Life Advice

Let’s talk about “assault weapons,” shall we?

I tried to post this in response to a friend’s Facebook post of “for the love of all that is holy, NOW can we ban military-grade assault weapons?”
 
Apparently, my post was too long for a “reply,” so I’m posting it here. Incidentally, doesn’t it say a lot about the fact that Facebook – probably the #1 place where important issues are discussed in all the world – does not permit people to respond in a way long enough to actually properly treat important subjects? If that isn’t a sign of how our ability to really discuss important issues has declined, I don’t know what is.
Anyway, to my reply:
 
Actually, no. One more pre-discussion note: BEFORE you go off your hinges, please understand (and I say this about eight hundred other times in the below, but fully expect some people not to read anything other than a lack of 100% agreement with both their thoughts and their methods) I AM IN FAVOR OF SOME THINGS CHANGING IN RE GUN CONTROL LAWS. But most people on the pro-gun-control side are going about it in an ineffective way from the basic point of view of the vocabulary they choose (as in the above).
 
Now last time I posted something that even tangentially touched on politics, and explicitly said, “I’m not for this PERSON, but I like this SENTIMENT,” a number of people came into the comments, starting screaming and cursing, then blocked me and unfriended me on Facebook.
 
I’m not going to say “good riddance” to those people – then or now. I am sorry to see ANYONE self-select out of my circle of friends, and actually MORE sorry in a lot of ways when it’s someone I disagree with. I don’t want to live in an echo chamber, because that’s the secret to stupidity.
 
But… yeah… I’m betting the same will happen here. And as then, I’ll be sorry to see you go. But I also can’t sit by and watch so many of my friends argue such an important thing in a way that is guaranteed to reach a poor result.
 
***
QUOTE: “…for the love of all that is holy, NOW can we ban military-grade assault weapons?”
 
MY RESPONSE:
FYI “assault weapons” is a nonstarter because it’s a nonsense term. The fact that this is a nonsense term is discussed in detail at the bottom of this post, but for now… here’s the problem with using it:
 
 
I am not saying I’m against tighter gun control – I actually lean toward some restrictions, though not many that I’ve seen proposed make any sense from a real world perspective, given the current state of technology and what statistical analysis I’ve seen.
 
But whenever people start talking about “assault weapons,” the very people you want so hard to convince turn off their ears because it convinces them that you are echoing a sound bite rather than doing the basic research necessary to have a competent conversation on the issue. Worse, it actually ENLISTS other people to side with them.
 
The equivalent would be if someone hacked a person to death with a chainsaw and there was an immediate outcry against “high-speed action knives.” The folks at the Craftsman chainsaw division are going to go on the offensive – but so are those from Ginsu, Swiss Army, and Sears.
 
 
Again, PLEASE DO NOT SHUT DOWN BECAUSE I AM SAYING YOU ARE USING THE WRONG WORDS. I REALLY REALLY REALLY WANT DISCUSSION TO HAPPEN. But you can’t have good discussion where one side (the gun people, in this instance) understand the technical aspects of the subject under discussion, and so many of the pro-gun-control people don’t even bother to learn the right terminology. Why would ANYONE on the gun side of that spectrum want to bother?
 
 
Example: A rocket scientist has designed a rocket that he believes is to be used for surveillance purposes, and for defensive action in case of attack against US soil. In fact, the rocket has been used to deliver payloads to unsuspecting enemies of the US. YOU know – and have proof that – his product has been turned into a missile/bomb, and is being used illegally and/or imorally! You make an appointment to talk to him, and start off with, “Your pointy airplane is killing everyone! And there’s no use for your pointy airplane, you KILLER!”
 
 
How long do you think that discussion would last? And how unreasonable do you think the rocket scientist would be for throwing someone who shows all the signs of being either an idiot or a nut job out of his office?
 
 
Again, AGAIN AGAIN AGAIN: this is not to say stay out of the conversation. The OPPOSITE – GET INTO IT! But get into it in an educated way, because THAT is the way to get a measurable result.
 
NOTE AGAIN: even though I have made it SUPER CLEAR that I’m not against gun control, and that the purpose of this post is to HELP PEOPLE WITH GUN SAFETY CONCERNS BETTER ARGUE THEIR CASE, AND DO SO IN A WAY THAT MORE GUN-USE ADVOCATES WILL RESPECT, I fully intend someone to start arguing about why gun control is good here. They will miss the point and lash out at anyone who disagrees with them in any way – even if it’s not in substance, but just in the ineffective way they are dealing with the subject. Worse, those people will likely start screaming about “assault weapons” and echoing the other talking points – which is the entire point of this (tl;dr) post.
 
This is the way spoiled children react when told they don’t get a toy because they haven’t bothered to read the instructions and will break it. I would hope it is NOT the way most of us want to reach decisions in the most important questions of our day.
 
 
Engage, engage, engage! But don’t go into someone else’s house (or the place they perceive as their house, which is reasonable since they are the only ones who seem to want to be there), and start arguing with them in a made-up language. Speak to them in words they understand, and words that actually MEAN something.
 
 
**
PROBLEM WITH “ASSAULT WEAPONS/ASSAULT RIFLES” AS A TERM:
 
 
The following is quoted from a really good article on gun control issues, written by my friend Larry Correia.
 
For the record: I DO NOT AGREE WITH EVERYTHING IN THE ARTICLE. But Larry is extremely smart, and extraordinarily knowledgeable on the subject. More than that, he will actually engage – POLITELY – with anyone who has shown they have educated themselves on the subject and want to talk about why they think he is wrong.
 
He will also mock and then excoriate people who walk in under the assumption that their reading a newspaper article gives them the necessary knowledge to competently argue the very technical issues of gun laws.
 
But he is kind and considerate to others who show HIM kindness and consideration – even when he disagrees with them. I have seen this. I put all this ahead of the definition so you will know that a) he is an expert, b) I don’t always agree with him, and c) he’s shown a willingness to talk to me about any and all things that concern me – even to the point of taking me to a gun range to show me details of shooting everything from handguns to the things most folks would definitely think of as “assault weapons.”
 
In other words, he’s a good example of a “good” gun nut (and I call him that with a measure of affection, especially since that’s what he calls himself). You want people like HIM to believe you – especially since they are the movers and shakers (the below-linked article is the #1 most-shared internet article on gun control in the history of the internet). If you want to change things, you have to change THESE minds, and you have to do it at a level of competence and thought that folks like him will respect – because it shows that you respect both the subject, and respect them as people.
 
 
The link to the entire article (which contains an exhaustive list of his qualifications, as well) is below the excerpt:
 
 
And a final note: if all this is “too long,” then I would suggest you TAKE YOURSELF OUT OF THE DISCUSSION. I believe, strongly, that the issue of gun safety, gun availability, proper use of force, and gun control is one of the most important questions of this generation. But most people think “one of the most important questions” means: “I will scream and yell about it (on both sides), but can’t be bothered to do research. That’s too much like school, and who needs that to deal with something as EASY and OBVIOUS as gun control?”
 
 
Well, if it was that easy and that obvious, it wouldn’t still be a problem. Not unless you believe that over fifty percent of the U.S. population is both stupid and evil (not to mention the rest of the world). And in that case, we are well and truly screwed no matter what.
 
 
I choose to believe most people are good, and most people are smart. But experience has also taught me that I have to talk to people in a way they understand and respect if I hope to provide them with good advice that they will actually take.
 
 
***
by Larry Correia
 
 
 
