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Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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the future of horror
Around April of 2012 I was approached by Sean Killian, who said he was launching a new online magazine, The Future of Horror, and asked if I'd be willing to be interviewed for its premiere issue. Unfortunately, the magazine never got off the ground, so I'm presenting the interview here instead.
Peter Tennant of Black Static magazine was quoted as saying you were "truly original," as well as "if you're looking for something different, I recommend Remove the Eyes highly." Were you intentionally trying to be different, avoid the old tiresome clichés?
Well, I love the classic horror tropes, I grew up on them, but as a writer, you want to do something different.
To me, the best type of story is where you have no idea where it's going. That's exciting. If a reader can say on page two or three, Oh, I've read this type of story many times before, I know how it's going to end, that's a problem. So I always try to look at a story idea from as many angles as possible, until I can come up with a unique way of presenting the idea. (There are lots of different ways into the woods.) Sometimes I wind up writing stories that I know are going to be a difficult sale, or might not ever get sold, but they're still the type of story I prefer to write. Because they're me. They say something about who I am.
I remember years ago when my parents took me to Psycho.
It had just opened in theaters. No one knew what it was about, because Hitchcock had insisted that viewers and critics not reveal the plot.
At that time, Hitchcock was known mostly for romantic comedies and stylish thrillers. So that's what my parents expected (as well as everyone else in the theater) when the three of us (me just a little kid) took our seats.
The lights dimmed.
The film started, and I could see my parents, and a lot of the other adults in the audience, were a little uncomfortable with the opening love scene. Today, of course, it would seem tame, but back then, it was pushing the boundaries of what a major motion picture would show.
But then the film appeared to settle into familiar Hitchcock territory. A woman steals money, drives through the rain to get to her lover, but has to stop for the evening at a motel when the rain storm becomes overpowering. She talks to the motel owner, even has a light dinner with him, goes back to her room, decides that in the morning she's going to drive back home, return the money.
As a part of metaphorically cleansing herself, washing off her sin of embezzlement, she decides to take a shower. We see her from different angles as she stands under the shower's spray. From one of the angles, we see the door to her bathroom open. A dark shadow moves towards her shower curtain.
At this point, the audience from so many years ago was chuckling. It had to be the shy motel owner (and although we were misled in this scene, an hour later we discover it was in fact the owner.)
The shower curtain is yanked to one side, the naked, vulnerable Janet Leigh exposed, and then the last thing anyone in the audience expected happened. An old woman started stabbing Leigh's poor, naked body. Knife blade, bare body parts, blood everywhere.
It was like a bomb had gone off in the theater.
People in the audience got up out of their seats. Started milling in the aisles. Shocked. It's impossible to convey now how stunned the theatergoers were. No one had ever shown that degree of savagery in a big Hollywood movie before, or killed off the lead halfway through the movie.
I loved it. It was new.
Years later, I bought a record album called, The Doors. I had never heard any of the tracks, or anything about the group, but the song titles sounded intriguing (it wasn't until months later that the first single off the album, Light My Fire, started getting airplay.)
So I put the record on my turntable in my bedroom, started listening.
The final cut on the second side was a really long song called, The End.
I started listening to it, intrigued by the poetic suggestiveness of the lyrics. "The blue bus is calling on us."
A little more than halfway through the song, I got to the "The killer awoke before dawn" section.
I began paying even more attention.
And after a few more lyrics had been sung, I heard:
"He walked on down the hall. He came to a door. And he looked inside. Father? Yes, son? I want to kill you."
The power of that surprise still affects me.
Those two pieces, Psycho and The End, have always been an inspiration for me. They're doing something unexpected. Unexpected is good.
I'm not intentionally trying to knock the horror genre, but it does tend to stay a maligned genre a lot of the time. Why is it, you think, it has to be "re-invented," or "re-imagined," with each new decade? Has the reading public become so bored with the same old thing, the writers have to go against their own principles just to sell books?
Periodic reinventing is true for most genres though, don't you think? Look at how the westerns of today portray Native Americans compared to westerns from fifty years ago. Plus I think in most genres, there's a desire to make the setting contemporary. Crumbling castles have given way to fluorescent-lit office buildings. But I don't see that as something bad. You have to write what readers will connect with, and readers today can't connect with a horse-drawn carriage as much as they can with an RV.
As far as horror as a maligned genre goes, some horror fiction is just badly written. The writing itself could use a thorough editing, the stories are sometimes formulaic, and the characters can be one-dimensional, seeming to exist only to move the plot forward, and/or are burlesques (I hope I never, ever read another horror story where one of the characters is a bucolic sheriff who speaks in dialect.)
Of course, some reimaginings wind up in a dead end. Take torture porn, where you have gruesome scenes that often end, for example, with intestines getting pulled out of the body. The first time you read that, it's effective. But the truth is, there are only so many organs inside the human body, and once you pull them all out, you're kind of finished. You can only pull so many rabbits out of the hat before the magic loses effect.
