Why Do You Write Horror?
Imagine the scene. I’m sixteen years old, maybe seventeen. I’ve always been a bookish child, slightly awkward in social situations – a geek, not one of the sporty kids. I’m tall and ungainly, Jack Skellington dressed up in a Pixies T-shirt and an unconvincing black wig. My reading has always skewed slightly towards the fantastical and the strange – Alan Garner’s The Owl Service segued into William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – but I’ve only just started to dip my toe into the bloodstained waters of horror. It looks kind of interesting, a literary corollary to my Fields of the Nephilim cassettes and Sister of Mercy 12” EPs. Then, one night – possibly stormy, certainly dark – I hear a scratching at my bedroom window. It’s quiet at first but grows louder, like a tree branch rubbing against the windowpane. Holding my breath, I edge across the floor, careful not to make a sound; then I throw the curtains open. Outside, his face illuminated by the glow from my room, Stephen King clings to the window ledge, his features waxy and pale, those glasses reflecting back nothing but light. In his hand, he holds a copy of Danse Macabre.
Okay – some of that really happened, and clearly some of it didn’t. My hair, while never great during my teenage years, was certainly better than an ‘unconvincing black wig’ (I think?) But if I had to point to a single moment that started me writing horror, then King’s Danse Macabre is it. I may be compounding various memories here – the brain tends to do that, concertinaing events as it tries to turn a random life into a coherent narrative – but I think the local library was running a horror short story competition, and I’d been trying to write something for weeks. All I’d come up with was a naïve tale about someone eating a rotten apple and turning into a festering zombie (it didn’t make much sense even then), and while I knew it wasn’t right, I didn’t know how to fix it. I might have been young and naïve, but I knew enough to realise that if I wanted to get better at writing horror, I had to read more. Which is when Danse Macabre came along.
From as soon as I could write, I’d kept lists of books that I wanted to read. This was before Amazon and eBay, before digital libraries and the Internet, when finding books meant venturing out to actual bookshops and hoping against hope that they had what you were looking for. Some books were easy to find – my local charity shop, for example, had a near-inexhaustible supply of Doctor Who novelisations – while others remained on the list for weeks, months, even years. I’d give the list to my mum and dad at Christmas, and watch their eyes glaze over at the roll-call of out-of-print rarities and obscure independent publications. My best lists were always made on the back of Waterstone’s bookmarks, which were blank and white, simply begging for wish lists to be written on them. So when I read Danse Macabre, it became a treasure trove of horror titles to populate my list; books like Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, and Ramsey Campbell’s The Doll Who Ate His Mother.
It’s Campbell’s book that’s stayed with me longest. I was lucky enough to publish Ramsey in my anthology This Dreaming Isle a couple of years ago, and it felt very much like a chapter of my life coming full circle. Reading The Doll Who Ate His Mother in my teens, I realised that horror could do something more than just scare – it wasn’t all about vampires and werewolves, or, indeed, apple-eating zombies. You could have characters that were just as rounded as anything in so-called ‘literary’ fiction, and explore interesting ideas, create your own imagery rather than just cherry-picking from the genre tropes. You could set your stories in real places too, and build them slowly, instead of throwing gore and slavering beasts at the page. Horror came alive for me as a way of telling stories, and not just as a cartoonish genre focused solely on scaring people. It all started to make sense.
Unfortunately, the rotten-apple story was still rubbish. I can’t remember if I actually entered it into the competition or not – I like to think I was self-aware enough as a writer, even in those early days, that I knew it wasn’t working – but I carried on writing regardless. That’s what marks so many of us published writers out, isn’t it? We just don’t know when to quit. Shortly after, I had my first ever publication credit, a story called ‘Last Love’ in the tiny local anthology Shorts From Surrey. Looking back, I’m pretty sure my parents – and the parents of the other authors in the book – were the only people who actually bought a copy. (Interestingly, it also contains an early tale from genre stalwart D. F. Lewis.)