_____We should ban Assault Rifles!_____
 
 
Define “assault rifle”…
Uh…
Yeah. That’s the problem. The term assault rifle gets bandied around a lot. Politically, the term is a loaded nonsense one that was created back during the Clinton years. It was one of those tricks where you name legislation something catchy, like PATRIOT Act. (another law rammed through while emotions were high and nobody was thinking, go figure).
To gun experts, an assault rifle is a very specific type of weapon which originated (for the most part) in the 1940s. It is a magazine fed, select fire (meaning capable of full auto), intermediate cartridge (as in, actually not that powerful, but I’ll come back to that later) infantry weapon.
The thing is, real assault rifles in the US have been heavily regulated since before they were invented. The thing that the media and politicians like to refer to as assault rifles is basically a catch all term for any gun which looks scary.
I had somebody get all mad at me for pointing this out, because they said that the term had entered common usage. Okay… If you’re going to legislate it, DEFINE IT.
And then comes up that pesky problem. The US banned assault rifles once before for a decade and the law did absolutely nothing. I mean, it was totally, literally pointless. The special commission to study it said that it accomplished absolutely nothing. (except tick a bunch of Americans off, and as a result we bought a TON more guns) And the reason was that since assault weapon is a nonsense term, they just came up with a list of arbitrary features which made a gun into an assault weapon.
Problem was, none of these features actually made the gun functionally any different or somehow more lethal or better from any other run of the mill firearm. Most of the criteria were so silly that they became a huge joke to gun owners, except of course, for that part where many law abiding citizens accidentally became instant felons because one of their guns had some cosmetic feature which was now illegal.
One of the criteria was that it was semi-automatic. See above. Hard to ban the single most common and readily available type of gun in the world. (unless you believe in confiscation, but I’ll get to that). Then what if it takes a detachable magazine! That’s got to be an Evil Feature. And yes, we really did call the Evil Features. I’ll talk about magazines below, but once again, it is pretty hard to ban something that common unless you want to go on a confiscatory national suicide mission.
For example, flash hiders sound dangerous. Let’s say having a flash hider makes a gun an assault weapon. So flash hiders became an evil feature. Problem is flash hiders don’t do much. They screw onto the end of your muzzle and divert the flash off to the side instead of straight up so it isn’t as annoying when you shoot. It doesn’t actually hide the flash from anybody else. EVIL.
Barrel shrouds were listed. Barrel shrouds are basically useless, cosmetic pieces of metal that go over the barrel so you don’t accidentally touch it and burn your hand. But they became an instantaneous felony too. Collapsible stocks make it so you can adjust your rifle to different size shooters, that way a tall guy and his short wife can shoot the same gun. Nope. EVIL FEATURE!
It has been a running joke in the gun community ever since the ban passed. When Carolyn McCarthy was asked by a reporter what a barrel shroud was, she replied “I think it is the shoulder thing which goes up.” Oh good. I’m glad that thousands of law abiding Americans unwittingly committed felonies because they had a cosmetic piece of sheet metal on their barrel, which has no bearing whatsoever on crime, but could possibly be a shoulder thing which goes up.
Now are you starting to see why “assault weapons” is a pointless term? They aren’t functionally any more powerful or deadly than any normal gun. In fact the cartridges they normally fire are far less powerful than your average deer hunting rifle. Don’t worry though, because the same people who fling around the term assault weapons also think of scoped deer rifles as “high powered sniper guns”.
Basically, what you are thinking of as assault weapons aren’t special.
Now, the reason that semi-automatic, magazine fed, intermediate caliber rifles are the single most popular type of gun in America is because they are excellent for many uses, but I’m not talking about fun, or hunting, or sports, today I’m talking business. And in this case they are excellent for shooting bad people who are trying to hurt you, in order to make them stop trying to hurt you. These types of guns are superb for defending your home. Now some of you may think that’s extreme. That’s because everything you’ve learned about gun fights comes from TV. Just read the link where I expound on why.
I had one individual tell me that these types of guns are designed to slaughter the maximum number of people possible as quickly as possible… Uh huh… Which is why every single police department in America uses them, because of all that slaughtering cops do daily. Cops use them for the same reason we do, they are handy, versatile, and can stop an attacker quickly in a variety of circumstances.
When I said “stop an attacker quickly” somebody on Twitter thought that he’d gotten me and said “Stop. That’s just a euphemism for kill!” Nope. I am perfectly happy if the attacker surrenders or passes out from blood loss too. Tactically and legally, all I care about is making them stop doing whatever it is that they are doing which caused me to shoot them to begin with.
The guns that many of you think of as assault rifle are common and popular because they are excellent for fighting, and I’ll talk about what my side really thinks about the 2nd Amendment below.
 
 
 
Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, 0 comments

Hope is a Dream, a Time Asleep…

After my recent retirement announcement, a few people have stated that my situation is discouraging, given that they have always hoped to make writing a career and here’s a guy (me) who HAD it as a career, but couldn’t hold onto it. A few have lost hope in their own talent, their own futures. Here’s what I said to one of them, and what I now say to ALL who feel this way:

 

Don’t lose that hope. This kind of “turn” hits almost every writer out there, successful or not. Some of them have banked enough millions that it just doesn’t matter – who, for instance, believes that Dan “DaVinci Code” Brown is going to have a writing career in ten years… or that he’ll even notice the money not flowing in any more. The rest of them, when they have downturns, work as pizza guys or notary publics or any of a thousand other things. And that’s okay, too!

 

Don’t hope to be a pro writer and to have all be roses and sunshine forever. You want to be a pro, then WORK YOUR ASS OFF FOR THAT. Then, when it happens (and I have no doubt you WILL make it happen), just know that this life, this creative world… it’s all based on dreams. And the one thing that every dream has in common: they all end eventually. And that’s not a bad thing, because “real life” is what supports and informs the dream, and what makes it worth going to again and again. And the dreams are scary, fun, thrilling, horrible, ugly, beautiful, hateful, and lovely… which means they are, in fact, just one more facet OF that real life.

 

Live. Live your best, and you will find your dream, whatever it is. And then, having found it, you may realize that your dream is not the perfect thing you thought it would be, and that real life – the waking world – is also a pretty neat place.

 

And, having experienced both, you will be all the wiser, all the stronger, all the better for it. Having experienced both, you will be able to enjoy either, and excel within the bounds of whichever reality in which you find yourself.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice

The Press – A Powerful Enemy (of Itself)

Here’s a good example of being your own worst enemy:

 

I *DESPISE* those people – usually powerful – who don’t like having to answer questions about their decisions; especially those who, once questioned, react with all the grace of a two-year-old who’s had his lollipop ripped right out of his mouth.

 

So this article, at first, made me angry.

 

A newly elected CONGRESSMAN? Hitting a reporter after the reporter DARED ask a question?

 

But then I read this line: “Jacobs [the reporter] said Gianforte [the ‘body-slammed me and broke my glasses’ after he asked a question about the Republican health care legislation.”

 

And I hear this in my head…

MbC’s Head: How dare he! How DARE a man in the Congressman-elect’s position BODY-SLAM a reporter and then — wait, what? “He broke my glasses”? That’s a weird thing to say after getting body-slammed. What about, “He shattered my femur” or, “He gave me a concussion”? Granted, the average congressperson has roughly the physical prowess of a quadriplegic three-toed sloth, but if the reporter got “body-slammed,” why is he complaining about his frickin’ GLASSES?

 

Uh-oh. And here’s the “own worst enemy” part. First of all, I deal with this kind of massive, ground-shaking level of complaint and fear for life and limb on a daily basis. I do, after all, have two pre-teens in my house. And any time it goes from, “HE/SHE ALMOST KILLED ME!” to “Also, look at this scratch on MY FAVORITE TOY,” I immediately know that the issue is not one of physical danger, but tender feelings with tewwible boo-boos.

 

This complaint, which devolves in a SINGLE SENTENCE from, “I was gravely attacked after doing my reporterly duty,” to “My glasses got busted by an old dude!” is, I fear, just the same.

 

About a year ago, a NY Daily News reporter (in)famously wrote an article called “What is it like to fire an AR-15? It’s horrifying, menacing and very very loud.”

 

In it, the reporter told of the massive terror, which he claimed ACTUALLY CAUSED PTSD in the instant it occurred,* that he felt upon firing the weapon.

 

“It felt like firing a bazooka.”

“I was just terrified.”

“The recoil bruised my shoulder, which can happen if you don’t know what you’re doing. The brass shell casings disoriented me as they flew past my face. The smell of sulfur and destruction made me sick. The explosions — loud like a bomb — gave me a temporary form of PTSD. For at least an hour after firing the gun just a few times, I was anxious and irritable.”

 

So how does this all tie in?

 

It used to be that reporters were there to keep the powerful accountable. They were there to uncover the truth, and to give us a more informed set of facts upon which to base our decisions.

 

Now? Now, sadly, they ARE the powerful. And we know the old adage about what power does. And we see, to our horror, that it’s true.

 

“He broke my glasses”?

 

Men and women of the press used to put their lives and careers on the line. Men and women of the press used to go up against the bullies, stand firm, and rely on the truth to take down those who abused their power.

 

Now? Now most of them put little on the line at all. Now men and women of the press are, all too often, the bullies themselves. Now they stand firm – no matter how unreasonable their positions – and rely on media pressure, mob mentality, and the threat of constant exposure to reprisals to take down those who stand in the way of the reporters’ power.

 

Is this always the case? No, of course not. And I don’t have all the details of the case of a man who was “body-slammed” and got a pair of broken glasses as a result. Perhaps it was a legitimately dangerous and terrifying event. But even if so, it doesn’t change the simple fact that “great reporting” used to mean timely, careful, and accurate dissemination of important information. Now it mostly means dissemination of information that is carefully timed to create the maximum buzz and anger. The accuracy is still there, but whereas “accuracy” used to mean “let us give the whole story, the whole set of facts, and let a human race that is mostly good come to the good conclusion on their own”; now it means, “what we said IS technically correct, and we’re going for the letter of the law because the spirit of the thing doesn’t pay as well.”

 

Freedom of the press is important – critical, really. But only if that press works to improve OUR freedoms, and not simply to create media firestorms, up ratings, and raise salaries.

 

There are good people in the press corps. I just wish I said that more from experience than from faith.

