Why Do I Write Horror?
By Brian Asman
Because it’s fun.
Maybe that’s not the only reason, but it’s the primary one.
Writing horror is a hell of a lot of fun. Took me a while to figure that one out, though.
I’ve been a writer most of my life, or more precisely a creator of stories. As a kid, I consumed a ton of fantasy and science fiction and then dreamed up my own worlds, reskinning places like Middle Earth with new names, places, and faces, acting them out with my Legos or He-Man figures. Most of these early experiences with story creation were totally derivative, but fun. And a useful exercise—remaking someone else’s world can teach you a little something about constructing worlds of your own, I think.
When I hit my late teens I (stupidly) decided it was time to grow up and put aside the epic fantasy and pew-pew-pew science-fiction sagas. At the time I was acutely concerned with looking cool, whatever the fuck that is. This was back in the day when being a nerd wasn’t quite so mainstream before Avengers movies made all the money and trendy bars were stuffed with Star Wars shirt-sporting hipsters. I was the kind of person who thought that everybody was constantly watching and judging me, which is a bizarre blend of paranoia and narcissism if you think about it. Since I felt like I had eyes on me all the time, I started gravitating towards crime fiction, which still stirred my imagination but just seemed more like something a cool guy would read in public. Crime fiction was fun, but also a little more adulty in my mind. Plus, it jived nicely with the sorts of movies I liked, the music I listened to. I dug my crime fiction with a streak of humor, got into Florida writers like Carl Hiassen and Tim Dorsey. The Florida connection brought me to Elmore Leonard before I turned my sights west, towards a grip of California noir writers both old and new—Chandler, Ellroy, Nunn. Tapping the Source became a Bible of sorts, for years I re-read it annually.
During my crime period, I wasn’t writing all that much, but the stories I made up in my head weren’t about barbarians fighting orcs anymore. They were grittier stories that more closely reflected the life of someone in their late teens, early twenties—getting drunk, looking for weed, jawing about chasing girls but being paralyzed as fuck in their actual presence. Many of these stories took the form of song lyrics and are really, really fucking bad, but I also wrote some terrible short stories during this time and the only interesting thing about them was when I’d smuggle some speculative elements into a yarn about twenty-something slackers living in shitty apartments reeking of spilt bong water. There’s one I remember, a Kafka rip-off about a guy who wakes up covered in lizard scales and then his drug dealer shows up looking for money or something.
Around this time somebody handed me A Confederacy of Dunces, which totally blew me away. I could also see a pretty clear through-line between that book and some of the stuff I’d been falling in love with, like the aforementioned Hiassen and Dorsey. I did this a lot in music, looking for the threads in the things I liked and walking them backwards to the old works that inspired them, something that became astoundingly easy to do around the time I was coming of age, thanks to internet search engines and Napster. All that thread-pulling, stacking older works and the newer ones they inspired next to each other, gave me an appreciation of the difference between building on something and ripping off something. And helped me realize what I was actually chasing.
See, when I built my own epic fantasy world complete with dark lords and orcish bad guys I wasn’t really trying to create a Middle Earth rip-off. I was chasing the feeling I got when my mom read the Lord of the Rings to me for the first time. When I tapped out some hardboiled, cliched dialogue, I wasn’t trying to take the easy route of just stealing Chili Palmer’s “look at me” line, I was trying to give someone else that same damn, what a badass reaction I got the first time I read Get Shorty. What I needed to do was figure out the essence of what got me jazzed, what made me go holy shit and flip to the next page, and use that as a jumping-off point for whatever I’d do next.
Best way I’ve ever heard it explained was on a podcast. I can’t remember what podcast or who was being interviewed, but they were talking about a writing student who was really taken with A Song of Ice and Fire, specifically the Wall, and they were writing stories with a big fucking wall but they didn’t want to be derivative, so the interviewee asked hey, what do you like about the Wall? After a series of questions it boiled down to anything could be on the other side. And so the kid ended up writing a story with a giant trench that all kinds of nasty shit could come out of.
Not the Wall, but it scratched the same itch.
Of course, I didn’t actually take my own advice. I mostly tried to write like Chuck Palahniuk. Or tried to write “literary fiction” (a term I despise). Some of the stories I wrote weren’t bad but didn’t fit anywhere. I started a couple of projects I thought might have more commercial appeal, and guess what?
Didn’t finish ‘em. Not even close. I pretty much stopped writing for a while, although I never stopped making up stories in my head.
But while I wasn’t writing, I was getting into horror.
Horror has always appealed to me, but growing up I kept it at arm’s length because I scare embarrassingly easy. I adored Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark when I was a kid, but I could only handle about one of those stories every couple months. I’d read one, love it, but then I’d get home and be too frightened to sleep. For years, I’d dip my toe in the horror pool for a hot second and then run screaming back into the arms of a “safer” genre.
