Why Do I Write Horror?
By Deborah Sheldon
The short answer: lots of carrots and very few sticks.
I’ve been writing professionally for a long time – over 30 years – and only came to fiction about 10 years ago. Initially, I wrote dark, melancholy stories. Then crime and noir. While I experimented with different styles, themes and subgenres, none of my stories had an upbeat ending. Turns out I’m a glass half-empty kind of fiction writer. In 2013 I stepped outside my comfort zone and wrote a couple of romance-suspense novellas. In 2014, I decided to step the other way and explore horror. I’m so thankful I did.
“Perfect Little Stitches” was my first published horror story. I still have the outline I typed up prior to writing the initial draft. The outline begins:
Funeral home horror story – notes (26/9/14)
The bare bones of the plot:
Funeral Home Director (FHD) harvests bones and other body parts from dead ‘clients’ for the illegal medical trade. Although he gets paid handsomely, he sees it as an altruistic service that helps the living. Why simply burn or bury perfectly good body parts when they could improve the quality of life of the living etc? FHD has an assistant who clearly does it for the money. A child’s corpse arrives…
I’ve always found the human body and psyche endlessly fascinating, which is why I chose to be a medical writer for so many years. The trade in stolen body parts was something I’d long wanted to write about. Horror was the ideal vehicle. I submitted “Perfect Little Stitches” to Midnight Echo #11 and hoped for the best. However, when I saw guest editor Kaaron Warren’s shortlist, I instantly assumed my story wouldn’t make the final cut. How could I compete against so many seasoned horror writers? When she sent me the letter of acceptance, I was astonished and thrilled. So thrilled, in fact, I decided to keep dabbling in horror, just to see where it might lead me.
I wrote story after story, loving every minute.
The challenge of horror writing is intense. Creeping out a reader, making their skin crawl, giving them a jump scare – these are difficult effects to achieve using just words on a page. Horror demands a lot from the writer. It demands everything in your repertoire. And everything, too, from your hidden cache of fears, anxieties and memories.
Horror appeals to me because it is the most authentic type of fiction. It mirrors life as it really is – unfair, unjust, unpredictable, ultimately lethal – rather than the way we wish it could be. Horror fiction is cathartic to read. (Especially once you reach middle age, like me, and life has kicked you in the face a few times.) Horror fiction affirms your experience that life can be monstrous. Horror fiction allows you to plug into what it means to be human on this insignificant little rock orbiting a star and, paradoxically, offers reassurance even while you’re getting the crap scared out of you. Horror fiction reminds you that, yes, we’re all in this together, the only way this is going to end is in death, and it’s okay to be frightened.
While horror is classed as genre fiction, the strict parameters and expectations that govern other genres (such as romance or westerns) don’t apply. Horror allows the writer to take as many risks as they want or dare. Push any boundary. Explore and test the full range of subgenres. Hell, go ahead and mush a few subgenres together if you want. There are no rules. All good stories have conflict and emotion at their heart, and horror offers the writer such dramatic elements in spades.
So, these personal incentives are powerful indeed. But there’s nothing quite like external validation to keep you motivated.
To my delight, editors and publishers seemed to like my horror stories. Rejection letters became relatively rare. On the odd occasion, an editor or publisher would even approach me and ask for my work, which was a huge confidence boost. (And after all, writing is about confidence. As the old adage goes, whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.)
My story “Perfect Little Stitches” was nominated for a 2015 Australian Shadows Award, and included in a couple of “best of” anthologies. Over the next couple of years, I published quite a bit and picked up a few more award nominations. Once again, these events gave me even greater motivation to keep going as a horror writer.
IFWG Publishing Australia released my collection Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories in 2017, featuring a gorgeous commissioned cover by UK artist Luke Spooner, and a blurb that speaks of the horrors within:
A collection of twenty-one dark fantasy and horror stories. Mysterious. Creepy. Disturbing. A funeral director, who steals body parts for cash, takes delivery of an unusual corpse. The crew of a nineteenth-century fishing boat encounters an unknown but irresistible danger. A dog-sledder on a secret mission in Antarctica fights for his life against the monsters that have fuelled his every nightmare since the Vietnam war. And much more…
Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories was longlisted for a Bram Stoker, nominated for an Aurealis Award, and won the Australian Shadows “Best Collected Work 2017”. The trophy sits in my lounge room, a bronzed demon’s head with horns and glaring empty eyes. Glorious! I hope I can win another someday. The lure of industry validation is a juicy carrot indeed.
Over the past four years of writing horror fiction, my work has received mainly positive reviews from bloggers and readers. Anne (my super-fan!) wrote, “After reading this book, I am so glad I have found Deborah Sheldon’s work. I have bought more of her books & I have made it my goal to read all of her writings.” Wow! A reader’s enjoyment is a huge dopamine rush to any writer. If I’m feeling temporarily discouraged – by the business side of writing, usually, since it’s a tough industry and a very crowded marketplace – I turn to these complimentary reviews to bolster my nerve. And it works.
