Must-Have Nightmares

Editors Joe Mynhardt and Eugene Johnson’s Where Nightmares Come From: The Art of Storytelling in the Horror Genre (Crystal Lake Publishing, 2017) is a brilliantly variegated collection, covering horror in its multiple media incarnations and different stages of creation. Some of the volume’s brightest highlights include:

Joe R. Lansdale’s “It’s the Storyteller.” Starting with its very title, Lansdale’s piece refutes the (Stephen) Kingly notion “that it’s not the teller, it’s the tale that matters” (Lansdale argues that King’s own fiction disproves the point: “it’s his voice, his passion for storytelling, that hooks the reader”). According to Lansdale, “Storytelling is the tone and attitude of the storyteller, and a good storyteller is usually releasing their personality into the story, unbound by plot restrictions.” Lansdale shares his own approach to storytelling, and offers a plenitude of suggestions for writers looking to jump start the creative process.

Clive Barker’s “A-Z of Horror.” Eloquent and insightful as always, Barker considers the nature and personal/cultural function of horror. Speculating on a common thread running through the various manifestations of horror, he offers: “Perhaps the body and its vulnerability. Perhaps the mind and its brittleness. Perhaps love and its absence.” Beyond mere shock value, horror elicits a wealth of complex responses: “It can shame us into recognizing our own capacity for cruelty; it can arouse us, making plain the connection between death and sexual feeling; it can inspire our imaginations, removing us to places where our most sacred taboos may be challenged and overturned.” Barker’s essay not only serves as a helpful key to reading his own fiction, but also makes a convincing case for viewing horror as a serious and significant art form.

Mark Alan Miller’s “Why Horror?” Miller attempts to reply to his essay’s titular inquiry with admirable rigorousness. Among his numerous answers is the assertion that the genre does not simply provide an escape from the violent and vexing ways of the real world, but allows us to wrestle with them: “Why horror? Because life is horrible sometimes, and working through those horrors is the only way we can make sense of it when everything else has failed us.” As accessible as it is enlightening, Miller’s piece ranks as one of the best ever written on the subject.

Michael Paul Gonzalez’s “Pixelated Shadows: Urban Lore and the Rise of Creepypasta.” Gonzalez’s impressively extensive essay begins with a thorough taxonomy of story archetypes–myths, saga, fable, folk tales, fairy tales. Not content to point out distinctions, Gonzalez also traces developments over time, which leads him to creepypasta and its reality-blurring elements:

The appeal of the modern urban legend thus becomes an evolution from a spooky campfire tale (Have you heard the story of . . . ?) to a presentation of near-fact (Let me show you the story of . . . ). Horror once challenged readers to stay with the story, to confront the monsters lurking in the shadows and find catharsis in the ending of the story. Now, the story oozes from the page, creeping like a low black fog into our everyday lives.

While appreciable as a critical analysis of creepypasta alone, Gonzalez’s essay grows invaluable when the author explores how horror writers might learn from the phenomenon and adapt its techniques to bolster both their own storytelling and the marketing of their fiction.

Tim Waggoner’s “Horror is a State of Mind.” Aspiring horror writers have long been told the importance of creating three-dimensional, relatable characters (not just cardboard targets to be mowed down by some monstrous antagonist), but Waggoner ranges beyond such basic advice to delve deep into a character-based approach. He strives to make us “understand that horror arises from consciousness. Horror is an emotion, a reaction to something that violates our sense of what we believe to be our normal and (mostly) safe reality. In other words, horror begins inside a character’s head. The story isn’t about what happens. It’s about what a character perceives to be happening, and how that perception impacts the character.” The specific techniques for working from this “inside-out” perspective that Waggoner proceeds to describe transforms his essay into a virtual master class on the crafting of effective horror.

I could go on and on here, waxing ecstatic about the entries that provide valuable insight into the aesthetic tastes of leading editors/anthologists such as Richard Thomas, Michael Bailey, and Jonathan Maberry; the essays in which writers such as Ramsey Campbell and Mort Castle present a behind-the-scenes look at the drafting process of their stories; the interviews with genre luminaries such as John Connelly, Stephen King, and Charlene Harris. Suffice it to say, I cannot recommend this collection highly enough. For anyone looking to create–or better appreciate–works of horror, Where Nightmares Come From is an absolute dream come true.

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