Mid-twenties, though, I started shifting into horror for good. Horror punk and psychobilly bands like the Misfits, Murderland and the Koffin Kats gave me a safe in. I didn’t lay awake at night shivering after listening to “All Hell Breaks Loose” or “October Sky.” That got me watching more horror movies. And then my reading choices changed, too. I’d long read a King book every six months or so, and when Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box came out that seemed right up my alley because of the music connection. Tore through that, got Twentieth Century Ghosts, and that first story “Buttonboy” fucked me up good but I kept reading. I’d also run into John Connelly in the crime section of the bookstore, and he was doing this really cool crime/horror blend with the Charlie Parker books, and also leaning all the way into spooky stuff with Nocturnes, which I think as much as anything locked me in as a horror reader.
All pretty mainstream choices (do you even Laymon, bro?), the stuff you’d find at any Barnes and Noble or airport bookstore, but they hooked me, got me reading horror on the regular. Maybe I had to come at horror from a bunch of different angles, but when I did damned if it didn’t feel like coming home. Like finally catching that feeling I’d been chasing since I was a kid and saw the Garfield Halloween Special for the first time.
I’m not joking, if you put a gun to my head that’s honestly my single biggest influence as a horror writer.
So now I’m back to horror, but I’m not writing it. Matter of fact, I’m not writing much of anything. Pick an excuse—I don’t have time, I’m not inspired, I’ve got writer’s block (which is bullshit, fight me in the comments). They’re all garbage. I’m not writing because it’s not a priority for me.
What are my priorities, a reasonable person might ask?
Partying, getting into dumb arguments at work, brunch, going to the gym, dicking around on my phone, etc. I don’t mean to imply there’s anything wrong with those things (I still do them, to varying degrees), but I put a ton of shit in front of writing.
Mad for fun years, but unproductive ones.
Flash forward to 2016. I had a milestone birthday that year. I always figured someday I’d grow up and things would fall into place and I’d just become a writer. Coming up on that milestone birthday, realizing I’d accomplished fuck all, put a little scare into me. It wasn’t hard to picture myself in my eighties, on my deathbed, looking back at life and thinking remind me what the fuck you actually accomplished?
I didn’t want that. So I put my ass to work.
Initially, I set a goal of writing every day. Just a couple words, at least. Just to create the habit. I didn’t quite meet the goal, but at the end of the year I’d completed sixteen short stories (mostly Thomas Ligotti rip-offs) and written my first (trunk) novel. No small feat for a guy with a hard drive full of unfinished bullshit. But in order to write all that, I had to write stuff I was interested in, and write in a genre where I had room to dream big, to improvise, to fall the fuck down. A lot.
That’s why I write horror. Because it’s fun. Because it’s a playground that’s big enough you can do pretty much anything you want. Because it’s a genre that’s largely free from dictates about what it has to be, a handful of Twitter philosophers aside.
I went to KillerCon for the first time in 2018 and I’m sitting at the bar with adjacent to a bunch of writers you’ve definitely read (who were all super personable and awesome) and I couldn’t help thinking how wildly different their respective oeuvres are, to the point where it’s kind of amazing they’re all part of the same genre. I’m talking cosmic horror, military fiction, bizarro, zombies, splatterpunk, humor, whatever the hell I write, and more. All these people, all these lovely weirdos, hanging out under the same tent, every single one of them belonging there as much as the next.
Because horror? It’s whatever the fuck you want.
And that’s what I want to write.
Brian Asman’s works include I’m Not Even Supposed to Be Here Today from Eraserhead Press. He’s recently appeared in the anthologies Lost Films, A Sharp Stick in the Eye, and the forthcoming Breaking Bizarro. He’s currently an MFA student at UCR-Palm Desert, an alumnus of Stephen Graham Jones’ “Advanced Horror Fiction Writing” course, and has a Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers tattoo. Max Booth III is his hype man.
I’m Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today
A Bizarro fiction tribute to the Kevin Smith cult classic CLERKS.
After a killer surf session, Scot Kring stops into his local Fasmart for a delicious, icy Slushpuppy. But before he can leave, a homeless guy outside has a stroke and accidentally recites an ancient Latin phrase that summons a very hungry demon, who just so happens to look like filmmaker Kevin Smith.
Now Scot’s stuck in a time loop along with the other occupants of the convenience store who may or may not be demonically possessed and he’s fighting back with nothing but a fistful of greasy hot dogs and a souvenir Slushpuppy cup as the giant menacing kaiju Kevin Smith threatens to kill them all.
I’m Not Even Supposed to Be Here Today is a demon apocalypse comedy for the slacker generation.
You can read the Kendall Review for I’m Not Supposed To Even Be Here Today here