Why I Stopped Writing Horror Stories

Reading & Writing

Horror stories were once read by adults. They were specifically not for the young. Forbidden fruit, they revolved around unsettling (and unspoken) adults concepts, and were rarely predicated on shock effects. They looked outwards and encouraged the exploration of ideas. Of course there were straightforward classical-minded ghost tales from the likes of MR James, but there were also thousands of stories that preyed upon the mind long after the last sentence was read. Most of our adult lives were spent trying to get comfortable, and along came stories that discomfited.

The horror story is a limited genre, and one that has become irrelevant – discuss. I don’t suppose anyone even noticed my final collection, ‘Frightening’ – it appeared as an e-book only. Maybe I’ll serialise it here. I admire the great genre stories of the past, but to most people now they’re not horror. To them I say, read ‘The Case of Lady Sannox’, a non-Holmes tale from Conan Doyle with a grotesque central image of misogyny that still disturbs.

And we had William Sansom, who wrote the metaphorical ‘The Long Sheet’, in which captives are required to wring out a great wet sheet with their hands, and the process is described in flesh-smarting detail. Nor can the sheet ever be completely dried, because fresh moisture is constantly sprayed on it. The final lines of the story reveal the true nature of torment while pointing the way to another prescient writer, J G Ballard.

And we had Dino Buzzati, whose stories have the grim inexorability of an infinite downward spiral, as roads never end, grand houses gradually collapse, rivers flood, good people starve, revolutions occur and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that anyone can do about it. This sense of helplessness is a very modern concept.

Too modern, perhaps. Those two authors are out of print while MR James is constantly republished. I find James’s tales filled with comforting nostalgia, not disturbing at all, and the same goes for HP Lovecraft, whose tales of nameless horror I have never enjoyed. I prefer Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose final haunting image in the story ‘Three Miles Up’ stayed with me for years and shows Howard’s terrific storytelling strength, or John Collier, whose tale ‘Evening Primrose’, with its central image of shadowy figures moving around in department stores at night, also clung to my restless sleep.

If there’s one piece of advice accepted by almost every short story writer, it’s that part of what is displayed must remain hidden. And perhaps that is what we’ve lost, because now everyone tells everyone everything. The currency of information has surpassed the gold standard. What is there left to hide?

You could of course take this as a cynical attitude from one who has been writing short stories for decades and now decries the current state of play, but that’s not at all what I intend. I love and respect the short-form story even more than I did as a child, and can still be thrilled by the discovery of a good author I’ve not read. There are dozens of modern writers I admire but typically, they tend to be overlooked by the mainstream because they’re uncategorisable. It’s not as easy to disturb now as it once was. Those ‘nameless things’ have all been named, catalogued, monetised.

So that’s the end of my horror story career. I leave behind 160 strange tales, some short, some novellas. I’ve thought about bringing them together in one print volume – the publisher’s not keen, of course; ‘too many words’. If anyone has a good idea about how to do it in an appealing way, you know what to do!

19 comments on “Why I Stopped Writing Horror Stories”

  1. Jan says:

    Promise me this is not an April Fool. – I ‘ve not forgotten “Hell Train”.

    Suppose Roofworld 2 is definitely out of the question then?

  2. Martin Tolley says:

    What Jan said…

  3. davem says:

    As mentioned before, your short stories have always been my favourite and were my original introduction to your work.

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    Ditto

    And Happy Easter!

  5. Porl says:

    this’d better be an April Fools joke!

  6. admin says:

    If anyone can think of ONE fantastic horror story in the last five years, let me know and I’ll read it.

  7. SteveB says:

    Hmmm not really.
    I used to get those Pan books of Horror stories edited by Herbert van Thal as a teenager and some of those stories I have never forgotten (including some really stupid ones, like An Experiment in Choice). William Sansom appeared in quite a few.

  8. Denise Treadwell says:

    Five years, a challenge!

