Beating the Black Dog with Black Tales

* header photo credit to Sara Rolin via Unsplash *

I haven’t always written horror, although I have been an avid fan of it since I first stumbled upon Stephen King’s ‘Pet Sematary’ when I was around 13. I always read books well outside my suggested age range, much to my mother’s chagrin. She supported my enthusiastic reading habit, but wished I would choose ‘nicer’ stories.

I grew up in a tiny village just outside of Whitby – yes, that of ‘Dracula’ fame – and every week a mobile library truck would park at the top of the village and honk it’s horn. Thanks to the help of the marvellous librarian, who was also a fan of horror and suspense, I moved on to such literary delights provided by Dean Koontz, Shirley Jackon, Clive Barker and Shaun Hutson, to name but a few. I have no problem admitting that I was a very weird kid, and books were more my friends than people. It was a horror book, not a teenage romance, that introduced me to my first sex scene. In retrospect it gave me a bit of a warped impression of what to expect.

As I grew up I put aside my love of horror, finding more joy in fantasies and thrillers. I’m not sure why, I think it was merely a journey of self exploration, the urge to sample other delicacies. I started to find horror was not as satisfying, being able to spot a plot-twist from three chapters in.

I told everyone who would listen that I was going to be a writer when I grew up. I churned out hundreds of short stories on a typewriter bought for me by my parents. I even made little books of my own.

Life rolled on, things evolved, and I started my career as a teacher. Quite by accident I wrote, and got published, three books for education – I emailed the publisher while drunk on vodka with the outline of a proposal. They accepted, I delivered, and they commissioned two more manuscripts.

I have to be honest, it was as boring as Hell. This was not the kind of writer I aspired to be.

More changes of circumstance and to my health, saw me forced to leave work to recover. I felt like a failure and a burden, and started writing poetry and short stories, to give myself some goals. Writing helped me process the depression and negative feelings that were threatening to consume me. I published some of them on a WordPress blog, but most of them merely languished on the hard-drive of my laptop, forgotten about and ignored. I got better, and bizarrely, I actually stopped writing for a while. Until once more, the horror bug bit me.

A chance meeting with Jamie Delano, the author of one of my most loved graphic novels, ‘Constantine’, inspired and encourage me. I began and completed my first and, so far, only novel, a modern Gothic mystery with a vaguely feminist twist. I was in the middle of editing it when my family and I decided to haul ass to New Zealand, and start a brand new life.

I love New Zealand, and I adore being here, but that first year was incredibly hard. Even when you expect the onset of culture shock, you can never truly be prepared for how it feels. How it messes up your head and makes you feel like an alien and an outsider. I lost a friend to suicide and the Black Dog woke up in me again. I turned to writing to help my mental health, recognising that being creative could not only keep me focused, but could also, hopefully, keep me sane.

As well as writing, I immersed myself in finding out as much as I could about New Zealand, and particularly Wellington, the city to where we had moved. I wanted to know more about the culture, the folklore and the people. It helped me to understand the accent, how people thought and felt, and it was incredibly interesting and enlightening. In September 2018 I entered a short story competition with the NZ Writers College for emerging writers in New Zealand. The theme was: ‘Nothing but hot air.’ I wrote a 2000 word story entitled ‘Heat Pump’. What seemed like an innocuous tale about a malfunctioning AC appliance, became a critique of sexist behaviour with a terrifying, supernatural twist. I didn’t win, but I did receive an honourable mention. Right then, I decided I was going to write and publish my own collection of Kiwi-themed horror and suspense. I didn’t want nor need anyone’s permission, and I didn’t much care if it was popular or not. I needed to write for myself.

I try to write characters more than action, I always have. Creating believable characters and putting them in terrible situations has always been what I am most good at and find demonically delightful. The horror I write now, is very different from the monster-focused tales I wrote as a teen. Now horror, for me, can mean many different things: a cancer diagnosis; the loss of a best friend; shapeshifters and vampires; or being dragged out to sea. I like creating a bait-and-switch, adding twists that people don’t see coming.

I am working on a collection of short stories all set in Wellington and the surrounding areas, which I will publish in March 2019. They all have their roots in legends or stories inspired by the ‘Coolest Little Capital”. I have a blog and website, but what I write there is incredibly different from my fiction. I like to write in a lot of different styles, to challenge myself. What I have found, however, that through writing for my mental health, but not necessarily about mental health, I have become much more settled as a person and a writer. I have exorcised the demons from my own head, and imprisoned them on the page.

Obviously, I do hope that others will read and hopefully like them, but I’ve found that sharing to an audience isn’t my most important goal. Using writing, and specifically horror, as a creative, cathartic tool, helps me process and dissect my feelings. Sometimes my characters win, but more commonly, they lose. That’s okay. Their literary deaths give me creative life. Horror for happy mental health.

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