by Robert Gray
It is shocking to me that there are so many new horror writers out there that haven’t read M.R. James or Stoker or Lovecraft or Poe or Stevenson or Jackson or countless others. Writers who only know Frankenstein as the Boris Karloff monster (and if you just asked, Who is Boris Karloff? Then please stop reading now. I can’t help you). I’ve even heard, though I like to believe this is urban legend, that there are some people masking themselves as horror writers that have not read Stephen King. Well, not on my watch.
There’s the old adage that writers should read inside and outside their genre, but, my friends, that implies that you’re reading too much in your genre and should consider reading outside it as well. Yes, read widely. Read everything. But know your horror, too. Horror has a rich and deep history, and if you think you can be a horror writer without immersing yourself into all the genre has to offer, then prepare yourself for a lot of rejections that say, THIS HAS ALREADY BEEN DONE, assuming you even get a personal response.
But Where Do I Begin?
Well, at the beginning … sort of.
Horror’s beginning is a slippery one. There is no definitive first horror story, because there is no definitive definition of what horror is. Some claim Poe as the father of horror. Others search for more humble origins like Horace Walpole’s gothic novel The Castle Of Otranto. Some argue between Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Dr. John William Polidori’s Vampyre. Others put a more literary spin on the genre and choose Shakespeare’s darker plays like Macbeth or Hamlet, or reach deeper to Dante’s Inferno or travel all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Medea. I’ve even heard some good arguments that claim Homer’s Odyssey has enough horror in it to be a contender (though I wouldn’t be surprised if every subset of the fantasy genre has argued this point at one time or another).
I would suggest reading all of these and drawing your own conclusion based on your own definition of horror, but if you still aren’t sure where to begin, then use your favorite horror author as a starting point and work backwards from there. If you want to be the next Stephen King, for example, it’s not enough to read Stephen King. You need to read his influences. Read Lovecraft. Read Matheson. Read Bradbury. Because there would be no Stephen King – at least not the Stephen King we know – if these writers had not come first.
Authors love to talk about their favorite authors, probably more than they like to talk about their own work. Many are approachable on this subject at conventions, through social media outlets or have lists of favorite books on their websites. Seek them out.
You can’t create something new if you don’t know what “new” is. You can’t reinvent an idea if you haven’t explored all the ideas that have come before you. More importantly, though, you can’t expect to write good horror or even competent horror without having at least a rudimentary knowledge of the genre.
Reading is as much a part of the writing process as the writing itself. Learn the history of your genre, read the authors that have reinvented and reinvigorated the genre, and then make your own path as to where you think it should go next. And when an author you respect offers you advice on what you should be reading, take that advice. Horror writers are the biggest fans of the genre. They are not trying to deter you so they can sit atop their kingdoms and watch those medaling newbies fight some unwinnable ground war. Horror is a small community and when one writer succeeds, the community succeeds. The entire genre is placed in the spotlight. Everyone wins. And it all starts by opening the book to page one.
Some Further Reading
- Horror Writers Association (HWA) Reading List
- Danse Macabre by Stephen King
- Shroud Magazine’s Seminal Scream column by Brian Keene
- On Writing Horror by Horror Writers Association; edited by Mort Castle
- Writers Workshop Of Horror edited by Michael Knost