implies that there is a way things should be. A place where killers do not come for the innocent, where people can tuck their children in bed and be secure in the knowledge that no ghost or demon will come to steal them away (or, even worse, possess them).
There is a rightness in the universe. There is a thing we call “good,” and competent horror stories show us that good by demonstrating what happens in its absence.
Competent horror tears out the hearts of its readers. It throws those hearts in a ditch, the readers’ silent screams echoing in the authors’ ears as they bury their bloody treasures deep in the earth, one shovelful at a time. Violence, loss, fear… each adds more dirt to the grave, each further cuts the hearts off from the rest of the “right” universe. Yes, competent horror does that.
Competent horror buries your heart. It kicks you and knocks you down. Then it leaves you gasping, dying, alone. The story is a moral one, for – again – it must be moral to matter. A sense of what is “right” must exist for the “wrong” to matter at all, let alone for it to terrify us. But competent horror only exists to assert this fact: there is what is “right,” and there is also that thing called “wrong.” Then, its basic lesson taught, it leaves.
But great horror does more. It cuts out the reader’s heart (oft-times more cruelly and painfully than simply “competent” horror), and buries it deep (oft-times even deeper than “the good stuff” does). But – and here is the difference between competence and greatness – great horror adds one more step:
Great horror remains to see what will happen next. For the great horror stories know that the burial is not the end. For in horror, the burial does not signal the end of the story. After all, one of horror’s great lessons is that the monster, once vanquished and buried deep, will eventually rise again to terrorize and maim.
But if the monster does this… then why not us?
Great horror stories tear us apart and bury our still-beating hearts. And then it waits, knowing that given time, given encouragement, given (dare I say it?) a bit of grace… we can rise again. Our hearts will not only beat, but beat all the stronger because of what they have been through.
A decent horror story destroys us. A great one then helps us through the painful process of resurrection, and leave us with souls stronger than they were before.
Horror talks about ghosts and goblins, madmen and monsters, freaks and fiends. But what it actually does is this: it gives us the language to understand what we are seeing when we witness evil, it gives us the tools we need to confront that evil, and it reminds us that in the end – if we are smart enough, brave enough, true enough, good enough – we will triumph.
There are stories where evil appears to win. But great horror shows us that the battle goes on. In my own books, the “good guy” doesn’t necessarily make it to the final page. In fact, some important stories demand an unhappy ending. My novel Twisted, for example, is a ghost story… but it is also a story about child abuse, and the horrifying effects it has on the evil and innocent alike. Such stories cannot finish with “they all lived happily ever after.” Evil always leaves scars in its wake, and to ignore that fact is to do a disservice to those of us who have lived through darkness, and learned to survive and even thrive in spite of those scars. Some stories must end “badly,” if only so we may know how to avoid becoming the monsters they have described.
Besides, even in stories where evil appears to triumph, the reality is anything but. Because the moment after “the end” happens, the reader proves those two words to be a lie. The reader closes the book. The reader turns off the Kindle. The story is done, but the reader… the reader does not end. For the reader has survived. The reader will continue and, hopefully, continue forward stronger.
All horror shows us the darkness we are capable of. Great horror reminds us of the miraculous creatures we already are.
And that is why I write – and read, and will always love – horror.
* Or viewer, or whatever. I’m a screenwriter and author, so I deal with people reading, listening, and watching, but for ease of use purposes I’m just going to refer to “readers” from here on in. After all, you’re reading this right now, so it seems apropos.
This article first appeared on the website of RA for All.
What to write about… what to write about…
This is the question I face when writing this article, or starting a book, or anything else. What do I write about? What do I DO?
So I thought I’d write about that process – and about something that so few of us think about: the power of our words. As writers, we all kinda-sorta-maybe know that. We know that words matter, but many (most? all?) of us think about them in terms of, “I have a story. The story matters. People will like it. People will buy it and I will have a pool of golden duccats that would be the envy of Scrooge McDuck.”
To be sure, I think most people do have that kind of story in them. The trick is finding it, bringing it out, putting it down, and getting the word out (and those are a whole SERIES of blog posts/articles/book, so I won’t try here).
My dad once said (wisely) that talking about important things on social media is like trying to teach rocket science using bumper stickers. To which I would add: with the only difference that we would all agree that the latter is insane.
But not the former. We talk about “important” things all the time, never minding that they a) usually AREN’T that important in the grand scheme of things (and if you think they are, I’d invite you to tell me what you Tweeted last Tuesday), and b) the most important things merit our greatest care and attention.
I’m not telling people here to stop social media. I’m not encouraging silence. I’m saying that we live in a time where communication is possible on a greater scale than would have been imaginable even twenty years ago. I’m saying that this means words are flying around constantly.
And words, I am fond of saying, are the single greatest inhibitor of communication ever invented.
Before words, it was easy. You either hated or feared a person – in which case you ran away and/or beat them with your club made of T-rex femur – or you loved them, in which case you ran TOWARD them and shared your T-rex meat and/or went to the nearest cave to make sweet caveperson love.
Now, though… so many words. So much complicatednessosity. Even that last word is needlessly complicateder than it has to be. But I’m leaving it. BECAUSE IT’S IMPORTANT.
Ultimately, we created words that allowed us to exercise the single greatest power in human history: the power to tell stories. That’s the thing that differentiates us from every other creature, because there’s no other creature capable of telling Beowulf, or creating a sonnet, or writing out blueprints or mathematical equations (which are how science tells ITS most important stories).
We are creatures of stories, you and I. We meet, we converse, we share… and, fundamentally, we spend much of our time misunderstanding.
That’s one of the pitfalls of being a writer: you become convinced that not only are you telling a good story, but that the people for whom you write are hearing the same story you intended to write. This is rarely the case, though, because we all bring ourselves to the stories we hear. The audience is as much a part of the finished product as is the “original” storyteller.
