Why Do I Write Horror?
Last night I had a nightmare that’s been hard to shake off; I met The Woman With Shining Eyes. It was the first time I’ve dreamt about her and I’m hoping she won’t return, as I woke up too frightened to move. Nightmares have featured in my dream life for as long as I can remember. They inform and inspire me.
First and foremost I’m a lifelong horror fan. As a child I was surrounded by my parents’ horror anthologies – the Pan Books of Horror and suchlike – and we would watch the Hammer Horror films that were regularly on tv. What I defined as horror back then – anything that scared me, basically – was a lot easier to quantify than it is now. I believed in monsters, ghosts, werewolves, vampires…In the 1970s the news was full of strange stories about poltergeists, the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot. Frightened as I was, I was glad these things seemed to really exist, but couldn’t be captured or proved by science and I still maintain that science is only slowly catching on to subjects and beliefs that it sneered at until quite recently (for example the existence of multiple universes). It’s said that people like horror because they can be scared in a safe way. I never felt safe watching or reading horror – it just confirmed my experiences and beliefs. I had – still have – an awful lot going on in my head that I need to channel in a constructive way, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons I began writing horror, as opposed to any other genre. I felt I could add something positive to it. Punk had changed everything. Horror began to loosen up a bit and a few barriers were pushed aside. I think it was also incredibly important (personally and for the genres) that horror and sf fanzines began to appear around that time. It was a medium I completely understood, having been a fanzine creator in the late 1970s until the mid 80s.
My early stories lacked subtlety, to say the least. Jump From A Speeding Car, my first professional story, appeared in REM magazine in 1992. It contained some naïve shock tactics and the subject matter – self harm – was quite prophetic, as I found out some years later. The response to the story was quite extreme. Nobody asked why I wrote it, although I doubt I could have explained it if they’d had. It was based around my school days, which were a very unhappy time for me; I was different and the bullies had a field day, often with teachers looking on. What made it horror? I suppose it was because it was about someone so damaged that they did desperate things. Horror deals with dread, after all, and mental illness is something most of us dread.
I’ve channelled a lot of my nightmares into my stories; a lifetime of them, after all, provides a rich source of material! A good example of this was The Guinea Worm (The Third Alternative, 1994), which was chock full of nightmares, some of them going back to childhood. Judging from the response to it, it resonated with quite a few people. But why did I write it? It was certainly cathartic to put so many disturbing images onto paper, to tell the dreams’ stories. I was full to bursting point with them. During those early years I was writing full on horror, although as stated above, it was definitely from a post-punk perspective. Punk drew a firm line under the attitudes and culture of just about everything (with some notable exceptions) that had gone before it and made it possible for someone like me to have the confidence to write fiction. Over the years many influences/obsessions have come to the fore, including the Forteana/cryptozoology that had gripped me as a child. The world is full of bizarre things, many of which still cannot be explained. Which is a blessing, for don’t we need mystery in our lives? These beliefs have helped to develop my writing style, which in more recent years has been described as Surrealist/Occultist and compared to the magical realist tradition of writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, whereas my early work was compared to the likes of Clive Barker, EA Poe and Thomas Ligotti. I see this as a positive thing, as it surely means that I’m pushing at a few boundaries. Everyone evolves over time and my spiritual development has been reflected in my fiction, but the driving force continues to be horror. This reached a peak in my last years of living in London. The city had so much energy but it was also sucking the life out of me. The story I was writing as I made the decision to leave was Darkworlds (Premonitions: Causes For Alarm, 2008), which reflected everything I felt about London, especially Clapton, where I lived for several years. The joy had disappeared and all that was left was avoiding the shootings and the frequent fights on the bus home from work.
