Storyville: Finding Hope in Dark Fiction

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(There will be spoilers about some of my stories below.)

About two years ago I decided to change the way I wrote my fiction. I think the first evolution, or significant change in my work started when I took a hard look at the neo-noir I was writing and decided to be less derivative. Out of that, grew two novels—Disintegration and Breaker. But for my short fiction, there was a new voice coming. Partly it was due to my getting an MFA and studying literary fiction. And partly it was an overdose on horror, graphic films, violence in fiction, and the state of the world. I remember when my twins were born. It didn’t take long for me to stop watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I now had children, and what was on the screen transferred to them. I didn’t like sitting in that space.

So, two years ago. What happened?

I found that my stories weren’t as satisfying. And it has to start with you, the author, right? We have to move ourselves, scare ourselves, really make it resonate, but not be one note.

I decided to start putting LOVE at the center of my stories instead of DEATH. That was the first thing I did. And what grew out of that decision? Hope.

What I'm looking for in my writing these days is the journey—up and down, left and right, dark and light—landing somewhere that holds promise, wonder, and hope.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this also happened here in the United States as we started to see a really nasty shift in politics—racism, bigotry, violence, and stupidity rearing their ugly heads.

No. I had to do more with my work. I had to inspire, not just scare. Not just horrify.

So how did I do that, what does that look like, can you give us some examples?

Sure.

I think of “The Offering on the Hill,” (Chiral Mad 3) an homage to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I knew it would be a story set in a wasteland, some sort of unspecified post-apocalyptic wonder, out in the desert, the mountains, the plains. My protagonist went on quite a journey, but I knew that while there would be weirdness, dark creatures roaming the land, and much sacrifice, the ending was all about finding his children, and helping the world to move on. So while there is suffering in this story, and death, the ending speaks to a rebuilding. I liked that taste in my mouth.

I think of “Repent,” (Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories) that paired the horror with something beautiful (it’s right there in the title of the anthology) to create a story about a father with a dying son, and the sacrifice he’s willing to make in order to save him. The ending it sad, yes, and there is some supernatural sprinkled in, definitely some dark, strange moments, but the last feeling you should have, if I’ve done my job, is one of hope, wonder, and a flawed man doing something good in the world.

I think of my story, “How Not to Come Undone,” (Blue Monday Review) and how it shows a pair of twins—one dark and one light, and how they deal with the desires they hold inside, how they balance each other, and in the end, how the “good twin” is able to save the “bad twin” by balancing the scales, taking less glory, less love, less light for himself, in order to elevate his sister, and pull her out of the darkness.

I think of “Hiraeth,” (Behold: Oddities Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders) which is particularly satisfying because not only did I have the last story in the anthology (a place of honor) but the book won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Anthology. Working with Doug Murano, we chose to go with a more risqué version, more edgy, less straight forward, with a hard right turn at the end. And when the protagonist is faced with past fables and tales, and his own impending doom (or survival) it hopefully resonates in a way that reaches out to the reader—off the page, from beyond the golden apples, and hearts made of twine, and other magic—to seep into the cold, gritty environment of a single individual struggling to get through the night. I don’t leave him there in the dark—I show him the way out.

I think of a collaborative novelette that I wrote with Damien Angelica Walters, Michael Wehunt, and Kristi DeMeester entitled Golden Sun (Chiral Mad 4). I can remember the conversations we had where we discussed exactly how to subvert the expectations of horror. We talked about locations, and what was cliché—haunted houses, asylums, woods, caves, darkness in general. So we set it on a beach, in the daylight. And as the author of the last section, I had to consider how I left the reader—solving some of the riddles, yes, but also leaning into the darkness, the weirdness, to embrace the spectacle, all while loving a lost sister, never letting go. It’s still horrifying, but there is love wrapped up in that terror.

And most recently, I think of my own novelette, Ring of Fire (TBA). Written for an anthology of seven deadly sins, I got lust. Pairing that with horror, I didn’t want to recreate Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. And I had to be VERY aware of not creating a narrative that was misogynistic, or rapey—as my protagonist was definitely a damaged soul. How could I get the audience to like him, or at least, to have some sort of empathy for him, to root for him? It wasn’t easy. I can remember writing some very dark moments—reveals throughout—and then backing up to edit it, to cut it, to alter it. I also was conscious of what came next. After the dark, I wanted light; after being lost, I wanted to be found; out of the futile I wanted wonder and magic. This was on my mind the entire time I wrote. And when I got to the end, something else happened—the story continued in a way I didn’t see coming. It ended—and then there was this epilogue, a continuation, the baton handed off from protagonist to a secondary character. This was essential. In the wake of his journey, there had to still be hope—that the world was not too far gone, that the human race COULD evolve, that out of tragedy could come enlightenment. This was one of the hardest stories I’ve ever written. But I also think, after months of work, it may be one of the best things I’ve ever done. It feels satisfying to me, and the ripple that pushes out across that dark splash of water? It contains something close to inspiration.

These are ways you can put hope into your dark fiction. Sure, there will always be endings that spiral down into the darkness and stay there. And that’s fine. I’ve even written some stories like that recently (such as “Battle Not with Monsters” in Cemetery Dance next year). But what I’m looking for in my writing these days is the journey—up and down, left and right, dark and light—landing somewhere that holds promise, wonder, and hope.

Image of Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories
Author: Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell
Price: $16.99
Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing (2016)
Binding: Paperback, 380 pages
Image of Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders
Author: Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Ramsey Campbell
Price: $15.86
Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing (2017)
Binding: Paperback, 404 pages
Image of Chiral Mad 4: An Anthology of Collaborations
Author: F Paul Wilson
Price: $34.24
Publisher: Written Backwards (2018)
Binding: Hardcover, 426 pages
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

R. Leo Olson's picture
R. Leo Olson from Grand Rapids MI is reading The War of Art November 29, 2018 - 2:32pm

Richard,

Thanks for this post. I was just having this conversation with my wife last night about my writing topics. Perfect timing for me and it's good to not feel alone with this dynamic.

 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies December 7, 2018 - 12:44pm

Thanks! Glad it resonated.