This is even more pronounced on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, you name it. A smiley-face or heart means something vastly different to me than it does to you. Sure, they mean “happy” or “love,” but those words themselves are two upon which oceans of writers have expended infinite words, so obviously there’s a lot of wiggle room there.
“Don’t just write a short story. Start out with an epic, because you gotta build to a short story.” I said that once in jest/not-jest, and there’s truth in it. Writing something short that matters, that’s punchy and interesting… it’s hard. Not least of all because, again, the chances of the audience reading the interesting, cool, deep thing you tried to write is infinitesimally small. They’re going to read the words, but their lives loom larger when the picture is smaller. They’ll bring more of themselves to a short story than they would to a novel, because the author of a short story necessarily leaves more blanks for the audience to fill in. An eight-book epic spanning twenty years of a family’s lives, well, that’s something where the author gets to put a pretty sturdy cage around what he intends, and keep prying audience members from messing with it too much. But a twenty-page short story? A five-hundred word flash fiction piece? Those are really written by the author, interpreted by the audience, and the interpretation disseminated to the masses.
So what, then, a Tweet? A line under an Instagram picture.
Again, this isn’t to condemn those forums. This isn’t to tell people to stay away. But as a writer, I’ve seen far too many times where I thought I was telling one story, and ended up telling one completely differently. I take great care now not just to tell the story, but to make it as close to impossible for the reader to misinterpret it as I can… and I still only succeed a fraction of the time.
Our words are magical. Our words are lovely. They are the brightest of suns. But they also burn, they cut, they corrode. So powerful, and it behooves us to use them wisely and well. Our society has little place or use for hermits; we interact with each other and expect others to contribute to our lives just as we contribute to theirs. But we must remember: we are creatures not of concepts, but of stories. Every word we say, or write, or type, is part of a story that goes into the world, and changes it a bit. We bear every bit as much of a responsibility to do our best to change the world in a good way with every word as we do the responsibility of leaving a world behind that has food and air and water for our kids. But though most of us wouldn’t blow up a dirty bomb in a mall amongst thousands of strangers, we think far too little of lobbing potentially dangerous words into the atmosphere of social media. Then we shrug and say, “Hey, I’m being honest,” or, “Hey, that needed to be said,” or “Hey, I’ve always stood up for what I believed,” without ever asking the more important questions: how does that honesty benefit the world? Did it “need” to be said, or did I just really really wanna say it? And in standing up for what I believed, did I help others, did I harm them, or did I care less about that than I did about just getting something off my chest?
The world is magical. It’s so full of stories, so full of words. We talk, we smile, we laugh, we play. I love all those things – they make me smile myself, and (selfishly) I enjoy stealing others’ stories so I can reshape them in my own image.
But we also stand up and tell people things “for their own good” without getting to know them. We condemn groups as a whole without regard for whether that will actually change their minds or lead to any kind of change. We spit into the wind, because we are ANGRY, DAMMIT, and then are shocked when the wind changes and the person who gets the most spittle on their cheek is not the intended victim, but we ourselves.
Words are important – and there are definitely those that must be said. But we have to be careful. We have to think.
We are storytellers. That is what it is to be human: to experience things, then to take those experiences and boil them down into stories we can tell to (hopefully) make our future experiences and the future experiences of others into something more meaningful and pleasing. But as storytellers, as the most powerful of creatures, we also bear the tremendous responsibility of using that power wisely. If Superman went out and murdered someone – even just once – we would toss him out as our superhero. I’m not talking “I got into some kryptonite and did something over which I had no control,” I’m talking about a day where Supes just gets tired of it all, throws up his hands, and heat visions his frickin’ neighbor who constantly plays house mixes with full bass to death. At that point, we are done with him. He is no longer not a hero, he is forever unredeemable.
But we can lose control. We can post in the moment, because IT MUST BE SAID IT MUST BE SAID NOW IT MUST BE SAID THIS WAY BECAUSE I FEEL IT MUST BE SO.
I am a storyteller. I am a human. So are you, those of you who read this. So let us tell good stories. Let us tell kind ones. Sometimes kindness is painful (ask any child who just had a tetanus shot or got a cavity filled what he or she thought of it). But kindness is never unthinking, or motivated by my feelings of the moment – it is motivated by plans that will benefit someone’s future.
The best stories are these. Whenever someone asks me to write an article or a guest post, and I always try to think of something useful to write. There’s story tips, there’s craft how-tos. I can talk about making a relatable villain, or dealing with suspension of disbelief for a zombie story. All that’s important, but all it boils down to at its base is the fact that the story that matters deserves a well-crafted vehicle.
So craft your own vehicles well. And remember that Twitter is just as much a storytelling venue as is Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Remember perhaps as well that when we use social media as a vehicle for our stories, it’s not a rollerskate; as often as not it’s a tank with a single devastating shot. Let us take care to shoot only things we’ve really thought about, and really aimed for; collateral damage is horrid in war, but for some reason it deserves no notice when I’m posting on “my” wall – a wall of “mine” that is bought and paid for and designed and maintained by other people without any input on my part, which is the strangest definition of “mine” I have ever heard.
And maybe we should sometimes not shoot at all. Perhaps we should get out of the tank, and take a walk. That’s how we actually meet people with whom we’d like to share our T-rex meat and make sweet caveperson love.
Thanks for tuning in to the First Annual Ultimate Halloween Recommendations list. By which I mean a List I Made and Which I May or May Not Do Again Next year.