At the time, I didn’t consider ‘Last Love’ to be a horror story, but over the years I’ve changed my mind. It wasn’t conventional horror, at least not in my mind, but it plays with many of the same ideas that still haunt my writing today. The narrator goes to a concert in Brixton (this was based on a real concert – I saw Ride there in 1992, supported by a fledgeling Verve), and falls in love with a girl in the crowd; when the concert ends and the crowd thins, she falls to the ground, dead. She’s been stabbed during the show, and he’s been mooning hopelessly over a corpse. It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see the horror elements – on the way home he even listens to the bats in the trees, and imagines the dead buried beneath his feet. If it isn’t already apparent, I should probably point out that I was quite a morbid young man.
So far, so horror. When I went to university, however, my writing began to change. Horror wasn’t seen as a worthy pastime for an English Literature undergraduate, so I started trying to write more overtly literary stories. I cut out anything even vaguely fantastical, keeping my stories mundane and shock-free. I tried to emulate writers like Ian McEwan and Will Self – the people the establishment told us were worth reading. I still read quite widely, and quite oddly – I remember being in awe of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark during this period – but I had put up a fence around my horror writings, with large Keep Out signs and Toxic warnings pasted to the outside. I wasn’t going there again.
It took me almost fifteen years to realise how stupid and blinkered that was. Looking back, it was an attempt to deny where my own creative impulses took me, to try to shoehorn myself into a literary mould instead. I had a few successes, but my writing wasn’t really going anywhere. I was stuck in a rut of my own making. It was Robert Aickman, to a large extent, who managed to dig me out of it. Discovering that his weird short story collections were being republished by Faber – a literary publisher, no less – made me question the validity of the assumptions I’d made. Why shouldn’t I write what I wanted to write? Had I really just spent fifteen years ignoring my strange muse?
The revolution started small at first, as revolutions tend to. Strange happenings began to creep into my stories again. There were no more fruit-based zombie infestations, but there were mysterious voices in the night, haunted cottages in the woods, characters seeing their own face emerge from the darkness. All those appeared in my story ‘Among the Pines’, originally published in literary magazine Neon (always one to push the genre boundaries) and now available in my Black Shuck Shadows book Green Fingers. It was first published in 2013, and since then I’ve been clawing my way back to the dark and bleeding heart of horror. My new collection, Only The Broken Remain, contains monsters, and ancient gods, and hauntings, and even a slightly weird and skewed brain-eating scene. I’m not sure what Ian McEwan would make of that. But for me it feels like a homecoming, a conscious revival of the kinds of the stories that have interested me since that fateful day when Stephen King rapped on my window and passed me a copy of Danse Macabre. And now, thirty years later, I’m finally dancing again, my eyes on the corpse in the crowd.
Only The Broken Remain
I could see into the room well enough, but there was nothing there. No furniture, no ornaments. A rusted sink streaked with black and grey. An empty light fitting. Nothing more than a thick layer of dust on tired linoleum, forming a furred carpet that stretched undisturbed into the empty room beyond… There was no neighbour. It occurred to me for the first time that I might be going mad.
A young man joins a circus where the mysterious ringmaster is more interested in watching him fail.
An immigrant worker forms an unlikely alliance with his housing estate’s foxes.
A fraudulent accountant goes on the run, but loses herself in the dry heat of Australia.
This debut collection from Dan Coxon unearths the no man’s land between dreams and nightmares, a place where the strange is constantly threatening to seep through into our everyday reality. Populated by the lost and the downtrodden, the forgotten and the estranged, these stories follow in the tradition of Thomas Ligotti, Robert Aickman and Joel Lane.
Because when the dust has settled and the blood has been washed away, Only the Broken Remain.
You can buy Only The Broken Remain from Black Shuck Books, or from the usual online retailers.
Dan Coxon is a Shirley Jackson Awards and British Fantasy Awards-shortlisted editor and writer based in London, UK. His fiction has previously appeared in Black Static, Nightscript, Unsung Stories, Not One of Us, Humanagerie (shortlisted for the British Fantasy Awards) and Nox Pareidolia (shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Awards). His non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications, from Salon to The Guardian. A micro-collection of his short fiction, Green Fingers, was published in April 2020 by Black Shuck Books, and his first full-length collection, Only The Broken Remain, is available now.
You can find out more about Dan by visiting his Official Website HERE
You can follow Dan on Twitter @dancoxonauthor