Wednesday, April 03, 2013

How Horrible Do I Have To Be?


As I am working on The Crazy Old Lady Unleashed, Volume 3 in my Beacon Hill Chronicles, I have been thinking about “Horror” and what that label means for fiction writers. Generally speaking the word “horror” alone means genuinely horrible content – vampires/werewolves/zombies, serial killers, brutal massacres – fun stuff like that. But I call my books “psychological horror” and a few readers have questioned me about that. What exactly defines “psychological horror”? In my stories you won't find any kind of monsters. I have some ghosts -- predatory disembodied folks with bad attitudes. I also have a serial killer though that killer isn't particularly gruesome – most of the kills are bloodless. If you are a reader who wants blood, gore, monsters, etc. you will most likely find my stories lacking. But to me what goes on in the human head and nerves is far more interesting and fraught with potential for horror than getting mauled to death by a supernatural entity. I want my characters to be fearful and I want them to be fearful because their most cherished beliefs and sense of self are what is at stake.
When I wrote The Crazy Old Lady in the Attic, I had no idea it would become as popular as it has become. I actually got the idea for the story from an article in the Marblehead Reporter many years ago. When I finished the story (it was originally intended as a short story but grew to novelette length) I honestly didn't know how to classify it. It was a crime story – sort of, but the crime happened a long time ago. Then a friend read and said, “Poor Mattie, it's pretty horrible because of what it does to her.” I looked up the definition of “psychological horror” in movies and novels and it said this:
The elements of psychological horror focuses on the inside of the character's mind. This includes emotions, personality, mental attitude of individuals, where characters are in a perverse situation that includes high-level immorality, inhumane acts, and conspiracies. Psychological horror aims to create discomfort by exposing common or universal psychological and emotional vulnerabilities and fears, such as the shadowy parts of the human psyche which most people repress or deny.
It seemed a perfect definition for what I was writing because there is no murder, nor supernatural beasts, or blood and gore, there is only Mattie's growing awareness that the person she most loved in the world had done a horrible thing and that what she, Mattie, had thought was a funny and endearing eccentricity was actually a cover for her own immoral and inhumane act. As the truth is revealed, Mattie's beliefs about her upbringing disintegrate.
At the time I published The Crazy Old Lady in the Attic, I had no intention of writing more about these characters but, because so many people asked about them, I started thinking and, eventually, my thoughts turned into a plot and then into The Crazy Old Lady's Revenge. Once again I wrestled with how to categorize it. There is murder – a series of murders. There is mis-direction and who-can-you-trust but eventually I realized that once again, the real bottom line was psychological horror; this time for several characters. Mattie's growing horror as people close to her life start dying. Viv's horror as she tries to wrestle with her own demons and, ultimately, with what she is capable of. And the killer's horror at the truth about the past.
As soon as I finished that story I knew there would be a third. The Crazy Old Lady Unleashed has far more supernatural elements in it – several ghosts. But ultimately there is the horror of the immorality and indecency that built the entire foundation of all three stories. I am writing slowly because all the parts need to fit together but it is coming along.
So, for me psychological horror seems the perfect category for these books. As one story flows into the next, and as each new awareness is unveiled, more and more we see that all the vampires, werewolves, and zombies in the world, can't hold a candle to the human psyche when it comes to horror
Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

rdougwicker.com said...

Similar quandary a few years ago. I've never written horror, but I did release what I termed a "psychological murder mystery."

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