5 25 min 12 yrs

Actually, I can’t promise that what follows are the dumbest things you’ll hear as a horror writer, but they’re certainly the dumbest things I’ve heard during my time in our beloved genre.  Generally, when I tell someone I write horror, the response I get is, “Really? So you want to be the next Stephen King?”  That’s not dumb.  If Stephen King is your only horror reference, what are you supposed to say?  “Ah, so you want to be the next H.P. Lovecraft, but with heavy Borgesian influence and a liberal dash of Hunter S. Thompson and Aztec mythology?”  No, what’s dumb would be to say–well, anything on the following list, starting with:

We don’t accept simultaneous submissions.”  When you write horror, your choice of markets gets cut pretty severely.  “Literary” writers have all sorts of college fiction journals and large-press magazines like The New Yorker. [1]  Horror magazines are generally a bit more. . .rustic.  Like it or not, the odds are against your ever getting that piece about vampires into Harper’s Weekly.  Actually, I think this is one of the best things about our genre.  Horror isn’t sustained by pride or academic jockeying; it’s sustained by love.  You and I and everybody who visits this website come here because we love zombies and Old Ones and slashers and decrepit villages populated by inbred cultists.  We may disagree about which of these things we love more, but we’ll still see a movie about our least favorite horror trope before we’ll watch, say, anything involving Julia Roberts.  That doesn’t mean we don’t have our divas.

“No simultaneous submissions” is Writer’s Guidelines-speak for “If you sent your story to us, you better not send it anywhere else.”  Until my writer friend Vince Churchill[2] clued me in, I thought this was a commandment from the horror gods.  “No simultaneous submissions” isn’t an entirely idiotic concept.  I mean, if I offer you a cookie, it’s not very fair for me to then take it away and give it someone else.  But suppose I offer you a cookie and you take six months to a year getting back to me?  What’s so special about your indecisive ass that you get a cookie monopoly?

The ones who really ride the “no simultaneous submissions” clause into the ground seem to be the very smallest of the small-press media.  I think it’s a classic case of too much power too soon.  Suddenly, you’re not just another dipshit who keeps getting rejected by Weird Tales and Cemetery Dance.[3]  Suddenly, you’re the rejector/rejectrix, and you can take as long as you damn well want getting back to all the little up-and-coming dipshits who dare try to sneak in from Fan Land.  So here’s what we’ve got to do, we writerlings adrift on cybernetic seas: next time the editor of Terror Drawer or Venereal Stories or Tales of Nefandous Shit tells you he’s just so overwhelmed by submissions but you better not send your hard-written story elsewhere, you politely respond that you have no intention of submitting your story anywhere else.  And then, you e-mail that motherfucker to every magazine, website and anthology you can find.

“Oh, I’ve got a great story idea for you!”  When I was sixteen, my world-traveling grandmother took my sister and me on a tour of Scotland.  It was an awesome trip–especially for a burgeoning horror buff.  We went to Loch Ness,[4] saw not one but two of the castles mentioned in Macbeth (one of which was reputed to be haunted by ghosts cursed to play dice until Judgment Day), walked past the medical college where Burke and Hare sold corpses,[5] and spent some time in London where we went on a Jack the Ripper tour.[6]  Grandma Evie is in her eighties now, but even today she’s a vivacious, take-no-shit, New York Jewish grandmother.  You can imagine how she wowed the men in her sixties.

One lonely old codger by the name of Jasper took quite a shine to my globe-trotting grandmother.  Since we were on a tour of Scotland, Jasper took this opportunity to reconnect with his Caledonian heritage.  Sporting a tam o’ shanter[7] over his geriatric mullet he regaled us with stories about wearing a kilt at his daughter’s wedding.

“The bagpiper asked me, ‘Do yae enjoy the fraedom o’ the kilt, laddie?’ and I said, ‘I sure do!'” Jasper said. “That’s because you don’t wear anything under a kilt.”  He subsequently informed us that he was actually a tenth-generation American with only one distant Scottish ancestor.

Jasper realized that the quickest way to Grandma Evie’s heart was through her grandkids, but he wasn’t quite sure just how to go about winning our admiration.  Lectures about Freemasonry didn’t do it, nor did lovesick requests to borrow a comb or toothbrush.[8]  But then Jasper found out that I liked science fiction.

