We ARE the triggers


Horror writers are a diverse bunch of people.  We come tall and short, fat and thin, and all ages and races.  Some live in cities, others in the countryside.  Some are drinkers, and some teetotalers. Most certainly, we come in both liberal and conservative strains.

Since my first book was published in 2007, I’ve gotten to know the larger horror community as an incredibly dynamic, vibrant, and above all varied group of people.  Indeed, it sometimes feels impossible to identify any unifying trait that we might share. . .other than a deep and abiding dedication to scaring the living hell out of people.

However, in recent years a threat has emerged—a sinister shadow falling over our community, you might say—leaving us even darker than usual.  And I believe that a uniform opposition to it has finally become that elusive unifying quality I could never otherwise find.

This shadow is the movement—in academe and, increasingly, elsewhere—to protect readers from ideas that might trigger feelings of discomfort or trauma.  This trend is disconcerting to horror writers because creating discomfort and trauma is—more or less—what we aim to do.

Making people feel uncomfortable is not a byproduct of our project.  It is our project.  We write novels and stories (and sometimes even poems) precisely so that readers should jump at an unexpected noise, or pull the covers closer in bed that night.  Our goal is to horrify.  To traumatize whenever possible.  To trigger the deepest, darkest fears that we can.

We don’t do this out of allegiance to any form of historical oppression.  Certainly, we do not do it for the money—at least not chiefly.  (Since the “horror boom” of the 1990s, advances in our genre have decreased drastically.) Instead, we do this because we think something important is going on when people are scared.  We think it’s possible to be sublimely and transcendently frightened.  We believe fear and discomfort are sensations which, rightly conjured, can put one in touch with some of the most interesting and profound aspects of human existence.  And, yes, also with vampires and zombies and tentacle monsters.

Though they might agree about little else, horror writers uniformly (and acutely) understand the problematic aspects of protecting readers from discomfort. Encouragingly, there are signs that our community has had about enough.  We are, finally, starting to push back.

This month sees the release of a new collection of stories from horror and fantasy titan Neil Gaiman called Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances.  No part of this title is a coincidence.  Gaiman is—blessedly, gloriously—owning that horror writers have a sacred duty to “disturb.” And to challenge.  And, yes, to horrify.

And earlier this year when the Horror Writers Association released its Preliminary Ballot for the 2014 Bram Stoker Awards (like the Pulitzer Prizes of horror), the Short Fiction category was revealed to contain a story also titled “Trigger Warning” by emerging author Patrick Freivald.

These are Lexington and Concord. If I know horror writers—which I do—this is only the beginning.

Horror serves an important function, and it’s time we found the temerity to point that out.

Anne Rice’s bloodthirsty vampires limn the terror of the 1990’s HIV epidemic in a way that gentle, cry-by-numbers documentaries do not.  Max Brooks’s zombie hordes comport the threat of global pandemic with startling effectiveness.  King’s Carrie makes the case against bullying better than any feelgood, granola documentarian ever could. Blatty’s The Exorcist and Legion cut right to the chase and ask us to wonder whether the world is fundamentally good or evil.  The whole of Lovecraft wonders if it might not be something else entirely. . . with humans only a deluded, self-aggrandizing, and soon-to-be-extinct afterthought. (And innumerable works of contemporary horror are derided as “torture porn” when actual torture has lately been perpetrated under an American flag.)

It is possible, certainly, to consider these concepts through lenses other than horror fiction, but it is not, by any means, the same thing.

A few years ago at the Bram Stoker Awards ceremony, I watched Peter Straub present the Stoker for best Short Fiction collection to Stephen King for Full Dark, No Stars.  King wasn’t able to make it that evening, but his son, the accomplished horror author Joe Hill, accepted on his behalf.  In a short speech, Hill said: “[My dad] just wanted me to say thanks. . .and he thinks you’re all a pack of sick fucks. . . but that’s a quality he admires.”

This line has always stuck with me, because yes, there is something sick about doing this, but also something you might indeed find admirable. There is good evidence that people want or even need to be scared. Unsettling, harrowing, “fucked up” stories are as old as storytelling, and you can find them in every culture.  There is a reason we desire to hear these things.

Contemporary university administrators who believe they are doing students a service by presenting “trigger warnings” before unpleasant texts to create “safe spaces” are delivering spoilers of the very worst kind.  They spoil all that is good and special and salutary about coming into contact with difficult ideas. There is a tangible benefit to being challenged and scared and even horrified.  It makes you grow as a person.  It opens your mind to new and important ways of seeing the world.  Gaiman and Freivald have lately affirmed this through the titles of their works, but it’s something the horror community has known for years.

We are here to tell you that the trigger is the point. We are here to tell you that no space is safe.

And we are never going to stop.

Remembering Rocky Wood


Rocky Wood passed away yesterday after a long battle with ALS.

Beyond being arguably the greatest living Stephen King expert– famously possessing such acumen that King himself hired Wood as a fact checker– and beyond his tireless efforts as President of the HWA, I will remember Rocky as someone who inspired others while challenging preconceived notions about living and working with an incapacitating medical condition.  On a personal level, Rocky’s leadership really made me reevaluate how I think about what’s possible– like, say, being the head of an international arts organization– when one’s physical functionality no longer comports with traditional norms.

Many of today’s remembrances will be posted by people who were more closely acquainted with Rocky than I was.  Indeed, I’m one of many who knew him only from his appearances at the Bram Stoker Awards and from his endless work on behalf of the HWA.  But the fact that, even in these strictly administrative capacities, he was still able to have such a powerful impact on my received ideas about people living with conditions like ALS. . .

Well, you see, that’s kind of my point.

