August 2nd, 2006


12 Stupid Things I Will Never Do in Horror Fiction

scott_lynch just posted his version of the "Eleven things I will serve my best never to put in a fantasy novel unless I am trying to undermine them, and in fact could do without entirely from now on, thanks" he found on truepenny and matociquala's journals, though he only listed nine and, rightfully, changed the title to "Shit That Tends to Annoy Me in Fantasy Fiction, So You'll Know I'm Up to Something If You See It In My Own Stuff". His list is brilliant, and it inspired me to do a similar thing for horror fiction.

12 Things That Tend to Annoy Me in Horror Fiction and That I Try Never to Do

1) Wealthy characters with perfect lives. It's not just horror fiction, really, it's any kind of thriller that falls prey to this convention. You see it in movie trailers a lot. "He had the perfect life and the perfect family, until..." Lots of shots of a house in the suburbs, guy coming home from work to a doting wife (who apparently does not work, or at least is on a different schedule, thus indicating she is a teacher or charity fundraiser, like all women in movies) and adoring children who never throw tantrums, shriek for no reason or toss their cereal bowls at the wall. Kiss, kiss, everybody happy until the Big Bad throws off the status quo. I'm of the opinion that when characters are faced with something that upsets the status quo, they don't have to be rich and married to want to get the status quo back. They can be poor, work three minimum-wage jobs just to pay the rent, be single with a bitchy ex-girlfriend who calls a lot and hangs up, they can have perfectly mediocre lives -- they just have to want not to be killed by the monster/madman/antagonist. Conversely, I also dislike:

2) The depressed character who does nothing but sit around unshaven in his underwear, staring at a picture of the wife and child who died in a horrible accident, and moping. Lord save me from this, I never want to see it again! People grieve in all sorts of ways. Some get drunk, some fuck strangers in increasingly dangerous situations, some jump out of airplanes and toy with the idea of not pulling the parachute string. Use your imagination. Besides, not everyone is so lucky as to have a perfect picture of exactly the two people who died in said horrible accident, both smiling and with perfect hair on a family trip to the Grand Canyon. Plus, if the dead child is a teenager, he or she will most definitely not be smiling on a family trip. These kinds of scenes don't build character, they just make me roll my eyes. They're shorthand, and they're lazy because of it.

3) Lovecraft pastiches that A) invent new Elder God names filled with tons of apostrophes and hyphens ("G'lak-Harrothg'rk claws at the gateway between worlds!") and B) supplies all the needed answers either through the Necronomicon or some new book the author invents ("The Flesh-Bound Magick Tome of Oswald Wormwood will show us how to close the gateway!"). People who do this don't understand Lovecraft. Period. They do, however, understand Derleth. (Oh snap!)

4) I've said it before and I'll say it again: Intestines. Just stop, okay? Not every madman or monster enjoys playing with/eating/strangling you with your intestines. If you want to show body mutilation, use your imagination and think of something new. But not:

5) Nipple trauma. Admittedly, it's been quite a while since I've seen it in horror fiction. That may be because I'm reading different stuff now, or maybe it's just no longer quite in fashion the way it was, but back in the early 2000s I couldn't read a single fucking piece of horror fiction without a woman's nipple getting cut off. I will never do this in my fiction. Ever. It's ridiculous and, quite frankly, makes no sense. The nipple does not stick out like a finger. It would not be easy to cut off.

6) Using "for" when you mean "because". Some people think "for" is a scary word, that it adds atmosphere. I disagree. I think it's stupid and anachronistic. "He could not dig his way out of the grave, for he had no arms!" Yeah. ("For" also appears a lot in fantasy fiction. At least there, though, it's not so anachronistic.)

7) Vampires who wear crushed velvet, drink absinthe and discuss the ennui of eternal life. I have plans to only do this once in my career, and it will be a spoof. Otherwise, I much prefer the vampires who are actual reanimated corpses who need the blood of the living to stay alive. I do not consider vampirism a fashion statement. I think you can have vampires who are yuppies, who are rednecks, who are fry cooks and bank tellers and homeless bums. They don't all have to be goth club kids, you know?

8) The last thing he saw before everything went black was the creature's gaping maw/the knife coming toward him. Yawn. I don't like when writers break POV, though in some cases it's necessary. This, however, is not one of those cases. Also, it's such an enormous cliché that I'd feel embarrassed even typing it. If the character is about to die, we already know the teeth/weapon is the last thing he sees, and we already know everything will go black for him. Just show us what's happening, tell us how the character feels, and move on. You're not giving us chills, you're just tempting us to skim.

9) Zombies that eat human flesh. I don't hate this, I just feel it's played out and am currently looking for something new for zombies to do. I don't know what it'll be yet. I'd like to see a return to the zombie as victim, a person brought back from the dead (or drugged into a deathlike stupor) to supply cheap labor or do the bad guy's evil bidding. But I feel the Night of the Living Dead-type zombies, with their constant eating and their infecting bites, have grown stale.

10) It was all a dream...or was it? Nobody does this anymore, thank God, except for the occasional movie like Stay (I'm not spoiling it so much as doing you a favor). Unfortunately, the "it was all a dream...or was it?" ending almost ruins one of my favorite movies, Phantasm. I hate it. Everyone hates it. Why would anyone use it?

11) Gay equals gross -- ewww! When a woman gets raped in horror fiction, it's a serious crime that often spurs the action of the rest of the story, usually resulting in violent revenge. When a man gets raped, more often than not it's played for "ewwwwww" giggles and the man had it coming anyway, because he was evil. Ultimately, it's not about rape when the victim is male. It's a veiled -- and, to be fair, often unconscious -- criticism of homosexuality as either gross or a punishment. How many times have you heard the threat of getting fucked in the ass in jail used in crime fiction to get a frightened confession out of a suspect? It's sort of the same thing here, but as more of a "comeuppance" story: Mr. X is a violent criminal running from the law, but then he stumbles upon a shack in the woods where he's brutally ass-raped by four inbred brothers. Hilarious! Erm, no. However, this does bring us to my final pet peeve in horror fiction:

12) Everyone who lives in the South, or the countryside, or has a home in the woods, is a dumb inbred hick who's either a murderer or a cannibal or both. If I've learned one thing from horror, it's that you should never get out of the car until you're back home in the big, safe city. Because the woods are filled with inbred cannibals. So is the highway rest stop. That guy filling your gas tank? Yeah, he wants to cut you open and eat your intestines, but not before he ass-rapes you while his inbred children with giant heads laugh and clap. Riiiiiiight. I don't live in the South or the countryside, and even I've reached the point where this stereotype offends me.

Okay, so that's twelve. What am I missing? What have I forgotten?