Below you will see the favorite scary fare in movies and books from some of my favorite people – many of whom also happen to be bestselling horror authors, Bram Stoker Award nominees and winners, top-of-the-genre horror reviewers and bloggers, and more. These are the best of the best, and I’ve asked each for a few sentences (and in a few cases, they’ve given more… an embarrassment of riches!) on their favorite scary/Halloween movie or book. Please note: if there’s a bit in quotes after their name, it’s a direct quote from their bios. Otherwise, I did my best to show of their Awesomeness Incarnate.
They’re listed in alphabetical order by first name/internet moniker so as not to show favoritism. And without any further ado… Go!
Ania Ahlborn – “Ania’s first novel, SEED, was self-published. It clawed its way up the Amazon charts to the number one horror spot, earning her a multi-book deal and a key to the kingdom of the macabre. Seven years later, her work has been lauded by the likes of Publishers Weekly, New York Daily News, and the New York Times.”
My favorite horror novel isn’t a novel, it’s a book of short stories by Stephen King. But it’s like a deep cut B-side when it comes to his collections. Full Dark, No Stars has stuck with me since I read it in less than two days while laid out with a killer case of the flu. When I finished it, I immediately wanted to read it again. And it makes good on its title. It’s dark, possibly darker than any King stuff I can remember. And if you know anything about me or my work, you know I’m a sucker for a darkness you can’t claw your way out of.
Because it’s such a fun and Halloween-appropriate flick, Drag Me to Hell is my horror movie pick. I still remember watching this film for the first time, fully expecting it to be serious horror. But it’s slow spiral into pure camp is both delightful and hilarious. I’m not big on camp, but I can’t recommend this movie enough.
Bark at the Ghouls – “I’ve been a horror fan ever since I swiped Carrie by Stephen from my dad’s nightstand as a child and love nothing more than talking about scary books.” My reviews can be found at http://barksbooknonsense.blogspot.com/ I am also a founding member of https://ladiesofhorrorfiction.com/”
My favorite movie of all time is Near Dark. I wrote a guest post for Scifi & Scary about it and also posted it my blog feel free to take a little snippet. My favorite horror book is GEEK LOVE by Katherine Dunn That book, to me, is complete perfection. It’s a grueling read about a couple who decide to create their own troupe of circus freaks by imbibing toxins when the mother is pregnant. It still remains one of the most horrifying books I’ve ever read and it’s one of the few books I reread every few years and it never lets me down. This reminds that I am due for a reread!
Bob Pastorella – author of Mojo Rising and co-host for a This is Horror.
As much as I’m likely to change my mind on any given day, I would say that Rosemary’s Baby, both novel and film, is high on my list. Levin pulls the wool over our eyes so many times that we don’t know who to trust, and when we think we’ve figured it out, we realize that yes, “All of them Witches.”
Blu Gilliand – Managing Editor of Cemetery Dance Magazine and Cemetery Dance Online
I was flattered when Michaelbrent Collings asked me to write about my favorite horror book and/or movie. Like most fans, I love any opportunity to talk about the stuff that excites me.
And then I started trying to narrow the choices down.
Keeping in mind that I had not been asked to submit several Top 10 Lists, annotated and supplemented with various “runners-up” compilations and subgenre-specific side-roads, I decided to choose a novel and a book that, for me, do the best job of invoking the feeling of Halloween. ‘Tis the season, after all!
When it comes to books, nothing evokes Halloween better for me than Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge. Dark Harvest takes place in a small town on a cold Halloween night in 1963 — a town in which Halloween traditions run deeper and darker than simple trick-or-treating. Yes, there are rites of passage to be completed that night, but we’re not talking egging houses and rolling trees. We’re talking rituals born of dark earth and blood. We’re talking a living embodiment of evil called The October Boy, stalking streets and backyards. We’re talking packs of desperate teenage boys on the hunt for their only ticket out of town. Partridge takes teen-rebel swagger and slaps it onto a Carpenter-esque framework, and delivers it with the kind of tough-as-nails prose that would be right at home in any Hard Case Crime release.
As for movies, I need look no further than Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat for my Halloween fix. Dougherty uses the anthology approach to pack as many Halloween tropes as he can in a film that covers one night in a fictional Ohio town. You’ve got poison candy, a local legend revolving around a fatal bus crash, pranks, werewolves, undead children, revenge stories and more, told in a group of interlocking tales with a mysterious, child-like figure named Sam at the center of it all. It’s a gorgeous movie, filled with truckloads of jack-o-lanterns, orange lights, creepy woods, and suburban streets filled with trick-or-treaters in eye-catching costumes. Every frame screams “HALLOWEEN!” and I’ll likely watch it multiple times this season for the atmosphere alone.
Catherine from Red Lace Reviews – Catherine is “a horror enthusiast from Northern Ireland. She spends most of her time in a desperate quest to scare herself silly. She’s an active book reviewer and blogger, and loves every moment of it.”
I’d like to pitch in a book and a movie, both I consider favourites of mine.
Graeme Reynolds pulled me into an intense and ruthless experience – something so brutal that I often had to sit back and reassess the murderous events that assaulted me in every chapter. With bone-snapping and blood-spurting entertainment, it quickly became apparent that this was the pinnacle of werewolf fiction. For me, the perfect creature feature.
It once was an obsession, this tale of two outcasts that had the misfortune of a beastly encounter. The depressive atmosphere weighed heavily, but I was fascinated with the doom and gloom. The parallels between coming of age and turning into a bloodthirsty monster were startling – both very drastic transformations indeed. I guess you could say, that at a younger age, I was able to relate to the protagonists (more to do with being the unpopular kid whilst hitting adulthood, not the turning into a werewolf aspect… even though I would have welcomed that, probably.)
