Friday, September 6, 2013

On Writing Dark Fiction | Post & Giveaway

I have the most amazing group of friends on Goodreads that I refer to as my "horror friends". They are invaluable to me for discovering the latest and greatest in the horror genre. One of the books I've recently discovered is Mark Matthews's On the Lips of Children. I invited Mark to share some thoughts with us here today. I feel very blessed that Mark has provided some wonderful thoughts on my favorite genre. He has also offered to give away an ecopy of On the Lips of Children to one Book Den reader! Be sure to enter the giveaway at the end of the post.



On Writing Dark Fiction by Mark Matthews


“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.”
H.P. Lovecraft

China Mieville is perhaps the coolest cat to ever write a sentence, and his goal is to write a novel in every genre.  Not sure if this means horror is on the way, or if he has counted one of his many novels which already include plenty of horror.

Horror appears in so many great pieces of literature, yet it still seems that calling a novel a piece of horror cheapens it in some reader’s eyes.  The more I swim in writer’s circles, I’m discovering some writers embrace the term Horror writer, some prefer ‘dark fiction’, others coin their own terms. All of this with the hope that their work is properly understood.  Well, whatever the term, it is my belief that horror provides perhaps the most powerful, visceral, and deeply moving ways to experience art.  Not only that, but the darkest of horror writers have the finest hearts around

Yes, in Horror, people are threatened. People get hurt. People are killed. There’s evil. There’s blood. You feel threatened by dark forces.  Well, I would argue that something gets cut open in any novel, each story has something that bleeds, (even if it’s just Holden Caulfield’s innocence, for example) and the hinge upon which all fiction swings is escalating conflict and the fear that the protagonist won’t  get what they want.

Fiction is the drama of life with the heat turned up, and when done right, it boils out the insides of characters and reveals who they are, and better yet, transforms them into something stronger, like metal into fire. Or perhaps when the novel ends in tragedy, they aren’t strong enough to handle the flames.  Horror does this wonderfully.

In this way, I think of horror as much as a literary device as a genre.   The term horror is just a marketing tool.   Put a different cover on the novel American Psycho, and it would no longer be read as an illustration of our society of privilege, financial cannibalism and materialism gone mad. Instead, it’d be slasher and torture porn.

Let me set the premise for an epic horror story. One which will be the tome upon which civilizations are built, wars are fought, children are baptized, and bodies are buried:

Imagine a story where the dead are raised, where babies are slaughtered, where plagues destroy cities, and where the main character has spiritual powers but is shunned, eventually betrayed, until the day comes he has to carry the device of his own torture.  A crown of thorns bloodies his head, his flesh is punctured by nails, and his body hangs until he dies. But wait, it’s not over, because then his very soul will have to harrow hell for 3 days, gathering the ravaged souls of those before him, until he finally ascends to a higher plane.

To commemorate this event, we all kneel in front of the same ancient torture device. Then we perform a cannibalistic ritual to honor his sacrifice in Holy Communion as solemn music plays in the background.

Yep, you got it (don’t throw stones, please) put a different cover on it, and you can market the Bible as horror.

The iconic horror writer Stephen King rewrote this story, only it was much more tame, and it stared Jon Coffee, instead of Jesus Christ, both spiritual superior beings put to death, just texts written at different times. Scour great horror and dark fiction, you’ll find great literature.

What makes Stephen King shine is his characters, not just the horror, and when his work is at its best, the macabre highlights the internal strife of the character. Horror works best when it is a metaphor for the dark places the character is already traveling through. It isn’t easy to draw a picture of our dark psychological recesses, so you pull the insides out, put different faces on them, and give them a name. Like It, or Cujo.

The story of Cujo serves as a model for me.  The huge, killer rabid St. Bernard who has trapped a woman and her young child in the tiny pinto of a car.  But it’s not about a dog; it’s about alienation, isolation. I am alone, everybody has abandoned me, and here I am suffocating in this car, alone, trapped, with the jaws of the world trying to kill my most precious child.

