As you may or may not know already, Tobin Elliott has been something of a mentor for me, not only in terms of writing, but in my 9-to-5 career as well.
You would think, therefore, that I picked him for my first of twelve interviews because of that! But…you’d be wrong. He just happens to have been the first to reply, so he gets first billing.
And, because he’s been on Nine Day Wonder before, I decided to make the questions a bit tougher this time around. Here’s what he had to say.
9 Day Wonder: Horror sometimes gets a bad reputation as a kind of rancid, cheap form of literature, but clearly there’s a deep-seated appeal for Things that Go Bump in the Night. Do you think horror has a bad reputation, and what do you think drives people to that conclusion?
Tobin Elliott: Horror absolutely has a bad reputation. I know this from the looks I get when I go to a monthly gathering of writers. Whenever I meet someone knew, usually the first question that comes up at these meetings is, What do you write? When I tell them I’m a horror writer, about 98% of the time, their faces screw up into an expression that implies that I just farted in their general direction. It’s usually followed with one of two responses. The first is, “Oh.” That’s it, nothing else. The second is, “I don’t read horror.”
There’s a lot of memoirists in the group. There’s times where I’ve been tempted to say the same thing about their genre, just to see their reaction. I actually do read memoirs, but I find it interesting, because almost any other genre, it’s usually more of, “Ah, I’m not crazy about romance,” or, “Never been a big SF reader,” but rarely anything as blunt as, “I don’t read horror.”
I think it was Jonathan Maberry who stated that he liked to substitute the term “supernatural thriller” for “horror”. I tried it a couple of times and, instead of the fart face, I had people lean in and exclaim, “Oh really! Like what?”
So, yeah, horror’s got a bad rep.
Why? Bad movies. Torture porn movies like Saw and Hostel. Gore for gore’s sake. To me, that’s not horror. It’s horrible. It’s horrifying, but it’s not horror. Stephen King has said, “I will try to terrify. But if I find I cannot terrify, I’ll try to horrify. If I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.” I find there’s far too much horror that goes for the gross-out and nowhere near enough going for the terrify.
9DW: And, granted, different people look for different things, but what do you think people are looking for in a really good, meaty horror novel?
TE: I can only go by what I go for in a really good, meaty horror novel. I want story. I want characters that I care about…not necessarily love or hate, but definitely sympathize and empathize with. I want believable horror. I want something different. I’m so sick of vampires and zombies. There’s a lot of horrible things out there in the world, so why does it always have to be the shambling dead lately?
Here’s the thing. I recently heard Sandra Kasturi, part of the husband and wife team that runs ChiZine, talk about horror and she brought up a fascinating point that I’d never really considered before. She asked what vampires are, what zombies are, what werewolves and the Frankenstein monster and all the others are. And the answer is, they were all once human, before they were monsters. They are us, but they are the dark side of us.
I think that’s a powerful idea, and a very truthful one. While SF is about ideas, romance and horror novels are about emotion. And the horror novel can show us the worst of us, but also the best.
To me, terror doesn’t come from the monster. When Danny Torrance goes into room 217 of the Overlook Hotel, it’s not the woman in the tub that’s scary. It’s what she does to Danny, how he reacts emotionally, that causes the terror. It’s when he closes his eyes and tells himself it’s not real, that it can’t hurt him, because that’s what the grown-ups told him, and still, she’s able to put her hands around his neck. It’s when he’s finally escaped the room and stands out in the hallway, and still, the doorknob turns. It’s his fear and the complete failure of protection by those who love him that creates the horror. The horror comes from him, not the woman in the tub.
This is why, in my latest novella, The Wrong, I find the most horrifying parts are not the scenes with creepy things happening to the protagonist. For me, the most horrifying parts are the dissolution of the protagonist’s relationship with his family and friends. That’s where the emotion comes in, so that’s where the horror comes in.
And that’s what I want out of a really good, meaty horror novel.
I don’t get it much, by the way.
9DW: You’ve written a chapbook about a girl and a very eerie – and evil – book. Why is it that horror movies and books are a little creepier with kids in them?
If the kid is the one running from the horror, it’s creepy because they haven’t had a lifetime to build up the defenses of an adult. They’re stuck dealing with an adult situation, but they’re not equipped for it. And there’s always the question of exactly where are the adults? But more than all that, it’s that you just know at the end of the story, should they survive, they’ll have done so at the expense of their innocence.
