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Mark West on Writing Horror

mark-west

Today, Friday 13th, we are delighted to welcome Mark West to Romaniac HQ. Now, dim the lights, settle back, and listen to his story …

My name is Mark West and I’m a horror writer. I’m only mildly superstitious, I have mixed feelings about ghosts (though I’ve seen two) and whilst I write about things that go bump in the night, I think I’m quite an amusing bloke. I’ve been a horror fan since I was a kid (the old Universal horrors that would often turn up on BBC2 got me started), I still love the thrill of having a ‘safe scare’ and my love for the genre has never diminished, though I don’t read it exclusively. I didn’t used to write it exclusively either and during the 90s submitted three novels – they were ‘contemporary drama’, since ‘Lad-Lit’ hadn’t been invented then – they never did anything. All the time though there was this nagging feeling to go back to the horror field. I started again, in earnest, with short stories in 1998 when I discovered the small press which, at that time, was very vibrant and – since the Internet wasn’t widely available – meant that all of my early publishing successes were in zines, rather than websites.

Genre fiction, whichever branch, is maligned, but horror seems to come in for more than it’s fair share of stick. Whilst I can sort of understand it sometimes (I will defend my field against all comers, but I can’t stand the torture-porn films like “Hostel” and “Saw”), what a lot of people seem to forget is that it’s a rich vein of creativity and some of the greatest literary minds in history have dipped their toe in.

It’s a broad field, with sub-genres that range from quiet supernatural tales to all-out gore epics, but each of them carries its own expectations, often a little faster-and-looser than – say – the Romance field would deal with them.

As an example, earlier this year, to mark his passing, I read “Stir Of Echoes” by the great Richard Matheson (he also wrote the Steven Spielberg film “Duel” and the 1975 novel “Bid Time Return”, which became “Somewhere In Time”, my wife’s favourite film – and she’s no horror fan). It’s an engrossing novel, written in 1958 and yet still modern, that tells of an office-worker who is apparently ‘touched’ by psychic ability and finds himself haunted by the ghost of an unknown woman. It’s creepy and told in a sparse, dry style (it’s almost noir-writing) with no gore but plenty of wit.

Mark West The Mill

In contrast, between 1984 and 1985, a young Liverpudlian called Clive Barker published six volumes of “The Books Of Blood” and for me – as a sixteen-year-old horror fan who’d grown up on The Three Investigators (spooky mysteries) and Stephen King (everything else) – they were a revelation. Barker is a very intelligent man, his work speaks of the human condition in often sobering terms but he revelled in the gore back then, with lots of sex and violence, which I loved and which he carried through to his directorial debut “Hellraiser” (1987). His work was creepy but more often than not, it was trying to find out what made us tick by peeling back the layers of flesh to see what was underneath.

Last year, my friend Gary McMahon published the final part of his “Concrete Grove” trilogy, through Solaris Books. I loved all three volumes but they’re tough reads – bleak as hell, examining the human condition when it’s really been put through the wringer – filled with damaged souls and lost lives and no hope, whilst dealing with violence in a brutal, abrupt way when it’s required. Some of the writing is very elegant, the monsters are generally real people and the novels are plotted and told with an enviable precision.

All three are horror novels (though Matheson argued that his wasn’t), all three are completely different, all three are equally good.

Horror is difficult to categorise but I think the following is true. It needs recognisable and believable characters, who might not be like me but who will react to the supernatural the way I think I might. It needs to have a purpose – the ghost or monster needs to be there for a reason. It needs to have strong writing, to pull the reader along and make them empathise with the characters, even through set pieces that might be ghastly, ghostly, gory or gruesome. Especially if that strong writing can hide some red herrings that wrong-foot the reader. The book needs to have an internal logic, which might sound odd, but if it doesn’t – for the monster, at the very least – you’re going to lose the reader. There needs to be cause and effect because we need to believe that this threat can be vanquished, even if we can’t quite see how. If a monster can adapt itself to whatever the hero or heroine does and can’t be beaten, I can stop reading at page 10 rather than struggle past page 500. Finally it needs a suitable ending, which can be bleak or hopeful or sometimes a terrible mixture of the two (in that the hope for one means bleakness for another). A common misconception is that horror must end with no hope at all that’s not often the case.

At its best, a horror is simply a mainstream tale looking at people (you, me, our neighbours) and the world (especially the bad stuff that happens to decent, everyday people) through a slightly cracked glass, dressing up in metaphor and subterfuge what so many of us have to deal with in real terms.

When we, as readers, hear a sound in the dead of night as we’re just about to drift off to sleep, we might be worried but we know, deep down, that it’s the wind against the windows or a pile of Lego falling down in our sons room. The horror story takes that concept, grins widely and does a little dance, taking it a step over the line of reality – what if it wasn’t a pile of Lego, what if it was something creeping into your house? What if this thing was going to climb the stairs slowly, letting you hear every riser creak, every hiss as claws caught on the carpet and every *skrit* as long, sharp nails dragged on the bannister? What if this thing was going to come into your life and take it over, ruining you and making the future bleak for everyone who loved you? In other words, what if this horror novel – about ghouls and real people dealing with them – was actually about disease, or loss and showing us another way to deal with the blights that litter the human life?

My website is http://www.markwest.org.uk/Mark West Conjure

The link to my Amazon page is http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mark-West/e/B004RFZRI4/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1

My latest novel is “Conjure” which can be found at Amazon here – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Conjure-Mark-West/dp/1909636053/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1378892203&sr=1-1

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10 thoughts on “Mark West on Writing Horror

  1. Interesting feature, Mark! Thank you! I have to confess, Horror is one of the few genres I don’t read anymore… and I mean, anymore, because I used to read loads as a teenager. (I guess I slept better in those days!). But it’s fascinating to get an insight into the mechanics, tensions and ‘politics’ if you will of a different genre. Plus ca change, and all that… Thank you, it was great to meet you!

  2. Really interesting post.

    I’m a big scardy-cat when it comes to the dark and all the noises houses seem to make at night – thanks for the reassuring last paragraph!

    😉

    Sue

  3. Stephen King and Clive Barker. A smile came to my face seeing the word Hellraiser. Back then this young girl was addicted to his books/film. Good post, thanks for sharing. Although I write mainly hist romance, I still love my horror. Will have to check out Conjure, that cover is calling to be read.
    Much success to you, Mark 🙂

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