Christine Morgan – “Christine Morgan reads, writes, edits, reviews, enjoys baking and weird crafts, and is really fed up with cancer.” [NOTE FROM MICHAELBRENT: Christine is one of my favorites. She gave me my VERY FIRST “pro” review (you can read it here if you want), has reviewed nearly every one of my horror novels since then, and is a neato-keen person to boot. She’s a continuing cancer warrior/badass/survivor (see her bio above), so send her good thoughts and check out her websites!]
Aaaaaagh these kinds of questions … I have so many favorites, even breaking them down into sub-categories is hard!
The Shining – pivotal life-changer, I read it when I was ten years old and my aunt told my parents it would warp me forever and she was right.
The Hot Zone – not even a novel but this book still scares the heck out of me more than any fictional stuff I’ve ever read.
City Infernal – my introduction to Edward Lee, epic worldbuilding and gore, blew my mind and made me an instant die-hard forever fan.
Invaders From Mars – I always have to look up the title of this one because my mind will not let me remember it, freaked me out so bad as a kid.
The Changeling – subtle and moody, that wheelchair; the scene with the ball bouncing down the dusty staircase; the floaty spectre coming up … shivers all over.
30 Days of Night – vampireociraptors, ‘nuff said.
Darren Shan – author of The Saga of Darren Shan, The Demonata series, and more
While I’ve seen and relished many fine horror films over the years, if I had to pick just one that truly terrified me and that I could name as a truly life-changing influence, then it would be the 1970s TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot. When I was a boy (I’m guessing 9 or 10 at most, maybe even younger) my next-door neighbours, knowing of my love of horror, said they’d seen the first half of a two-part film about vampires. It sounded right up my alley, so I watched the second half when it aired. It was Salem’s Lot and it scared the living S-H-EYE-T out of me! Most horror films that I’d seen to that point were set in the past and featured adult-only characters. This was set in the modern day, with some kids — and those kids weren’t immune to the vampiric shenanigans going on around them — “Mark… open the window, Mark…” I loved every minute of it and enjoyed a woke-me-up-from-my-sleep nightmare that night, which I thought was VERY cool — the only other film that ever did that for me was Dracula 1972 AD, which I saw when I was a good bit younger and took seriously, not realising it was meant to be funny. I’ve watched Salem’s Lot several times over the decades since, and it’s always impressed me — for a TV movie, it rocks big time. If you’ve never seen it, and are sceptical about a 3 hour long 1970s TV flick, track it down and surprise yourself.
Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi – horror poet and reviewer for Hook of a Book; “has Bachelor of Arts degrees in English, Journalism, and History. She has 20 years of experience in her field where she is currently an author, a journalist, an editor, and publicist among many other things. Breathe. Breathe. was her debut collection and a mix of dark poetry and short stories. She has stories featured in several other anthologies and magazines and was the co-editor of the anthology Haunted are These Halls. She also serves as president of the board of her local mental health center and rape crisis domestic violence safe haven.
Dead of Winter by Brian Moreland was one of my first horror novel read outside of Stephen King, and the one that catapulted me into the horror industry as a writer and in my career. I still consider this book one of my top ten favorite reads of all time. Published in 2011, this book is now out of print (cue tears!), but hopefully it will make a comeback eventually because it truly is one of the greatest modern horror novels in my opinion.
In Dead of Winter, Inspector Tom Hatcher just can’t get over what happened when he was on the case of serial killer, the Cannery Cannibal. Meanwhile, Father Xavier, an exorcism specialist on assignment with the Catholic church, visits the serial killer in an asylum. As he realizes the mental patient is possessed by a demon, we sense that the Cannery Cannibal is far more powerful and deadly than anyone could have imagined.
Also, in 1870 at a fur trading fort set in the deep and dense Ontario wilderness, Hatcher confronts his own demons while investigating some gruesome murders. It becomes apparent that a predator from the forest has unleashed a deadly plague among the colonists in which they begin to crave human flesh with an insatiable hunger and take on supernatural powers and body shape to obtain it. Once the shape shifting begins, there isn’t ending it and death abounds.
Based on a real historical Native American legend, Moreland crafts his tale to include the spirituality of the Native American culture who lived in these woods and the conflicting arrogance of the white man who often lived at the forts and outposts. Inspector Hatcher doesn’t know if he can stop the rampage this time, as good is pitted against evil in an amazing battle of wills. Father Xavier arrives to assist him as no other priest has been able to manage or live through, along with passionate Native American Anika, who is disregarded by everyone but Hatcher, accused of being a witch and used as a slave. Together, they unravel a mystery of epic proportions.
Brian’s writing took me somewhere out of my daily life as I became entranced by the story. His detail and cinematology, coupled with his unique story telling ability, kept me turning page after page.
Fox Emm – ; “Fox Emm writes horror reviews for a variety of sites and also pens stories for the unsqueamish. You can find her work on Amazon”
The best Halloween movie needs to meet a few criteria. It has to be fun to watch, something even non-horror fans can enjoy, and something that I’d want to watch more than once. That makes for an incredibly short list. The original Scream tics those boxes. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it has a fairly satisfying resolution.
Frank Errington – radio personality and horror reviewer for Cemetery Dance
My scariest movie is Alien. Though many consider this to be a science fiction classic. This one really scared me. It still does, to this day.
Gracie Kat – reviewer for Sci Fi & Scary
Hal Bodner – Bram Stoker Award nominee, author of Bite Club!
When I was a kid–oh, so many eons ago!–there was no such thing as the internet, nor even video recording. If we wanted to watch a movie, we either went to the movie theatre or waited until it came onto television.
I remember when I was in the fourth grade, this new thing called “Saturday Morning Cartoons” was created. Unfortunately, on Sunday mornings, we were limited to live action movies on UHF channels — that is, local broadcasting stations. Usually, the movies that they aired were films that could be licensed very cheaply — which meant a lot of bad horror films, spaghetti Westerns, “foreign” films and science fiction pictures, all of which were in black and white.
