A Long Way Down – Writing Horror
John F. Leonard
Why do I write horror?
The most obvious answer is because I like reading horror. There’s more, but that’s where it began.
I believe you should write what you want to read.
That’s reason number one.
Going to digress here, but bear with me. It’s unavoidable because to answer with any honesty, I’ll need to sketch my rocky road to writing. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt. Not too much 🙂
It is important – for one thing, I need to talk about reading.
Writing is a secondary pursuit. First and foremost, you’re a reader. An ordinary everyday activity which can be taken for granted.
I try not to take anything for granted. There was a time when I did, but not these days.
When I was a kid, literacy didn’t come easy. Reading and writing were an uphill slog. A slow trudge through syrupy mud.
I remember sitting on my father’s knee and mouthing the words while his blunt nicotine-stained finger tracked across the page. Usually before I went to school, after he’d come home from a night shift. Bleary-eyed with fatigue and smelling of oil and Park Drive cigarettes.
It wasn’t until years later I realised he was only a couple of steps up from illiterate himself.
That finger had been taking cues from me just as surely as I was from him.
An economic migrant from the old country. The archetypal roaming road digger with a knotted hanky on his head and dirt grained into his palms.
He did okay. Got a job in a car plant and settled down. Wanted better for his son so faked an ability with words to try and engender the love of them in me.
He failed at a lot of things, but I guess he succeeded in that.
Once I got past the seemingly insurmountable hurdle of Janet and John, the world was a different place.
With hindsight, I’d been snared by fiction. Stig of the Dump (God bless Clive King) put a wire round my ankle.
Who would have thought? I’d had a hard time reading my own name on a schoolbook and struggled to replicate it.
Words are mesmeric though. They defy denial. Resistance is futile. Once you’re caught, books are incredible.
Precious, powerful things. Capable of lifting you out of the nonsense of life.
How miraculous that marks on a page could conjure such marvels? Translate a stranger’s thoughts into something able to transport you to non-existent worlds. A link connecting two minds and stretching across impossible boundaries. Caring nothing for geography or time or the fact the author and reader would never meet.
It was, and still is, an astonishing thing for me to contemplate.
For all that, I might still have wriggled free. Slowly drifted away from reading like so many do as they’re inundated with mundane reality. The daily grind of simple survival when comfortable is a pipe-dream and you’re fighting to make those hideous ends meet.
Except for … James (he should be canonised) Herbert.
That book was something akin to revelation. It lit up my stuttering brain and the electricity lingered. Stayed there, fluttering and flaring like one of those cowboy movie fuses that won’t quit and eventually blows the bank doors to kingdom come.
It was the first full horror story I read and my mind would periodically return to it.
After that I never really lost the love of reading.
Especially darker themed works.
Not saying it’s the best book ever written. Just that it touched me.
There was another consequence in hindsight, The Fog was the book which sparked my desire to write. I wanted to create something along those lines. Something scary and disturbing. And beautiful.
Beauty. Ah, beauty. Make no mistake, there is beauty in horror.
It’s an ingredient frequently found in the best of the genre.
Perversely, the flawed and fragile wonder of humanity stands out more strongly in darkened rooms. Who’d have guessed?
I think that fact also explains my tendency to opt for horror as reading matter.
Truth is, we all need help to see the beauty.
Life is tough and our flaws are legion. As a species we’re a venial, hateful bunch at times. Capable of the most depraved and heinous acts.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an out and out misanthrope, but I often identify with the mindset. We’re hideous, loathsome creatures and yet rise and rise with each crashing downfall.
Makes no sense really when you think about it.
Our only salvation will be accepting the senselessness.
Horror showcases both aspects of us. It’s where the dichotomy is in clearest contrast.
That’s my second reason for writing horror. It may not carry much literary credibility, but for me it’s the most potentially poignant and illuminating form of fiction.
If you’re going to write, there’s no better environment in which to do it.
Where were we?
Yeah, that’s right. I like reading horror and I consider it an art form worthy of greater recognition.
But back on my rock-strewn road, I’m still not writing.
I love reading horror and that might have been that. All she wrote, as the saying goes. Forever the appreciative reader and frustrated writer. By my late teens, I knew I had a book in me – getting it out was another matter.
