Thursday, August 15, 2013
Walking the Fence Rail: Balancing Faith and Horror Writing
When I was a young boy, I would walk the fence on Grandpa Kelly's farm. On one side there would be green grass and soft clover; on the other, thistle and blackberry bramble, with plenty of sharp rocks hidden underneath. It wouldn't have taken much at all to have lost my balance and fallen one way or the other, but I never did. Mostly it was due to my own youthful balancing act, but sometimes it was because Grandpa held my hand while I walked the rail.
Sometimes that's how it feels when it comes to my faith and my horror writing career. On one side there is all goodness and light, while on the other there are sharp thorns, dangerous shadows, and the potential for a disastrous fall. You may think it is an unlikely and incompatible combination that was doomed to failure from the beginning. But you would be wrong. There are more Christian horror writers out there than you would think. I've talked to quite a few and, amid our discussions, found that we all hold the same doubts and fears. We definitely have questions about what we're doing from time to time. Some of them are of our own making, while others come from fans or members of our spiritual niche. The following are some issues that we are forced to address -- for ourselves as well as for others -- every now and then.
Am I compromising my faith by choosing to write this particular genre of fiction? No, I don't think so. As a Christian, I believe that God has a hand in all aspects of my life, both personal and professional, and that includes my talent and desire to write. I developed a strong interest in monsters and the macabre at an early age (one that my mother shared and reinforced) so you might say that I was "predestined" to write and create this sort of stuff later in life. Believe me, I've tried my best to specialize in other genres over the years; science fiction, mystery, western, children's literature, even inpirational. But horror was the only one I was actually successful (or happy) with. I'm relatively good at it, seem to know how to press readers' emotional buttons, and I have something of a warped and dark sense of humor. I see this as more of a blessing than a fluke or coincidence. People are always referring to someone's "God-given talent" in an off-hand way, but I believe there is more truth to that than folks realize.
Is it sinful to write horror fiction? Whenever someone asks me this question, I can't help but think of a hundred cartoons I've seen in my lifetime: the well-meaning guy with an angel perched on one shoulder and a devil on the other, persuading him to do either right or wrong. I don't know about other horror authors, but that isn't how it is with me. For the most part, I don't feel conflicted while writing horror fiction; it seems to flow naturally, with no mental shifting between "good and bad" taking place. Sure, there are some instances when I feel like I've stepped past my comfort zone, but that's what gives horror its edge... the author's willingness to go a step further and take the reader into realms they would, in life, hesitate to tread. As for the horror genre being evil? Only those who don't read it or aren't familiar with it seem to hold that opinion. I've actually had several people -- some of them family members -- call me a "devil worshiper" because I write this stuff. There's a misconception among a small minority of people (mostly radical religious groups) that writers and film directors of horror-related material are actually in league with the Devil. Of course, thinking in such a way is both ignorant and preposterous. I've met hundreds of horror authors since I began writing in the genre in 1986 and 99% of them were some of the nicest and most wholesome people I've ever met. Some have been fellow Christians, some atheists and agnostics, some straight, some gay... which proves what a diverse body of wordsmiths the horror genre boasts compared to, say, the romance and western genres.
Do you inject your religious beliefs into your stories and novels? No, not consciously. I consider my faith a personal matter and prefer not to inject it into my fiction, lest it be considered as "preachy". Besides, trying to fuse religion with horror (as in "Christian horror", a strange and seemingly contrary sub-genre to be sure) very rarely works. It's like mixing oil with water. Sometimes religious themes, characters, or settings surface in my books, but I'm not sure if I've done it with the intention of actually sharing my faith. After the Burn had a definite undercurrent of religion throughout and, I suppose, the last story in the collection, "The Paradise Pill", even gave the reader a glimpse of a heaven which may or may not be. The mass murder from my novel Father's Little Helper (soon to be re-released as Twelve Gauge in the Essential Collection) took place in a country church at Christmas time, and of course Grandpappy Craven from Blood Kin had been a mountain preacherman before vampirism caused him to trade his Bible and cross for a hankering for blood. So, perhaps, subconsciously, I do let my faith show through a little in plots and characters.
