Why I Write Horror
For the launch of my eighth novel, Too Near The Dead, I was interviewed by film-maker and journalist Lalla Merlin, whose first question to me (albeit with a sly smile) was as follows:
“I do have to ask you about the opening chapter, which is the most horrific description of a live burial. Why do you write this stuff? Why on earth do you write this stuff?”
I am asked this a lot, or else I get observations along the same lines: my husband (who did not finish my last two novels on the grounds of “too scary”) sometimes wonders whether he ought to worry, lying down at night next to someone who has these things running through their head. (I should add that he is a member of Mountain Rescue, and sometimes has to get up in the wee small hours to go out in horrible conditions, looking for casualties and not really knowing what the team will find. It’s a mystery to me how he can do this, yet be afraid of reading a book.)
Well: I’m frightened of these things too, you know. My work has included the recent live burial, falls from high towers (including the Sint Baaf cathedral in Ghent, which is over 80 metres tall), burnings, being trapped in a space that keeps getting smaller and smaller, drowning, having one’s eyes put out…need I go on? All of the things I write about are things that personally terrify me – especially burning. When I was a child, I was so frightened of the house burning down with us in it that my mother took me to the library to get a book about the positive uses of fire. I can’t say it worked; reading about smelting didn’t stop me from being afraid of roasting in my bed. As for falling from high places, I’ve been scared of heights ever since being taken up Ashridge monument as a child; I still recall the swimming sensation as I looked down, and the horrible compulsion to throw myself off “to get it over with.”
I think that there are two ways that we can deal with our fears. One is that we can put them away from us; we can decide we are never going to look at them. This may not even be a choice; perhaps those things are simply too difficult to examine. The alternative is to keep looking at them. And that is what I do. It’s an inability to look away, I think.
Horror in a story is controlled in some way. Where the protagonist has clearly transgressed in some way (trespassing in forbidden places, meddling with something best left untouched), we can tell ourselves that we wouldn’t do that. “Go down into the dark, earth-smelling cellar even after you’ve tried the light switch and found it doesn’t work? You must be kidding.” Our hero(ine) may have a timely if improbable escape. The Horrible Thing may happen to someone other than the narrator of the story – as in one of my early stories, The Calvary at Banska Bystrica, which follows what happened to the narrator’s unsufferable brother. Or, as a last-ditch way of asserting control, we may simply shut the book and move on. It’s only a story. Right?
Of course, there are undoubtedly people who are not as morbid as I am, and who don’t ever think about how very nasty it would be to wake up in a sealed coffin or fall onto cobblestones from 80 metres. But we are all inevitably faced with terrible things during our lifetimes: we develop physical diseases, we suffer with our mental health, we have accidents. Ultimately we are all going to die. There’s no escaping that last one. It’s a mystery to me that some people can go about their business and not think about that. Me, I’m the living embodiment of the saying “Live each day as if it were your last.” I’m very aware of it all the time. Sometimes I actually find myself saying things like “if I’m spared’. I think to a great extent this comes from the fact that I lost quite a few friends in their twenties. One of them died of a disease that was diagnosed far too late, one from suicide, one from HIV. That bubble way of thinking, that it won’t ever happen to you, burst very early for me. This hasn’t had a depressive effect on me. It’s made me feel extremely grateful that I am still here, in my fifties, living my best life. At the same time, I always have death at my shoulder.
I don’t think “horror” has to be exclusively “horrible” either. The horror I like to read – and watch – is always more than your basic bloodbath. Because of my awareness of the nearness of death, I like stories in which the protagonist struggles against whatever is threatening them, sometimes successfully, or where their death has a purpose. For this reason, Del Toro’s film The Devil’s Backbone is a great favourite of mine. Dr. Casares, a man who is literally impotent in life, finds the courage and resolve to help the boys in death. The film contains much that is horrible (murder, war) but I think the ending is beautiful.
This brings me back to the original question about why I write horror. My husband sometimes comes in when I’m watching a horror film – he has the unerring ability to show up just as something really unspeakable is happening – and he always says, “How can you watch this stuff?” But it can be genuinely moving – even uplifting. There are horrors around us all the time, but horror writing can make sense of them.
Too Near The Dead
Sometimes it’s terrifying, loving someone this much…
For Fen Munro and her fiancé James, it is a dream come true: an escape from London to a beautiful house in the stunning Perthshire countryside. Barr Dubh house is modern, a building with no past at all. But someone walks the grounds, always dressed in lavender. Under a lichenous stone in an abandoned graveyard, a hideous secret lies buried. And at night, Fen is tormented by horrifying dreams. Someone wants Fen’s happiness, and nothing is going to stop them – not even death…
Helen Grant has a passion for the Gothic and for ghost stories. Joyce Carol Oates has described her as “a brilliant chronicler of the uncanny as only those who dwell in places of dripping, graylit beauty can be.” A lifelong fan of the ghost story writer M.R.James, she has spoken at two M.R.James conferences and appeared at the Dublin Ghost Story Festival. She lives in Perthshire with her family, and when not writing, she likes to explore abandoned country houses and swim in freezing lochs.
YouTube: Helen Grant