Part 1: It Started in the Basement
Part 3: My [Kinds of] Monster Movies
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Horror taught me how to write.
No matter what one’s views are of genre fiction, it’s a great place to start when learning how to tell stories. Within any genre is a structure worth learning. Once the basics are learned, there’s so much a writer can do that carries over to other writing — even that “serious stuff.”
My First Time
The very first thing I wrote with the goal of publication was for a horror anthology called Creature Features. I met the editor, Rick Klaw, at a comic book convention in Dallas. We chatted, and I walked away with a challenge: write a monster story for his consideration.
I used to love writing challenges. (I still do, but I have enough going on that I don’t have the time I once did for challenges. Must…stay…focused… If you like writing challenges, here’s one to consider — might be the oddest challenge you’ll face this year!) Having the opportunity to write a monster story that people might actually see and read had me walking around the convention in a haze of ideas. I could easily pull from my youth and write about basements or attics. (When in doubt, I’m a sucker for the past.) Maybe an ode to 50s B-movie horror? Or just go all-out and write the most gruesome story I could muster…
“Others will go there,” I thought.
So…I took a chance and wrote about a guardian angel. Not quite a creature, but it wouldn’t leave my head. I wrote the story and sent it to Rick, thinking it had no chance of seeing print.
I was kind of surprised when I got the call that it was accepted for the anthology…
It’s an Okay Life
The story, called “It’s an Okay Life,” is a different take on the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Even Rick admitted it wasn’t quite a creature story, but…he just liked it for some reason and thought others would, too. Taking that chance on the story I wanted to write — instead of what I thought I should write — paid off.
Of course, in the world of independent comic books, few things go as planned. The deal with the original publisher didn’t work out, but that turned out to be a good thing because it ended up being the first title published by Mojo Press. That meant a bit more exposure, including the very first signing I did.
I’m Not Worthy!
While there were quite a few creators involved. the first signing we did for the book — at a comic book shop in Austin, Tx — wasn’t packed with creators. In fact, it was just me and this other writer…some guy named Joe Lansdale.
Lansdale’s one of those writers I really respect. Known for horror and gritty mystery, the guy is also funny and he has a way of making a reader feel for the characters he creates. Few writers can put a reader within the places in his mind like Lansdale — and when he decides he wants to make you hurt, he can devastate a reader and make them feel a sense of loss for characters like few others.
And there I was, a goofy, green writer — sitting next to him at a table signing books. Maybe if other contributors to the book had shown up, I wouldn’t have felt so self conscious, but it really seemed like it should have been just a Lansdale signing. People definitely weren’t there to see me!
The Beginning of a Bad Habit I Will Defend to the End
A lot of people in my place would have schmoozed with Lansdale; even been opportunistic of the situation, but at that time, I’d never read any of Lansdale’s stories (well, maybe some comic book stuff.). So…to jump on and try to milk the situation would have seemed smarmy to me. Hell, had I read everything Lansdale had written to that point, I wouldn’t have tried making the moment about me — that’s just the way I am.
At a comic book convention in Dallas after Creature Feature’s release, a friend introduced me to George Pérez, who told me he loved my story. (I was surprised he’d read it.) He went as far as saying “I don’t see good stories like this much these days.” (Something to that effect, anyway.) He was friendly and willing to chat, but…again, I didn’t feel worthy to be in the company of people I’d heard of (and in Pérez’s case, really looked up to). I thanked Pérez and slinked away at my first opportunity.
Okay, so I won’t defend totally slinking away or feeling unworthy in the company of more established writers and artists. It’s not that I didn’t feel I was good enough — I just didn’t want to be perceived as desperate. I wanted to be seen as their equal, and to attain that meant putting in my time coming up. Maybe something good would have happened were I more assertive, but I will always defend that it was right to not glom on to the people I had a chance to be around in the hope of it benefiting me.
Like monsters smell fear, people who’ve made it in their field to some level can smell the desperation of those who want what they have. Many of those who’ve made it are damn nice people who won’t just tell somebody to leave, even when it’s their right (especially in a time when even some of the most accommodating and cordial creators have been deemed “assholes” online by those who’ve felt slighted — even though the creator was giving the true asshole more time than they deserved).