I distinctly recall one film called THE WITCH’S MIRROR, shot in Spanish and dubbed into English which TERRIFIED me as a kid. There was a scene at the end where a disembodied hand crawls up someone’s back and stabs them in the neck with a scissors. It haunted me for YEARS; I would check under the bed each night to see if five crawly fingers lurked with a sharpened pair of shears!
John FD Taff – Bram Stoker Award nominee, author of The End in all Beginnings and Little Deaths
My favorite horror book is definitely Peter Straub’s The Throat. I re-read it every couple of years. It’s as dense as a flourless chocolate cake and full of nuance and shading and unreliable narration. Just a fantastic book.
Kealan Patrick Burke – Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Turtle Boy, Kin, and Sour Candy
I don’t always watch the same horror movies every year on Halloween, but there are a few staples: Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982), The Fog (1980), Trick R’ Treat (2007) and Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Most of these are rightly regarded as classics, but Halloween III is the one that always raises an eyebrow whenever I bring it up. Released in 1982, the film was neither a commercial nor a critical success. Part of the problem was that fans were confused by the absence of the series’ boogeyman, Michael Myers. They’d showed up for some hack n’ slash and instead found themselves watching a gonzo film about robots, killer masks, and Irish druids. In an effort to get away from repeating the same slasher story over and over again, the film was intended to be the first in an anthology series, with each entry telling a different horror story set on Halloween. How wonderful that might have been! But when Halloween failed to make an impact at the box office, the idea was quashed in favor of returning to Mr. Myers’ babysitter-killing exploits.
But, maligned as it is, I happen to love Halloween III. I can, in fact, recall being seriously creeped out by it the first time I saw it, and for many of the same reasons I was unnerved by first viewings of Halloween and The Fog: John Carpenter’s score and Dean Cundey’s cinematography, the staccato synth beats and the wide angle night shots broken by the sudden ominous flare of the villain’s headlights, or the appearance of a sinister figure in a hallway. There’s just a certain feel to these films that gets me every time. I adore the style of them. And of course, you have Tom Atkins, whose wisecracking everyman is always worth a look.
And what of the plot?
It’s silly, of course, but so much fun too. How can you not be drawn in by the notion of kids being murdered by their own masks on Halloween night to fulfil the needs of a druidic cult? It’s as outrageous as it is irresistible, a B-movie done so well that it almost transcends the category. And there are some legitimate freak-out moments too, courtesy of some excellent practical effects work. Those robot henchmen don’t skimp on the gore.
In short, it’s cheap, it’s clumsy, it’s creepy, and it’s got a killer ending, but whenever it comes up, the thing most people remember is the jingle. You know the one. It’s irritating as hell but also summons up the fond memory of an oft-forgotten film that deserves a lot more love.
Three more days to Halloween, Halloween, Halloween…Three more days to Halloween…Silverrrr Shamrock…
Melinda M. Snodgrass – screenwriter of Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Outer Limits, and many more, and author of urban fantasy novels
I am such a wuss that I almost never watch horror movies. I get too scared and then I have nightmares. I did see the Exorcist and barely slept for two weeks after that. That Catholic thing runs deep. And Alien scared me to death too.
Mercedes Yardley – Bram Stoker Award winner and author of Nameless and Pretty Little Dead Thiings
My favorite horror movie is the original Poltergeist. There’s a little girl in distress. Her family bands together to save her from something they can’t even begin to comprehend. They call for outside help, and eventually the mother ties a rope around her waist and wanders into hell itself to rescue her child. There are memorable tagline, terrifying clowns, and a tree that tries to eat you, but everything is okay at the end. The movie is chilling and manages to be endearing at the same time. Poltergeist was, unfortunately and unnecessarily, remade. The remake neutered the original story by cutting out a strong female character completely and then having a washed-up TV host rescue Carol Ann instead of having her mother do it. While I’m always a fan of redemption stories, my favorite part of the original was the fact that when things were at their most despairing, Mama wrapped herself up and plunged after her little girl. Parents kick butt.
Michael R. Collings – aka “My Dad,” multiple Bram Stoker Award nominee; horror poet, novelist, and World Horror Convention Grandmaster
In no particular order, some of my favorite ‘horror’ novels (there are too many good ones out there to have only a few favorites) include: Stephen King’s IT and The Shining, both encountered in early adulthood and still enjoyed; Robert R. McCammon’s Wolf’s Hour, for me one of the finest werewolf novels; Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and the Julie Harris film adaptation; and Predators, arguably the best and most suspense-filled novel by a prolific writer named Michaelbrent (yes, my son, but that doesn’t keep him from being an outstanding storyteller.
Peter Dudar – author of The Goat Parade
It’s Halloween again, and I want to pass onto you a movie that has been (in my honest opinion) overlooked in the pantheon of horror films. I’m speaking of 2014’s THE CANAL (written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh). THE CANAL was eclipsed by that year’s cinema darling, THE BABADOOK (written and directed by Jennifer Kent), and all the hype surrounding what William Friedkin was hailing as the scariest film he’d seen in years. Whereas THE BABADOOK was remarkable for being both an import from Australia and the significance of a female filmmaker presenting the year’s biggest horror movie, THE CANAL appeared on streaming video nearly simultaneously, but went largely unnoticed. Having watched THE BABADOOK after following all the buzz it was creating in the film festival circuit, my experience was somewhat disappointing. It’s a flawed movie (and not one I’m going to critique in this essay), but on the whole worth a viewing. A few days later I stumbled upon THE CANAL on NetFlix, and was immediately drawn into its atmospheric style and marvelous storytelling. Like THE BABADOOK, THE CANAL is also an import from the U.K., and unravels in a psychological thriller that horror fans might find similar to the 2001 masterpiece SESSION 9.
