Why Do I Write Horror?
So, why do you write horror?
It’s a question I’ve thought about a lot over the years, and it might surprise you to learn that I don’t have a definite answer – or at least not a single answer. I can, however, pinpoint specific moments in my life that led me to my love affair with all things dark and wonderful.
When I was a child – maybe four or five – my dad would sit me on his lap and read nonfiction books about dinosaurs to me. I couldn’t read their names, but I learned to recognize the words by their shapes, almost as if they were pictographs. I was fascinated by the idea that these massive monsters had been real, that they had actually existed and might have walked the same ground as where my house now stood. More than real-life monsters, they were also like ghosts – spirits of creatures who’d died long ago but still lingered, in the human imagination if nowhere else.
Around the same time, I watched Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man with my parents. My mom and dad didn’t censor what I watched back then. If they watched it, I did too. I was fascinated by the idea that these two monsters – both of which I knew starred in their own movies – not only inhabited the same universe by could actually meet, interact, and – best of all – battle to the death. After the movie, my dad taught me a simple way to draw the Wolf Man, and I still remember how to do it to this day, fifty years later.
When I was five, a friend showed me a book by Norman Bridwell, of Clifford the Big Red Dog fame. The book was How to Train Your Monster, and it was a guide for keeping a monster as your pet. I was desperate to have this book, and I traded my friend a bunch of baseball cards for it. (To this day, still one of the best deals I ever made.)
In first grade, I entered a contest to win tickets to see a high school play called The Ghoul Friend. I really wanted to see the play – after all, it had ghoul in the title – and when I won, I was ecstatic. The play turned out to be a Scooby-Doo-type story with no real monsters in it, but the costumes were great.
As I grew, so too did my love of horror. I watched the weekly local horror movie program on TV – Shock Theater with Dr. Creep – religiously. I read Eerie Publications’ black-and-white horror comics, magazines with lurid, blood-soaked covers and titles like Tales of Voodoo, Terror Tales and Tales from the Tomb. And I devoured Warren Publishing’s horror magazines such as Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella, and the monster kid’s bible, Famous Monsters of Filmland. I loved DC Comics like House of Mystery and House of Secrets, and Marvel Comics like Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night. For my birthday and Christmases I asked for monster toys instead of bikes or sports equipment, and the first horror story I wrote was a comic-book version of King Kong vs Godzilla – a film which I knew existed but had never seen – drawn on a stenographer’s pad.
I started reading a lot of UFO and cryptid nonfiction books, my imagination captivated by the idea that these beings might actually exist. The book that had the most effect on me as John A. Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies, especially the last line, a quote attributed to Charles Fort. “If there is a universal mind, must it be same?” That idea haunted me, and it’s formed the basis of much of my horror fiction throughout my life.
As I headed toward my teenage years, I read about Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, and Anne rice’s Interview with the Vampire, and I was thrilled to discover my local library had both. When I was in fifth grade, my father took me to see Jaws, and I was traumatized by the film’s unbearable suspense. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with sharks ever since. In seventh grade a friend told me about this really good book he was reading – Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. I got a copy and had never been so captivated by a story. Several years later, I would read an interview with King in the black-and-white horror magazine Dracula Lives, and I’d realize being a writer was something a person could choose to do, and I could choose it as well if I wanted.
In high school, right before Thanksgiving break one year, the faculty herded the students into the gym and showed us Psycho while they all went outside and smoked. I couldn’t understand what the hell the teachers were thinking – Psycho wasn’t exactly a family-friendly holiday-themed movie – but I loved it. After high school I got to see the best (and not-so-best) eighties horror films in the theater, and when videotape players came on the market, I rented and watched every horror movie I could find.
I started writing seriously with the goal of becoming published when I was eighteen. By this time, I was reading more fantasy and science fiction than horror, and while I tried my hand at all three genres when it came to short fiction, for some reason I only tried to write fantasy and science fiction at novel length. This was during the legendary 1980’s horror boom in publishing, and I sometimes wonder what might’ve happened if I’d written a horror novel back then and sent it off to an agent or editor.
I went to college, eventually graduating with a bachelor’s in education and a master’s in English. I continued writing novels and stories and racking up rejections. More and more I began to gravitate toward writing horror at short length, although I still didn’t attempt to write a horror novel. I’m not sure why. Sometimes I think that I loved horror so much that I was too intimidated to attempt a novel, afraid that I might mess it up.
I began teaching college writing part-time to support myself while I wrote. I found Ramsey Campbell’s excellent collection Alone with the Horrors in the library of a college where I was teaching, and after reading it from cover to cover, I gained a better understanding of how to write short horror fiction, and my stories improved immeasurably. By this point, I began selling short stories to small-press markets, and my first professionally published piece – and the one where I first found my horror voice – was “Mr. Punch,” which appeared in the anthology Young Blood. By this point, the earliest form of online communities began to emerge, and I joined the GEnie network, where many writers of SF/F/H hung out. I got to read the posts of professional writers and interact with them online, but while I enjoyed them all, the horror writers felt the most like my people. We seemed to look at the world in similar ways and loved the same books and films.