My new home on the Cornish coast inevitably brought a whole new array of influences and ideas and helped me explore existing ones in more details. I’d been interested in Paganism, Animalism and sacred sites and being in West Cornwall brought me close up to all of these things. I visited haunted Pengersick Castle and was given a tour by then owner and true eccentric Angela Evans and ghost hunter Ian Addicoat, who showed me photos he’d taken of orbs in the garden outside the castle. The landscape here is still relatively undeveloped and stone circles, dolmen and standing stones are a common sight. Nature and Earth energies are strong here. Everything is connected and is alive in its own way. It’s wonderful but awe inspiring and frightening at times and this was the (unplanned) theme of Storylandia #15, a single author issue of Wapshott Press’ journal. One of the stories in that issue, Widdershins, about a girl who walks anti-clockwise around a church and suffers the consequences, attracted the attention of Leeds dark ambient/magickal musicians Hawthonn, who based a track on it.
Inevitably, loss has become a strong influence in recent years. I’d been exploring my beliefs about death for some time and had concluded that it was only an ending of sorts. My dreams reflected this – of levitating to the Moon, or climbing a silver ladder to it, knowing that this was the transition from life to death. For me the fear of death has always been overshadowed by the fear, and the reality, of loss. And over the last decade or so I’ve approached my writing with a far more specific and clear purpose; that is, to bring about transformation, which has long been a recurring theme in my stories. I’ve been inspired by artists Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning and the art and life of Hilma af Klint, who painted as part of a magical process and had no interest in commercial success to the degree that her work was unseen until after her death. I’ve never (knowingly) held back in my writing to increase my chances of being published but now I’m being guided by intuition as to whether I submit stories or not. An example of this is The Cruor Garland, a very folk-horrorish tale based on a Cornish tradition. I left the finished manuscript on a chair in a corner of the living room. Over the next year the story took on a life of its own. It was as if it was actually taking place in that corner of the room. I became convinced that my version of the tradition was the real one. It was then ready to send out into the world and Monsters Out Of The Closet (podcast) snapped it up immediately.
Loss, of course, is a universal theme in art. It is its own form of horror and was the (deliberate) theme of my second collection, We Are All Falling Towards The Centre Of The Earth (Wapshott Press, 2018). The stories approach death and grief from various perspectives, including as transformation of the landscape (in Parasomnia). My belief in an afterlife doesn’t dismiss the fact that loss of a loved one is devastating.
But perhaps my ultimate purpose in writing horror can best be described by the following; at a reading I gave at Penzance Lit Fest in 2012 with Weird fiction writer Rosanne Rabinowitz, a member of the audience told me the extract I read (from The Ferocious Night) and the discussion afterwards had made her feel differently about the death of her brother. It was a huge and humbling compliment. And writer Irene Barnard recently compared my writing to Joy Division’s In A Lonely Place, written shortly before Ian Curtis’ death and that I “captured the true existential horror of human emotions”. I would agree with that but additionally I want to create new folklore, to see and understand how the natural and supernatural worlds connect and to interact with them as much as I can.
Julie Travis’ dark fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies in the UK, North America and France and has had two short story collections published by Wapshott Press. She lives in West Cornwall, surrounded by stone circles and other sacred sites.
You can find out more about Julie by visiting her Official Website HERE
You can follow Julie on Twitter @zawngoddess
We Are All Falling Towards The Centre Of The Earth
Best to put him out of his misery. The Spoiler stepped into view and picked up the knife.
“You can’t touch that! The cops will need it for evidence,” said the man.
The Spoiler winced. She’d never liked a Texan drawl.
“They won’t,” said the Spoiler, “the knife doesn’t exist yet.”
Enjoying the man’s confusion, the Spoiler continued. “It hasn’t been manufactured yet. It will spend some years in a kitchen drawer a few streets away from here. And this is what it’ll look like in eleven years’ time, when it’s been used to cut your throat with.”
He was gawping at her; she was the maniac.
The Spoiler held up her free hand. “Not by me. I don’t kill people. I just bring tidings. Shall I tell you who does kill you?”
It wasn’t really a question; of course she was going to tell him.
The second short story collection from British writer Julie Travis presents nine new tales of horror, dark fantasy and Surrealism. This is where you’ll find the landscape is a living thing, that monuments are built to the future and where Death is just the beginning. Enjoy contemporary fairy tales mingling amongst stories of escape from desperate times and a culture where difference is seen as a blessing, not a threat.