If the kid actually is the horror, well, that’s bad too, because now you have the wolf in sheep’s clothing. You have a very dangerous situation, where the one that looks the most innocent is the one that’s doing the bad things. And how do you fight that, because any normal human is encoded to not harm a child, no matter what. And yet, to stop the evil…
Of course, if it’s done right, the author will always throw the possibility that the adult is the crazy one that’s seeing things that aren’t there and that they are the dangerous one and the kid really is an innocent.
What I tried to do in Vanishing Hope is create a child who runs both sides of that line. She’s bad. But when you find out where she came from, you find out there’s some good there as well. Not much, but some.
9DW: If it weren’t for horror, you would be writing…?
TE: Emails. Grocery lists. Facebook status updates…
Seriously, if I didn’t write horror, I’d likely be writing something that makes people laugh. I’d love to be able to write science fiction, because I love the genre, but I’m just not built that way. But for me, I want to write something that elicits a relatively dramatic response from the reader, whether it’s laughter or fear.
A couple of years ago, I attended a Burning Effigy launch where three of us read from our newly published books. When it was my turn I read a scene that I’d hoped would capture people’s attention and make them want to know more. I didn’t realize it until later when a friend told me that, during the reading, two people stood and rushed for the exit, one with a hand clamped firmly over their mouth.
That could be viewed as a negative thing—obviously neither of them purchased the book—but to me, it got a reaction. A strong one. So, whether it’s something like that, or making someone laugh, I’d take it.
9DW: You teach creative writing as well. What have you found is the most effective way of inspiring new writers to an ‘aha’ moment in their own writing?
TE: I do teach creative writing! As a matter of fact, my next course (if you happen to be in the Oshawa/Durham Region area) starts Jan 22 at Trent University (Oshawa Campus) on Wednesday evenings. You can find out more by going here. End of plug.
The most effect way of inspiring new writers to an “aha” moment…hmmm… To be honest, I think each author has to get there their own way, so I tend to throw a lot of stuff out there, a lot of different methods and thoughts and beliefs on writing, in the hope that some of it will mesh with the writer. Honestly, every writer has their own way of doing things and what works phenomenally well for me won’t work for you at all.
But one thing I love to do is to talk to the writer about a particular area that’s held them up, a plot point that just doesn’t seem to work, or an obstacle that seems insurmountable to them. I’ll ask some questions, just kind of poking here and there. Why did you make this character this way? What happened in their past to make them like that? Why do these characters have to do this? Why are you setting the story here? That sort of thing. Very general questions. But it forces them to think the story through in a little more depth. Forces them to examine the various plot points.
When we’ve gone through some stuff, then I’ll perhaps suggest some connections, or a “have you considered…?” type statement or two. And more often than not, it may not necessarily be an “aha!” but a dawning awareness of the greater depths of the story. I know it’s working when I see the smile spread slowly across their face as they make their own connections.
So, what I’m trying to do is show them how to talk out their story, or how to think it through and ensure they’ve considered all the linkages.
To be fair, I can do this all day long with others…but I need someone else to do it to me for my own. Sometimes we’re just a little too close to our own stories to be that objective on our own.
9DW: The most compelling writers are those who…
TE: Make me feel something. Get a response out of me. There’s nothing sadder than investing time in a story, then putting it down and immediately forgetting about it. The writer hasn’t done their job if that’s the case.
I want to be amazed at the word choice, or how they echo an important plot point through the story without shoving it down my throat. I want to smile at something a character does. I want to be shocked at a death. I want to hate the bad guy while also feeling a bit sorry for him. I want to marvel at the imagination of the writer as they take me through story points I never would have considered, or through imaginative leaps that I would never be able to take myself. I want to tear up when something bad happens. I want to tear up when something good happens. I want to have an author make me think, instead of being a passive passenger along for the ride.
I want to be entertained and engaged. I want the story to stick with me, even years later.
The most compelling writers are those who do those things.
TE: The first way is to take the time to build up a character and show the reader what is most important to that character. Then, take that important thing away and make the character go through hell to get it back. Some books that accomplish this are Stephen King’s Carrie or The Shining, Joe Hill’s N0S4A2, and Jack Ketchum’s Red. In each case, the main character has something precious taken away from them. For Carrie White, she gets a horrible introduction to the real world, but when she does, she also sees what her mother had hid from her. And then, for a few brief moments at the prom, she sees how good it can be. Then it’s gone. In Jack Ketchum’s novel, a man’s dog is taken from him, cruelly. And he simply can’t let it go.