How about the Kindle phenomenon? Yay or nay? I've spoken with a lot of writers who don't care for the Kindle format at all for various reasons.
Most sales of my two collections, Remove the Eyes and I Smell Blood, have been for the trade paperback, but I do occasionally get a sale for the e-book versions. And I have a novelette of mine available for the Kindle, A Woman Made of Milk.
I have no problem whatsoever with people reading my work on a computer screen or other electronic device. I myself still prefer an actual book, because I love the heft and smell of it, but what's more important to me is that people are reading my fiction, whatever delivery device they use.
And for all I know, maybe some people prefer the smell of a Kindle.
When was your "defining moment," when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
I daydream all the time, and that's something that goes all the way back to when I was a little kid, lying on my back in the grass of our backyard, staring up at the white clouds in the sky.
And the more you daydream, the more you start coming up with scenarios. At first, my daydreams were along the lines of, How would I contribute to the Earth's defense if we were suddenly invaded by aliens? As I got older, the daydreams became more sophisticated, but that joy of following a "what if" to its own conclusion always stayed.
(It occurs to me that if you ask someone involved in the arts, whether it's writing or singing or painting or dancing or acting, when they first had a "defining moment", it's almost always in that individual's childhood. I wonder if that's true for people who grow up to be investment bankers, accountants, or portfolio managers.)
I read all the time as a kid. Cereal boxes while I ate breakfast. The stern warnings on mattresses. Public notices in newspapers ("I am no longer responsible for the debts of…) Everything. Reading was my way of connecting with the world. Even when I reached the point where I had the circle of a condom embossed in the interior leather of my wallet, I still also had the rectangular shape of a paperback embossed in the rear pocket of my jeans.
When I was still in grade school, I started writing my first novel. It was called, We the Cursed. It was about two men, friends since boyhood, who are both werewolves. Because they're werewolves, they decide to isolate themselves in a remote cabin, so they can't harm other humans. Eventually, one of the men, the protagonist, decides to write about their lives, and it becomes a bestseller. A movie is made. It's nominated for an Oscar. As the protagonist goes up on stage to receive the golden statue for Best Original Screenplay, his partner, transformed into a werewolf, bounds up on the stage at the Academy, in full few of all the movie stars in the audience, and snatches the Oscar away from the protagonist's hands.
I was twelve.
What happened was I was writing the novel chapter by chapter in my bedroom, even my parents, of course, didn't know about its existence, one of my grade school buddies came over, and both of us sitting on my bed, I read the first chapter to him.
He told kids at school about it, they wanted to hear the chapter as well, and it ended up where once or twice a week in the black tar "playground" of our Catholic grade school, nuns in scary black veils wandering around, supervising basketball, a bunch of us would go off to one side, behind a red brick wall, as if for drugs or sex, my friends would gather in a semi-circle in front of me, and I'd read the latest chapter. It was exhilarating, to get that immediate reaction to what I had written, with all the anxious questions about, What happens next?
In that schoolyard is where I had my "defining moment", where I discovered the magic of writing, of expressing myself.
Why the horror genre?
I write what's in my mind. There's a lot of horror in my mind. Although not everything I write is in the horror genre, it does appeal to me. I like the breath of death in horror. Plus horror is one of the few genres where you aren't bound by realism. You can write anything you want. There's an extraordinary flexibility to the horror tale you don't find elsewhere. I have written stories that strictly speaking aren't horror, but even in those stories, what starts off "normal" veers enough into strangeness that they might as well be horror.
Why is it you think that people like being scared shitless? What's the general attraction to the genre? Could it be an escape from reality for some, and a creative outlet for others?
We use art to feel emotions. If I want to feel sad, I listen to Adagio for Strings. Feel exhilarated, I put on the final movement of The Photographer. Poignancy? The first few seasons of the American version of The Office. How people change? Six Feet Under. That's just the way it works.
People love being scared shitless because they want to feel something. Life today is about constantly suppressing your emotions. People work at a job where they get bullied all day, someone cuts them off on their drive home and they just have to accept that, they buy some take-out food and half the order's missing but they're too tired to turn around and drive ten miles in rush hour traffic back to the restaurant , so when they finally do get home, they want that little red child inside them to be able to finally scream at the top of its lungs.
And I suspect most of us don't read a horror story just because we want to be frightened by the monster (however abstract that monster is.) We read a horror story because deep down we want to be the monster. Because unlike us, a monster can do anything it wants.
What was the primary inspiration for your book, Remove the Eyes? With a title like that, I just have to ask.
The title is a quote from my novel Father Figure, which is available as a free PDF download at http://www.ralphrobertmoore.com/books.html. The antagonist has a roomful of his victims at his house. He's broken their arms and legs and rearranged the fractured limbs so the people are still alive, but can't possibly crawl away. He says at one point, "I remove the eyes. I don't like them looking at me."
