Horror fans are a diverse bunch, but every one that I’ve ever talked to has a single commonality: their obsession started when they were young.
We may keep our eyes glued to the news sites, downloading the newest trailers and demanding up-to-the minute word on our favorite creators, but our interests always loop back around to what hooked us as kids. In this way, we’re a nostalgic bunch and I hope you’ll indulge me I wax nostalgic for a minute in this post.
Notice that I didn’t say horror movie fans. I just said horror fans, which I feel is an important distinction. Well, actually I think it should be the most unimportant distinction of all, a non-existent distinction, but sadly it is one.
Confused yet? Sorry, let me try again.
It was the movies that hooked me. Browsing the video store, I was both attracted to and terrified of the horror section. I wanted so badly to enjoy these films that I begged and bartered with my parents.
They were pretty permissive and let me have what I wanted. The thing was, when I was that young, I could only take about five minutes of Halloween, and the closest I got to Freddy was errant glances at his videotape covers. So I started slow, stuck with the classic monsters. Great as they are, the films of the 1930s,’40s and ’50s didn’t quite hit the same “instant terror” nerve for me as their color counterparts.
This was how I became a monster kid, which is a term that outdates me by a few decades, but still one that’s applicable to a select group of young people today. Some would claim that it’s only applicable to those who were around for the ’50s-’70s, but to hell with that. The few, the proud: the monster kids.
It was those gruesome videos that started the itch, those old timey monsters that first help me scratch it, but it was reading that taught me how in love I was with being scared.
The same way I feared/loved the slashers, I feared and loved the small bookshelf in my father’s study. My dad’s not a huge reader, and he’s certainly not the world’s biggest horror fan, but he had one book on this shelf that interested me. Tucked between a copy of Congo and Eye of the Needle, was a hardcover copy of Stephen King’s It.
I knew It from the video store. That was the one in the fat case with the scary clown on the cover (it was two tapes long, intimidating!). Something about this book cover was even creepier.
A few green lizard-like fingers reaching out from a storm drain, towards a paper boat. It’s an image that doesn’t give you a whole lot of idea what the story is about, but it lets you know that something bad is going to go down, and that it’s probably going to involve kids. Kids like me.
So even before I read a single word of his prose, I was a King fan. My father read me some of King’s short stories, they’re complex and mature for a kid, and I’m sure that 99% went over my head. It was just something I wanted to be a part of, like a child putting on a plastic helmet and pretending to be a fireman. Luckily I’m young enough that once I was starting to read by myself, there were books there to meet me. In the early 1990s I devoured R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, feeling myself getting stronger with every word, working towards the day when I was ready to tackle It by myself. I’m not ashamed of Stine’s gateway drug series, nor should I be. Everything’s a piece in the tapestry.
At the same time all this reading was going on, my interest in film kept growing. I’d watch everything I could. Tried to learn how movies were made, I forced myself to watch everything, even if it terrified me, got in trouble during grade school for bringing in copies of Fangoria and making girls look at the gory pictures during lunch.
Flash forward to today and I’m a horror writer with a film degree. There couldn’t be a more literal case of childhood interests manifesting themselves into an adult’s life.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I was lucky to run into that book cover. This same dual interest, this love of horror in all its forms, is my wish for every single one of today’s monster kids.
I’m not just an angry nerd ranting about how “nobody reads anymore!” Although, I’d be lying if said I didn’t think that for society as a whole, from time to time. The over-reliance can work in the other direction as well: there are horror fans that (either through snobbery or genuine disinterest in film) lean too heavy on fiction. They end up with a scant cinematic diet. That’s just sad.
I like to think of it like this:
Lucky Charms are a part of this complete breakfast, so on the commercial they show you a glass of orange juice and a slice of toast. If you’re just watching/thinking/talking about one aspect of the culture (either strictly horror movies or horror fiction), then you’re only eating the Lucky Charms. No milk, even.
Reading is Magic:
For as long as I’ve been living in Massachusetts, I’ve attended the Rock and Shock convention in Worcester, MA. R&S is a fun convention for me because I’m a horror omnivore. Not only do I get to see genre film veterans like George Romero, Linda Blair and Danny Trejo, but I get to meet up with authors and editors whose work I love. What depresses me about R&S is that I’m one of the few people to attend for that reason.
The convention is fragmented into two parts (three if you count the metal/horrorcore concerts that are part of the event). One group is there to line up for signatures and grab a bootleg copy of Freddy’s Nightmares (duped from VHS), and the other is there to meet some authors, maybe sell a few books of their own. That second group is a lot smaller. The real audience is there for the movie stuff.
These fans are die-hards, they know every entry in the Friday the 13th saga backwards and forwards, are hip to the latest trends in international horror (psssh France is so six years ago, it’s the South Koreans that are tops right now), have got a lock of Bruce Campbell’s hair stashed on their mantle, but I’m willing to bet that the only three living authors they can name are King, Barker and Koontz.
No, reading is not really our thing as horror movie fans, is it? Besides, aren’t books where all that Twilightnonsense came from?