The opening sequence of the movie has David (Rupert Evans) addressing some high school students preceding a lecture he’s about to give. The students are chattering away until he pipes up and asks them bluntly, “Who wants to see some ghosts?”, alluding to the people captured on celluloid in his film footage, who have been dead for nearly a hundred years but remain youthful and vibrant in his archive footage. The vignette is short, but sets such a staggeringly effective stage for the dread to come. David, a film archivist working for the city’s historical society, is presented with some super-8 footage of some murders that had taken place in his hometown at the beginning of the 20th century. David is a very overworked husband and father, and comes to suspect that his wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) has been having an affair. David begins spying on his wife out of jealousy, and follows Alice and her lover back to his flat. When she fails to return home, the film spins into a tense trail of psychological dread as David tries to piece together what actually transpired between when he left Alice’s lover’s flat the night before and when he awoke the next morning, waiting to confront his unfaithful spouse.
What David comes to learn is that the apartment his family is living in happens to be the same crime scene from the film footage he’s been working to preserve at the archive, as if all of this madness has happened before. When the titular canal outside their apartment is dredged and Alice’s corpse is uncovered, David’s world plunges into a hallucinatory spiral of madness as he’s forced to prove that someone else (possibly a supernatural entity) murdered his wife.
There’s a distinct correlation between how one appreciates a horror film and where that viewer happens to be in his/her own life. I’m finding that this particular film works for me—in sinking those needle-sharp teeth right into my pressure points—because the characters within the film are drawn from a very similar place in age and how I view the world in my own life. It’s entirely relatable (and I’m inclined to make the same argument with THE BABADOOK, that these films are more likely to scare someone in their mid-40s like myself than some teenage horror hound looking for their next torture-porn fix). Both are stories with three-dimensional characters, struggling with the responsibilities of working fulltime, parenting, trying to keep relationships somewhat meaningful during stressful situations; these are the new pressure points for my generation. THE CANAL manages to exploit these stressers, as well as the theme of suburban paranoia and subtle, nuanced flashes of the supernatural.
I consider THE CANAL to be the best horror film of the decade, and easily rank it among the top fright flicks of all time. Its only weakness is that its ability to resonate relies heavily on the point in one’s life when they discover it. I’m happy to keep singing its praise, to keep pulling it up from the depths of obscurity, so that others can enjoy the icy chills I feel whenever I go back and watch it again. I hope you enjoy it.
Ronald Malfi – award-winning author and Bram Stoker Award nominee [NOTE FROM MICHAELBRENT: THIS ONE MAY BE MY FAVORITE… AND DEFINITELY GETS THE “TMI” AWARD]
Not sure if I’ve got a “scariest” movie, but my personal Halloween tradition is to watch Poltergeist while finishing off a box of Frankenberry cereal. My poop is pink for the next few days but it’s worth it.
Sadie “Mother Horror” Hartmann – “lover of the written word and sharing her passion on Instagram, Twitter and Goodreads as Mother Horror. Actively reviewing horror for Cemetery Dance and Scream magazine.”
The scariest movie I’ve ever seen is actually a very recent release called, Hereditary. I got excited to see it after watching the previews and seeing Toni Collette (one of my favorite actresses) giving what appeared to be, a standout performance in a “subtly” scary movie. Well Toni Collette did give an amazing performance but there was nothing subtle about the last 45 minutes of this movie. I was so uncomfortable and terrified I was nervously laughing and crying at the same time. I also didn’t sleep well that night and ended up having to watch some late night show about two guys fishing with the sound off so my husband could sleep. I was messed up for about two more days after that screening as well and vowed to never watch a scary movie again. [NOTE FROM MICHAELBRENT – I DOUBT SHE’LL KEEP THIS VOW.]
The scariest book I ever read would be the Exorcist. There were scenes that made my eyes go all funny and my jaw drop open just out of sheer unbelief–“am I reading this right?” I was as terrified as I was disgusted but I flew through the pages because it was just too engaging to throw it across the room. I had to know how it was going to end (I loved the ending by the way)
Scott Nicholson – author of the Next series & the Afterburn series
My favorite horror movies are (not in order):
Let the Right One In
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Night of the Living Dead
Silence of the Lambs
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The Devil’s Advocate
The Behrg – author of Housebroken & The Creation Series
One of my all time favorite movies is “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. Similar to John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of not being able to trust those you know best, and of waking up to a world you no longer recognize. While the concept for Invasion was based on Cold War fears at the time, I find it remains extremely relevant today but with a very different twist. For those who have suffered, or who know someone who suffers, with mental illness, this movie is probably one of the best metaphors you could find for what that experience is like. Waking up and no longer recognizing the people around you–or, quite literally, no longer recognizing yourself. Having the emotions of joy and fulfillment stripped from your personality. It’s an interesting comparison and if you watch the movie looking at it from that angle you’ll find surprising insights you might have missed. The horror genre allows us to explore the monsters that plague us not only from an external standpoint, but internally as well and often times these true-to-life horrors can be far more frightening than any creature could ever be.
TW Piperbrook – author of the Contamination series
Favorite Horror Movie: John Carpenter’s The Thing. One of the most intense and claustrophobic movies I’ve ever seen. I love the setting. Also, Kurt Russell plays the lead. Enough said! Favorite Horror Book: Stephen King’s The Mist. I’ve always loved this novella, and I really enjoyed the movie, as well. The interaction between the characters is awesome, and so are the monsters. I love the glimpse of the last beast in the end!
It’s me again (MbC). Hope you had fun with that! Do check out these authors/reviewers/bloggers/podcasters – they’re great! And if you’re in the mood for something by yours truly, PREDATORS is my newest. Pick it up here.
