I am pleased to once again welcome horror author, Luke Walker, to my blog. This writer holds the honor of managing to completely terrify me with a short story I critiqued for him one time. In that story, as yet unpublished I believe, Luke managed to pinpoint one of my deepest fears: something terrible happening to one of my children. I’m no slouch when it comes to horror or dark and challenging fiction in general. It’s rare that something can manage to discombobulate me as much as that story did and the horror of it has never completely faded away. Harm to children: is it one of the taboos of horror? Or just something that is so difficult to tackle that most writers just don’t go there? Luke Walker goes there. Here’s his take on the topic.
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“Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.” ~Robert Bloch.
Take a look at that quote again. While this is often attributed to Stephen King, it actually comes from Robert Bloch, the author probably most famous for the novel Psycho and also dozens of short stories, other novels and TV work. In any case, what’s your first reaction to that quote? A snigger at the dark comedy it contains? Or a slight sense of discomfort, a feeling that, while it’s obviously meant as a tongue in cheek joke, it’s getting into an area you’re not happy to explore? Are you thinking that while no reasonable person would actually believe Bloch’s comment, the suggestion he has the heart of a dead child on his desk is on the wrong side of taboo? If so, come closer. We have much to talk about.
Horror is a funny subject. I’ve often said that any medium the horror writer/film-maker uses doesn’t automatically have to throw in as much blood and pain as it can. These are tools, not prerequisites, and the talented writer (or film-maker) knows when to use them just as they know when to pull back, to show you the outline of the body at the side of the road rather than pulling the cover off it and shoving your face into the mess that body has now become. There are plenty of people who assume the opposite. Horror has no grace, no subtlety. It relies on being as unpleasant as possible. Right?
Horror is often at its most effective when our imaginations fill in the gaps for us, when we’re presented with a terrible event for a character we’re at least interested in but the writer doesn’t spell everything out for us. While we sometimes need to see the blood and the snot and the shit and hear the screams, don’t think we always do. Sometimes you’ll see the remains of a friend spread out on the kitchen floor after the zombies have finished eating them. Sometimes you’ll see a bloody footprint by the kitchen door and you’ll know what’s on the other side. But what if that friend is something else? Someone else?
Getting uncomfortable? Good. I want you to. I want you to think about the directions in which horror can go when it needs to, when it has a reason to get into those taboo subjects we don’t like to talk about. Because here’s the thing: I’m writing this on a Sunday afternoon; I have a good cup of coffee next to me, both my cats are asleep on the bed and while the weather is ropey, today is a good day. I’m writing, I’m planning a couple of short stories, I love my wife, she loves me and I’m talking about horror. All good stuff.
It’s only a matter of days since dozens of people were killed in Syria. As the news keeps telling us, many of them were women and children. So let’s talk while I drink my coffee and my cats sleep. Let’s talk about those dead children.
They’re real. Until very recently, they loved their parents and they fought with their siblings. They liked their friends, their toys. Maybe they had a pet. I’d be willing to say they liked to play because they were kids. And now they’re dead. They’re all over the news and the politicians don’t like it. You watch the news and you say how terrible it is and you hope things get better. Then you pick up a book and the writer tells you about a raped and murdered child. You put the book down and you tell your friends you didn’t like it.
Horror doesn’t have to show us taboos any more than erotica has to go into the supposed taboos of watersports or bondage. It doesn’t have to, but it can and does partly because some people want to read it and partly because good fiction often holds a mirror up to the real world. If a writer is going to treat the real world and their readers with respect, then they need to tell their story honestly. Think about Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Spoiler alert – the lead character’s son is killed in a road accident. It’s horrendous. Then King ups it a notch. The father has a dream in which he manages to save his son. The boy grows up, becomes an Olympic swimmer, and while the father is watching his son on TV, he sees the water beads running down his son’s bathing cap. Except it’s not water. It’s blood.
His cap is full of his blood and brain.
That’s not so much showing you the taboo of a dead child as it is punching you in the face with it. And yet, it’s absolutely the right way for King to have done it. Children are killed all the time. The grief and pain their parents feel don’t end when you close the book. So while it’s a taboo, it’s also life.
If I, as a writer, want to bullshit you, I probably could. But I won’t. I respect you and hope you respect me for being truthful with my writing. So I’ll explore any taboos I come across and I’ll know when to open the kitchen door and show you the mess on the other side or maybe just let you stare at the bloody footprint.
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Excerpt from They Always Get Inside In The Films by Luke Walker
Neil stares at the kitchen door. It’s half open and he wonders if he can be grateful the door isn’t open all the way.
Blood coats the kitchen floor in streaks. The streaks finish in front of the fridge. The white of the bottom half of the fridge is obscured by red and a faraway voice asks Neil if he’s surprised there is so much blood inside a two year old boy.
His head. Jesus. His little head. He managed to crawl. His head. His head.
You can read the rest of the story here.
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What do you think of the issues Luke has raised? Do you have the stomach to read about children dying or do you see enough of it in the news? Do you think this type of horror fiction is exploitative or that it needs to be written? Please do share your thoughts.
Luke Walker has made several wonderful contributions to this blog. Here’s an interview with him. He wrote up a terrific list of his favorite zombie films here, and his post on great female characters in horror films is one of the top hits on this blog. You can follow the weird and wonderful Walker on his blog or treat yourself to his novel, The Red Girl, from Musa Publishing.