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Tell Me Your Fears

Hawk doug
By Doug Hawk

Tell me your fears, your phobias, the things that haunt your dreams and wake you in the dark with your heart pounding and your face bathed in sweat. Tell me what terrors make your stomach flutter, your knees weak and shorten your breath.

Tell me. Please.

Tell me so I can use those nightmares and phobias and midnight sweats to terrify you. Horror is my business and it’s a business that’s always…well, horrifically fun.

Not so when I was five or six years old and my older brother dragged me to the Granada Theater in Monte Vista to see Spencer Tracy in the reissued Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It terrified me so badly, I fled the theater in tears. Yet, a few years later, I went to every noir, horror and science fiction movie that came to town. My parents indulged my movie going and it was only years later, they decided I had been irrevocably twisted.

At the same time I was nurturing my horror film fetish, I wrote short horror stories; crude, ghoulish tales in an age when children were still allowed to explore their imaginations without being pegged as candidates for Ritalin. And as we all know, a child’s imagination is wickedly grotesque.

Until I was about eight, when television finally came to the San Luis Valley, I listened to rebroadcasts of Inner Sanctum on KSLV. As theater of the mind, radio was quite instructive in helping me develop my bizarre imagination. However, television brought new wonders and I discovered the Saturday night horror films on KGGM-TV out of Albuquerque.  Hosted by a reluctant newscaster in bad makeup and a fright wig, the station unreeled old horror classics such asFrankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman and Val Lewton’s evocative Cat People.

Those old films taught me the importance of characters. Horror only works when we care about the people involved and I firmly believe characters must drive the horror story. How they deal with the terrors that beset them will create the tension and suspense and hopefully transfer their fears to the reader.

The first horror stories I read that really sent chills down my spine were W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” and  Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” That poor Fortunato was walled up alive by his friend played hell with my imagination and acute claustrophobia. These were intimate, personal stories of intimate and very personal horror.

Such Poe stories as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The House of Usher” or the fragile, ephemeral tales of French writer Guy de Maupassant are my prototypes for horrific fiction. I prefer horror that is intimate and personal, although my horror tales are seldom quiet and never bloodless. (The whole Lovecraft Cthulhu mythology leaves me cold. Tentacled creatures from out there, like giant lizards stomping Tokyo, are far less scary than they are annoying and boring.)

Cast a few characters in some remote locale with an unseen force or an unknown entity that will both psychologically and physically torment and torture them before killing and eating them, or, better yet, eating and killing them, now that’s a good time-for me, and hopefully, for my readers.

After Dad read my first novel, my mother, ever the plaintiff, was outraged and told me that my father couldn’t sleep for three nights. She wanted an apology. I laughed; it was a great review for a mediocre book.

Like mysteries and romances, thrillers and adventures, articles and books on writing horror have been churned out ad infinitum. And that’s okay. I firmly believe that reading about how other writers work is an important part of the writer’s learning experience.

Yet, for all I’ve read about the craft over the years, my best teacher is my own imagination. My most effective horror fiction scares me while I’m writing it. If I can reach that transcendent place where my fingers on the keyboard and the symbols on the screen vanish as the story unfolds in my mind like cinema of the grotesque, where the next image bobs to the surface like a bloated corpse on the dark lake or screams at me from the shadows like a howling banshee and my stomach lurches or I groan with disgust, then I know my fiction’s working. After all, how can I scare readers if I can’t scare myself?

I would note that I’m a hard scare. The last movie that actually left me shaken was Alien in 1979 – intimate horror on an interstellar level – and the last book that really frightened me was probably Stephen King’s The Shining, horror as personal as it gets.

My home office is in a windowless corner of our basement where I remain at the computer until well past the witching hour, when the house is deathly quiet and the room beyond my small sanctuary, dark as pitch. Often, after writing something particularly horrific, I’ve shut down and while navigating the darkness to the staircase paused to make sure the glowing red lights around the corner are really lights from another computer and not the glistening eyes of Sekhet the Slaughterer, the werecat in my novel Moonslasher, or the malevolent gaze of The Occult Madonna.

Friends and family have accused me of overdoing the violence and sex. (Did I mention my horror is personal and intimate?) Violence is always personal, certainly to the person on the receiving end, and sex is the ultimate intimacy. In fact, sex renders people especially vulnerable and my brand of horror exploits vulnerability. I make no apology about writing dark and lurid sexual encounters, with one caveat: No romancing the vampire. Making love to the undead is necrophilia, a disgusting practice even on the page.

In The Devouring, I explored a world of vampires, although not bloodsuckers in breeches and riding boots sporting manes of glorious hair that flies about their face as they race across the moonlit moors. No, I created humanoid creatures trapped for eons inside a vast cavern system who emerged in a desperate attempt to perpetuate themselves by procreating with women.

More often than I care to recount, non-horror fans and even fellow writers have questioned my choice of genre.  The conversation goes like this:

“What do you write?”

“Horror.”

“Horror? Really?”

“Yes, really.”

A dark, worried look passes over the questioner’s face and they eye me with a measure of contempt and disapproval. “I just don’t understand how you could write such terrible things when the world is such an awful place. I can’t even watch the evening news. There’s so much bad in the world…”

How can you…?

Why would you…?

What’s wrong with you…?

Their insecurities aside, I find their queries interesting-and dispiriting. I offer no apologies, because frankly none are due. As with any writer, I write what I write because I must be true to myself. When a writer elicits fear, laughter, tears or anger, then he or she is doing the job. Let’s face it, if as a genre Horror was good enough for Hawthorne and Poe, Koontz and King, Joyce Carol Oates and Anne Rice, then it should be okay for the likes of me. Besides, writing is my addiction and horror is my drug of choice.

Similarly, I don’t attempt to explain my fascination with the macabre. I’m not sure if I chose horror or if horror chose me. When I consider the etymology of my given name – dweller by the dark stream – I have occasionally wondered about fate and destiny. After all, I have embraced tales of the horrific since I was young. Having met scores of other horror writers, I’ve concluded that most of us are absurdly normal or at least not too abnormal. We’re not any stranger than other writers, it’s just that our imaginations are neither saccharine nor overly sanguine. And when we pose thewhat if questions, we usually find sardonic and disturbing answers.

I don’t fool myself that I’m writing great literature. How could I be that pretentious when a reviewer referred to one of my books as a “cheesy horror novel?” I accept that, in fact, I embrace it. I write to entertain. I find comfort in exploring the dark edges of our world and the grim patterns of destructive lives and brutal desires. Writing horrific fiction is a way of bringing order to chaos, lucidity to insanity and a measure of light into the darkness. And while that sounds a bit pretentious, I can honestly say that I appreciate the light because I have, at least in my imagination, a nodding acquaintance with the darkness.

So, please, tell me your fears…

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