My favorite illustrative “Rocky moment” might be at the 2011-2012 Bram Stoker Awards in Salt Lake City when he accepted the Stoker for Stephen King: A Literary Companion.  Physically unable to speak by that point, Rocky had an assistant join him on stage to read a prepared acceptance speech.  Yet– obstreperously and wonderfully– before his helper could start reading, Rocky began to gesture as though he intended the entire acceptance speech should occur through his playing charades with the audience.  (First word…  Two syllables…)  He then flashed a wry smile.  The audience– myself included– loved it and laughed.

To have lost one’s voice permanently. . .and to still choose to use such an occasion to bring delight to others.  Egad!  What bravery and awesomeness!  Yet, for Rocky, this seems to have been typical.

He lived with ALS for about 5 years, and seems to have used all of that time not only to grow the HWA, but to do some of his very best critical work. While, again, I did not know Rocky as a close friend, I suspect I’m not alone in having been deeply impressed and influenced by this extraordinary leader and powerful champion of horror fiction.

Rest in peace, gunslinger. There are other worlds than these.

The Grand Hotel


Today marks the release date for The Grand Hotel, my new horror novel from Skyhorse/Talos.  Why not pick up your copy at B&N, Amazon, Powell’s, or your local independent bookstore?

Some very fine horror authors have contributed blurbs and endorsements, which you can read here. 

You can also read gushing early reviews in KIRKUS and Chicagoist.

I’ll be doing a reading/signing on Halloween at City Lit Books in Chicago at 6:30pm.

And you can hear my related WGN interview here.

Review: Evil Dead the Musical in Chicago

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A few years ago, Rolling Stone reviewed a Rush album called Snakes and Arrows, and awarded it 3 out of 5 stars. The first line of the review read simply: “If you’re a Rush fan, add two stars; if not, subtract two.”

Tonight I got to see Evil Dead the Musical at the Broadway Playhouse in Chicago and had a good time. Like Rush, this offering is a Canadian import.  Also like Rush, I think it is probably an acquired taste.

If you’re a horror fan or an Evil Dead fan, this show is going to be right up your alley. The audience feels more like attendees at a horror convention than typical weeknight theatergoers. And the jokes generally require an appreciation for– or, at least, working knowledge of– the Evil Dead films and Bruce Campbell.

Evil Dead the Musical celebrates Evil Dead the movie, and also kind of pokes fun at its weird excesses and foibles.  At times, watching it felt like watching MST3K, but with Tom Servo and Crow actually playing characters instead of just making jibes from the sidelines.

Yet parts of this creation will be an absolute delight for fans of horror. Andrew Di Rosa’s performance of “Good Old Reliable Jake” was probably my favorite part of the show, and definitely brought to mind South Park’s skewering of Stephen King’s yokels.

Did I think Evil Dead the Musical was perfect? No. Some of the jokes definitely fell flat or seemed dated. This was not the fault of the cast, but of the writers. This musical has been around for a while. I felt like some of the references needed to be punched-up. Lock a bunch of comedy writers in a room over a long weekend with the script (and a bunch of espresso), and I’d lay you odds almost all of the halting misfires could be replaced with effective jokes by Monday.

Misfires aside, there is much good here. If you’re a horror fan (or, indeed, a Gwar fan) you will find a great deal in this production to appreciate.

Astoundingly, some Chicagoans apparently believe: “the very last thing this city needs is a production that spends most of its time engaged in mock violence (decapitations with chainsaws, stabbings, shootings, self-mutilation and more) [sic], with splatter ponchos distributed).”

I not-so-respectfully beg to differ.

Four things you didn’t know about H.P. Lovecraft


Last week, Bedford + Bowery ran a piece I wrote about H.P. Lovecraft.  In particular, the article–which you can read here–contains four observations that I feel are too frequently ignored in conversations about the writer’s troublingly nativist worldviews.

My article was a reaction to a string of recent pieces by Laura Miller, Phenderson Djeli Clark, and others that I thought unfairly characterized Lovecraft fans as unwilling to acknowledge the writer’s early prejudices.  In my article, I tried to make the case that– to the contrary– Lovecraft fans are very aware of (and, frankly, troubled by) the Old Gent’s views.  I also pointed out–as, somehow, nobody else had bothered to– that Lovecraft’s views demonstrably changed as he aged.  By the end of his life, Lovecraft was a Roosevelt-supporting socialist who regretted his former opinions and gave no evidence of being a prejudiced person.

You can read the article and decide if you agree with me or not.

Anyhow, there was one item to which length did not allow me to respond.  And that was the excellent “‘Don’t mention the war.’ Some Thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft and Race” by David Nickle.  In this piece– which is worth your time to read– Nickle shares his experiences with the reluctance (or even recalcitrance) of Lovecraft fans to discuss the author’s prejudices at horror conventions.

I would like to, here (what else are blogs for?), say what I could not fit into my B+B piece.  And that is this: I believe Mr. Nickle when he says that Lovecraft fans have, repeatedly, declined to spend panels at horror cons talking about HPL’s bigotries.  But I disagree with his apparent conclusion that this is because the fans are somehow “in denial.”  I posit instead that fans don’t want to talk about that topic because it’s boring.

I’m not surprised that most of HPL’s fans would rather spend a panel talking about any number of the author’s majestic and monstrous creations than the xenophobia in his early personal correspondence. But being bored by something is not the same as disagreeing with it, or refusing to accept that it is true.

I conjecture that if Lovecraft fans were given the choice of either a panel about HPL’s prejudices or a panel about, say, stamp collecting, they’d choose the Lovecraft’s prejudices panel every time.  It’s hard to conclude things from how people act in situations like horror cons where there is lots and lots of fun to be had.

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