 

 

*The New York Daily News later posted this “update” from the reporter, Gersh Kuntzman, after a massive backlash to his use of the term “PTSD”:

 

Many people have objected to my use of the term “PTSD” in the above story. The use of this term was in no way meant to conflate my very temporary anxiety with the very real condition experienced by many of our brave men and women in uniform. I regret the inarticulate use of the term to describe my in-the-moment impression of the gun’s firepower, and apologize for it. [end quote]

 

I call bullshit – and those who know me and who read my posts know how rarely I use that term. The guy is a REPORTER. A professional writer whom we depend upon to provide full and accurate information. I know that when *I* write ANYTHING, from an entire book to a single WORD (like, for example, PTSD), that’s on me. Kuntzman says here that he made a mistake (only he doesn’t  even actually admit to any wrongdoing, just an “inarticulate use of the term” – which makes almost no sense at all, given that it is primarily used to describe indistinct speech patterns. If talking about the “cannot express oneself clearly,” definition, and if this applies to Kuntzman (especially since he admits it does), then he should not be publishing news pieces – even those of the op/ed variety – especially not on incendiary topics that require the utmost care to discuss and decide.

 

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice

Happy Easter

It’s happening again.

 

It’s worse at the end of the year, but it happens now, too.

 

“Happy Easter!”

“Happy Easter?”

“Happy… Sunday?”

 

Every time there’s a religous-themed holiday, someone inevitably complains. Yes, there are the complaints about commercialization, or the True Meaning of [Fill in the Blank], or how the day brings out the worst as people horde over slightly-underpriced doo-dads. But I’m not talking about those.

 

I’m talking about the paired complaints: “I wish they wouldn’t wish me Happy Easter/Merry Christmas/Whatever,” and, “Why can’t I wish people Happy Easter/Merry Christmas/Whatever without someone biting my head off?”

 

I mention “Christian” holidays above, because they’re the ones I hear most about. But I have no doubt there are similar arguments about Kwanzaa, or Diwali, or Vesak, or any other holiday that has a deity (or two or three or more) at its center – or at least at its genesis, since that argument that the once-Holy-Days have converted to nothing more than “Retail Day #7” or “Buy Overpriced Roses Day” certainly has some merit.

 

I digress. Sorry. I do that. Squirrel!

 

In all seriousness, though (yeah, like that’s possible for me), I hate this argument, this “Respect my religious holidays vs. “Respect my lack of faith/belief/interest in your religious holidays” dispute. Because it makes it about belief, and in so doing, it utterly misses the point.

 

Yes, the holidays have the beliefs themselves as their basis. Though you don’t have to believe in Christ to celebrate Christmas – at least in the trimmings: presents and cocoa and a wonderful excuse to be nicer to each other – you can’t have Christmas without Christ. You can’t have the holiday without its history. You don’t have to ascribe to the stories, but they’re there, and without them you don’t get the holiday – package deal.

 

Similarly, you can run around pelting people with colored powder, exchange gifts, and enjoy some of the greatest food of your life no matter what you believe… but that doesn’t change the fact that Diwali doesn’t exist without its history, without its god-stories of Krisha and Vishnu and King Rama.

 

Easter, of course, is the same. I love Cadbury Eggs, and that enjoyment is completely separate from whether or not I believe that one day a tomb was empty because its inhabitant had risen up and ascended to Heaven. But without that ascension story, Cadbury Eggs probably wouldn’t exist (and the world would be all the poorer for it).

 

Now, note that I call these things “stories.” I mean no offense to those who believe them – I’m a believer myself, and will be celebrating Easter this Sunday with egg hunts and food and family, but also with time in church, time in prayer, time talking to my children about what Easter means to us.

 

So no, calling them “stories” is not an insult. On the contrary, it’s a compliment. Calling them “facts” would actually lessen them in certain respects, because facts are what control our lives, seen or unseen, believed or not… but “stories” are what we choose, what we as humans have that is separate from every other creature. Every animal – every bit of matter, for that matter (see what I did there, ha!) – is governed by “facts.” By the realities in which we exist. Perhaps those realities include this God or that, or none at all… debating that isn’t the point of this essay.

 

Stories, though… if facts provide the framework, then stories provide the potential. Stories are what we choose to believe, and in so doing, point us toward what we hope to become.

 

And that’s the point of “Happy Easter” or “Merry Christmas” or whatever Holy-day that enters a greeting. It is about a story.

 

Stories are wonderful things. They entertain, they enlighten. But at their heart, the greatest magic they weave is this: they create communities.

 

An example – and please trust me, I actually have a point to all this, ya just gotta bear with me and pay close atten – SQUIRREL!

 

Sorry, where was I?

 

Right. Example.

 

Picture this: I’m in line for the newest Marvel movie. Behind me is a 15-year-old girl. Suddenly, I whip around and say, in tones of near-frantic worry, “Do you think Iron Man’s gonna DIE in this one?”

 

What does she do? In all likelihood, she’ll respond with a good-natured laugh, and then her own personal fan-theory about what’s going to happen; maybe something she heard about the plot on the internet. Someone a bit down the line will shriek, “Spoiler alert!” when she does that, and everyone laughs.

 

Okay, now picture this: In an alternate universe where everything’s the same, only here I’m in line at McDonald’s. Suddenly, I whip around to the same 15-year-old girl, and say, in tones of near-frantic worry, “Do you think they’ll ever bring back the McRib FOR GOOD?”

 

What does she do? In all likelihood, she laughs nervously, says, “Uh, maybe?” and then steps back a pace or two while covertly getting ready to hammer 911 onto her phone before the coo-coo can eat her face off.

 

What’s the difference? Same people. Same middle-aged guy and same teenager. We’re standing just as close to each other in both situations; we’re even wearing the same clothes, for crying out loud. So why the disparate reactions?

 

 

[continue to the rest of the article…]

 

 

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice

AN MbC MUST-READ: Ten Steps to Overnight Success…

(… or, How it Only Took a Decade to get Paid)

 

The top 1% of members of the Writers Guild of America — the folks who make between $600,000 and the “big money” (seven figures) number in the mere dozens. Of the rest of them — members of a group that as a rule has to get paid to even join — only the top 25% make $62,000 a year or more. And the average age of a person who actually makes it into the Guild — meaning they got that sale, or finally optioned enough screenplays to make it — is 35 years old.

 

Let’s talk now about some other averages. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for salaried writers hovers just over $50,000. Only the top 10% of salaried writers make over $95,000. And it must be emphasized that these are “salaried writers” — narrowly defined by the BLS as people like salaried journalists, or professional technical writers. Fiction writers are, for the most part, freelance writers whose annual takes — even if they are “professionals” (i.e., occasionally paid) — is
much, much lower.

 

In other words, “the big payoff” of becoming a “real, published author” may have more in common with the salary of your average janitor than it does with the sixteen bizillion dollars J.K. Rowling makes every time she writes a postcard.

 

Of course, the chances of making money go up greatly if you are signed by a large publisher — Scholastic, or Bantam, for instance. However, this itself has an inherent earnings inhibitor built in: most of the larger publishing houses require that submissions be “exclusive.” This means that a writer is only permitted to submit his work to one large publisher at a time. The average wait time to find out if the work has been rejected or accepted can range anywhere from a few weeks (if the writer already knows someone “on the inside” who is in a position to fast-track the review) or, more likely, several months to a year and a half. Then, even if the book is accepted for publication, the large publishing houses will typically take, again, several months to a year and a half to actually roll out the book.

 

In other words, even assuming your book is picked up by the first major publishing house you submit to — and the odds are against you — you are looking at somewhere between half a year and three years before you start really seeing any money. And if your book is not accepted by the first major publishing house, then you are once again in a sort of voluntary limbo, consigned there by the “no simultaneous submissions” rule.

 

What to do?

 

The reality is, most authors have “day jobs.” I am considered an anomaly. I have optioned screenplays and done rewrites for major Hollywood production companies. I have numerous television shows in development. I have written over a dozen novels that have spent time on Amazon’s major genre bestseller lists, and have spent the better part of a year as one of Amazon’s Most Popular Horror Writers.

 

I make a living writing.

 

Now, to put this in perspective: I began writing at the tender age of four. I made my first “sale” of a short story to a local newspaper at the age of 15. I earned creative writing scholarships in college. I hold the record as the person who has had the most screenplays go to quarterfinals and semifinals in the history of the Nicholls Screenwriting competition. And in spite of all this, it took me fifteen years of rejection letters to actually start making money.

 

Still, through it all I have learned some things about writing, and about how to become a “successful” writer, particularly in genre work like fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. Following is my “road-map for success.” Which is not a guarantee that it will make you a millionaire…but it is a guarantee that you will never fail so long as you continue doing these things.

 

1) Write. This may seem obvious, but the simple fact is that if you wish to make a living as a writer, you MUST WRITE. Constantly and without letup. Write your books, your screenplays, your stories. And when you are done writing those, write about them. Start a blog. Issue press releases. Have a Facebook page. The “writing muscle” is one of the most easily atrophied muscles in the human body.
CONTINUE TO PART 2

 

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, MbC Must-read, Writing Advice

Mormons and Horror: Light Within the Dark

Paper sponsored by the Association for Mormon Letters,

presented at Life, the Universe, and Everything writing convention

February 18, 2017

 

 

I am a horror writer.

