The 10 Types of Horror Stories I’d Love To Read
A few weeks ago Max Booth wrote a column about the Ten Horror Stories Nobody Wants to Read. So, I thought I’d follow up on this with a column about the Ten Horror Stories I’d LOVE to read. Not only have I been an author for the past nine years, with three novels, three short story collections, and over 100 stories in print, but I’ve also edited four anthologies (The New Black, Burnt Tongues, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and Exigencies). And, I’m currently the Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press and Gamut magazine. Not to mention, I got my MFA in 2012. So, what I’m trying to say is—I’ve read a lot of stories, written a lot of stories, and edited a lot of stories. Here are my thoughts.
1: Stories with unique mythology, culture, and creatures
Quite often when I’m reading speculative fiction, I see the same old mythologies and cultures—Greco Roman gods and goddesses that have been trotted out so many times I groan when I see the name Zeus or Aphrodite. How many times do we see the same old angels vs. devils, or even the standard werewolf or vampire? What I’d love to see are myths that aren’t as common—Asia, Africa, the voodoo of New Orleans, the Native American Indian mythos, or other lesser-known deities. Sure, Chupacabra is a step in the right direction, but dig deeper—look into your own history and roots, go back to your parents, your grandparents, trace your ancestry back to its origins. I wrote a bit of flash fiction about an ancient bird named Gandaberunda, a two-headed legendary creature that comes to us from the Hindu mythology. I dug around and found this guy, instead of using a more common dragon or pterodactyl or hydra. So, even though my own roots are based in central Europe, I did a bit of research and discovered some new myths, legends, and creatures.
2: More personal stories
I’d love to see more people really dig into their own feelings, their own fears, and histories. What have you seen in your life? What keeps you awake at night? I have issues with mirrors, shadows, and things at the periphery of my vision. I took a class with Jack Ketchum, and he urged us to write about the things that scare us the most. I ended up writing Disintegration, my second novel, out of the fear of seeing harm come to my family, and how that might destroy me. I don’t mean that you have to lead a tragic life, that you have to have gone through loss and death, but really just take a moment to think about your own fears, and how that resonates across your experience mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Do you fear death? If so, why? Dig deeper. What am I really afraid of with mirrors and shadows? The unknown? The unknowable? Keep going, find that primal fear. It’ll come through on the page, the air of authority and sincerity hard to miss.
3: Psychological horror
In a lot of stories I read, it’s all about the quest, the monster, getting a person from A to B, and what’s missing is the tension and conflict I need to be invested emotionally. So what I’d love to see more of is the psychological horror that exists on more than the surface. It’s not just the thing in the woods, it’s everything around that moment, that reveal—how did your protagonist get here, why is this happening, is this deserved or random, and what it the emotion that runs through it all? I’ll give you a good example. Sara Gran has a novel, Come Closer. It’s one of the most terrifying books about possession that I’ve ever read. It’s very subtle, you won’t see any horns or devils, any tails or pitchforks, and the references to the spirit, the thing, the entity—she avoids cliché at every turn. The way it slowly builds to the truth, the inevitability—wow, it’s just so powerful. Think of how Oldboy unfolds, how the damage keeps coming, the twists and turns pouring emotion on top or dysfunction. Look at the end of Requiem for a Dream, how it all comes unhinged. That’s what really gets to me. And stays with me.
4: Stories that work on three levels
I talk about this a little bit in some of my classes, but the best horror stories (best stories in general) work on three levels, and I’d love to see more of this in the submissions I get at Gamut, and what I read in general. For me, it has to work on three levels—on the surface, beneath, and above. What I mean is—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We’re talking mind, body, and soul. On the surface, the story has to move—conflict and action, tension and confrontation, you need to hook me and keep the story moving. Beneath, there is the internal conflict and emotion, what the protagonist is feeling, and any secondary elements such as symbolism, metaphor, and other less obvious tricks and details, your theme and mood. Above it all is the intellectual—this is the insight, the philosophical concepts that resonate on a grand scale. Take my novel, Disintegration. On the surface it’s about a man who kills bad people in order to justify living in a chaotic world where there is no justice or balance. Beneath is the pain and suffering of his loss, his family dead, and the way the world feels dark, tragic, and constantly against him, living in the shadows and at night. Up above it all is the insight that even in such tragedy, there are reasons to live, hope for us all, a place in the world for a broken man like him. If you can get your story to work on all three levels, I think it can be special.
5: Stories that subvert expectations
I love to be surprised. And you would think that with all of the stories, novels, and films that have been created to date, it would be hard to surprise anybody. But, wow, it happens all the time. Look at the Oldboy film I mentioned—the way that story unfolds, wow, I did not see that all coming. Look at how you are plotting, and think of the choices you are making. How do you cast your story? What jobs do they have? What is their conflict? How do they see the world, what is their voice? If I say cop, what do you picture? Now, what’s the exact OPPOSITE of that? There’s a man in your house, a burglar, what’s your first response? What’s the opposite? How would that look? If your burly white male cop is now a tiny Hispanic woman, how does that change the narrative? If your first response to a burglar is to run or shoot them, what does it look like if you instead love them, trap them, your plan all along to lure them in? Think of the film Hard Candy, for instance. A recent story that does this well is “The Night Cyclist” by Stephen Graham Jones over at Tor. Check it out. Does it end the way you thought it would? How does he subvert your expectations? Not just twists, but the moral of the story, the message, the philosophy. What are you saying? How can you make your story resonate? You’ve seen The Mist, right?