Writing is hard work.
Alright, not down the pit or saving lives. Not even delivering Amazon parcels hard work.
Daunting all the same.
It drains you, especially when starting out.
Demands a dedication that can be difficult when you’re occupied by other things. Like keeping a roof over your family’s head and putting food on the table.
My dedication, or obsession because I’ve found little difference when it comes to writing, was born out of adversity.
A few years back, my body betrayed me – I got a touch of the cancer.
Quite a heavy touch actually.
The “you’re going to die unless we pump savage drugs into you, irradiate the offending bits of your body, and then hack out a few chunks” kind of heavy.
With a lovely little rider.
“We’ll do our best and keep our fingers crossed. Everyone is different, there’s no guarantees what we do will work.”
There I was, bowling along as fit as the proverbial fiddle, considering a new car and more kiddies. Suddenly the rug was whipped out from under my life.
Eighteen months of treatment left me a shadow shell of what I was.
I did okay. Staggered out the other end of a twisting tunnel with a ravaged body and a radically changed perspective.
During that oh-so-unsweet period, I made a lot of promises to myself. One of them was that I’d publish a book.
I failed at some. Guess I succeeded with the book bit.
That’s reason number three.
I try to keep my promises.
By the way, there were a couple of surgeons and three nurses who feature in my nightmares as angelic presences. They pulled me through when hell seemed like it was making up my bed and pain was the only truth I understood.
I love those people and there’s rarely a day when my heart doesn’t wish them well or quail at how we fund the health service.
That first book? It was an apocalyptic horror story. Filled with mutated humanity and inner voice. Maybe not the best book ever written, but it means something to me.
You need to write what you know.
The best inspiration is found close to home.
Which brings my wandering, self-indulgent discourse to an end.
Hang on. Not quite.
One more minute. One last reason.
The definition of horror. When we say ‘I write horror’, what’s our understanding of horror? I skipped that and it’s a vast topic in itself.
To my way of thinking, the term is all-encompassing. As broad as a very broad thing.
Well, it subsumes all other genres.
They’re all tinged with it. Comedy, romance, science, history, non-fiction.
Go look at the Amazon taxonomy and come to your own conclusion. Ask yourself if there isn’t horror sequestered within everyone single one of those categories.
I would find it very difficult to write something which didn’t have an element of horror.
Horror is everywhere.
All the kids adore Doggem, the class cuddly toy.
They each get to take him home. Hug him and love him and show him their world outside of school.
All they have to do in return is write his diary.
It’s George Gould’s turn and he’s going to introduce Doggem to a rather unusual family.
Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that both the stuffed toy and little boy are far from ordinary.
Doggem is no longer your run-of-the-mill snuggle doggy. Designed to fall apart after a few years. Perfect for squishing and squashing into a comfort blanket.
He’s a million miles from that now. Doggem has just become a living creature. Thinking and reasoning. Trying to make sense of an unexpected existence.
Strange places and scary experiences are in store during this sojourn with his latest custodian. Things no respectable fluffy dog should ever have to witness. It might end up in deadly territory.
Make no mistake, there is magic here. Some of it as black as a starless night.
Well, George is descended from decidedly dicey stock. There are folk in delightful George’s lineage who have indulged in practices of a somewhat shadowy nature. The ramifications of which aren’t ready to be consigned to history. They want to spill out of the past and have their say in the future.
John F. Leonard
John was born in England and grew up in the industrial midlands, where he learned to love the sound of scrapyard dogs and the rattle and clank of passing trains.
He studied English, Art and History and has, at different times, been a sculptor, odd-job man and office worker. He enjoys horror and comedy (not necessarily together).
He has published five books. Bad Pennies, Doggem, Call Drops, Collapse and 4 Hours, and is currently working on a number of projects which include more tales from the Dead Boxes Archive and the Scaeth Mythos, and new stories set in the ever evolving, post-apocalyptic world of Collapse.
John’s Amazon Author Page UK – here
Johns’s Amazon Author Page US – here
Follow John on Twitter – @john_f_leonard
John’s Goodreads Page – here