I am a Mormon.

Whenever these two intersecting – and yes, they are intersecting – facets of my life are discovered, the response is invariably one of surprise, if not outright incredulity. Contrary to most people’s expectations, no one at church has every said, “A horror writer? Well, you are definitely going to Hell.” Indeed, the first person I tend to call when I want to watch a scary movie is  my stake president. That being said, even he was surprised when he first found out. Because it seems… what? Wrong?

And yet, as will be stated shortly, horror is perhaps the best-suited “genre” for Mormons; and Mormons are themselves the most horror-laden people… and neither in quite the way you would expect.

 

  1. Our Thoughts on Horror

 

First of all, we must discuss what people think of as horror, for that is a large part of the reason that horror is thought of as anathematic to the Mormon lifestyle. And we must then discuss why the public conception is largely wrong – i.e., what horror is versus what people think of it.

 

  1. A short history of communication

Throughout history, information has been conveyed in a wealth of ways. The first is physical. People do not tend to think of purely physical movement as communication, but it is actually the most-used. Albert Mehrabian came up with the famous rule that intrapersonal communication is comprised 7% of words, 38% of tone of voice, and 55% of body language.[1] On its face, this can be easily observed, but at an even deeper level it becomes not just obvious, but certain. I.e., it is hard to misunderstand a person’s intentions when he/she is hitting you over the head with a stick: you have done something that person does not appreciate.

Physical communication can also be seen in dance, wherein entire stories are told. In modern forms they are typically coupled with music as part of the storytelling medium, but the earliest forms of dance were performed alone.

After nonverbal, however, there came the oral: the picture of an ape-man grunting as he discovers how to use a tool in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most enduring in cinema. Underlooked, however, is the more important moment of evolution. The moment when the godlike Monolith appears to a bunch of creatures huddling in a cave, swatting one another in irritation as their only seen mode of communication; of thought. When it appears, they dance around the Monolith, they touch it, they dance back. And then, suddenly… they speak. The small punches and hits disappear, and all gather together to give the most primal, principle form of communication: they worship. They, in essence, speak together for the first time. The discovery of a tool is the evolutionary step most noticed in cinema studies, but the oral communication – the gathering together in communal grunts to each other and to something greater than themselves, is surely just as important a moment, unobserved in the movie before that time. Tools bring obvious evolution, but when the New Men gather and sing – community is born.

From this, then, was born writing – a natural confluence of tools and oral communication. From Sumer in ancient Mesopotamia around 3200 BC, and via the Olmecs or Zapotecs of Mesoamerica circa 900 BC spring the oldest-known “original” examples of writing – not just numbers, but fully-formed series of symbols conveying complex thoughts and information. The movement from tools to speech to writing should be a fairly obvious jump, given that the last one is a marriage of the first two. Speech focuses abstract thought, and that speech is then recorded in writing.

So now we have writing, and from this, written stories.

Almost.

 

  1. The arrival of stories

It is interesting to note that, though we have writing that dates back to 3200 BC, the first surviving work of “great literature” – The Epic of Gilgamesh (hereinafter “EOG”) – appeared over a thousand years later, circa 2100 BC. Again, it makes sense: a student does not jump from “I see Spot” straight to “Enlil made him terrifying guardian/Whose mouth is fire, whose roar the floodwater.”[2] A burgeoning civilization, tens of thousands of individuals struggling to work and live together for the first time, is even less inclined to make the leap.

That said, EOG, miraculously,[3] came to be. Humanity had enjoyed stories for its entire existence – Adam himself was told stories of Life Before, of Life to Be, and why Life was (the famous Mormon questions: “Where did we come from, why are we here, and where are we going?”). But EOG is the first great story to live that is not merely a recounting of what the Gods did, but of how we make sense of them.

And, appropriately, it is pure horror. A tale that centers around men and man-beasts who come to challenge one another in death and blood; of friendship found, only to be torn away by extraordinary pain followed by death; and above all of a king who is slated from the first to discover that he will die.

But in this death, he finds life. In this horror, he finds joy.

And this is the key.

 

  1. Books and booksellers

Long after Gilgamesh returned to Uruk, long after he discovered immortality was and ever would be beyond his grasp, written stories had passed from a thing of kings to a thing of commoners. Stories were bound in books. At first these books were still things of riches, beyond the dreaming of “normal” people. But eventually cheaper methods of paper production were found. The printing press was invented. Stories could not only be heard and seen, but read.

With the increased demand for books came an increased demand for something most of us fail to think of: booksellers. Mostly men, they opened small shops that catered to the needs and desires of their patrons. Though booksellers had existed in ancient Greece – it was, after all, quite fashionable to have a library if one could afford it – it was not until the 1800s that bookselling really took hold, primarily in Europe and the United States. Then came bookstores such as that of Kenyon College – the oldest continuously-operated bookstore in the United States, and third-oldest bookstore in the Americas – which was primarily to supply the Christ-seeking men of the college itself. Following shortly after, one could find neighborhood booksellers, catering to the men and women of the area, the people of their own communities.

In Stephen King’s horror novel Needful Things, a man comes to a small town. He operates the eponymous shop, a place of curios and antiques. It is only too late that he is recognized as what he is: a devil incarnate. Similarly, the bookstores came, cheap stories could be found…

… and with them, came horror.

 

  1. The booksellers’ prosperity, the root of our pain

As books became more popular, and booksellers more ubiquitous, a strange thing began to happen: the sellers no longer knew what they sold.

Early booksellers knew exactly where every book in their store could be found. A person came in and asked for a medical text. The proprietor took his customer to the third row, fourth shelf from the bottom, and… “Ah, here it is: Leidy’sAnatomy,’ in Lippincott’s Medical Works, is really quite excellent.”

“Do you have something frightening and strange, good sir?” “Ah, yes, there in the back is a new arrival: a book called Frankenstein: the Modern Prometheus.” Thanks are given, along with pence, and new book owners depart.

The pence do not.

The booksellers take them, invest them, and small bookstores are gradually supplanted by larger and larger ones – even chains of them. The bookseller cannot work alone, he must hire assistants. And, as is usually the case with assistants, they know less than he about the books.

“Excuse me, where may I find a book on the history of wars?” “Sir, this man wants a history of wars?”

And the bookseller, eventually tired of having to answer every single patron’s questions (why did he even hire an assistant?), now says, “I put up a sign on the fifth row. It says, ‘War.’ Our friend will no doubt find something there.”

“What, a book by Jane Austen? Try below the sign that says, ‘Romance.’”

“Oh, you wish a ghost story? Perhaps something by Poe?

“Try… horror.”

“Genre” was born, and with it that particular thing we call “horror.” But “horror” in the fashion that so many of us think is not a particular thing, it is nothing at all. It is a shelf. It is wherever Barnes & Noble have placed a particular book for purposes of finding it easily. It is whatever website label Amazon has given a book for purposes of selling it faster.

“Genre” is just a bastardized spelling of “sales.”

Many will no doubt point out that when they think of horror, they do not think of a bookshelf, they think of a story. A story with pain, violence, bloodshed.

To which I, the bookseller, respond, “So… Saving Private Ryan?”

“No, no. It’s got insanity. Men with knives and hatchets.”

“Ah, you mean like, Helter Skelter.”

“No. There need to be nude young people and illicit sex.”

Lady Chatterly’s Lover is in the ‘Romance’ section. Or perhaps ‘Erotica.’ Forgive my memory, there are just so many bookshelves – oops, I mean genres – now that it’s hard to keep up with them.”

This is an imagined exchange, but it highlights a very real set of facts. Namely:

 

1)     “Genre” is a forced fabrication.

2)     What most people think of as genre is in fact a list of “story elements.”

3)     The story elements most people think of as “horror” are found in other – mostly more acceptable – “genres.”

 

It is this last which is most interesting. Because horror was not always unseemly. There is no doubt that Shelley’s Frankenstein features almost every element of horror. So why do people think of it as literature? Not because it is so old (by today’s standards at least): even people who read it when it first came off the presses in 1820 (written anonymously by then twenty-year-old Shelley) did not say, “Bookseller, where can I find the horror book about the monster?” They asked for no horror, just for a rousingly good book that asked searching questions about the nature of man’s relationship to God.

Because there was no horror. There was only story.

Until there wasn’t.

 

  1. Why we believe horror is what it isn’t

If the “horror genre”[4] is really nothing but a space on a shelf, how is it that so many people know what horror is… and know the same things about it?

Because what they are thinking of is not horror. It is a horror poster.

As touched upon above, when people asked for Frankenstein, they did not ask for “that horror book.” They asked for Shelley’s Frankenstein. Books were all there were, and the only meaningful distinction between types of written fiction were whether they were told in poetry or prose.[5]

Books rose in popularity, and eventually supplanted plays as the most popular long-form storytelling media. That was, however, not to last. In the late 1800s, two inventions changed stories forever, and began the lie that we think of as “horror.”