  9. Maya says:

    This is a joke right? There are so many fantastic horror stories I can’t really point to just one but you must be aware of all the authors published in Black Static – Ralph Robert Moore, Joel Lane, Ray Cluley, Georgina Bruce, James Cooper etc. Georgina Bruce’s White Rabbit is definitely worth checking out. Also, Stephen Volk’s ‘Whitstable’ and ‘Leytonstone’ are both amazing.

    Gemma Files is great, check out ‘ Some Kind of Light Shines From Your Face’. Gary J. Shipley is also good although I haven’t read much but ‘The Face Hole’ has a subtle terror to it which I really enjoyed.

    Adam S. Cantwell’s ‘Bastards of the Absolute’ has some fantastic stories in it as does Louis Marvick’s ‘Dissonant Intervals’ although maybe they’re more disturbing than horrifying.

    I could go on but at the end of the day it’s all subjective. I think these are all fantastic horror authors/stories, you may not.

  10. Bob Low says:

    The horror story is infinitely adaptable, and probably indestructible. I would second the posting by Maya – Gemma Files is great, and Black Static publishes at least one fantastic new horror story in every issue. Mark Morris edited a brilliant original anthology called ‘.New Fears’ last year, which has a great line up of authors with fresh takes on some well worn traditional horror tropes. ‘The House of the Head’ by Josh Malerman particularly creeped me out. The Ellen Datlow edited ‘Best Horror of the Year’ anthology is consistently excellent as well. In fact just about any anthology edited by Datlow is worth a read. .

  11. Greg Delaney says:

    Hi Mr. Fowler,

    Just finished reading the new B+M book “Hall of Mirrors”. At the end of the book on the acknowledgements page you mention that all the chapter titles except one are meant to provide a soundtrack. You asked for readers to provide an explanation as to which one is the odd one out.

    Here goes –

    I think the odd one out is Chapter 43, “Cards on the Table”. This is not a song title, but is a book written in 1936 by Agatha Christie. In the book Poirot looks at the bridge score sheet to look at the passage of time and to look at the character of each player.

    In the “Hall of Mirrors”, Bryant looks at the invitation cards which were left on the oval mahogany table. Bryant then looks at the time line created by the cards and starts to establish facts about the case and the people involved.

    Quite like the idea of a soundtrack to the book. I always imagined Swing music, preferably Django Reinhardt, to be a sound track to the B+M books. Anyway, hope I’m right. If not I look forward to finding out the correct solution.

    When can we expect the next B+M book?

    Regards

  12. Greg Delaney says:

    Just as a P.S to my last comment, there are further similarities which include both books having a crime writer involved and also the fact that “no one is innocent”

    Don’t want to say too much and spoil it for people who haven’t read it yet. A riveting read!

  13. Denise Treadwell says:

    Have thought of one, The Essex Serpent, it scares me to read it!

  14. Peter Dixon says:

    This is all scary!

  15. Hilda says:

    We don’t want to read made up horror stories when we can see real horror such as what the Mexican drug cartels do to one another on fire sites like bestgore.

  16. admin says:

    Greg Delaney’s beautifully judged answer to the ‘Hall Of Mirrors’ puzzle is the most accurate I’ve seen. All of the chapters were songs meant to provide a soundtrack to the book with the exception of one, which provided a pointer to the solution. Clever sod.

  17. admin says:

    Maya, I agree with some of your choices (Joel Lane, Steve Volk and Georgina Bruce) but the rest didn’t do much for me, and are finding minuscule audiences. The descent of the horror story in terms of reader figures is enough to suggest extinction.

  18. Ken Mann says:

    Jon Padgett? Is there a growing trend for new horror to be in expensive limited editions? Is the target audience readers who fantasise about being pale dressing-gown clad absinthe drinking collectors of rare tomes?

  19. Greg Delaney says:

    Many thanks for the comment – I’m flattered by it, especially as I enjoyed the challenge. It also gave me a reason to re read a classic Christie novel. Do I get my prize now?

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