This is why I think horror writers have the finest hearts around.  The only way a writer can scare you is to first prove they understand you.  A writer must first be ultra-sensitive to the human predicament, and show they can get into the hearts and heads of humans.  Otherwise, it all falls flat. I would love my daughter to marry a man with the heart of a Stephen King.

To take a step further, it is by destroying your protagonists, after giving him hopes and dreams and struggles, that can make you fully empathize with him. None of our physical lives come to happy endings. No one here gets out alive.

Of course, there are works that exist simply for sake of a bombardment of the senses.  This still takes art, I would argue, even if it is horror just for horror sake. I love the Evil Dead, but I’m not going to say it has the same psychological layers, but it is incredible campfire storytelling.

Horror is seeing resurgence in TV, and not just because it scares us, but because it helps us relate. In Season one of American Horror Story, the real horror was dealing with infidelity, trust, anger, (perpetual anger) and all the shattered lives caused by the ripples of hurt. The horror of all this inner-psyche drama sticks around like ghosts in your basement in a house you can never leave. You can't just kill the past, you have to deal with it, otherwise, the ghosts in your basement remain. They haunt your psychological dark spots, always ready to fragment your spirit, destroy your dreams, and yes hurt your children.

Horror works best when you are watching it and realize that, “hey, that’s me; I’m living a life of fear. A life of quiet desperation - screaming in terror on the inside yet quiet on the outside”. Horror reminds us that We are all infected. Yes, the secret of season 1 and 2 of The Walking Dead, that we are all infected  is what makes horror as a genre thrive. We are all infected with this human experience. It's a virus that lasts approximately 70 years, give or take a few decades, and during that time we look for meaning. And when done right, horror offers us a great peek into this unique affliction, but if not, it at least gives us some riveting drama to enjoy and makes our predicament a little more tolerable.  At least for a few hundred pages or more.


Mark Matthews is a therapist and social worker in Detroit and is the author of STRAY and The Jade Rabbit. “On the Lips of Children” is his third novel and his first with Books of the Dead Press. He is an avid runner, and his non-fiction book, “Chasing the Dragon: Running to Get High” is also now available on amazon.

Follow him on twitter at @matthews_mark or his blog at Running, Writing, and Chasing the Dragon.


On the Lips of Children


Meet Macon. Tattoo artist. Athlete. Family man.

He's planning to run a marathon, but the event becomes something terrible.

During a warm-up run, Macon falls prey to a bizarre man and his wife who dwell in an underground drug-smuggling tunnel. They raise their twin children in a way Macon couldn't imagine: skinning unexpecting victims for food and money.

And Macon, and his family, are next.

Mark Matthews is the author of the newly released novel, “On the Lips of Children” which has received wonderful reviews and has been called “dark fiction at its visceral, chilling best.” This novel is the story of a tattoo artist, his human canvass, and their child who get kidnapped by a bizarre family living in a San Diego to Tijuana Drug tunnel. Read more about this “terrifying page-turner” on Amazon.



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17 comments:

  1. I'm a big fan of the Horror Genre and think that he hit the nail square on the head describing it. The book sounds creepy as well and I really dig the cover it reminds me of The Ring almost.

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    1. Oh, it does look a little like The Ring now that you mention it. :)

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    3. Thanks. This is not the original cover. I had a cover ready to go when I was going to go the self-pub route (if you are curious, click here for the image: http://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-media/product-gallery/B00D71FE0K)

      When I found a publisher, he decided it best to switch, since as many readers as this fairly graphic cover would attract, it would also turn some away. Still, I love the picture since I think it captures the tone and theme so well.

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  2. Hahaha, I would be a terrible horror friend to you. I don't read many horror novels since I don't *experience* them except the aesthetics. Very rarely do I become a visual reader with the horror, and even then without the emotion of it? Eh. But horror movies? No way can I watch.

    "I’m discovering some writers embrace the term Horror writer, some prefer ‘dark fiction’, others coin their own terms." <-- Interesting. I didn't realize there was such difference among those in the same genre. But I suppose something similar happens with all the SFF, sci-fi, science fantasy, etc. labels too.

