As I said in my first introduction to him, Joshua Doetsch is lead writer of the computer game Age of Conan, blogger of strange things and author of several short stories in addition to the White Wolf novel Strangeness in the Proportion.
If you have even the slightest love for the space between creepy and cute, then Joshua is the author for you. If you like strange worlds that look like our own, but are subtly and terrifyingly different, then click the link above, and prepare to be dazzled. And if that didn’t convince you, even my mom, who can’t stand being scared, loved the opening paragraphs and read on. Now, if that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is. So, without further ado, I give you Joshua Doetsch on writing horror:
“How can you write this stuff and not get screwed up?”
He didn’t ask it mean or accusatory or in passive aggression. He just wanted to know. Some of us shrugged, and one by one we scratched our names into The Book of Dead Things–the first anthology I was a part of–my first set of book signings. On the emotional high of that, and now there was an adult possibly nervous of what would crawl out of my head if it ever cracked open? Cool.
The question. I had not pondered it much before. Some things we take for granted. I know that no kid has ever eaten those putrid black n’ orange wrapped candies in the Trick or Treat bag. I know that, in a scary movie, looking into a mirror can only lead to bad things. And I know that horror writers are among the nicest people you can meet. I am not alone in the observation.
How is this possible?
But I do know two things.
First, there is an infra-dimensional space beneath the floorboards of the forebrain, just past the basal ganglia, through the mess of brainstem and limbic system, into that vestigial reptile brain–an entire Mesozoic ocean stew of data, the primordial extremities we never really lost, just locked away behind tiny inhibitors in our DNA–the knowledge that we are just a protein away from the gills, claws, fins, and tentacles that are always slithering under our skin. We no longer have the luxury of cave bears trying to eat us. In this unnaturally cerebral universe we’ve created, we have to somehow construct new and elegant ways to exercise that R-complex. The good news is…we already have.
I do not suffer nightmares very often. By the time my head hits the pillow, that bit of my mind is exhausted. And every day, I have this preternatural tool, called storytelling, that allows me to grasp every fear and loathing and pin them down on the blank page like a collection of moths. Impaled on the sharp nib of my pen, the assorted nasties are refined to the near-tangible, super weird substance of narrative. They bleed black ink, and if they bleed, they can be defeated, dissected, and reassembled into shambling servitors, by my so potent art.
Try it out! Rob the graveyards of your mind for parts–a tendril here, a wing there–rearrange them on the slab, sew them together, feed your creation lightening and watch it walk. Revision is the process of successive surgeries, making the sutures less unseemly. Eventually you might gather with your fellow mad scientists–all inexplicably nice people–and compare your beautiful grotesques.
Horror is a smoking mirror. It allows us to make ghoulish faces in the funhouse reflection, until we can laugh at them.
The second thing I know, is that those darklings swimming in my brainpan, the ones that let me see my name in print, are not unique to me. Everyone has them. Not everyone has the tools to exercise them. Children do. Children have shaman wisdom. If a child is disturbed by the picture and description on the back of the VHS box of a slasher movie that he read at the rental place while waiting for his mother to make a purchase–that familiar horror rack that has become a dusty wall of hieroglyphs to a forbidden mythology, which the boy is always deciphering a piece at a time, made even more mythic and frightening because he’s never seen these movies and connects them all in his imagination–if he’s scared, he goes home and puts on a mask. He becomes the monster, plays macabre games with friends until they understand the unwritten rules of how that monster is beaten.
Adults have shoddier tools to deal with fear: pills, self-help books, and horrible questions like, “What does this say about me?” Most adults lose their masks. Every day they stand in bank lines, sit in gridlocked traffic, open credit card bills, all while the inner-tentacles boil beneath, without a proper outlet.
At this point of realization, the question inverts.
And so I ask you–you who have never scribed horror:
How can you not be screwed up if you don’t write this stuff?