6: Stories with more emotion
When I think of horror, it’s not about the gore and violence. For me, horror is everything else—it’s the emotion. In the stories that don’t work for me, quite often what I find myself thinking is that I don’t care—I don’t care about the plot, or the character, and so when bad things happen, it really doesn’t matter to me. I need to be emotionally invested. How can you do that? It’s not easy. Why do you think so many horror films start with a quiet moment, the people in the story before it all goes to hell? We need to see your characters in their lives before the horror sets in, but at the same time, you need to hook us, so right from the start you need to plant that seed of doubt, of uncertainty, of unease—that things are going to be weird, go wrong, fall down the rabbit hole, and you better strap in for the ride. I can think of how the opening to Spring is about a young man that loses his mother, and how he sets off on a holiday, his home life pretty depressing. He seeks adventure, and love, and meaning—and man does he find something. You can look at Stephen King’s stories—“The Jaunt” or “Harvey’s Dream.” Both stories rely on family—the sense of safety, and home, and systems in place that protect us. But the systems fail. The people fail. And as the horror unfolds, whether it’s slowly over 20 pages, or all at once in a rushing paragraph of insanity—we have to care about your people first. We must sympathize and empathize in order for it to matter when tragedy sets in.
7: Stories based on love instead of death
This may seem counterintuitive, but in horror, I’d love to see more stories that have love at the center instead of death—or, in addition to death. Look at just about any recent television show, film, story or book that you’ve read that really resonated with you, and audiences in general. Stranger Things was all about a group of boys protecting a girl, and a mother trying to get her son back—love, all the way through it—romantic, familial, platonic, etc. Josh Malerman’s Bird Box is all about the love of a mother and what she’ll do to protect her kids, and get them to safety. In some of my own recent stories, I purposefully put love at the center of it all—“Repent” (Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories) about the love a fractured father has for his son, and what he’d do to protect and save him; while “The Offering on the Hill” (Chiral Mad 3) is about a man trying to find his family, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, never giving up, no matter what gets in his way. Look at your current work and ask yourself if it’s missing heart. There has to be something at stake, something risked—and that usually looks like love, something that matters to your protagonist, something essential. When you take it away, or try to take it away, that’s the tension and conflict of your story.
8: Stories about aliens
I’ve been pretty broad in my comments so far, but what I’d love to see more of in horror (and maybe I just need to read more fantasy and science fiction) is the concept of the alien—the outsider, the stranger, somebody different. Do I mean little green (or grey) men? Sure, but done in a new way. And I’m not saying in the standard ways that science fiction deals with aliens, I’m still talking about horror. Aliens don’t have to come from outer space, although that is one possibility. And sometimes the alien creature isn’t even a creature, but an alien concept, or philosophy, or place. I just accepted a story for Gamut that taps into some really primal fears in some seriously alien ways. Look at the work of Philip K. Dick, or look at Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, and Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. There is a creature at the end of Annihilation that is one of the most beautiful and haunting monsters I’ve ever seen. The whole SETTING is alien, in ways that you rarely see. With Perdido, there is an excellent mix of fantasy, science fiction, and horror that unfolds, the Weavers and slake moths horrific, no doubt. Even in the movie Alien—it’s not just science fiction, it’s HORROR! The tension, the brutality, the disgust, the terror—all of it. You can even look at the emotion in Interstellar and find that sometimes the alien is us, we are absent from our own narrative, we are alien to ourselves. There are so many ways to riff on what it means to be from somewhere else, to not fit in, to seek a place in the world, but to feel disconnected—Under the Skin, Enemy, It Follows, Ex Machina, etc.
9: Stories about the inescapable
This has always been a fascinating part of horror for me—the inescapable horror, the thing that keeps coming, or the destiny that cannot be avoided. I just touched on that with It Follows, right? I’d love to see more horror stories that start that ticking clock, that invokes the rites and passages, summoning something evil (Hellraiser), that sets into motion something that cannot be stopped, or avoided. How do you survive? What magic or insight or clever trick will allow your protagonist to survive? I don’t know! In It Follows, you simply have to pass it on down the line, right? That’s one way. I think of the Eye of Sauron, I think of Jason and Freddy, I think of The Terminator and Agent Smith. You have to be clever to work your way out of a situation like this, but if you dig deep, and are clever, I’m sure you can find a way out. Right?
10: Stories about dopplegangers, identity and self
They say that we all have a doppleganger out there, somebody that looks like us. The question is—does that person also act and THINK like us? I mentioned the movie Enemy before, with Jake Gyllenhaal, and I’m not spoiling anything here to say that it’s a movie about a man who sees himself in a film, and then tracks himself down. It’s all right there on the DVD case. It’s a fascinating story, one that takes many twist and turns, the ending shocking for sure. I love stories that have to do with identity, with unreliable narrators, and dark moments where we aren’t sure what’s the truth. I won’t get into a deep discussion about ego and id, but when we look at our identities, who we think we are, and then push that up against a contradictory theory or philosophy—it can be jarring, and unsettling. It’s part of the narrative of The Matrix, who and what we are, our reality, and there are of course many stories, books, and films about parallel dimensions, and what happens when we play with time and place. I’d don’t want to spoil Interstellar, but some of the most horrific moments are when things are set in place that can’t be undone, decisions made that costs people years and lives. That’s horrific. So I’d love to see more stories that dig into the idea of there being more than one of us, that there may be many of us, that we are not that special snowflake after all, and in fact, may exist in many forms, in many places, and many times. And of course, all the ways that this can certainly go wrong. Underneath all of that is some heavy stuff—God, life, death, the afterlife, our souls—and how you deal with it, well, that can be horrific, or inspirational, right?
What types of horror stories are you most interested in reading?
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