 

  1. New media

Radio and television. By the early twentieth century, radio shows predominated. They changed elections of the highest offices, they provided news at a rate hitherto unimagined… and they told stories. Little Orphan Annie, The Lone Ranger, Inner Sanctum. Story after story enthralled, excited… horrified. Still, even this innovation paled in the face of what was to be the most life-changing invention of communication of all time (though the internet is poised to take over that spot): the motion picture camera.

With the motion picture camera, stories could at last truly be seen. Stage plays could be seen, true, but motion pictures allowed for a verisimilitude that could not be believed by most who first witnessed its final product. The world had, seemingly overnight, become a predominantly visual place.

The biggest booksellers – the publishers – saw a threat to their once-high position in media (by which it is meant they saw a loss of market share and corresponding loss of income). Books were books, no matter what – they were a collection of dark squiggles on light paper. But there were still places where they could accommodate the public’s desire to see things. Internal artwork became more prevalent, so people could see what their heroes looked like, or could witness a moment in the action. Even so, it is obvious that a dozen pictures – black-and-white, no less – tucked in the pages of a book will hardly create a media firestorm or a rise in sales.

That left the covers. And here we see where the idea of “what is horror” gained its first foothold. In a space of twenty or thirty years in the early 1900s (from around 1910 to 1930), covers went from predominantly black ink denoting the title, author, and publisher; to colorful artwork.

It should be no surprise, then, that people’s impressions of what a “kind” of book held were dominated by the largest publishers, who paid attention to one thing: what sold. If a book with romantic elements sold a million copies, the booksellers could take the cover element – an elegantly-dressed woman with a torn blouse, swept off her feet by a pirate with dashing looks and a muscled chest – and reproduce it over and over. Romance became a thing of rough, oversexualized men yanking beautiful, oversexualized women away from their boring lives and into adventure. Horror merited the same treatment, as booksellers inevitably discovered that a stark cover with “Frankenstein” etched across leather sold far less than a cover showing a hideous green face… and also covers showing a dark, oversexed man standing slightly behind a beautiful, oversexed woman with a ripped blouse laying on a bed.[6]

Still, even these methods would not gain every possible reader. Capitalism demands that money be made, and once the low-hanging fruit is taken (i.e., people attracted to oversexualized men and women), diversification must occur. Booksellers knew there were more people out there, waiting to be swayed and to part with their “pence.”

So what about showing the monster? Would that not gain readers attracted to that particular element, that desire of humans everywhere – the desire to be frightened? Or would that be going too far?

What about a melding of the two?

Now readers could find books that featured dark monsters framed in the light of an open door, hunched over and creeping toward women asleep on their beds. Suddenly, scary books had sex as a main element, regardless of whether the text actually delivered on the promises of the cover.

And movies, as they always do, made everything worse.

 

  1. Movies

By the 1950s, the covers of scary books featured sex and monsters galore. However, they were still tame by today’s standards: blood was hinted at but rarely shown; bosoms were evident, but shielded under carefully-placed swathes of fabric; and the monsters were, as often as not, shown by shadowed outline rather than by detailed rendering.

In the 1960s, two events in movies made everything change.

First of all, the Motion Picture Production Code (“MPPC”) was abandoned. This was the code through which Hollywood had self-censored for three decades. Before that, violence and sexual situations had been present – but the mores of the times still kept most films subtle as far as graphic violence or sexuality.[7] In the 1950s, however, the MPPC began its decline, sharpened when the United States Supreme Court, in the landmark case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, ruled that motion pictures fell squarely under First Amendment protections and that the New York State Board of Regents could not ban the short film “Il Miracolo” (“The Miracle”), which was part of an anthology film, and which featured the impregnation by a villainous man called “St. Joseph” of a disturbed peasant woman who believed herself to be the Virgin Mary.

The trend continued in the 1960s, as actors, producers, and directors clamored for more than the MPPC would permit. It was eventually abandoned in favor of the Motion Picture Association of America’s (“MPAA”) voluntary ratings code. Now, graphic violence and nudity could be shown with the mere appendage of an “R” rating. Even explicit sexual intercourse could be found, if a producer were willing to accept an “X.”

This was not the only change wrought in the 1960s. In 1962, as part of its anti-communist policies, the United States began a period of heavy military involvement in Vietnam. By 1963, there were over sixteen thousand U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. Nor were they the only newcomers: hundreds of journalists arrived, as well, providing coverage of the war at a level never before seen in history. Indeed, Vietnam was dubbed “the living room war,” with families gathered in their living rooms to watch video – often graphic, depicting violence and even on-screen death by various means. Never before had so many people been offered a window into the true horrors of war. Never before had the average person known so much of a faraway conflict.

And never before had media executives realized just how seductive the call of overt prurience could be. With the advent of the “living room” war came the realization that ratings could be bought with violence and sex. Pushed by the need for ever-greater profits, media organizations began pushing overtly violent and sexual advertisements and – almost as an afterthought in some cases – explicitly violent and sexual content.

This was fueled further by the “sexual awakening” of the 1960s. Bras – before then just another undergarment to be carefully covered and ignored – were now shown in public, sometimes the entire subject of news reports. “Free love” could be found on news and entertainment alike, not to mention its reality for many people’s day-to-day lives.

Violence. Sex. A perfect marriage – or perhaps a perfect storm.

The level of graphic content in movies surged, in no small part because people gradually became inured to what had previously pushed the envelope, and now demanded more and more. Sex sold in abundance, and violence did not push people away, it called them in.

Horror was not the leader in this, it was simply swept up in time’s current, along with everything else.

The 1970s and 1980s continued this trend, though “horror” movies and stories still carried something in common, a characteristic that all such stories carried from the beginning: they were morality plays. From The Epic of Gilgamesh to Beowulf to The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, scary stories invariably existed within the framework of a moral universe. Gilgamesh finds out he must die, then realizes that his flawed, short life is the best gift he could possibly receive. Beowulf realizes the harsh effects of envy and vengeance. Dr. Faustus realizes that repentance is powerful, but it must be exercised in God’s time.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was more of the same. Teens discovered that drinking, smoking weed, and having premarital sex was a sure recipe for disembowelment. Young girls found that strength in the face of nightmares could win out. Parents were taught that their children had value, and should be listened to (both relatively new cultural ideas). Scary movies were simply educational tales. Never take candy from a witch – or strangers. Do not be taken in by the sensuousness of foreigners (as in Dracula) – or by the forbidden pleasures offered by a classmate. Strength is not found by seeking to rise above the Gods – or by anything other than your own inner self.

In the 1990s, though, audiences became jaded and grew tired of the morality framework of previous “horror” movies. They turned to cynical, meta-views of their own lives, and their own horrors. It is no surprise that the most successful horror franchise of the 1990s was Scream, a slasher-style film whose true genius is not in finding a new way to punish sinners, but in its ability to point out the (perceived) silliness of the stories that had gone before. The killer Ghostface is almost an afterthought, providing fewer kills than opportunities for the characters to discuss how film intersects with life, what happens when people break rules, and whether any of those things really matter.

Morality turned to cynicism, and cynicism then morphed to nihilism. The new millennium saw the rise of a new kind of horror, and one that indelibly linked the genre to a new level of pain: torture porn, which, like Scream, provided the new decade’s most profitable horror franchise.

In 2004, the movie Saw was released. At its heart, it was actually a throwback to an older style of horror and was highly redemptive. Its antagonist, Jigsaw, kidnaps a number of men and women and offers them chances to escape various deathtraps. The outcome will be either death or a new appreciation for the life they have (shades of that first story, The Epic of Gilgamesh). However, the story received far less notice than the methods it employed to tell that story. The tortures devised were complex and ingenious. They were also bloody to the point of near-obscenity.[8] Among others, Jigsaw employed a trap that would rip the victim’s jaw completely apart, a scenario that required its victim to saw off one of his own feet to survive, and a man given the choice to either kidnap a woman and her young child or die of a slow-acting poison.

No one knew, noticed, or cared that much of the gritty, dark, bloody look of the story was more about budget limitations than intent.[9] It was, suddenly, for a large percentage of the movie-going audience, all about the kills.

Is it any wonder, then, that when most of us think “horror,” we think not of a reasoned definition, but of a movie poster representative of our time? Of a woman hanging upside down, implicitly nude and awaiting torture. Of dismembered fingers spelling out the number of the newest movie installment. Of pain-ridden women whose tortured bodies form the figure of a skull.

This, for most people, is “horror.” And this, for all people, is what horror is not.

But what is it?

 

  1. Our reality

 

The penultimate sentence of the last part is something of a deception. Though Saw had a definite moral center, and clear hope by the filmmakers for some pedagogical effect, its followers did not. Each succeeding movie in the series became more and more about what kind of cruel deathtrap could be composed. Ditto a step-child series: Eli Roth’s Hostel movies, which centered around places where the rich could pay to torture and kill victims – mostly hormonal college kids out for a last fling before real life set in – in any way they could devise. The characters in these movies matter little. The blood and the nudity matter a great deal.