“I’ve got a great story idea for you,” he said. “Imagine if somebody dug under Stonehenge and found a circle of satellite dishes.”

There are a couple of problems with this set-up.  First off, I don’t really like science fiction.  Most of the science fiction I’ve enjoyed is really horror–Lovecraft, The Thing, Alien.  There’s a rationale of science, but the emphasis is on suspense, fear, and the unknown.  Secondly, this idea smacks of Eric Von Daniken, the fatuous writer of the bestselling Chariots of the Gods? series.  Chariots of the Gods? posits, in a bold and original idea that Von Daniken stole from two other writers, that ancient people outside of Europe were too stupid to build things like pyramids or monolithic statues on their own, so they just must have been helped by aliens.  And it doesn’t get much more scientific from there.  Aztec snake image?  Must have been a primitive attempt to convey a rocketship.  Skeleton statue from India?  Evidence of X-ray technology among ancient Hindus.  Mask of a man with deer antlers?  Those are really antennae that just look like antlers.  Erik Von Daniken interprets ancient history the way drunken fratboys urinate: everywhere but on-target.

“But Jasper was just being nice!” you say. “He only wanted to get with your grandmother and his ‘I lost my comb’ A-game failed! Have a heart!”  Okay, fine; he just wanted some out-of-his-league action.  But I ask you to consider how patronizing this is, no matter how well-intentioned.  At sixteen, I was working on a novel and toying with ideas for a number of short stories.[9]  The assumption that writers need story ideas is directly tied to the idea that we just sit around dreaming, not that we A) have a number of story possibilities on constant rotation and B) have done the requisite reading, research and planning to know what is a good, workable story idea and what is a clichéd piece of shit.

While Jasper was probably just being good-natured in his quest for geriatric nookie, unless you’re paying us a ghost-writing fee, we don’t want your ideas.

“This agency only represents stories about animals.  I don’t know how much longer this will hold true, but for the present, if you want to be accepted by most publishing houses, you need an agent.  With that kind of power, agents can be as whimsically choosy as they want–especially agents who are already independently wealthy.  After all, you need them more than they need you.  Faulkner compared writing to prostitution.  If that’s so, agents are the fat, leopard-print wearing, goblet-clenching pimps.  They may find you johns, but don’t be surprised if you get backhanded.

I wrote a novel a few years ago about the cosmic power-struggle between an ancient jaguar god and a crocodile-like horror.  I sent it out to all the agents I could.  Most of them never replied.  The others were rejections.  And then there was the agent we’ll call Bishop Magic Pander de Marco.

The Bishop sent me a form letter back.  This agency is heading in a new direction, it said. From here on, Bishop Magic Pander de Marco will only accept fiction and non-fiction dealing with animals, to wit: wild animals, domestic animals, farm animals, service animals, feral animals, edible animals, talking animals, extinct animals, laboratory animals and lastly, though not least importantly, zoo animals.

I’ll grant you, my novel had a bunch of human characters.  It wasn’t all animals, all the time.  But the biggest players were a) a massive jaguar that could travel through time and b) a crocodile deity who represented the churning forces of evolution made flesh.  It may not have been Watership Down, but animals (or at least their time-traveling, shape-shifting, divine equivalents) got a lot of page time.  And that doesn’t even take into account trips through time back to the Dinosaur Age, or the scene where the main character, whacked out of his dome on ayahuasca, thinks he’s pissing coral snakes.  I mean, how many more animals do you fucking want, Bishop?

Time Jaguar Vs. DoppelCroc never sold.[10]  I retired it with the intention of someday reworking it and trying again.  But I still hadn’t heard my last dumb comment about animals and horror.  Why, just a few years later, somebody said:

“You totally should have researched bestiality for that story.”  Back in 2007, I had my first story published in a now sadly defunct magazine entitled City SlabCity Slab was a high-quality glossy magazine that specialized in urban horror.  My story, “Caramula,” was accepted by editors Dave Lindschmidt and Scott Standridge and ultimately published in Issue 11.  The inspiration came from a summer I spent in Latin America, studying Spanish in central Mexico and working as a volunteer journalist in Honduras.

