“Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.”
My nana, a small and quiet yet resilient Scottish woman, used to regularly say this phrase to me. My mother often echoed the sentiment as she got older. I’ve been told it’s a Scottish proverb of sorts. Regardless of where it comes from, it fits my philosophy on life, and writing horror, perfectly.
I didn’t start out writing horror, in fact, if I’m honest, I’m not really sure if what I write is typically considered horror at all. If pushed I might say I write “gothic horror,” “weird fiction” or “dark fantasy.” I’ve never really been very good with pigeonholes, boxes or labels. It also bears saying that I very rarely set out to write something supernatural or strange, that part always seems to nudge its way in afterwards.
Life can be complicated, difficult and messy. Nothing is ever guaranteed to us, except our eventual deaths. We muddle along without a guidebook, making the best of what we’ve got. Some of us are better supported than others, by others. Some of us will suffer almost every day. We find our friends and family and, where possible, carpe diem — we seize the fucking day! Because if we don’t, then where’s the point? You’re a long time dead. Live life while you can.
I’ve been deaf since childhood and it’s a huge part of my identity. I’m a people-watcher from necessity — watching the words that spill from the lips, noticing instantly those occasions when their eyes don’t match their smiles. I’m the loner in the coffee shop that eavesdrops on your conversations and writes you into a story. “Write what you know,” it’s often said. I simply write what I see. What I see is a whirlwind of raw emotion — of people searching for themselves and others just like them.
They whisper in the wind, “Am I a weirdo? Are there any others out there just like me?”
I write to reassure them that there are. I’m here, for one, at least.
Break down any of my stories and you’ll find at the centre there stands a character who has been either broken, or faced loss or uncertainty. It’s a common motif which I’m not ashamed to wring for all it’s worth.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” I’ll warn you. “Don’t get so attached. Nothing here is certain or predictable. Just like real life.”
Horror doesn’t have to be the usual and expected Other — a monster lurking underneath the bed, or a slavering hound at your door. Horror can be loneliness, doubt, depression and loss. Horror can be being the new girl at the office, knowing no-one and missing her old life, trusting the wrong person and making bad friends. It can be a devastating cancer diagnosis, or the death of a parent or child. These things affect us, they are in our lives and our thoughts every day.
I don’t like overly happy endings, they don’t feel real to me. Some people say it is the big moments that inspire us, but I’m not so sure. It’s often the little things that make us who and what we are, those split-second decisions that drive us down one pathway or another, they say much more about who we are than some grand gesture or great plan. Every time we say goodbye we kid ourselves that it’s not our last, but we don’t know for sure. Perhaps we should be more afraid of life than we so often are.
I’m intrigued by the things that make people tick. Of the secrets they hide within them. Not every hidden desire is dark; most are wholesome and beautiful, and yet, for whatever reasons, they are never talked about. I write horror to acknowledge those secrets. To give a voice to those deep dreams that are too often left unspoken by us all.
“What would you do if..?” I might ask you. “How would you behave if there were no consequences? Are you still a good person when no one is watching? Would you kill someone if you could, or if you had to?”
I write horror to ask these questions, of myself just as much as my audience.
Horror has a special relationship with its readers, using emotion to illicit reaction. It awakens hidden fears and desires and is often the most unsettling when it imagines danger in “safe” places. The five basic tools or tropes in horror, (both movies and literature,) are utilised to invoke apprehension and often fear. These are: unease, dread, terror, horror and disgust. The writer might pick one or two, or even explore the entire toolbox. I prefer to focus on unease and dread, to pick at the scabs of emotional hurt and use those tools to expose something raw and real.
I don’t write about blood and gore because I personally don’t like it much. I most certainly could if I wanted — some of the things my brain often conjures up, I don’t want to commit them to paper, because I am repulsed by where those thoughts have come from. I don’t feel comfortable sharing them … yet. Of course, I blame my literary horror diet in my formative years. Hutson, Barker, Campbell, Koontz and Masterton — all frequently bloody and violent at their core. Yet I never sought to emulate them. That simply isn’t my strength.
My style of horror is the creep of paranoia, where everything is almost normal, but not quite. It could be real, but not completely. I don’t want to write something that repulses people, I want to create something that lingers. Good horror will leave you with a feeling of unease. An itch in the brain that you can’t quite scratch, but equally you can’t ignore. It should squirm around in your head for a while, and leave you still thinking about it for days afterwards. I want to give you characters that you love so much, it hurts to have them wrenched away. A reminder of your own mortality, and of all those around you.
All this will end one day. You and I, and all around us now, will end. I write horror to acknowledge that and to appreciate all I have while I’m still here. To embrace my own fragility while also asking, “What’s next..? What’s real..? What if..?”
Life can be complicated, difficult and messy — but it is still ours to live.
Until the end.