The very reality of these movies proves that there are, indeed, “horror” stories which fit fully and exactly with most people’s conceptions of the genre. But they are not all. They are not even the most important. And that, finally, is where Mormons and their relationship with horror makes its entrance.

There are two kinds of horror. The first are those that, like the progeny of Saw, exist to shock and dismay their audiences. Essentially, these movies and books exist to kick their audiences into a psychic sewer. They do not merely describe the offal that passes below our notice every day of our lives, they take their audiences into the sewers themselves, kick them until they have no choice but to fall in… and then leave them there. For most Mormons – and a large percentage of the general populace – these movies serve no good purpose and are best ignored.

But what of the second kind? This is the type of horror that not only attracts some Mormons, but actually represents the most important aspects of this religion.

I was once asked an important question while walking between meetings at church. The man who asked was not being spiteful or making fun; he honestly wanted to know: “How can you write those things? Why do you want to cut people’s hearts out like you do?”

I knew that this brother member had never read any of my books or stories, or seen any of the films that I had written. He was asking not about what I wrote, but how I could write a story like Saw V or Hostel or The Human Centipede (all of which feature grotesque ad images).

My response was simple, and true: “I don’t cut out people’s hearts. That’s not my goal. What I want to do is rip their hearts out, take everything away, then throw the heart into the darkest crevasse I can find.”

The brother was agog. “Why would you do that?” he finally stammered.

“Because it’s only when you take everything away from someone, and throw their heart – their essence, their soul – into the deepest dark that you can show them what happens next. Only in the lowest places can we see that we are enough to climb out. That we don’t need a fancy car or a beautiful girlfriend or anything else to climb into the light. We just need the one thing given to us without interruption our caveat: our spirits. And if the dark is too thick, the pit too deep for us to climb out of, then so much the better. Because that is the moment when we receive Grace. The darkness falls away, and the hand of God reaches down to pluck us up from the place where we were lost.”[10]

The first kind of horror pushes us into the dark for the dark’s sake. The second kind pushes us into the dark so that we may see the light. And far from being anathema to Latter-day Saint (“LDS”) beliefs, this is a core LDS truth.

 

11 For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

12 Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.

13 And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away. (2 Nephi 2:11-13; emphasis added.)

 

As a basic matter, LDS beliefs demand that good be paired with evil. Without evil, good cannot be seen – or at least, cannot be seen for what it is, and appreciated. Without the dark, light cannot exist. Without horror, there can be no redemption.

More than this, though, Mormons positively revel in horror. Not in going to the movies to see what new trap Jigsaw has created. Not in watching nude teens bounce until they are inevitably massacred in buckets of gore. Not in any of the “first” kind of horror.

But our entire faith is built upon Christ. And the chief cornerstone (1 Peter 2:6) is steeped in horror. In the darkest hours, followed by the light. In the second kind of horror.

To return to the brother who questioned how I could write such tawdry things. He asked about the blood, the sex. I reminded him of Zarahemna, who was not only scalped but actually saw his scalp affixed to a sword and waved about in the air – an image comparable to anything in the Saw series. I talked about the story in Judges 19:27-29:

 

27 And her lord rose up in the morning, and opened the doors of the house, and went out to go his way: and, behold, the woman his concubine was fallen down at the door of the house, and her hands were upon the threshold.

28 And he said unto her, Up, and let us be going. But none answered. Then the man took her up upon an ass, and the man rose up, and gat him unto his place.

29 ¶And when he was come into his house, he took a knife, and laid hold on his concubine, and divided her, together with her bones, into twelve pieces, and sent her into all the coasts of Israel.

 

Yes, he cut his lover into twelve pieces and mailed them all over the country.

“What about sex?” asked the brother.

I will not go into detail here, but suffice to say the scriptures are replete with sex, some of the tamest of which involves King David looking upon a nude woman as she bathes, and eventually having her husband killed so he can sleep with her.

Like horror, however, the best of Christianity is not defined by sex or by violence. Like the best of horror, the best of Christianity is defined by light followed by darkness, and darkness by light. At the end of our conversation, I leaned in close to this good brother, and whispered, “You know what the darkest horror story I’ve ever heard of is?” He looked interested, so I continued. “It’s awful. Truly horrific. A man does nothing but good, and instead of being treated well, he’s betrayed by a friend, has the skin literally torn in chunks off his back by a whip designed with just that purpose in mind, has three-inch-thorns plunged into his head, and then is nailed to a cross while people watch him suffer for hours.”

My friend blinked. A small smile curved his mouth. “I get it,” he said.

 

  1. Mormon horror, Satan’s horror

 

Horror is like anything else. It is a thing that can be used for good, or for ill. Sex can be perverted to pornography, service to a quest for power over others. Horror can be used to show the evil that looms everywhere, including within us, or it can be used to show that redemption is possible – even inevitable.

I frequently hold forth that horror is the most moral of all genres – or at least the most potentially moral. People who have never read a book by Stephen King or Dean Koontz will often judge them as sleazy or evil, while unaware that, unlike in your average scifi or fantasy, both men are not only concerned with the great questions of our religion (Where did we come from, why are we here, where will we go?), they are positively obsessed by them.

In The Stand, widely seen as King’s best single-volume work, two groups gather after a plague that nearly wipes out humanity.[11] They are explicitly evil and good, with the evil group gathering in Las Vegas (obvious thematic reasons why), and led by a character who appears in many of King’s books. Known as the Walkin’ Dude or the Man in Black in The Stand, he promises his people safety and security. They just have to bow to him and abdicate the power of all their decisions to him. And the effect (at least for a while) is that the people in Las Vegas are united and safe, and quickly moving back to the civilized world they recently lost.

Contrast that to the group of “good” people, who constantly bicker and fight amongst themselves. Defections to the “bads” are regular, and little work can get done because the people in the good group for some reason feel themselves free to disagree, to argue, to fight about every little thing. In sum, to choose for themselves.

They are also led by a Prophetess.

This is no error, and it is no unusual moment. In thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy, people who profess to speak for God are either dubbed insane or malicious, or (in the case of fantasy) are mouthpieces for the gods of that universe, who rarely bear any resemblance to the gods worshiped by humanity today. In both cases, pedagogy is rare, and when it appears is often if not usually confined to the idea that Religious People Are Bad.

In horror, however, as in The Stand, prophets and prophetesses are not only real, they are the only path to salvation. The prophetess in King’s story leads the people to a promised land, where they will not be safe with no condition, but can become so if they make the right decisions. Her power rests not on physical force (she is an old, old woman), but in the fact that she is close to God, and the twin fact that those who listen will come closer to Him and His protection.

In the end of The Stand, King goes a step further as he all but testifies that God does live, and does watch out for us. The Walkin’ Dude’s people are set to kill all the righteous, and most of the good people’s leaders are set to be tortured and killed in view of all. What happens? The Walkin’ Dude conjures forth a ball of fire to destroy a dissenter, and in that moment “The Hand of God” (literally, that is what it is called in the text) takes the evil leader’s magic and turns it against him, setting off a nuclear warhead and destroying the wicked en masse.

The Hand of God. The good people have done their best, but it is not enough. Only intervention, saving Grace, can save them. In the words of a Book of Mormon prophet, King’s protagonists are saved “after all [they] can do” (2 Ne. 25:23). Again, this is a uniquely “Mormon” concept… unseen in most religions, that is, but prominent in works of horror.

In a similar vein, Dean Koontz’s novel The Taking features a second flood, set to destroy the earth. Only the righteous are saved, and these by the intervention of creatures that are explicitly shown to be angels.[12] In The Face, a soul is literally shown descending to Hell, only to be redeemed by an angel who takes that soul to Heaven instead. In The Darkest Evening of the Year, a dog is vested with God’s power and saves a child who suffers a mental disability (which renders her innocent and incapable of sin).

The list goes on.

 

  1. The “Horror” Part of Horror

It is true that horror exists with pain. The same could be said of life. Horror is often interwoven with sex as a motivating factor. But sex, we know, is part of a holy sacrament, and sexual interaction was part of Gods first commandment to Adam and Eve. Unlike many religions, Mormons do not shun sex, they embrace it, though they believe it is to be exercised within the boundaries the Lord has set, which we call “chastity” for short.

Pain can be used as an end, or it can become a way of recognizing joy. Sex can be used to grow closer to a spouse and to bring more of the Lord’s waiting souls to Earth, or it can be misused and perverted in fornication, pornography, and more. None of these facts make trials (the Mormon name for pain) or sex into evil things. They simply show the reality that Satan knows well how to pervert the good. In like manner, the fact that some horror misuses its power does not make the “genre” into a bad one.

Instead, horror can be seen as a uniquely “Mormon” experience. In redemptive horror, blood is not the principle subject, sex is not gratuitous. Both are there to set the stage for final reward and ultimate release.