As far as the inspiration for the collection goes, over the years I had been approached by different editors and publishers about putting together a collection of my short stories, but each time, as often happens in the small press, the project fell through. Finally I decided, Why not just do it myself? I have a large catalog of stories, so it was fairly easy to pick nine that I felt were all strong.
Each story in the collection works off a What if? idea:
Remove the Eyes was well received, so that prompted me to put out a follow-up collection, I Smell Blood.
Any favorite story from that collection? If so, why?
You know, I honestly love all my stories, and if all the stories in Remove the Eyes suddenly showed up in my kitchen while I was making breakfast, striped t-shirts and loud yelps down by my waistband, I'd be sure to scotch tape each of their crayon drawings of a house underneath a yellow sun up on the stainless steel front of my refrigerator, but I do have to say that my favorite story from that first collection, since you asked, is Like an Animal in a Hole.
I mean, I really, truly, do love them all. The Machine of a Religious Man was long-listed by the British Fantasy Society for Best Story of the Year, and Ellen Datlow included it in her nineteenth edition of The Year's Best Horror and Fantasy; Rocketship Apartment is often singled out by critics as the best story in the collection; Strangers Wear Masks of Your Face, Steaks in the City and This Moment of Brilliance have a special place in my heart; but there's something about Like an Animal in a Hole that just really speaks to me. I love the characters, I love the situation, the small details, the way the story switches from them exploring the house to their past together, and the whole idea of being in a haunted house, suffering from the effects of being in that house, without ever really reaching a solution to the mystery of the haunting. Plus the way the haunting manifests itself, in ice cubes and other examples of frozen water is, to me, cool.
In your personal opinion, what are the key elements necessary for producing a well-crafted horror film or story? First of all, avoid the clichés?
The problem for me with a lot of horror stories is that they're really not horror stories. They're tales of reassurance. Something bad happens to a good guy, he figures out a way to reverse that, and triumphs. The end. How is that horror? The reader ends up reassured. Or something bad happens to a bad guy, and he's punished for his transgressions. Again, what's horrible about that? The reader is reassured. The bad guy got punished. That's not horror. Too many "horror" stories end with the natural order restored. The good guy triumphs. That's not horror. Horror is not something bad happening to a bad guy. Horror is something bad happening to a good guy. Horror should never be about the scales of justice being balanced. That's not horror. That's reassurance, that there is a fairness in the universe. Horror should be about unfairness. The bad triumph. The good are punished. And there's little you can do about it.
Years and years ago, Fangoria Magazine published a series of parody B-movie posters. One of them was for a giant bug or whatever, and the blurb for the fake movie read, "Nothing can kill it except dynamite." In a well-crafted horror movie or story, dynamite is useless. Or it winds up blowing up one of the main characters. Like in the original Night of the Living Dead, where some of the people holed up inside the farmhouse decide to make a run for the pick-up, drive it over to the gas pumps, and gas up, to escape. It seems like a good idea at the time, but look what happens.
A great horror story, to me, should make the reader feel dread. It's like that moment in Stephen King's The Body when the boys are swimming in a small pond, and realize there are dark leeches attached to their shoulders. Then one boy pulls the waistband of his underpants away from his body. Looks down. That's dread.
I also wish more horror stories had a sense of adventure to them. When I read a story, I want to go on an adventure. I want to be taken somewhere I haven't been before, even if it's in the trunk of a car.
And as I said above, the real thrill to reading a story, or watching a movie, or listening to a song, is not knowing what happens next. That means avoiding clichés. Because clichés, again, are a form of reassurance. We've been here before.
Do you foresee the horror genre remaining a driving force within popular literature?
Horror is here to stay. There's always going to be something under the bed, inside the closet, down in the basement, up in the attic, beneath the waves, within the forest, behind your rib cage. It's late at night, the streets are deserted, you're trying to get home as quickly as possible, and up ahead someone crosses the street to your side, heading towards you.
We're never going to stop feeling horror, because we're never going to feel safe. Do I have cancer? Will I run out of money before I die? Do my friends really like me? There's always going to be those fears in our mind. They're never going to go away.
Any new books or stories in the pipeline?
My short story "Our Island" was just published in Where Are We Going?, an Eibonville Press anthology edited by Allen Ashley. Other contributors include Andrew Hook, Terry Grimwood, Alison J. Littlewood, A.J. Kirby, and many others. Mary and I weren't able to attend the book launch party in London, but I've heard it was a huge success.
My short story "Daddy's Glad Hands" will be coming out soon in the Seven Archons anthology, Writings on the Wall, edited by D. G. Sutter.
My short story "The Little Girl Who Lives in the Woods" (which appears in my collection I Smell Blood) will be dramatized soon by Cast Macabre in a podcast.
Beyond that, I'm finishing up a series of stories that deal with death and the afterlife. In that series, "Tiny Doorways" was published in 2011, in Cover of Darkness, an anthology edited by Tyree Campbell and Herika R. Raymer; and "A Woman Made of Milk" is available on Kindle.