All cultures have horror traditions, but from the Olmecs[11] onward, nobody has done horror like Mexicans.  Virtually every archetypal monster you can think of has a much cooler, much weirder Mexican version.  Vampires?  How about witches who take their legs off and fly through the air, feasting on babies’ blood.  Werewolves?  How about naguals, transformed shamans who take the form of whatever animal first crossed their path, from a dog to a jaguar to a lightning bolt or rainfall of blood or even a bicycle.[12]  Ghosts?  La Llorona, the restless spirit of Cortes’s interpreter and lover Doña Marina, who attacks unfaithful men, wailing and menacing them with blood-dripping claws.  You hear stuff like that, and how can your inner horror fan not be stirred?  I wanted to make my own Mexican bogeyman.

I came up with Caramula, a massive, mule-headed figure with no hair and bone-white skin.  Caramula badly wanted a son, and would rape women “given” to him by those wanting to have a wish granted–usually embittered ex-lovers.  The story took place in Ixcun (my barely-fictionalized version of Cancun), and concerned a cab driver’s encounter with Caramula.

I don’t know if he passes muster as a Mexican bogeyman (I suppose to discern that I would need a panel of Mexicans), but Caramula certainly drew a range of reactions.  The editors at City Slab were extremely generous with their feedback, and my relatives, friends, etc. were very supportive.  Given that I’d written a story about a rapist mule-demon, that was well above and beyond the call of duty.  But then there were others. . .

Through circumstances too complicated to relate, I met an artist from Texas who did horror illustrations.  He wasn’t a bad artist, but he wasn’t exactly professional quality either.  Mostly what he did was work a day job at Wal-Mart, come home, smoke a generously-packed bowl or three and fuck around online for the rest of the night.  He was the kind of person who wants to come across as transgressive, angry, and dangerous, but aside from screaming at his beagle and drawing necrophilic porn, he couldn’t quite get the mien he wanted.  “If you and I got in a fight,” he said once. “I’d win because I would just get furious and go crazy.”  As any martial artist or boxer will tell you, this is a very good strategy if you feel you have too many teeth.  Another time, after an argument, he told a mutual friend he thought about killing me.  I reacted with the dread and intimidation that only a death-threat from a stoned arch-slacker can inspire.

The Texan read “Caramula.” His border homeland notwithstanding, he has no claim to Mexican ancestry whatsoever.  Truthfully, I don’t think he knows enough Spanish to order from Taco Bell.  But if there was one thing he did know, it was internet porn.

“You know, if I’d been writing that story, I’d’ve researched bestiality,” he said to me once. “Just to give me ideals.”

(He always mixed up the word “ideas” with the word “ideals,” though in this case I’m not sure it was unintentional.)

“But it’s not really about bestiality,” I said, which was true.  Caramula may have had a mule’s head, but the bestiality angle had never been the story’s main or even secondary focus.

“Nah, you need to research that shit,” he said. “Go online. I’ve seen a woman fuck a horse, and a dog, and a snake. It’s all on there.”

Any good writer knows the importance of research, and sometimes you end up doing weird or stupid things to add verisimilitude to a story.  Going to a protest during Egypt’s January 25th Revolution (especially when I spoke no Arabic and the street was filled with riot police) wasn’t the brightest thing to do.  Nor was trespassing through any number of midnight graveyards with my college writer buddies, just to get the atmosphere.  And when it looked like I might need a rabies shot after getting bitten by a Cairo street kitten, part of me was thinking that at the very least, this was good material.[13]  But there are places I draw the line.  Go to a seedy Mexican strip club to pick up the atmosphere?  Sure.  Scour the internet for bestiality porn?  No fucking way.

I guess “you should research bestiality” isn’t a chestnut every aspiring horror author hears.  I also think that readers have a right to interpret a given piece of writing however they like once it’s put in the public eye.[14]  Thirdly, I believe it’s every writer’s prerogative, having put a story in the public eye and subjected it to the interpretation of the reader, to then turn around and call the reader a dumb schmuck for saying that the story would have worked better if only the author had watched more Tijuana mule shows.

