Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Writing Darkly

According to a posting for the topic of the next writers' group meeting...we are going to explore the darkness. 

At first glance dark writing seems like an obvious concept. If we attempt to define it though, things get shaky. We can start off by assuming "dark" refers to a mood or theme. The word "dark" itself, besides addressing a lack of light refers to something characterized by gloom. According to another definition, dark, when used as an adjective can also refer to something threatening. Something concealed and mysterious. Or it can be something morbid or grimly satiric.

A lot of writing can crowd in under this umbrella. While many works of modern fiction have dark elements, perhaps it becomes dark when that is one of the primary intents of the author. For surely, while Harry Potter has dark elements, no one would ever consider it to be dark fiction. Nor would we consider the likes of Tom Sawyer to fall under that shadow, although Twain has some scary moments in the book.

I write a good deal of dark literature. And it is a deliberate process. I want to upset people. I want to give them something they'll remember, not because it's good writing, but because they are home alone, it's raining, and they keep trying to remember if they've locked the front door. 

I believe the key to writing dark literature is to start with the true and the mundane. The more fantastical something is, the less impressive the fright and less disturbing. That's not to say that monsters and Halloween "thingys" can't be scary, but the more they attach themselves to the "real", the more effective they are. Consider the Frankenstein monster; horrifying to people around the turn of the last century, but less terrifying now because of the advances in science. However, Shelley's themes remain intact:the idea that those who meddle in the wrong closets of nature will bring forth tremendous consequences. Frankenstein's monster now becomes a metaphor. Biological warfare, anyone?

As for the mundane...what could be more mundane than a house in the country where a family sits in front of a television set? Ask Jerome Bixby, author of "It's A Good Life", the tale of a town held captive by a twisted little boy who can alter reality with a wink. It remains one of the scariest "Twilight Zone" episodes ever seen. What can be more mundane than the shy, nervous motel manager in Robert Bloch's Psycho? What's more mundane than the soft and well-spoken Hannibal Lecter?

The most frightening monsters are those that wear the human masks; those that look back at us from the mirror.

9 comments:

spyscribbler said...

I've been sorta writing darkly lately. It's more in the vein of Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre than horror. It's like I'm addicted.

For me, there's something about that always-hovering sense of danger and gloom that does it for me, LOL.

Jeff W. Edwards said...

When I write, only "dark fiction" interests me. I was forced to write "literary fiction" in college, and it took me about ten years to recover from that and accept that I always have been (and probably always will be) a horror fan.

Stewart Sternberg said...

SPY
I think those who fear most love to be most frightening. There's power in scaring others, spy. Power is addictive.

JEFF
Literary fiction can be dark. Recently I have been wrestling with literary fiction and the chasm between it and genre. I think too often people ignore the writing itself and seek alignment for safety. How often are the most avante garde the most comfortable?

Sidney said...

I think the layers and texture add to it, too as the mundane is twisted into something unsettling and unexpected. Hannibal is charming and terrifying as we learn what he's done. The Frankenstein monster in the films becomes both horrifying and sympathetic. I agree, giant things aren't as scary on their own.

Stewart Sternberg said...

SIDNEY
The ultimate disappointment that was Cloverfield showed us something. There was horror and tension here, truly unsettling...the use of handheld, the immediate experience at street level, these things gave us a feel we had never known in a monster film. Abrams didn't know what to do with it once he had it, but it showed what it could have been.

SQT said...

I tend to be drawn to the dark side too. The writing of my own, that I like best, is the darker stuff.

The movie that scared me the most when I was a kid was "Poltergeist." Think about it. The things that scared us the most in that movie -- the tree, the clown toy, the little girl saying "they're here" as she watches the snow on the tv screen. That's a movie that takes everyday stuff and terrifies us with it. I was too scared to sleep alone after I saw that one.

Jeff W. Edwards said...

Stewart: And dark fiction can be literary!

Many horror lovers also seem to like crime novels, so there is definitely a common ground of "dark" even between different genres.

I agree that labels can be destructive. But generally it seems that writers must wear labels on their foreheads so that they can be marketed.

Stewart Sternberg said...

SQT
I wonder how the current psychological mood in the country will play out in dark fiction; whether or not people will seek it out as a catharsis of sorts, or whether they will instead turn to the lighthearted.

JEFF
You're right. Dark can be literary, and literary can be dark. Still, it's interesting to see how people respond to dark fiction. "Literary" types usually discount dark fiction's value as a literary form. They don't feel horror can be serious.

L.A. Mitchell said...

I've never been able to explain how I'm a Pollyanna of sorts in my everyday life, but my writing always comes out dark. Maybe it's the ultimate balancing act.

I've never seen that TZ episode, but it sounds great.