Author Lee Murray gives us a snapshot of her thought trains on writing horror-striking, dark themes, and facing the demons – literally!
Lately, I’ve been finding my writing horrifying. Not in a literal sense, but in a literary one: turning up to work to suffocate a woman, murder a man, board up a teenager inside a wall, or wrap a character in spider’s silk. And I’m loving it, which is weird, as I’m quite the fraidy-cat. No, it’s true. I don’t like cramped spaces, perilous ledges, slippery slimy beasties, and the only horror movie I ever saw—aged thirteen—was the last one I ever saw, after my dad complained that my nightmares were keeping him awake. Venetian masks give me the shivers, and let’s not even mention snorkelling, and yet lately I find myself drawn to darker and darker themes. Why the sudden fascination? Is this descent into the underbelly of horror a normal writerly progression, or an inadvertent stumble from the right and proper trail?
Perhaps it is to do with plot, because, of course, there is no story without plot, and no plot without conflict. Something has to go wrong. Even in the light-hearted genre of chick-lit, where I started my fiction career, the essential character development comes from hurtling your heroine through an escalating series of blunders, misunderstandings, and meddling interference by the well-meaning best friend. Horror upon horror, at least as far as she’s concerned, in a test of her mettle. Typically, the stakes aren’t particularly high—it’s more likely to be a case of our heroine not making it to the celebrity gala than a question of life and death—the readers’ entertainment derived firstly from an element of Schadenfreude, and ultimately, from seeing the plucky gal achieve her dreams and land the handsome billionaire. Stakes could be the key here, because investigating a character’s deeper responses—to betrayal, jealously, loss, or guilt, for example—requires a more significant plot device than a missed bus or a pair of laddered pantyhose. To test those values means turning the celebrity gala into a brutal hostage stand-off, and the best friend into a zombie. So, perhaps darker plots are inevitable to examine a character’s deeper resolve?
Or it could have something to do with the nature of character itself, and how fun it is to write a truly nasty personality, one crippled by a delectable flaw. Let’s face it, we all love a good bad guy: Lector and Loki have twice the following. I can’t think of any good guys off the top of my head.
I suspect horror, or at least elements of horror, are an inevitable diversion in any writer’s career, if they wish to progress their craft. It’s like the couple who has never had an argument: how can they know if their relationship is resilient? Horror has a way of challenging a writer, both professionally and personally. Just how far outside our comfort zone are we prepared to go when writing our stories, how near to the bone of our own fears and fallibilities? Horror makes us face those demons. Not just spectres and spiders, but the things we fear the most.
Maybe it has nothing to do with any of those things, but is more about the reception my colleague Dan Rabarts and I have received from the horror community—both professional and fandom—in the wake of Baby Teeth: Bite-Sized Tales of Terror, and its multiple awards. Accolades and pats on the back are highly motivating for a writer. And the networking has been a fearsome thing.
My current novel is a horror-thriller set in New Zealand’s mist covered Te Urewera mountain ranges. So, although I’m new to horror, I plan to linger a while, see where the trail leads.