Am I expressing a hidden side of myself when I write about evil or ungodly characters? This is where a lot of writers of horror fiction experience the most friction. When family, co-workers, or even members of one's church, discover that they write "those awful horror stories", then perceptions begin to alter and the author is suddenly regarded in a different, less favorable light. Most "regular" folks (and by that I mean those who don't possess a love for the macabre) believe that surely something must be mentally or morally wrong with someone who would write about monsters or serial killers and, in turn, derive pleasure from doing it. Writing horror doesn't make you an unstable person, a devil worshipper (there's that enigma again), a weirdo, or a child molester. As I said before, most of the time it's the normal folks who specialize in the horror, suspense, and mystery fields... and I could add science-fiction and fantasy to that grouping as well. To tell the truth, it would be the full-blown romance writer, especially the ones who fill their books with ultra-explicit sex and wanton debauchery who I would be wondering about. Actually, there are some Christians (and I've been told this myself by fellow believers) who think that is morally wrong to write about vampires, werewolves, demons, zombies, and ghosts because they are of "Satan's dominion" and it is sinful to "glorify" such creatures. I, myself, don't believe that such monsters exist, maybe with the exception of demons, whose presence is apparent every day in countless news stories about terrorists, child murderers, and those who commit crimes too horrible to even comprehend. Writing about evil characters (the antagonist) or terrible, unthinkable situations or plot twists, doesn't mean that your Dr. Jekyll is unleashing its Mr. Hyde. A person can write about both good and evil without actually being one or the other; that's the gift of a good writer... they can wear many hats convincingly. Being a horror writer no more makes you a carbon copy of your most fiendish character than wearing mouse ears makes you Mickey Mouse or sporting a dab of a mustache on your upper lip makes you Adolf Hitler. Prose is a creative action, like painting or playing music. If a writer's story is about an axe murderer, that doesn't mean he or she is going to take up a hatchet and chase you gleefully around your front lawn. It is simply an exercise in imagination that takes a darker path than other genres take.
Why would God approve of or even want you to write horror fiction? This is the number one question that horror writers of the Christian faith ask themselves from time to time. The very nature of being a person of faith is to question things that do not involve goodness and benevolence. Philippians 4:8 says "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there by any praise, think on these things." Basically, that means almost everything that horror is not. Truthfully, I believe in everything in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelations. But I've always had an aversion to Philippians 4:8, simply because it condemns a person's interest in things dark and mysterious, which is not only a major pastime of mine, but, frankly, my bread and butter. I've actually had fellow Christians throw this scripture in my face when I suggested that they read one of my novels or stories.
I had a huge problem with this question following the implosion of the Zebra horror line back in 1996 and the sudden loss of my first career as a novelist. Having recently "found religion", as the old-timers call it, I became convinced that God had taken away my writing career because He didn't want me to write horror. That might sound silly to you, but to a believer, whose faith dictates that God is instrumental in all things, it is practically logical. So I gave it up... for ten years. It was a long journey of self-doubt and denial, and it took a long time for me to realize that I was downright miserable because of my self-imposed hiatus. It was only when I returned to the genre in 2006, that I was truly happy creatively again. I originally intended to tone my tales down considerably, but discovered that you simply couldn't do that with horror fiction. True, I'm not as "in-your-face" as other horror authors, but I do use a little profanity (never the F-bomb or the Lord's name in vain) and include occasional sexual situations; I just don't go overboard for the sake of offending or grossing my readership out.
If the Lord has a purpose for my writing this stuff, I'd have to say it would be the perpetuation of "good versus evil" storytelling. There was a time in horror literature (any literature, to tell the truth) when the good guys always won and the bad guys got their just dues. These days, fiction isn't as black and white as it once was. More often than not, it is a battle between evil and a lesser or greater evil. I reckon I'm just old-school, because this approach irks me alot. In my way of thinking, if you don't have a clearcut protagonist and antagonist, then it is simply not horror fiction... or at least not the kind that I enjoy and write.
In the horror genre, there are all kinds. I just happen to be one of the choir boys of the bunch. If you don't agree with what I've said, remember, this is simply my opinion and how I feel concerning these particular questions. You may believe or disbelieve; that's your God-given right. As for me, I definitely believe that there is something more than talent and luck involved in the success of my writing career and I know precisely who to give all the glory to for that. And if I need a Fatherly hand to keep me balanced on the literary fence rail, then I'll gladly hold onto it.