(Note: what you’re about to read isn’t the usual format for a post in the “Brainstorming” category. Usually, you would see the complete back and forth of ideas. This post only shows an abbreviated version of what I did offline recently. I’m only including it out of a desire to document everything that goes on with this project.)
Well, I never thought I’d be having this conversation with myself. It should have been a slam-dunk and all of a sudden it wasn’t.
From the time I was a first grader (mid-60’s), I have been a huge horror fan. I used to watch all of the Creature Features every Saturday night and all the old B-grade sci-fi movies after school. I collected all the decent magazines – Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy and Eerie. Whenever a Hammer double feature would hit one of the local movie theaters (we had 2) or the drive-in, I would beg my folks to take me. And the Aurora Monster models – even though my paint jobs never came close to what they were supposed to be, my monster models were the coolest things ever.
My attraction to all things spooky was so intense that my mom wrote my first-grade teacher asking if my interest was unhealthy. (See, I just didn’t love monsters, I loved monsters. School art projects always seemed to end up with a monster or a flying saucer in them even if it was a Valentine’s painting.) My teacher, thank goodness, said not to worry about it.
Eventually, mom’s fears won out and around fifth or sixth grade, she outright banned everything – made me get rid of it all. Little did she know, the few times I got to spend the night with friends after that were spent taking in anything supernatural I could find. I showed her!
Yeah, I was a major horror fan – and unfortunately, everything scared me to death. Some examples:
I remember one night, I was flipping channels on the little black and white tv my folks let us kids watch and I ran across the film, The Haunting (based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House.) It was at that tremendously tense moment when Julie Harris’ character is climbing the rickety old spiral staircase that acts like it’s going to collapse and she’s being followed by the doctor trying to convince her to come down. And just as Julie reaches the very top, a trap door opens and the doctor’s wife (whose been lost for days somewhere in the house) sticks her head out, scaring the bejesus out of everyone. I let out a shriek and flipped off the tv, even though I wanted to keep watching. I never recovered from that and it was weeks later before I could actually sleep by myself. Boy, my parents were pissed. I can still hear that shriek echoing around my head.
Much later, when the movie Frogs came out, I took my younger sister and brother with me to see it. (We didn’t tell mom what we were seeing and she just assumed we were going to the other theatre that was showing something else.) This was in 1972 so I was 14, my sister was 9 and my brother was 5. I got so scared during the movie, I got up and went to the front of the theatre, grabbed my siblings, and we all left halfway through. Of course, they weren’t sure why we had to leave because they were enjoying the movie. It was me, the older brother, who was pissing his pants in fear.
Fast forward to when I was a senior in college. A female friend and I decided to go see something playing at the midnight movies off campus. She drove. We ended up seeing the original Dawn of the Dead. We sat there in shock at what played on the screen and afterwards, she decided she’s too scared to go home alone. Thus, we drive to her house, I make sure there’s no zombies waiting for her inside, and then she makes me walk home alone to my place – about 15 blocks away. This is around 3 o’clock in the morning and not a soul is awake. It wasn’t a long walk by any means, but every time the wind blew or an animal made some noise, I just about freaked. When I made it home and tried to go to sleep, every shadow became a zombie shambling up the stairs to get me. Definitely no sleep that night.
Anyway, you get the idea.
Thus, a story involving a guy haunted by his father’s ghost shouldn’t involve any internal debate. It’s horror/supernatural – no if’s, and’s, or but’s.
However, a few years ago, I discovered MM (male/male) romance and queer lit. During a months-long period when I was extremely depressed, that’s all I read. (It still is the majority of my to-be-read pile.) Initially, I bought a few to start with based on popularity since I really didn’t know much about any of the authors. Then I got Kindle Unlimited and soon I was plowing through at least one a day when I wasn’t sleeping. I tried some horror, but just couldn’t get into it. (I even tried rereading some of my favorite Stephen King stuff and just couldn’t do it.) Only books of this type could soothe the emotions overrunning my soul.
While reading, I ran across a couple of writers who were doing some interesting things in these genres with supernatural themes. Lily Morton wrote a book called, The Mysterious and Amazing Blue Billings that I would have to list in my all-time favorites. Also, I discovered TJ Klune and devoured just about everything he wrote. Some of his stuff like The Bones Beneath My Skin and Into This River I Drown decidedly has supernatural elements in it. (I even relented and read his Green Creek werewolf series even though I swore I’d never read anything about a shifter of any kind. Of course, I was hooked.)
It almost ruined me for flat-out horror. Here were worlds where, in most cases, angst was kept purposely low and happily-ever-afters were almost guaranteed (at least on the MM romance side of things). I began to pick up on the tropes and learned what I enjoyed and what I could skip. And it affected how I began looking at my story, Unclean.
Lily’s book had some vague similarities with mine – an English guy inherits a house haunted by a couple of very nasty ghosts. In between the scary bits, he’s falling in love with one of the local ghost-tour guides who he sees on a regular basis because his house is on the nightly tour. Mine has a haunted house, an extremely nasty ghost, and a lost love that unexpectedly shows up again. If I wanted to, I could go a similar route.
(This isn’t such an outlandish proposal. It’s constantly preached by just about anyone writing a book on the craft to only write the kind of books that you’re interested in. Seeing how MM romance and queer lit were the only things I’d been reading lately, it actually made sense to reconsider the genre for Unclean.)
It meant some changes, however. Initially, the main character was going to be older – 50’s or even 60’s. Part of the story would take place in the present; the rest when he was in his early teens. However, if this turned into a love story, it meant his age probably needed to be half that – who wants to read about 2 seniors falling in love and (probably) getting it on? I’d read a lot of MM stuff and hadn’t run across anything like that.
Soon I had other issues/questions in a similar vein that I won’t go into here because they won’t make a whole lot of sense without knowing the entire backstory. I apologize that you’re not getting the full brainstorming around this like you normally would. Still, hopefully you can see how some of it goes and how changing one thing can set the whole domino set tumbling.
After going back and forth a while, I eventually decided to take an unemotional look at the conventions of each genre and that really helped me make the final decision. (I ran across a pair of articles on Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid site that clinched things for me: “Secrets of the Horror Genre” and “Secrets of the Love Genre: How to Write a Great Romance“, both by Rachelle Ramirez.) Only by thinking deeply about the things she discusses was I able to clear the fog around genre and see that I didn’t really want to write a romance. Yeah, like many other horror novels, it would have a romantic subplot, but that would not be the main one. I still wanted this to be about a guy facing down the ghost of his father in order to survive. Fear, not love, would be the predominant emotion.
I also wouldn’t try and downplay the character’s sexuality any. This will definitely fall under the queer lit category instead of plain horror – and I’m perfectly fine with that. Sure, it might affect targeted readership and all that, but I’d much rather write the kind of book that I would enjoy reading than try to create something I’m less interested in. Getting this on paper is difficult enough; having to force myself to enjoy it would only make it worse. I just have to realize that there’s not a lot of stuff out in this area yet and will probably have to trailblaze some. And that’s ok.
Photo by Carlos Nunez on Unsplash