I’m not saying that these folks are somehow ignorant, or are lesser fans than those that do read (and anyone who thinks I’m only picking on the film fans, I’ll get to the problems with a horror fiction-only diet in the next section), I’m just saying that film isn’t the only way to the heart of our beloved genre.
This is just my own assumptions/generalizations at work, but I think that one of the main reasons some fans don’t try reading within the genre is that they have a narrow definition of what the genre is and how it’s supposed to impact them.
Many horror film fans are thrill seekers. They want well-executed jump scares to ratchet their adrenaline up, photorealistic gore to test their gag reflex and they don’t think that the printed word can provide them with these thrills. They’re right and wrong.
Books don’t work in the same way that movies work: they are two completely different formats. I would argue that some of the worst books are the ones that read too much like pitches for a film, writers and filmmakers need to have a grasp on the intricacies of each medium if the work is to succeed. On top of that, when a book does “succeed” it’s almost never in that visceral “that cat came out of nowhere”-level that some films operate on.
For me, books afforded scares that were more covert, but no less profound and addicting as the best horror cinema. The best set pieces in horror novels are not reliant on special effects, but instead on a reader’s understanding of character, context, mood and their compliancy in the act of storytelling. They don’t hit you all at once, but instead build and expand in the imagination, with you doing a lot of the mental legwork.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been as scared as when Larry Underwood is making his way through the Lincoln Tunnel in The Stand, and I’ve never had more potent nightmare fuel than the shouts of “Come out Neville!” in I Am Legend. And that’s just the entry-level stuff. This isn’t even to mention the gore, because as far as I’m concerned there are passages in some Jack Ketchum and Wrath James White books that make Lucio Fulci look like a wuss.
Movies don’t rot your brain:
The horror genre, even when it’s being looked down upon by academia, is clearly a wide spectrum of works. While staying within the confines of the genre, you could go highbrow or you could go the lowest of the lowbrow. The problem occurs when we start stratifying works in our own mind, avoiding content not because it doesn’t interest us, but because it belongs to a certain subgenre or medium.
This is the line of thinking that can lead to the blanket “books are better than movies” reasoning or the even more specific (and still false): “the book is always better than the movie.”
Possibly the most frustrating thing about talking to other passionate people is watching their passion take a cynical turn. The idea that because one is a fan—a connoisseur of the genre—that one automatically knows everything to the point of prejudging art that’s never given a proper chance. I’ve been guilty of this myself on more than a few occasions, but I’m not proud of it.
This happens occasionally when readers (not cinephiles) try to explain why they won’t like a certain film. Or worse: why they don’t like a certain sub-genre of film. The thing about assuming that you are an expert is that there’s always someone smarter and more well-read than you.
You may be able to recite large swaths of Poe, but that doesn’t give you the ammunition to discuss Roger Corman’s Poe-inspired pictures with someone who’s seen them.
So when someone overhears you talk dismissively about something that they’ve spent a lot of time and energy thinking about in a much more nuanced way than “it sucked” or “it rocked” or “it’s so bad it’s good” (my personal pet peeve), it tends to hurt their feelings. It also makes you look like a dingus.
What do I recommend readers do if they’re looking to brush up on horror movies? Read a book! There are a bunch of great nonfiction books about horror cinema, ranging from breezy and anecdotal to intimidating-ly academic: pick one that sounds interesting and read it. Make a note of the films that the author discusses the most: have you seen them? If not, it’s time to do your movie-watching homework.
What next? Healing the rift:
So do you know someone who fits into either of these categories? Does your buddy have a hockey mask tattoo, but has never cracked open Jack Ketchum’s The Lost? Does your hoighty toighty book-loving friend spend all their hours re-reading Lovecraft, but has never sat down to enjoy the simple pleasures of Re-Animator? Make them! If you’re a fan, it’s your duty to reach across the aisle and share what you love.
Don’t misunderstand this as an author’s plea to read his books. If you’re just getting going, don’t start with me. Start with the authors that are acclaimed, that undeniably matter. If you’re intimidated by the classics, start with something contemporary. Pick up a Sarah Langan or Laird Barron or Joe Lansdale. If novels scare you because you don’t want to dedicate that much time to someone you’re not convinced you’ll love: pick up a multi-author anthology. Editors like John Skipp, Ellen Datlow and Stephen Jones do a great job distilling the best-of-the-best. Short fiction is low-investment but could turn you onto your all-time favorite author.
If you’ve got a budding monster kid in your life (son, daughter, niece, nephew), you should encourage their taste in a responsible manner. There’s plenty of horror that can play well with the younger set. I’m not just talking about YA fiction (although there’s plenty of quality there) or family films. You just have to use your discretion, be familiar with the material you’re handing them and know what they can take.
When the readers start watching and the watchers start reading, I think we’ll all realize that we’ve got something in common. Whether we were hiding behind the couch, brazenly sneaking movies on late night cable, or exercising our library cards: we are all monster kids.