Why horror?

“Why do you write about ghosts and demons and werewolves and darkness?”

This question comes up a lot. It’s been on my mind more than usual lately because of an incident at the school where a new teacher who was shown my classroom asked my daughter in front of her class if we worship the devil at home. Later, that teacher told her department chair she could never cover my class because of my decorations, and that she is afraid of me because, in her culture, people like me are satanic. Well, we could talk about how this is America and she is welcome to go home to her culture … but that isn’t the issue of the day.

Why horror?

With the pending release of Amara’s Prayer (in November), maybe it’s a good time to explore the question. Why horror? As Freud would say, it has to begin in childhood. I think he’d be right. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I was taken to Pentecostal churches as a kid. I never wanted to go. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in God or Jesus, it’s just that listening to red-faced men scream about Hell as blue-haired women waggled their arm fat while speaking in tongues just wasn’t for me.

When I left home and no longer had to endure that, I wasn’t sure what was right for me. So I explored. And, honestly, I’m still exploring. There is a great deal of stuff I don’t know, but there is one thing I know for sure: You can’t really appreciate the light until you have looked into the darkness.

That’s what horror fiction allows me to do. I think that’s why many people read horror fiction. I can read about things those red-faced preachers warned me against, dabble in them, try them on, decide if they’re right or wrong, then go to my keyboard and speculate about where further exploration might go. In the end, I think, some core conviction I hold — maybe one I don’t even know about when I began the story — will rise up and give me direction.

That was the case with Amara’s Prayer. Milton Agnew, the main character, had always had money. He became the minister of an affluent church that didn’t have homeless or destitute members. He had never had his faith challenged. So in the story he had to face that challenge. He was dragged into the darkness so that he could learn about the light. It’s a pretty standard trope, I know, but one that people who aren’t familiar with the genre don’t seem to understand. I don’t outline, so I didn’t know for sure where the story would end, but after about 400 pages of putting Milton through literary hell, I had resolved what I believed and knew how the story had to end.

We explore the darkness through fiction so that we can understand and deal with it in real life. Maybe the darkness is homelessness or AIDS or demonic possession. Whatever the story calls for. Whatever it is we’re afraid of. As I tell my students, writing is therapy. I don’t write about the darkness to scare or impress people around me. Every story I’ve ever written has had some piece of inner questioning I needed to work out. The answers may change soon after the story is written, but that just means I need to write a new story.

So, do we worship the devil in my house? No, but if he wanted to sit down for a talk I’d offer him a cookie in exchange for answers to a few questions.

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