“What purpose do writers serve in society?”  I met a lot of great and incredibly talented people in college (including our Editor-in-Chief [Awe shucks – Ed.]), many of whom I will probably be friends with for the rest of my life.  But Beloit College wasn’t all drinking, writing and D&D.  There was a dark underbelly to the school, a netherworld of hipsters, chai drinkers, and slacktivists working for a completely gender-neutral society.[15]  It was the kind of place where you could hear people arguing about what was and wasn’t pseudo-intellectual.  Just for the record, all you pipe-smokers can rest easy, because that’s not a pseudo-intellectual habit.  But any of you quoting Shakespeare best pick a writer more in vogue, because the ship of your coolness is about to lose its hull to the reefs of pseudo-intellectuality.[16]  But I guess I’m not innocent myself, because when I pointed out that arguing about what was and was not pseudo-intellectual is a pseudo-intellectual thing to do, I was told that I had just asked a very pseudo-intellectual question.

One night, my buddy Alex Collier and I were roving around campus with two Nalgenes full of whiskey and no immediate plans when we happened into a mutual friend’s dorm room.  There was a little soiree going on, and we got drawn into a bout of college chit-chat in which we happened to mention that we were writers.  Straightaway, this pasty kid with a dirty rope necklace and knotty, greasy hair that looked like it had tried to be dreadlocks but fallen dramatically short said:

“What purpose do writers serve in society?”

(Let’s pause a moment to gawk at the unrepentant stupidity of this question. During our little moment of silence, I want you to try to think what could have motivated a milk-white hippy wannabe with DOA dreadlocks to ask a question like this. This scrawny little shit, filled with socio-political ideas he had probably ripped off the Beat Generation–you know, WRITERS like Burroughs and Ginsberg and Kerouac–wasn’t some big jock who just hadn’t encountered writing he liked. He reminded me of a rat asking what garbage had ever done for its species. Start pausing. . .now.)

Even ruling out the written activism of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Richard Wright, Mark Twain, (by the way, you can unpause now) H.G. Wells,[17] and numerous other authors, hasn’t everybody read at least one book they enjoyed?  I’m not saying you have to be an English major (actually, you probably shouldn’t be if you want to be employed), I’m not even saying you have to like fiction, but doesn’t everybody have at least one book they really loved reading?  The act of writing has transformed human society.  Without a system to record our thoughts, could we have ever industrialized, let alone entered the comfort-rich, predator-poor Information Age?

Sometimes I like to think about the first person to put a horror story down in writing.  He or she probably didn’t think of it as a horror story; more probably it was considered a religious text, but it was straight horror all the same.  I think of a Babylonian priest sitting next to a ziggurat on the Euphrates River, feverishly trying to write down in cuneiform this incredible story idea he thought of about the baby-eating, lioness-headed, demoness Lamashtu.  He finishes his clay tablet and sets it out to dry under the desert sun.  Fifteen minutes later, another priest walks by, looks at the almost dry river clay and grimaces.  “What purpose does that serve?” he asks, and our priest (or priestess, as you will) looks down at the story he spent three hours recording.  He answers in the only way he can think to answer.  I don’t know anything about the Assyro-Babylonian language, but my guess is that his immediate response could be best translated as, “May Pazuzu fuck your mother.”

Because isn’t that only fair response?

[1] Critics and academics swear you can separate fiction into “literary” (nowadays, white suburbanites in plotless stories) and “genre” (aliens, ghosts, Fabios and dragons) camps, roughly equivalent to “serious writing” and “bullshit.” I say “roughly equivalent” because there are always outliers like Borges and Shelley and, increasingly, Lovecraft, who don’t sit comfortably in “genre” or “literary.” But before we start getting self-righteous about how snooty academics don’t understand real creativity, let’s engage in a little self-examination. Creativity for most genre authors amounts to, “What’s the slightest twist I can put on Twilight/Tolkien/zombies and not get sued for copyright infringement?” I hate pretentious character sketches about suburban white people as much you do, but we can’t exactly badmouth the kettle when our pot is carved from obsidian and filled with crude oil, can we? Now where was I? Oh yeah–markets for writers.

[2] He’s horror, he’s good, and you can find his revenant/space Western The Blackest Heart on Amazon.