I suppose I could have bothered the creators I’ve met in the hope that eventually one would help me. But…the writers and artists I’m now actually friends with…I don’t even ask them for favors, even though I know they’d help if they can. I know some cool people, in part, because I’m not desperate. If an opportunity arises through a friend, I’ll take it, but I’m not out to force possibilities in a momentary act of desperation because I want something.
Especially since I’m not writing much genre fiction these days.
A New Taste of Terror
Somewhere along the way, horror as a genre seemed to move more toward suspense and torture. I know there’s still great horror being produced, but I noticed attention to creepy tales waned a bit in favor of something more…mean. Interest in the stories I was writing was met with, “Liked this, but we’re looking for more edgy horror.” Creatures chasing and devouring people was no longer edgy; tales of torture were in.
Now, I know 70s horror was full of terrible exploitation films. Rob Zombie kind of revived the good ol’ days of that kind of movie with some of his indie flicks. But even in something as terrible as those old movies, there was still a sense of, “How did they do that?” with the effects. People still had a chance to run away. The first Saw movie at least poses some interesting questions: how far will we go to save ourselves?
But what followed seemed to be little more than torture porn: an hour and a half of people just being…tortured. I get that it plays to a society that seems to have lost its imagination and spends its time terrified of what ifs: being kidnapped and tortured by terrorists and madmen, even though the odds say you’re safer now than you’ve ever been.
I still love a good monster movie with victims who understand the risks. (You go on that deserted planet that could sustain life, bad things just might happen…just like if you go hunting for trolls or dig up a creature hidden in the ice in Antarctica.) But I just can’t sit and watch people being tortured for an hour and a half. It really bothers me.
With that shift in flavor and having learned so much from the wonderful structure offered by writing horror, I moved on to other things, leaving all the creatures lurking in basements, attics, and other places behind — at least until a few weeks ago.
More about that in the final installment tomorrow…
I don’t care for the modern “torture porn” movies claiming to be horror movies either. Long, drawn-out, gratuitous torture scenes in *any* movie are just distasteful and creepy (in a bad way), in my opinion. Gore or violence, to be acceptable, has to either fit seamlessly into a strong storyline (for example, The Shining), or be unrealistic or humor-based (as in the case of campy movies). A depiction of realistic, gratuitous torture is never entertaining, in my opinion. I’ll watch the 1959 movie The Bat (which is the pinnacle of “tame horror”) countless times, but I will not watch The Saw movies. What’s the point?
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Cynthia Griffith says
I don’t care for horror, especially the modern versions of it. Oh sure, I love old monster movies like the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. That’s pretty much my limits though.
And speaking of not wanting to appear smarmy, I totally understand. I found myself sitting next to Adam Hughes at a convention once. I didn’t say a word to him even though he was one of my favorite artists. It just didn’t seem right unless he wanted to talk, but he had a HUGE line of people to talk to instead.
Christopher Gronlund says
CMS: I know there have always been movies with torture, but in the past, you could tell they were made by geeks. There was still that whole effects aspect of it all, where even if it was gruesome and cruel, you watched and wondered how they did the effects. But the move to just pure torment and cruelty without even effects…it’s just something I can’t watch.
And The Shining. Left that one off my list, but watched that one over and over on HBO as a kid. Saw it in the past handful of years and still liked it.
Christopher Gronlund says
Cynthia: I definitely love old horror movies like that, and to this day, few things scare me like the reveal of the Phantom of the Opera! That scene…EGADS!!! (Especially considering the time!) Lon Cheney did some cool stuff!
Yeah, sitting next to Adam Hughes all day…and then when they brought Mark Waid to our table and he realized we were getting kicked away for him and he was like, “There’s room for all of us…” I know that the kind of thing we were doing at the time would have caught his interest at least. (I recently reread the first issue, and while I cringed, after the opening scene it falls into place. I definitely tried too hard on the writing and let the first scene run way too long.) But I know giving him the whole table was the right thing to do, even though the right thing to do for our “careers” at the time would have been sitting there and chatting when we had a chance.
Horror kind of lost its way for a while there — torture porn and John Carpenter remakes that were just embarrassing. I think it’s due for a resurgence soon, and I’m good with that.