Monday, October 22, 2018

The Horror of Truth and Half-Truths

At some point today, I'll be dropping by the Thriller Roundtable to answer the question, “What can thriller writers learn from the horror genre?”

I've had a very strange relationship with horror and every year for the past 11 years Brian has tried to get me to agree to a month of horror in October - primarily watching horror movies.

And every year I've refused.

Until this year.

Why now?

Well, one of the things I needed to understand about my relationship with horror was that it was shaped by the wrong strand of horror. As a teen in the 80s, I grew up when slasher flicks like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street were big.

And slasher flicks are definitely not my thing. 

However, there is something very appealing about horror that eluded me until I had a broader exposure to the genre. Horror - like police procedurals and thrillers - strives for the restoration of order. In horror, a protagonist or group of key characters face threat of death from all manner of evil creatures (be it a person who's lost their humanity or some sort of monster or something else) and triumphs. It may not feel like much of a triumph, depending on what they've lost along the way, but they find a way to survive.

What's really interesting is that some prominent horror offerings have recently addressed the fact that at the end of that part of the story, there really isn't a return to order. The life of the protagonist or lives of the core group have been permanently altered.

From the new Halloween movie to The Haunting of Hill House, horror is expanding its reach and exploring the trauma that victims of horror endure.

No matter how many ghosts, goblins, vampires or other types of monsters or fictional beings you throw at them, trauma is very real world. And perhaps by taking a person out of the context of real, day to day normalcy, it's easier to explore. 

As part of our horror marathon, we watched the new Hill House series. I'm not going to give anything away in saying this - it's episode 1 reality.

The older brother, Steve, is an author. And he writes about hauntings ... including what happened at Hill House when he was a child.

And he really pisses the family off by doing so. anything real before you write it...? The things you write about are real,  those people are real their feelings are real,  their pain is real,  but not to you,  is it? Not until you chew it up and you digest it and you've shit it out on a piece of paper,  and even then its a pale imitation at best. 

You take other peoples lives and love and loss and pain and you eat it...  You are an eater. You eat it and you shit it out and then, and only then, is it real for you. 
I found myself thinking about this a lot. Most of his family is so angry with him because of his book. He took something so personal and put it out into the world.

This is often what writers do. They put their truths into stories. And that's often what editors and agents want to see. One of the increasingly common requests I've seen for queries lately is, "Tell me why you're the person to write this story." They want to see that there's a personal connection. They don't mean, "Because I earned an MFA and know how to construct a grammatically correct sentence." They mean, "Because I survived sexual assault" or "Because I grew up with divorced parents" or "Because I have experienced racism" - they're looking for the personal connection to your story. 

There are two things that are more likely to happen when the writer has a personal connection. One is that they may more effectively convey appropriate emotions in the story and a sense of realism that readers connect to. The other is that they're more likely to have topics they can talk about to promote their book.

Now, Steve's story wasn't the most compelling one for me, out of all the survivors, but I did appreciate how the story looked at the personal implications of sharing your truth.

And, however the events of Hill House changed how Steve perceived the events from his childhood, he had written what he believed. 

It was not how others in the family saw things. As we all learned when Robin Williams' character challenged the young men in Dead Poet's Society to stand on their desks, the world looks different when you look at things from a different perspective.

As writers, we face the peculiar balancing act of sharing what is personal and considering how others might feel about those revelations or even if they believe or agree with those alleged truths.

Everything we experience, every relationship we have, are potentially opposing truths. 

Sometimes, those opposing perspectives are the result of listening to lies or suppressing events or knowledge because of an inability to cope with what happened. Sometimes it really is a difference in perspective.

And sometimes, we all say or type things that come off as more of an absolute than we intend, or have an inference that was unintended. I had that experience recently on Facebook, with Brian pointing out to me one single line in a post and its relationship to one specific perspective on the issue. It prompted me to make an amendment.

We don't always get a chance to take things back. Sometimes, we have to leave ourselves room for another person's perspective to alter our own. 

And perhaps we need to take a look at the dust or cracks on our lenses that may be marring or limiting our view and understanding. 

Perhaps that's a caution to us all to be careful what we write on social media and elsewhere. Perhaps most of all it's an opening to talk about something we rarely tackle. As writers, we often process our feelings on the page and that can be therapeutic. However, it can also have a cost ... and we must always remember that things that are not known to us can change our understanding of ourselves and others and things we've experienced.

And sometimes, the popular consensus just boils down to who is more popular. You could be absolutely right and honest in a position or perspective but be ridiculed as a liar if your view opposes someone with a big platform and popularity. And many people are like Steve - they don't really want truth. They just don't want anyone to contradict their interpretation of events.

Be absolutely honest for yourself ... and remember that not everyone may thank you for it.

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