Ah, if only readers knew how important their reviews are to writers! Even the mediocre reviews. It all puts fuel in the tank.
Naturally, I get terrible feedback from readers too. I’d prefer if I didn’t, of course, but I don’t mind because it comes with the territory. No one ever has or ever will write a story that everybody likes. Sometimes, though, I get the urge to use these bad reviews as tongue-in-cheek marketing slogans: “Buy the novel that one reader on Amazon thought was not only a waste of time but worth minus stars!” (Perhaps I’ll get that one printed on a coffee mug or t-shirt as a gift to myself.)
Without these external validations from editors, publishers, award judges, bloggers and readers, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to write my novel Contrition. It’s a genre mash-up of horror and noir, a slow-burn mystery with a close third-person narration designed to funnel the reader into an increasingly unnerving and claustrophobic experience. The two timelines – the present day and the 1980s – intertwine, and all hell breaks loose once the timelines finally come together.
In 2017, IFWG Publishing Australia offered me a contract, and Bram Stoker Award-winning illustrator Greg Chapman designed the eye-catching cover. Contrition came out in September 2018 (a couple of months ago at the time of writing). The response so far has been positive. I know of one five-star review that’s coming out soon on a major horror site. Fingers crossed there will be a few more.
The blurb for Contrition reads:
In her late teens, Meredith Berg-Olsen had all the makings of a runway model. Now in her late forties, after everything she had been through – including horrors that John could only guess at – she looked bloodless instead of pale, skeletal instead of slender, more dead than alive…
John Penrose has two secrets. One is the flatmate he keeps hidden from the world: his high-school sweetheart, Meredith. His other secret is the reason he feels compelled to look after her.
Contrition is a horror story with noir undertones and an atmosphere of mounting dread.
At the moment, I’m working on a novel in a horror subgenre I’ve never tried before. There are so many subgenres to choose from! That’s another reason I enjoy writing horror. I’m easily bored, which is why my career has zigzagged from feature articles to TV scriptwriting to non-fiction books to medical writing and more. When you don’t know if you can do a particular thing but you’re determined to try anyway, that’s exciting. I love the uncertainty.
And honestly, what’s the worst that could happen? Failure?
Writers are used to that. After enough rejection letters, a writer is inoculated against the fear of failure. And with hard work, even a failed project can be saved. My crime-noir novella Ronnie and Rita (of which I’m very fond) started out as a middling novel. A few years later, once I had honed my fiction-writing skills, I edited and extensively rewrote the manuscript. I’m proud of the lean, mean, brutal and well-reviewed result. In a similar vein, my creature-horror novel Devil Dragon was supposed to be a short story for my collection. Then it grew into a novelette, then a novella, and wouldn’t stop growing…
Generally speaking, failure doesn’t bother me too much or for too long. It only means I have to take the long way around. Which brings me back to my current project: will I be able to complete my novel in this unfamiliar subgenre or not? And if so, will I be able to find a publisher? And if so, will anybody want to read it? I don’t know the answers but I’m happy to take a gamble. Not just on this project, but on others in the future. Thanks to horror’s breadth and bottomless depth, I could spend the next 20 or 30 years (assuming I live that long) working my way through the various subgenres and still be challenged and tested with every single project.
So, why do I love writing horror? Lots of carrots. Very few sticks.
In her late teens, Meredith Berg-Olsen had had all the makings of a runway model. Now in her late forties, after everything she had been through – including horrors that John could only guess at – she looked bloodless instead of pale, skeletal instead of slender, more dead than alive. John Penrose has two secrets. One is the roommate he keeps hidden from the world: his high-school sweetheart, Meredith. His other secret is the reason he feels compelled to look after her. Contrition is a horror story with noir undertones and an atmosphere of mounting dread.
Deborah Sheldon is a professional writer from Melbourne, Australia. Her latest releases, through several publishing houses, include the noir-horror novel Contrition, the dark fantasy and horror collection Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories (winner of the Australian Shadows Award “Best Collected Work 2017”), the dark literary collection 300 Degree Days and Other Stories, the bio-horror novella Thylacines, and the creature-horror novel Devil Dragon. Her short fiction has appeared in many well-respected magazines such as Island, Quadrant, Aurealis, SQ Mag, and Midnight Echo. Her work has been shortlisted for numerous Aurealis Awards and Australian Shadows Awards, long-listed for a Bram Stoker Award, and included in “best of” anthologies. Other credits include TV scripts, feature articles, non-fiction books, stage plays, and award-winning medical writing.
You can find more information on Deborah Sheldon and her works here…