This is not to say that “good” horror stories must end happily. In my novel Apparition, for instance, all the characters suffer painful – even deadly – fates. But what makes it (in my opinion) bearable, is that the pain exists within that all-important moral framework. For me the story was, first and foremost, about the effects of child abuse and parents who put themselves above their children. Such things do not end well – not for the parents, not for the children. So the story I told ended badly. But it ended badly with the aim of telling a greater story: that we can change. That we can be better. That our mistakes can be forgiven, and our souls redeemed.

 

  1. Conclusion

 

Redemption. The word has come up often in this paper, and that is because it must. For horror is all about redemption. Horror stories can be about evil for its own sake, but they should be – and so often are – simply retellings of the First Story. The story of a man who, before we were born, volunteered to save us. Who “is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3). A man who literally bled from his pores (and what a horrifying scene that must have been!) as he suffered not just our sins, but our infirmities and pains of every kind (Matthew 8:17). Pain suffered by one man, who was literally tortured as he knelt alone in Gethsemane, followed by the torture of scourging, having a crown of thorns pressed into his flesh, and finally the long misery of crucifixion.

But this is not all. This is not what makes the Savior’s story True Horror. It is the redemption that does this. The moment where He descends from Heaven, and shows Himself to Mary. The body He still holds, and which shows we will all live again in the flesh. The fact that He will one day return, and finally destroy the pain that has gripped us all.

Horror is not about the pain. It is about the relief. It is not about the blood, but about the healing. Even if the healing leaves scars, those scars can then be used to prove the reality of the blessing, just as Christ used his scars to prove who he was and that his blessings were real.

Horror – good horror, real horror, true horror – always asks questions. Three, in fact:

Where do we come from?

Why are we here?

What comes next?

And horror, for that reason, is not only appropriate for Mormons, when properly executed it is a uniquely Mormon experience.

[1] Mehrabia, Albert, Silent Messages (1971), Wadsworth.

[2] Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet II.

[3] And, in a very “Mormon” fashion, this miracle is not the only one, nor do such miracles cease in ancient days.

[4] In a stunning exhibition of hypocrisy, in spite of all that has gone before I will refer to “genre” often moving forward. This refers not to the actual definition of the word that I have set forth, but to the “idea” that so many hold of what a genre – particularly horror – really is.

[5] Prose is actually a relatively new form of storytelling, which only slowly gained in popularity after the invention of moveable type.

[6] This is not a facetious example. See Lion’s Publishing 1957 edition of the book.

[7] Though there are notable exceptions, such as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, in which female nudity is highlighted; and others which contained profanity or fairly graphic violence.

[8] Obscenity in a legal sense. Obscenity as a general impression is an extremely plastic thing, but as a legal category there are specific steps taken to determine it. This is important since, as opposed to mere pornography, obscenity enjoys no First Amendment protections.

[9] See Scott Tobias, “Saw creators [sic] Leigh Whannell and James Wan,” The Onion A.V. Club, October 29, 2010 (recovered February 12, 2017 at http://www.avclub.com/article/isaw-icreators-leigh-whannell-and-james-wan-46975).

[10] This is actually not a “prettying up” of my response; I gave it verbally much as it is written here, because I had long thought about this and realized its veracity. If not, I could never have begun writing horror for a living.

[11] Itself a story with obvious scriptural parallels.

[12] Interestingly, most of those saved are children, and the reasoning tracks that in Moroni 8.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, MbC Must-read

Our Wonderful Obsession With Horror

What is it about horror? We’ve had it as part of our lives since… well, forever. I mean that literally. Look at the first recorded art — cave paintings. They weren’t about that one time when Cavedude got a shiny rock from Mrs. Cavedude, or about the time they had a nice romantic night away from the Cavekids, or that one time when he had a really good day where nothing much happened and there was no fire from the sky or T-rexes eating his foot or anything like that.

No, they were about Death. And yes, I meant it with a capital “D.”

They glorified animals (man among them) killing and being killed. Blood was central, and copious.

Many of the animals also feature incredibly large genitalia, which is kinda horrific for different reasons — but I digress.

Point is: we are born with a seed of horror inside. Born in blood, our first sounds screams of terror — ironically, as we leave the darkness and first experience the light. Horror is our first emotion on this earth, and the roots of that terror never quite die. We grow, and fear the night… because, at first, we don’t even have the required knowledge to know this terrifying, lonely time will ever end.

Then we learn the night does end, but now we wonder what it hides.

We grow, and fear of the dark — of what lurks within its shadowed depths — transforms to fear of the “rational” world: what if I lose my job? What if she leaves me? What if I someday die?

The last is silly, since death is sure to come to all of us. But still, many of us have that reality as a central — terrifying — theme in our lives.

What if?

What if?

What if?

Horror flogs us through life. Terror beats with every pulse of our doomed hearts. And what do we do about it?

We watch Insidious. We read Pet Sematary. We view art and media that can only be viewed as disturbing, terrifying.

Horrific.

We spend our lives hiding from the darkness, turning on the light before we take that first step into the basement (and who among us hasn’t had that fear, if only for a moment, that THIS will be the time something is down there, that THIS will be the moment we feel the claws and are dragged down to devil-only-knows where?).

And then, after turning on all the lights, putting the cops on speed dial, and carefully laying a golf club and some holy water next to our bed (just in case!), what do we do? We flock with friends to a darkened theater, to experience just what we so carefully avoided.

People of contradictions, people who yearn for light, for hope… but who also find themselves sometimes — strangely — at home in the dark.

And there, I think, lies the answer: we are people. People of hope, of despair, of light, of dark, of joy… and horror.

Every one of us has an innate fear of doing wrong, seeking wrong, being somehow… wrong. And horror feeds those thoughts, those concerns. Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.

But what all horror does — at least, when it’s doing its job — is it holds up a mirror. Not to our evil, not to the terrors that hound us through our nights and lives. No, it holds up a mirror to our whole selves. To the entirety of our humanity. To our hopes, to the fears that can dash them.

And, in the very best cases, to the redemption that we all seek.

I’m not talking about redemption in the religious sense — or at least, not necessarily. Though any careful readers of many of the masters — King and Koontz in particular — will note how often their plots climax in the infinite moment where people realize there is a greater power, or where God Himself all but steps down from his throne to save the main characters: to vicariously save all of us.

No, what I mean when I say horror is about redemption is something more basic. Less nuanced, but perhaps as critical as any strictly religious belief or dogma. The word “redeem” has its roots in Latin — “imere” which means “to purchase.” And all horror is about the purchases we make in life — for good or for ill.

When we make bad choices in a horror novel or movie, we tend to purchase an equally — or more — bad ending. The masked man hacks us in two. The cunning killer eats our face. The prophetess (that link to God again!) touches us and makes us dwindle away to nothing.

And when we make good choices we tend to purchase survival, a future. We earn a state of grace — which itself has interesting roots: it means grace, kindness, respect.

Respect. Respect for ourselves. Respect for the world — not taming it, but being carefully aware that there is more to the universe than us, that there is more to life than life itself. We know there is danger, we respect its power. But therein lies that grace: respect is something we grant to an equal, not to a superior. Respect is something that nods to the value of another thing, but does not scrape or beg or plead.

We read horror to be reminded that there are choices. That there are other choices being made at the same time, and some of those will lead to our harm. That our further choices determine how we are affected. And that, if we make the best possible choices, we will achieve a state of harmony, a sense of balance.

A way to cope with our own humanity.

We are born to blood, but yes, we are also sent directly into the light at that same moment. That first breath is to scream, but that first breath is also to live. There is an equality, a duality, an opposition present in every moment of life.

There is love… but people grow apart.

There is help… but people also make war upon one another.

There is hope… but the monsters do lurk. And have their own dark hopes for us.

And so we read horror. These sensibilities pervade the best horror, and manage to teach us neither of false perfection nor of base damnation. They show us both.

And then let us make a choice.

So why? Why do we love horror so much?

The answer, in sum, is simple: we love horror because the greatest horrors are us. And we need to be reminded of that fact from time to time so that we may also become more.

The best horror drives us into the Pit. It cuts away all that we think we are and leaves only what is the essence of our soul behind.

And then shows that that soul, that most basic identity, is enough to climb back to the light again.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice

AN MbC MUST-READ: The Song of the Rafters

The Song of the Rafters

We moved a few years ago, and I was thrilled. Not because of the great neighborhood (though it was great), not because the new house was nice and big (though it was nice and big), not even because it came with its very own trampoline (boing!).

No. It was the garage. More to the point, it was the garage ceiling.

See, in my old place, the garage had one of those ceilings with exposed rafters. You know the kind: perfect for shoving stuff that’s not quite nice enough to actually have out, but not quite nasty enough to throw away. Keepsakes and mementos from some birthday you half remember; boxes just in case you move again; kids’ toys that the next one in line will probably use.