[3] I’ve been that dipshit for years.

[4] No, I didn’t see anything. I lost my faith. Can we not talk about this?

[5] Burke and Hare were two infamous nineteenth century graverobbers who found it was easier to murder people and sell their bodies than it was to find fresh corpses.  When these two entrepreneurs were hanged, medical students in Edinburgh made a purse out of their skin which, sadly, I did not get to see.

[6] A story of mine concerning Jack the Ripper is currently being serialized by the good folks at Dr. Fantastique’s Show of Wonders.  This story would not have been written without that tour.

[7] This is a flat, pancake-like, Scottish hat with a ribbon coming off the back and a puffy ball on top. The Iroquois used to call Scotsman “cowshit” because that’s what the tam o’ shanter reminded them of.

[8] I don’t get Freemasonry.  Specifically, I don’t get why people think the Masons have the power to orchestrate massive conspiracies in total secrecy.  I mean no offense to any Free and Accepted Brethren out there who may find this article, but most Freemasons I’ve known have barely had the wherewithal to match their socks, let alone helm a secret world government or–shit, carve stone.  And the higher the degree, in my experience, the less competent the Mason.  Except this one older guy I met who did awesome card tricks and said that he was a member of the Invisible Lodge.  To join the Invisible Lodge, you have to be a Master Mason and a Master Magician.  Now that’s pretty sweet.

[9] The novel was called After the End, and it was all about an angsty knight in feudal Maine, post-“genetic apocalypse.”  It was written in a disgustingly florid style because I thought that if you wanted to be a great writer, you had to write like Lord Byron locked in a room with only a thesaurus and an all-you-can-snort supply of coke.

[10] That wasn’t the real title, but it captures the story’s essence.

[11] The Olmec culture was the precursor to almost all the great Mesoamerican cultures that followed: Mayans, Aztecs, Toltecs, etc.  Lasting from about 1800-400 BC, the Olmecs are famous for the giant basalt heads they carved and some enigmatic figures interpreted variously as werejaguars, rain gods, and spina bifida sufferers.

[12] I realize the last three stretch the boundaries of the term “animal,” but we’re dealing with an animistic worldview here.

[13] The other part of me was thinking that I didn’t want “Hunter C. Eden, 1982-2012, Death by Rabid Kitten” on my headstone.

[14] Maybe I’m as bad as the Texan, but I still think “The Thing on the Doorstep,” whatever Lovecraft thought, is a pretty kinky story when you think about its implications.

[15] This doesn’t mean gender equality–I’m all for that.  No, these kids wanted a society that didn’t recognize gender at all, including such sexist and homophobic preconceptions as, “Boys and girls have some biological differences.”

[16] Is that a word?

[17] Wells was a strong supporter of human rights and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. He also wrote some great horror.

5 thoughts on “The Five Stupidest Things A Fledgling Horror Writer Hears

  1. Well done sir. Though I agree with everything you’ve said, I’ve found myself often asking “What purpose does a writer serve in society today?” But I’m sure once I make a cool mill from my flash fiction horror/sci-fi/western/vampire/romance called Nikola Tesla’s Magnificent Seven about a team of teen vampire spies trained by genius inventor and time traveler/space explorer Nikola Tesla to fight to the death in an alien gladiatorial Olympics run by Predators gets optioned into a 3-D movie franchise, I’ll be a little more upbeat about a writer’s function in society.

    However, I need somebody with a style like H.P. Lovecraft, but with heavy Borgesian influence and a liberal dash of Hunter S. Thompson and Aztec to help me flesh out the plot of the one page story. Wanna help? I mean we could be the next Stephen Kings.

  2. Robert:
    Thanks! Might I suggest researching xenobestiality for that project of yours? Just don’t you dare submit it anywhere else. You know the importance and respect I command from, uh, a couple people on the internet.

  3. Oh my god, thank you for the advice. I was really racking my brain on how to fit some kind of alien tentacle rape scene into this idea. Might have to change Tesla’s Magnificent Seven from a one page story to a one and a half page story. Thank you so much. Can’t wait until we’re Stephen Kings together.

  4. Dude, Dr. Hibbs–you’re really leaving me hanging on the “Stephen Kings 4ever” front.

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