Why Do I Write Horror?
By Jon O’Bergh
An author has myriad genres to choose from. He or she can even dispense with genres altogether and just write “literature.” So why choose horror?
Ever since I was a child, I’ve been drawn to horror. Undoubtedly, my parents had something to do with this. On summer evenings, my mother would spread a blanket on the lawn, gather neighbourhood kids, and tell ghost stories. My father won an award for his painting of a ghostly figure walking along a dark, abandoned pier. For Halloween, we would hang ghosts in the tree, display an old steamer trunk to look like a coffin, and my mother would dispense candy from a cauldron.
Even so, I was frequently terrified by things that go bump in the night. When I was two, my father had to paint a happy face on the stucco ceiling above my bed where I imagined a monster in the pattern of bumps and dots. As a teenager, I still dreaded being the last one downstairs and would race up two steps at a time after turning out the lights. You might think I would avoid horror at all costs.
As one character in my new draft novel explains it, immersing myself in horror is kind of like a vaccination, innoculating me from what I fear.
Fear is one of our most primitive, powerful emotions. It can help keep us alive. It can motivate us to make a positive change or to cause harm. Or it can debilitate and kill us, as what happens to Eleanor Vance in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Horror speaks directly to these deep impulses.
That much may be obvious. But horror resonates with me in another way as well. Because it often deals with the supernatural, with aspects of reality hidden behind a veil, or with things that may not be what they appear, it addresses our uncertainty about the world. It explores that fluid boundary between what is “real” and what is imagined. Is that knocking on the wall just old pipes or something else?
Contemporary authors I admire, such as Paul Tremblay and Gemma Files, address the inherent ambiguity of experience through their work. Absolute truth is unknowable. You can’t always know what someone else is thinking, or whose different version of events reflects what actually happened. We identify the perpetrator of a robbery with utter conviction, but psychologists tell us that much of the time these memories are false. These ambiguities in life drive us crazy. We use a variety of techniques to navigate uncertainty, with mixed results. He was such a nice man, I was shocked to find out he had seven bodies buried in the backyard. Things aren’t always what they seem.
In my novel, The Shatter Point, I play with this sense of uncertainty. Different layers of reality and fiction weave through the story: actual legends, real places, true events, a band that may or may not exist. The difficulty of distinguishing reality from fakery turns up as a recurring theme. What the reader (or a particular character) assumes to be the truth sometimes turns out to be otherwise.
Horror isn’t unique as a vehicle for exploring uncertainty. But it possesses a built-in power because it reinforces the sense of dread that accompanies our fear of not being able to distinguish the boundary between truth and fiction. Is it in your head, or is it real? That’s part of what it means to be human. And that’s why I write horror.
The Shatter Point
Set in Southern California’s Orange County and historic Pasadena, the plot follows two parallel sets of characters whose lives eventually intersect. The past intrudes in unwelcome ways for each character. Donna remains troubled by a previous marriage that turned sour when the husband became abusive. Her son Billy fears that he inherited his father’s propensity toward violence. Feelings of inadequacy haunt Asher from his years being bullied. Ruth hides a series of traumatic incidents from her youth. Jada’s craving for stimulation leads eventually to disaster.Much more than just a ghost story, the novel is a study of individuals under stress. The curious reader will discover different layers of reality versus fiction within the book. In a world haunted by the ghosts of the past–where reality is manufactured for popular consumption–how do we know what is real and what is fake, what is true and what is imagined? After the shatter point, the horror will become all too real.
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