And happy Halloween!
Readers of my articles will know that as a rule I tend to eschew profanity. Not judging those who use it, just it is not part of my personal style.
This article is going to use several Family-unfriendly words. Be warned.
I recently read a Facebook post encouraging someone to write a story that the author was worried might offend people. The advice boiled down to, “Write what you want, follow the story wherever it goes, and never worry about offending people. Anyone offended has the problem, not you.”
This is unmitigated horseshit.
The greatest, most important power a writer has is to create communities. Writing — indeed, any artistic form —IS emotive; one of its strengths is to create emotion where none existed before, or to strengthen pre-existing emotions. But that is not its primary purpose; it is a tool through which its purposes are achieved.
Writers wield the extraordinary power to tell stories which (when done correctly) weave themselves into the DNA of our psyches. They become a part of us in a way no less real than our eye color, or the shapes of our cheekbones… and in a way that is far more influential in our lives then a great many chromosomal markers.
Storytelling is the oldest non-biological practice in which humans have engaged. The religious speak of the origins of our species as outlined in holy writ. From a scientific standpoint, the earliest examples of humanity survived and thrived not because of their hunting prowess or their physical attributes — people are quite clumsy and weak compared to other apex predators — but because they could tell stories of where to find food, how to build weapons, and the like.
Eventually those stories grew to include great questions — where does lightning come from? Why does this animal attack us? Where did the world come from? And from those questions grew mythologies, creation stories, and more. Stories that did more than influence cultures, they CREATED them.
Storytelling is, without doubt, the greatest human power.
Even today, the greatest decisions are made based on stories: we should attack such-and-such country because we are Good and they are Evil. We marry this person instead of that because this person has stories similar to our own, or that complement our own in ways we deem important. We send a child to a particular college, because it has an important place in our own story, and we will wish that story to live on in our children.
The greatest power we wield. Bar none. And to quote the great poet-philosopher, Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Writers MUST think about what the effect of their stories will be.
And, like it or not, that includes questions of whether or not others will be offended. If for no other reason then because an offended person is less likely to listen to our stories, and certainly less likely to believe them. Alienating a person literally means we make of them The Other — the outsider; the one we fear and, if we feel threatened enough to buy them, the one we kill or who will try to kill us.
More than that strictly pragmatic consideration, however, is this: writers are storytellers — every last one of them, for what it’s writing if not a means to convey information: the important stories we wish to have passed around, and those most likely to outlive us?
And again, the greatest power of the storyteller is to create community, which means they CREATE THE WORLD IN WHICH WE LIVE.
It then behooves us to consider every possible result of the stories we tell. Sometimes offending is a necessary part of telling a story… but that should not happen as an unthinking or unintended outcome, rather as a predetermined part of our purpose in telling the story. It is not nearly that we should consider whether others will be offended, it is that we MUST do so. Because that and other results, again, forge the path not only of our world, but that of others. To say we deserve to hold that power without considering its effects has the moral equivalency of saying anyone with the physical ability to hold a gun deserves to pull the trigger at any time, on any whim, to any effect.
Actually, the above comparison is wrong. It is a far MORE reckless, negligent act to toss out stories without considering the result or the effect on other people. Because ultimately, if I go around shooting a gun, I WILL run out of bullets. I WILL only be able to hurt or kill a certain number of people. And that number is relatively small compared to the potential effect of a story loosed.
A story loosed can hurt or kill MILLIONS. Anyone who doubts this need only look at history, filled with powerful men and women who slaughtered millions in pursuit of whatever mad story they peddled. “All Jews are evil, and they caused the damage we suffer here in Germany.“ “Those people are all enemies of the state, and to let them live will result in our way of life disappearing.“ “That religion is full of heathen, evil creatures who deserve death because they refuse to acknowledge the power of our God.”
A story loosed could destroy all of us: “If we don’t nuke them, they will do it to us, or perhaps they wouldn’t, but they deserve it” (the words “they deserve it” always carry with them and implicit story meant to validate our assessment of their punishment).
If your only intention in writing a story is to write it, and you burn it immediately after and never tell that story again, then you have much greater support for your claim that the offensiveness or other effects of that story need not be considered — though even then I would argue that it’s a reckless behavior. Cemeteries are full of the bodies of those who told horrible stories about themselves until the only rational response was to destroy the life those stories taught had no value or was a blight upon the earth.
Whenever I hear someone who says, “I never consider what this story will do; it is my art, and I follow my art for its own sake,” I cannot help but think that that is someone who either does not know or understand how powerful they are, or who simply is an asshole.
And yes, I use that last word purposefully. I use it knowing its possible offensiveness, and deeming that offensiveness necessary for the purpose of the story I here tell. Which purpose is NOT to offend for its own sake… but the fact is that anyone who blindly holds to their “principles” (artistic or otherwise) without considering its resultant effects is a zealot. And such a person, willing to inflict harm because of no better reason then their own desire and determined never to control themselves, is someone whom I believe should be clearly labeled as something anathematic, so that others will know to avoid a rabid wolf in their midst.
Writers can change the world. We do that with infinite possible stories. No tool is off-limits, but some outcomes hurt the world, and should be avoided.
To anyone who says, “Someone who doesn’t follow their art for its own sake isn’t a real writer,” (something that I hear often in conjunction with the “follow your story” idiocy), I guess I am not a real writer. Which will probably come as a shock to the hundreds of thousands of people who have read my books and articles, seen the movies I have written, or who voted to make me a finalist or semi-finalist or the like in things like the Nicholl Fellowship (arguably the most elite screen writing competition in the world) or the Bram Stoker Award.
