by Gary A. Braunbeck
I was asked to be one of the three judges for this year's Chiaroscuro Magazine/Leisure Books short story contest. We got quite a number of submissions, and on a scale of 1 - 10 (10 being the highest), the stories came in at a solid 6.5 to 7, which, I have to admit, surprised me -- if for no other reason than a handful of past judges from other contests (not just this one) had led me to expect otherwise.
To be honest, I wasn't prepared for there to be such originality among the submissions; for every mad slasher, ghost, vampire, and (insert tired horror cliché here) story I read, I found there to be at least one story whose content, writing, or central idea outshone the more predictable tales (and even the predictable stories displayed a level of technical craftsmanship that was refreshing).
But even in a majority of these original stories, certain disquieting similarities began to pop up, the most predominant one being that, somewhere past the mid-point of the story, it seemed that the writers suddenly thought: "Whoa, wait a minute -- this is supposed to be a horror story!" ... and subsequently grafted obviously horrific elements onto the narrative so it more resembled the popular concept of horror.
Example: one story dealt with a young boy's imaginary friend whose physical form and behavior changed to suit the young boy's mood; if the boy had been mistreated by his friends, the imaginary friend appeared to him as beaten-up and angry; if the boy's mother had scolded him for something he did wrong, the imaginary friend appeared to him as smaller and sadder.
You get the idea.
Now this was -- for the first 6 pages -- an absolutely wonderful piece, reminiscent of the best Twilight Zone episodes, but then--
-- Whoa, wait a minute -- this is supposed to be a horror story! --
-- the imaginary friend shows up, unbidden, in the shape of a deformed monster wielding an axe, tells the boy that he's "...sick and tired of pretending to be something I'm not", and chops the little boy up into bloody chunks (the death of the boy takes almost 2 pages, and is unnecessarily graphic).
Now, had this turnabout been set up anywhere beforehand (which it wasn't), I might have accepted it; it might have been a terrifically vindictive morality play about allowing reality to intrude too far into one's fantasy life (which it is, at least for the first 6 pages, and beautifully done); the ending might have been interpreted as the death of one's fantasy life equaling the spiritual and physical death of the Self; in other words, it might have resulted in something deeper and infinitely more disturbing than the cheap, bloody shock that the writer chose to end it with because, gosh-golly-gee, it's a horror story and you expect this sort of thing, right?
What made this doubly alarming is that, in almost every case, the writers who grafted these ham-fisted horrific elements onto their stories had demonstrated a level of skill that led me, as a reader, to believe they were going to stay true to their voice and vision (and no, I won't apologize for using that last word); until these grafted elements intruded, each story had suggested that its writer was not only well-read and intelligent, but trusted their own instincts enough to know that it's okay to do Something Different in horror; yet near the end, some mass-market, don't-challenge-the-expected-norm, lowest-common-denominator gene kicked in, and something SPOOOOOOKY or Shocking!!!! (read: recognizably horrific) arrived to bust up the party and send everyone home way too early.
And I keep wondering: Why?
Flash back to a month ago, on the Shocklines discussion board. The subject of happy endings came up, and it appears that many readers have come to expect a certain formula from horror: meet the main character, get to know/like him or her, follow him or her through the horrific darkness that ensues, and emerge alive and triumphant with him or her into the light at the end.
Mind you, I've got nothing against happy endings - providing that they emerge naturally, are consistent with the overall tone of the piece, and (this is the important point) are justified. Otherwise, it's just bad plastic surgery.
Happy endings only work when they're justified from within the natural progression (both tonal and narrative) of a story, and in my fictional universe, that rarely happens; horrific elements only work when they're justified, and in the case of many of the submissions to the contest, this just wasn't the case; too much grafting, not enough 2nd or 3rd-drafting: the writers didn't trust their own instincts enough to not take the obvious way out.
Consider if you will Stephen King's remarkable novel, Pet Sematary; here you have a story that is incredibly dark, with only the briefest flashes of light and hope sprinkled throughout. The dark (and, at best, melancholy) tone of the novel is set early on, as are the ground rules of its microcosmic universe, and King never once betrays those rules or the novel's tone: because of the expert way he sets up everything, he can't betray them and remain justified in the world-view he presents.
Many readers were shocked that King ended the novel as he did, and the reason behind this shock? As a friend of mine put it: "After all the horrible things that had happened, I was expecting a happier ending."
Not if you read it correctly, you weren't.
From almost the very beginning, you know there's no way in hell that this is going to turn out for the best. So how would you have felt if King had betrayed his story to give readers an "expected" happy ending? And even if he had found a way to cop-out with touching warm fuzzies at the end, do you think the novel would have had the effect on readers that it did? That it still has, over 20 years later?
King never flinched here, never pulled back, never hoodwinked for the sake of making things more palatable or comfortable for the reader; the result is a novel that is not only one of the most emotionally rich he's ever written, but arguably the single most horrific of his career.
And for you "...light at the end" folks, ask yourselves this - and be honest: how many of his novels and stories have had "happy" endings? I can think of maybe four - and even those aren't "happy" endings in the traditional sense. So why does his work endure? Because it's honest unto itself. From A Buick 8 may not be the best-written story he's ever told, but it's arguably the best-told story he's ever written, simply because he remains true to the tale. And sometimes that means not ending things with a gaudy display of horrific fireworks; and sometimes it means not ending things on a happy note, lest the story and the reader be betrayed.
Old William Shakespeare|Willy S. said it best, folks: "To thine own self be true."
That is, in reverse, the answer to my question about the contest submissions: these horrific elements were grafted onto the stories because their writers (for whatever reasons) have been conditioned -- be it through uninspired films, television programs, or from reading work by writers whose only influence has been said films or television shows -- to believe that readers will only accept a story as being "horror" if it has certain readily-identifiable elements -- i.e. gore/violence/zombies/ vampires/what-have-you -- that are popularly mistaken as being the only elements that horror is concerned with.
There is a new generation of upcoming writers who are being conditioned for mediocrity; they will not -- or cannot -- trust their own instincts because the popular misconceptions about horror are threatening to become the accepted rules. If that happens, if the tired, formulaic, tried-and-true become the norm once again, then I'll be more than content to make do with being a writer whose work is only read when people are in "...a certain mood."
But I will not be content to sit idly by and let the upcoming generation of horror writers betray themselves, their stories, their craft, and their chosen field by giving them the impression that it's all right to shove a bloody shock down a reader's throat because this is supposed to be a horror story.
The solution is simple: Don't do that.
If you get to a point in a story where you say to yourself, Damn, I'd better have something horrific happen pretty soon, do yourself and the rest of us a favor and walk away; come back to it in a day or two when you can approach the story fresh, on its own terms, and not those you have been programmed to think are applicable; yeah, you might not end up with a wide readership, but odds are the readership you will have will be a fiercely loyal one.