MbC Must-read

Check out my TEDx talk!

Check out my TEDx talk!

I did a TEDx talk, titled “Confessions of a Super-villain: The Psychosis of Lies.” You can check it out by clicking here.

 

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, MbC Must-read
Thoughts on the shooting in my home town

Thoughts on the shooting in my home town

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:


Pay attention.


Nope, that wasn’t the wind-up, that was the pitch itself.


PAY. ATTENTION.


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.


Pay attention.


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.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com
Storytelling on Social Media – a Parable of Tanks and Rollerskates

Storytelling on Social Media – a Parable of Tanks and Rollerskates

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.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, MbC Must-read
The Ultimate Horror Rec List

The Ultimate Horror Rec List

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.

See her Amazon page here, or on Facebook here, or follow on Twitter.

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!

Visit her website here, or follow on Twitter.

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.”

Visit his website here, or follow on Twitter.

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.

Visit Cemetery Dance here, or follow on Twitter.

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.

High Moor
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.

Ginger Snaps
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.)

See her website here, or follow on Twitter.

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!

Books:
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.

Movies:
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.

See her website Christine Morgan’s World of Words here, or The Horror Fiction Review here.

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.

See his Amazon page here, or visit his website here, or follow on Twitter.

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.

See her Amazon page here, or visit her website here, or follow on Twitter.

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.

See her Amazon page here, or visit her Wattpad page here, or follow on Twitter.

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.

Visit his website here, or follow on Twitter.

Gracie Kat – reviewer for Sci Fi & Scary

COMING SOON!

See her Amazon page here, or visit her website here, or follow on Twitter.

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!

See his Amazon page here, or visit his website here.

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.

See his Amazon page here, or visit his website here, or follow on Twitter.

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…

Shivers.

See his Amazon page here, or visit his website here, or follow on Twitter.

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.


See her Amazon page here, or visit her website here, or follow on Twitter.

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.

See her Amazon page here, or visit her website here, or follow on Twitter.

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.

See his Amazon page here, or visit his website here.

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.

See his Amazon page here, or follow on Twitter.

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.

See his Amazon page here, or visit his website here, or follow on Twitter.

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)

Visit her website here, or follow on Twitter.

Scott Nicholson – author of the Next series & the Afterburn series

My favorite horror movies are (not in order):

Session 9
Let the Right One In
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Night of the Living Dead
The Thing
Alien
Silence of the Lambs
The Shining
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The Exorcist
The Sentinel
The Devil’s Advocate

See his Amazon page here, or visit his website here, or follow on Twitter.

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.

See his Amazon page here, or visit his website here, or follow on Twitter.

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!

See his Amazon page here, or visit his website here, or follow on Facebook.

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!

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com

I guess I’m not a writer

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.

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

The Only Three Rules You CANNOT Break

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…

(on to #1 – Bore Me And Die)

 

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

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

So you wanna be a writing success? Then let’s just dive right into the nitty-gritty, shall we? And no, I’m not talking about the “writing” part.

 

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’s ‘Anatomy,’ 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

AN MbC MUST-READ: 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