The new place didn’t have the exposed rafters. Which meant no more extra storage. The boxes would stick out like a sore thumb, right in the middle of the new garage. The keepsakes and mementos would have to find new homes — or be thrown away outright. Old toys would be given away.

But I was happy. Because in the old garage I spent hours looking up at those rafters, wondering which one would be the right one, the heaviest one, the strongest one.

Which one would be the best one to hang myself from.

Now, in every important way I have a pretty great life. I have a wife who is better than I deserve. I have children who fill me with wonder, and who make me laugh. I have a job that most people would kill for. So it’s not like I should be trying to escape.

But I also suffer from major depressive disorder with psychotic breaks.

This last part sounds scary. But don’t worry: if you ever visit you don’t have to worry about me trying to make a wallet out of your face-skin or anything. It just means that sometimes I am utterly incapable of understanding my proper relationship to the rest of the world. I can’t conceive of a universe where I in any way belong. Of an existence that needs me, or where I have anything but a negative effect.

So I would go to the garage. Or maybe I would stand in a corner and slap myself, because some dim part of my brain hoped that the physical pain would drive out a small bit of the far greater mental and emotional torment.

The new garage doesn’t have those rafters. It’s just blank ceiling.

Although I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I still get that way sometimes. Sigh.

Chances are that anyone reading this either suffers from or knows someone who suffers from depression. What do you do to help someone like that? Someone who has forgotten this one basic truth: that we all have value. That we all are special. That in our humanity lies a kernel not just of greatness, but of inestimable beauty.

I will tell you what my wife does. She isn’t just my Dream Girl — I could never have dreamed up something like her. She’s my Better Than Dream Girl. And when I’m at my worst, this is what she does, this is her magic: she follows me.

She goes with me to the garage. She stands with me in my corner. She holds my hands firmly so I can’t hurt myself, but not so tightly it hurts in and of itself. She whispers how she loves me, how she can’t let me leave because that would be a wound to her and to the world. She says things she knows I cannot believe, but that I will look back on and remember — things that will build a reservoir of strength for the future.

She stands with me.

She eventually puts an arm around me and leads me to a couch or a bed. Still embracing me, she helps me to sit or to lay down. She holds me. Perhaps scratches my back in silence. The words are done. There is only the fact that she is there, that she is not going anywhere. The silent reminder that in this moment, in this small now… I am not alone.

The great tragedy of depression is a crippling loneliness. A conviction that we are not and never can be worthy of anything but isolation. That the world has cut us off from all human connection — and that that is a good thing, because any other person coming in contact with us would simply suffer.

What to do then?

Stay with us.

When we are ready, hold us.

And in so doing, show us that we have that spark of worth, that potential for beauty.

Depression will not allow us to believe in our value. It forbids us any hope.

But…

But I have found that — with the right help, with the right friend — it will allow the hope of future hope. And in that we may walk away from the rafters. We may move to new, safer places, and find brighter paths.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, MbC Must-read

A Very Merry (Scary) Christmas

It’s an age old story.

Everything’s blissfully quiet. You settle down for a long winter snooze after putting on your coziest winter jammies. Then… a clatter atop the roof! You jump out of bed and run to the window. To see Santa and his reindeer above you! And then…

Santa PULLS OUT HIS MACHETE/CHAINSAW/MACHINE GUN COMBINATION AND MURDERS YOU!

Oh… did I forget to mention that before going to sleep you were banging your teenage girlfriend like a kettle drum while your parents were away on business? And that both of you were smoking weed? And drunk? And probably were mean to the mousy girl who manages to be both quiet and a bit disliked, and spunky with a definite will to win?

Yeah, I musta forgot to mention that. Because if I had, you would have seen the Santa-murder thing from a mile away.

Now listen, I’ve already talked about the fact that Santa is a vaguely creepy guy, as well as possibly being a bigot. But what I haven’t talked about is (coincidentally) the very thing you were going to ask Santa this year when you go and sit on his lap*: the intersection between Santa and horror movies.

There are a lot of ’em. The fairly recent Silent Night, about a psycho Santa with a flamethrower. The older schlock-classic Silent Night, Deadly Night, about an abused child who grows up and dresses like Santa so he can murder some nuns (seriously). Silent Night, Zombie Night, about… well, you can probably guess that one.

And this year we have another entry: the horror-comedy Krampus, about Santa’s evil opposite.

All of them have one thing in common: they didn’t do that well in the box office.

Why? A lot of them are well-received by the horror community, many of them making people’s horror “top ten of the year” list. Many develop cult followings over the years.

So why don’t they make big bucks at the b.o.? Why the tiny splash instead of the surging tsunami that will inspire people to dress up as Bloody Santa, the Christmas Killer next year?

I think it boils down to this: most of us still hold some things as sacred.

Wait, don’t jump to conclusions. Lemme ‘splain.

Christmas brings a lot of things to mind: presents, family, friends, parties, and (if you’re religious, as I am) a baby in a manger. But one thing it doesn’t bring immediately to mind is memories. Not even specific ones, but more a vague remembrance of Christmases past, of good times tinged with the sepia tints of happy memory**. We remember, at least subconsciously, the times of our youth, when we didn’t really know or worry about bills, about relationships, about work, about the millions of cares that press out much of our hearts once devoted to joy.

And then a Christmas horror movie comes along and attacks those foundations. And most people don’t want that. Some can’t even handle it.

Horror is, when at its best, subversive and/or moralizing. You only have to look at Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, with its commentary on commercial America; or even the first Saw, which beneath a gory surface told a story of priorities — of the importance of cherishing what we have. But as dark as horror becomes, we shy away when it does violence to our foundations. It is all right to question society, to posit that we are not where we should be.

It is another thing entirely to say, “Where you came from isn’t safe. The memories you base happiness upon is a lie. Santa isn’t really real — because a constant of our mythology and our culture is his everlasting goodness, and that goodness can be perverted.”

And we just don’t like that. Sure, there are horror junkies who will watch anything “horror.”: torture porn, weird movies from Eastern European countries, Justin Bieber videos. Those are the ones who accept the stories right off. But then the movies generally drift into obscurity. Even cult classics tend to become such not because they are effective horror, but exactly the opposite: because they kinda suck. And those cult classics only garner their largest audiences when time has stripped away any horror the movie once had and allowed it to become a joke. Doing a shot every time Santa says, “You can guide my SLAY tonight” right before impaling someone with a reindeer horn.

There are those who will watch. Who can get past the damage the movie seeks to do to underlying assumptions and necessities of our reality.

But, for the rest, the movies just don’t work. Because even in a world grown more and more cynical, less and less sure of anything… it seems some things are still important, some things are still sacrosanct.

Some things are — dare I say? — still sacred.

Merry (scary) Christmas.

* This, by the way, is getting out of hand. It was one thing to do this when you were a kid. But now, as a grown-up, you’re making it weird. And the buttless chaps don’t help.

** If your memories aren’t sepia, then you just aren’t a good person. And no, your color blindness is NOT an excuse.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice

Gun Control: Necessary?

In the wake of recent mass-murders/shootings in Paris and San Bernardino, a lot of my friends have been debating gun control vs. no (or less) gun control (for obvious reasons). I have a lot of thoughts on the subject, but the below captures one of the most important parts of my “gun philosophy”:

A recent study showed that mass shooters in the past decade or so all have one thing in common – not race, not terrorist ties, not mental health issues, none of the usual bugaboos. What the study showed is that all were disenchanted outsiders looking for a cause. In some cases that need was sated by extremist religious beliefs. In others, it was met by the belief that “a statement must be made” (and the fact that the media’s reporting DEFINITELY impacts and foments mass shootings is a whole other ball of goo), and the statement was going to be made via mass murder.

I think that the arguments over gun controls, the extents of the second amendment, etc. are all useless in the end. Because no matter what, more and more people WILL find a way to commit these atrocities. There has never been a law so perfect that it could mandate sanity or even common sense, or that absolutely prevented evil from occurring. Often, indeed, such laws just feed the fires of the ill they seek to prevent (if you don’t believe that, think about whether or not you think at least SOME of the United States’ foreign policy decisions lead to increased anti-American sentiment abroad).

So legislation is not the answer. Sorry.

What we need is to look at ways to increase connectedness and faith. Not “I believe in Jesus” faith, necessarily, but rather faith in larger purposes. A life where the only human interactions are electronic (as was the case with many of the shooters) strips any sense of connectivity to the tribe of humanity, and increases selfishness. If our community encouraged more selflessness instead of self-promotion, service instead of self-satisfaction, then I think we’d see a dramatic drop in mass shootings.

Unfortunately, as long as we continue to steer ourselves toward a place where we look to help ourselves to more more MORE things things THINGS, we are going to lose sight with the non-things (i.e., “people”) in our lives and will thus view those non-things as unimportant and, ultimately, expendable.

It is not religion or hate that guide many of the shootings, I think. It is the absence of humility, the pervasiveness of selfishness, and the lack of belief in things greater than ourselves.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice