Why I Stopped Writing Horror Stories
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!