The second way is to show the reader the existence of a different reality. Prove to them that it’s real and that it’s right there, right beside them, that they could step sideways and be in that reality if they weren’t careful. Then show them how easy it is to fall into that reality and never get back out. Some books that do this well are Jack Ketchum’s absolutely stunning The Girl Next Door, Stephen King’s The Mist, Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries, and Nic Sheff’s harrowing Tweak, Growing Up on Methamphetamines. In Ketchum’s Girl, a girl—a young woman, really—finds out there’s a whole stinking underside to middle-class suburbia. In Tweak, the reader is thrown into the real life experiences of Nic Sheff as he goes through life chasing meth. It’s a world that I knew existed, but had very little knowledge on. This book takes you to the heart of darkness, very much like Ketchum’s book does.
9DW: Tobin’s top ten “Really Suspenseful / Scary Books to read” includes…
TE: In no particular order…
Salem’s Lot – Stephen King
The Shining – Stephen King
The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
The Girl Next Door – Jack Ketchum
N0S4A2 – Joe Hill
The Crow (graphic novel) – James O’Barr
The Exorcist – William Peter Blatty
Columbine – Dave Cullen
Tweak – Nic Sheff (as well as his father’s companion book, Beautiful Boy – David Sheff)
The Sociopath Next Door – Martha Stout
You’ll notice those last three are non-fiction. I often find that what’s actually out there in the world is much scarier that anything anyone could ever make up.
9DW: Does horror = scary? If yes (or no) why? What emotion should a good horror novel evoke?
TE: That’s an excellent question. For me, no, horror doesn’t necessarily mean scary. It might mean scary. It did the first time I read the room 217 scene out of The Shining. I’ve never been as scared before or since in reading horror.
And maybe that’s the biggest point to make. Reading horror is not the nailbiting, visceral experience that seeing a good horror movie is. In a movie, you can jump scare the audience. Have something make a loud noise, or appear when they’re least expecting it. That’s scary, but it’s often a cheap scare, followed by a self-conscious giggle. Yep, you got me with that one, you’ll think.
But reading horror is a different experience altogether. A good horror author can’t go for the jump scare because, quite frankly, it take too long to read and loses something in the translation. Instead, the author has to do all those things I said above about a compelling author. They have to make you care about the protagonist as they draw them deeper and deeper into the horror. In this case, horror doesn’t necessarily equal scary, but it should equal fear, or dread or a low-lying terror. Bad things are going to happen. Baaaad things. And you don’t know if the protagonist can survive them. And then things just get worse.
As I’ve said, I’ve rarely been scared while reading a horror novel, good or bad. But I have felt that dread, that terror. I don’t think I ever felt it worse than throughout most of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door.
I’ve often said that people like horror the same way they like rollercoasters—you get on, and, as you’re climbing that first hill, you get that first niggling feeling that you shouldn’t have done this, that this is dangerous, what kind of sane person purposely straps themselves into a vehicle that runs along someone’s discarded plumbing pipes…then you take that first drop and all doubt leaves you. You are going to die. You will not survive this. You will, if nothing else, come away seriously injured, embarrassed by that small stain at the crotch of your jeans, or the dribbling saliva that’s somehow slid back into your hair… You’re ultimately reduced to a drooling idiot, eyes rolling in your head and incapable of coherent thought or action…and then it’s over and you get out and you get that second, sweeter rush because you’re still alive, you conquered that particular beast. That’s the scare.
That’s what I’ve said. But then you read something like Ketchum’s Girl and you get none of that. Instead, this is a slow, painfully slow walk in the dark. There’s things in the shadows and they have no interest in killing you. They want to hurt you and they want to go on hurting you for a long time. And they will smile as they do it. You feel them reach out to brush your cheek, to touch your hair. And, unlike the rollercoaster, this isn’t over in a couple of minutes. This takes time. You’re conscious through the entire thing, yet powerless in an entirely different way. You never feel safe. Not then, not afterward. That’s the dread.
Tobin’s Bibliography (And where to buy stuff!)
Soft Kiss, Hard Death
Buy it: http://www.amazon.ca/Death-Third-Truman-Mystery-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B008GMB3LO/
The Sam Truman Omnibus
Buy it: http://www.amazon.ca/Sam-Truman-Mysteries-Omnibus-Vol/dp/0615788092/
See/hear more of Tobin!
Rogers Daytime Durham interview: http://www.rogerstv.com/page.aspx?lid=237&rid=2&gid=118758
This Week newspaper article: http://www.durhamregion.com/whatson-story/4182473-courtice-author-likes-scary-subject-matter/
And, of course, his site: http://tobinelliott.com