And if being a “writer” means sacrificing my responsibility to leave the world a better place than it was when I entered it, then I am and always will be PROUD to not be a writer.
Writers are fond of finding exceptions. It’s part of who we are, I guess. I mean, if we were people who liked following rules we’d already be in a more “normal” profession. We’d be doctors. Or lawyers. Or terrorists. Anything but these free-wheeling weirdos for whom “Pants Optional” is a huge job perk.
So good luck finding a “writing rule” that really IS a rule.
IMAGINARY CREATIVE WRITING CLASS:
Imaginary Teacher: In writing we never use run-on sentences.
Imaginary Student Writer: Unless you’re Shakespeare. He did it. Like, all the time.
IT: Yes, well. Of course. So I guess you can use them. Just don’t use sentence fragments.
ISW: Everyone speaks in sentence fragments. And poets pretty much only use them.
IT: Of course. But one rule is that we never start sentences with a conjunction. And the reason for that is –
ISW: Uhhh… you just did that.
IT: Get out of my class before I kill you.
And the student leaves, usually makes a comment in his mind about how the teacher is teaching because he couldn’t make it as a writer, and goes off and, you know, writes. Usually breaking as many “rules” as possible for spite.
Upshot: no rules.
Except there are. There really are. Just a few.
Just three. And you can’t break them. Not ever. Not and hope to keep an audience.
And here they are. There are three. Only three, no more, no less. And every other skill I know, every other technique I use, hangs on the framework provided by one or more of these rules.
1) Bore Me And Die
2) Confuse Me And Lose Me
3) Make Me Better Or Leave Me Alone
Let’s talk about each…
My review of Map of Shadows is a fairly simple one, but it highlights a few terribly important things.
To start, here is the litmus test for a great story: when you are in bed at night, reading, and your spouse elbows you in the side and says, “Shut UP.”
“What?” you answer, confused about what’s happening, half of you still trapped in the story you’ve fallen into.
“You were SHOUTING,” she says. Then she rolls over, laughing because she knows what all this means: that SHE has found a new story, too, because when I’m done with it, it’s her turn.
The above is rare for me. As a writer myself, I have a marked tendency to pick a story apart, to dissect each sentence after reading it and to ruthlessly VIVISECT the plot AS I read it. I’m like a mad scientist, who in churning out his own little monsters has ceased to view the other creatures out there as anything other than items of academic interest. Just things to be learned from or things to be despised, depending on how competent those creatures’ own “mad scientist” parents are (or are not).
And then, in a beautiful – and all-too-rare – moment, one of those creatures not only meets your gaze, but stares you down and then SPEAKS to you. You are reminded that these creatures, these little monsters that have sprung forth of others’ minds, can sometimes rise to be more than things to be examined. They can be extraordinary, full of wonder and light and genuine magic.
Map of Shadows, the first book of the Mapwalkers series, is a story like this.
I went into Map of Shadows with the concern that I ALWAYS have when reading a story by someone I know and respect, because there is nothing worse than telling a friend that their latest is anything other than magnificent. Ms. Penn and I are not the kind of buddies who hang out – or even talk regularly – but she has interviewed me a number of times for her (superlative) writing podcast, The Creative Penn. I count those interviews as among the most fun I have had, and Ms. Penn as one of the best hosts, who brings you not only onto her show, but into her heart.
Now, I’m not just wandering around aimlessly here. I mention The Creative Penn because in the same way that she opens her heart and mind and her great understanding of the written word to those lucky people in her audience (and those luckier people whom she hosts on her show) so she has opened that heart and mind and understanding to those lucky people who read Map of Shadows.
Map of Shadows, like The Creative Penn and the best books and like Ms. Penn herself, is simply MAGIC.
Shadow Cartographers. Maps of Shadow. Labyrinths where death makes its home. Places that have not truly disappeared from the world, but which most certainly HAVE become lost… and become darker in the losing. Fiendish monsters torn from dark imaginings and even greater monsters embodied in the men and women who bear sad resemblance to our own darkest selves.
All this and more is on full display in Map of Shadows, but above all that, this book is about connections.
It is a story of a woman who finds that this world we enjoy is not the ONLY world, and perhaps not even the most important or more powerful. But as her understanding of the world(s) grows(s), so too does her ability to bring real betterment to that world.
Map of Shadows is the story of a woman who chooses to reject a life of relative comfort for a life of danger, and does so for nothing more nor less than the tiny chance that she will find a family she thought lost to her.
Map of Shadows is the story of a woman who has few connections to a world which – as it has for so many of us – has grown cold and distant and even alien; but who then finds those connections in the form of new friends who are willing to echo her sacrifices and then add some of their own. It is the story of hopelessness found in dark places, but then brought back to the light.
Map of Shadows is the story of… us.
We each make maps of our lives. Perhaps none do what our heroine accomplishes – drawing places into being simply by “mapping” them, or traveling the length and width of the universe(s) in an instant – but we draw our homes, our places of comfort; our “war zones” wherein we find things ranging from angry bosses to that grocery store clerk who for some strange reason manages to terrify us every time she weighs our grapes (yes, this is about me); and we draw the outer edges of our worlds, knowing that beyond them danger dwells.
And yet we go. We travel to the boundaries of our lives and comforts and then – as Sienna shows us how to do – we move past those boundaries, and into shadow – there to discover that we have, somehow, brought our brightness with us.
Sienna is all of us, and in her we find what every good Mapwalker MUST find: a road to travel; a quest to undertake; a guide or two to help us along the way, and, in the end, our hopes and dreams.
Thank you, Sienna, for showing an extraordinary path; and thank you, Ms. Penn, for your extraordinary stories and for the joy and light they bring – especially Map of Shadows, which occupies a new spot on my “favorites” bookshelf.