    "Put a different cover on the novel American Psycho, and it would no longer be read as an illustration of our society of privilege, financial cannibalism and materialism gone mad. Instead, it’d be slasher and torture porn." <-- So very true. It seems like a horror novel in particular would suffer if the cover was incorrect.

    "Yep, you got it (don’t throw stones, please) put a different cover on it, and you can market the Bible as horror." <-- Lol. Very true. Interesting that you'd chosen the story of Jesus versus the Old Testament... though either provides a good mark for your point ;).

    "Horror works best when it is a metaphor for the dark places the character is already traveling through." <-- I agree. I think most of the horror I've read - which falls in the YA category - hasn't really hit that note. I love being able to look beneath the layers of a story to get at the heart of its criticism, and I think that with the resurgence of horror, to me, it seems like there are more and more novels like Evil Dead. And that doesn't work for me.

    "To take a step further, it is by destroying your protagonists, after giving him hopes and dreams and struggles, that can make you fully empathize with him. " <-- I don't know that I'd argue that's only horror though. Isn't that the mark of great writing in any fiction? :)

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    1. Haha, Christina. You do make a great friend for YA, though. :)

      The problem is the "horror" label itself. Unfortunately "horror" has a bad connotation. Some writers feel they lose credibility the moment they say they write horror fiction. Many like to use the term "dark fiction" or "dark fantasy" instead. The only other genre I've seen similar problems is the "urban fantasy" genre. I had an author upset with me one time for labeling his fiction that way (even though it was a correct label). He didn't want to be lumped in with sexy vampires.

      Me? I use the term horror. I'm proud of the genre.

      "Horror works best when it is a metaphor for the dark places the character is already traveling through." <-- I agree. I think most of the horror I've read - which falls in the YA category - hasn't really hit that note. I love being able to look beneath the layers of a story to get at the heart of its criticism, and I think that with the resurgence of horror, to me, it seems like there are more and more novels like Evil Dead. And that doesn't work for me.

      I can't read YA horror for that very reason. Most of it is not for me. Having said that, though, if you want to read some awesome YA horror that does hit the right notes, read Lee Thompson's Before Leonora Wakes and Within This Garden Weeping. They are fantastic.

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    2. Yes, I agree that most all fiction can accomplish these things without being called or labeled horror. Lee Thompson lives about an hours drive north of me, and he has some mad skills doesn't he.

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  3. Love this post! And I agree, the best horror is the kind that has some psychological and philosophical depth, not just a story that goes for the most shock value….

    Thanks so much for stopping by! Jen @ YA Romantics

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    1. Definitely. I'd rather see the shock value stuff on the screen. I need more depth to my stories.

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  4. This was an excellent essay. I often find it hard to explain to people why I like Horror and all things dark and creepy. I think I may have to paraphrase the Bible analogy.

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    1. It is hard to explain sometimes. My hubs says I love horror and dystopia because I had a wonderful childhood. It's interesting to ponder.

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  5. ahh I LOVE LOVE LOVE horror books so I'll def. add this to my tbr list. The Walking Dead is amazing omg. I still need to watch season 3. I wish there was more horror books in the ya genre.

    -leigh

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    1. I'm behind in Walking Dead, too. Like season 2 behind... It's an impossible show to watch with kids at home. I hear there are some recent YA horror books that are worth reading. I just picked up The Waking Dark. I'll try to squeeze that one in soon.

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  6. Wow brilliant, and relating to the Bible, different cover, I so get it, what balls to say though :-)

    Dark Fiction/Horror is great.

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    1. Right? The Bible is a scary, scary book.

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    2. Thanks! I was worried I'd get more push back. Ironically, though, I think the darkness of the bible is what makes the light inside shine a bit more bright.

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  7. Hey folks. Thanks so much for the comments. I hadn't noticed people gave feedback. I'd love to reply and continue the discussion on everything written here, but that would probably be hard to follow and all. If anyone is more curious about the novel, I have a blog post where I explain how it was guided by the children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are"
    http://markmatthewsauthor.blogspot.com/2013/07/WhereTheWildThingsAre.html

    Big thanks to Jennifer for posting this, and hosting the giveaway.

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