I began going to SF conventions and speaking on panels. This led me to join a writers’ group with the novelists Dennis L. McKiernan and Lois McMaster Bujold. I got an agent, thanks to a recommendation from Dennis, and he began shopping around some of my fantasy novels, but with no luck. I continued selling short fiction – most often horror – to both pro and small-press markets, and I began to wonder if I could take the kind of “Tim Waggoner” horror story I’d developed and write a novel-length work of fiction using the same approach. But this time – my early thirties – I was reading more horror than anything else, and after reading Douglas Clegg’s You Come When I Call You and Tom Piccirilli’s A Lower Deep, I felt I had a grasp on how to write a novel-length Tim Waggoner horror story. The result was The Harmony Society, the first of many horror novels I would go on to publish.
I’m fifty-five now, and I’ve published over forty novels and seven short story collections, a majority of them horror. I’ve been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, and I’ve won the Bram Stoker Award. I’m not sure what kind of standing I have in the horror community. I’ve had people refer to me as an elder statesman of horror, and while I hope I’m not too elder yet, I appreciate the compliment.
So one answer to why I write horror is that I’ve loved it all my life, and I grew into the writer I am just as I’ve grown into the man I’ve become – bit by bit, moment by moment. But there are darker reasons, too.
My mother was a depressive agoraphobic, and she never received treatment for her mental illness. She would have fainting spells once a month or so, and to this day I still jump when I hear a loud noise in the house, afraid that someone has fallen. My parents, without really meaning too, taught me and my siblings that the world is a dangerous place, always out to get you, always to be feared. When I was nine, I almost drowned (which if why water figures in my horror stories so often), and a few months later, my great uncle – who was like a second father to me – died suddenly. I was plunged into a two-year depression during which I struggled to come to terms with death. There’s a scene in Earth vs the Spider where we’re shown the destruction of a town caused by a giant spider. We’re shown a blonde-haired boy with glasses (who looked a lot like me) crying, the only survivor. I realized then that the monsters I loved so much killed people, and that they made the survivors feel the same way I felt about losing my uncle. I’ve never looked at monsters the same way since. Nuclear war with Russia (then the Soviet Union) was still a very real possibility, and more of my older relatives died, one after the other. The Vietnam War was still going on when I was child, and when I was a teenager, the Reagan years came along with the attendant economic hardships. And, of course, AIDs arrived as well.
I suffered (and still do) from depression – yay, genetics! – as well as anxiety. I married an emotionally distant woman, and we had two daughters who I love deeply. When my first daughter was a few months old, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and the idea that I might die and leave my child without her father – and that I might miss her growing up – terrified me. Luckily, the cancer was caught in time, and I was fine. My marriage fell apart, and my wife and I divorced. I dated a series of women – some nice, some extremely strange – and I eventually fell in love with a wonderful woman who’d suffered a great deal of sexual abuse in her past. From her, I learned what real trauma is and the kind of courage and strength it takes to survive and overcome it.
Horror movies, books, and comics gave me a love of horror tropes. My experience of the darker aspects of life – which we all must contend with to a greater or lesser degree – gave me an understanding of the dark emotional core necessary for producing truly effective horror fiction. I write horror because it stimulates my imagination like no other kind of fiction, and it speaks to the dark things inside me that I struggle to understand and come to terms with.
I’ve taught composition and creative writing at the college level full time for the last twenty years. One year, my department chair and I attended a conference in Minneapolis. After a day wandering around the city sightseeing inside of going to conference sessions, my boss and I sat down in the hotel lobby. He was a literary guy, the kind of person who only believes a book is worthy if it gets a positive review in the New York Times. He asked me, with honest puzzlement in his voice, why I wrote horror. I thought for a moment before answering.
“Do you remember the banana we passed, the one that was lying on the sidewalk?”
“We passed it several times today. At first it was fine, but as the day went on, people stepped on it, and it got more and more squashed. I noticed it ever time, and I can describe exactly what it looked like each time I saw it. That’s the reason I write horror: I see the squashed bananas.”
Years ago, a student asked me why I write horror. “You seem like such a pleasant person,” she said.
I looked into her eyes and smiled.
“Writing horror is what keeps me pleasant.”
I meant it as a joke, but I think it’s as good an explanation as any, and probably the closest to the truth. My favorite answer, though, is from Stephen King. When asked why he wrote about gruesome subjects, King once said, “What makes you assume that I have a choice?”
Or to put it another way, I didn’t choose the horror life; the horror life chose me.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Mass, an island-sized creature formed entirely of mutated blood cells, has drifted across the world’s oceans for millions of years. It uses sharks – the most efficient predators the planet has ever produced – as extensions of itself to gather food. For the most part, the Mass and its Hunters have avoided contact with the human race, but now it’s entered the waters off Bridgewater, Texas, where a film crew is busy shooting a low-budget horror film called Devourer of the Deep. The Mass is about to discover something called human imagination, and the humans are about to learn that battling a monster in real life is a little harder than fighting one on screen.
Tim Waggoner has published close to forty novels and three collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and his articles on writing have appeared in numerous publications. In 2017 he received the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction, he’s been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award, and his fiction has received numerous Honorable Mentions in volumes of Best Horror of the Year. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.
You can find out more about Tim by visiting his official website www.timwaggoner.com
Follow Tim on Twitter @timwaggoner