Saturday, March 17, 2007

Blurring the Line: Blending Horror with Mystery for a New Kind of Thriller

Jonathan Maberry (Guest Blogger)

So...why horror?

I get asked that a lot at book signings or lectures and in fan mail. Why do I write about the things that go bump in the night? Why do I write about monsters?

I mean...I read mostly mysteries and thrillers, most of what I’ve written over the last thirty years have been non-horror stuff: martial arts books, articles on parenting, experimental plays, sarcastic greeting cards. So why choose horror for my first novel? Why not make Ghost Road Blues a straight thriller?

The short answer is: well, it kind of just happened; but that doesn’t really say it. That doesn’t cut to the heart of it.

The long answer is the one that matters: I don’t write about monsters I write about people overcoming monsters. That’s a big difference.

The fantasy format –whether it is horror, sci-fi, a fable, whatever—has been used for storytelling since the beginnings of literature. The fantastic allows for a nice coating around the pill, and often that pill is a moral lesson, a social insight, a political statement, etc. I mean, let’s face’s pretty darned unlikely that Odysseus actually fought a cyclops or fell prey to an island full of sirens.

Consider Poe. Had he just written dramas about obsession, paranoia, or the destructive power of sadness we would probably not remember him, eloquent as he was. However, because he wrote about black cats and purloined hearts and other macabre things his stories are treasured to this day and required reading in schools.

Look at TV. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone and the original Star Trek show were vehicles used to tell stories about racism, social injustice, abuse, psychological disintegration, alienation, politics, and so on. Think about it, if Serling had pitched to the networks that he wanted to do a straight non-genre weekly drama about issues of social importance they’d have laughed him out of the room. And yet here we are, half a century after the Twilight Zone debuted and we still watch those shows, still collect the DVDs, still remember them. Genre storytelling is powerfully effective in this way.

When I was a teenager I read Richard Matheson’s landmark novels I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man. Two brilliant psychological thrillers about alienation, the structure of society, culture clashing, racial intolerance, and propaganda. Yet on the surface they’re stories about a guy living in a world where everyone else is a vampire and a tale of a man who shrinks a half an inch a day.

When I came up with the idea for Ghost Road Blues I wanted to take the same kind of approach to tell a story that shows how people confront darkness, whether it’s an external thing like a monster, a killer, a physical threat, or whether it’s internal, like temptation, corruption, lust, fear. I believe that evil, like goodness, is the result of choice. I don’t believe that the argument should begin and end with “nature versus nurture”. Both of those are contributing factors, but it is the choice a person makes that really matters; as does the way in which a person justifies that choice.

My characters in Ghost Road Blues and its sequels (Dead Man’s Song debuts from Pinnacle Books on July 3; Bad Moon Rising has just been completed) are all conflicted in one way or another, and they’re all damaged, they all have baggage. When each of them has to, at one point or another in the trilogy, confront who they are and what the world is asking of them, the choices they make at like shockwaves, impacting the lives around them.

I’ve had some real experience with darkness and hard choices. My childhood was a bona-fide nightmare and by all rights the things I experienced should have turned me into a sick and twisted person. But that’s not who I am. I made choices along the way to confront the darkness I was facing, and I took a stand against the monsters in my life. These were very hard choices but making the right ones both saved my life and gave it a more positive direction. There are a lot of people who had similar childhood experiences and made the wrong choice, or no choice at all, and the darkness consumed them.

I was lucky enough to be able to defeat my monsters. In my stories my characters have to face theirs. Some make the right choices, some make bad choices, but the whole story is about the process of choosing and its implications. That’s dangerous storytelling, and that’s what the horror genre does best. With horror...even with all the shadows around me, I’m home and damn happy to be here.

This is not to say that mystery formats don’t allow for this kind of storytelling. Look at Silence of the Lambs. That, too, is about monsters just as it’s about choices.

Will I stay in the horror genre? That’s hard to say. It’s certainly a nice place to be.

Jonathan Maberry’s Ghost Road Blues has been nominated for two Bram Stoker Awards (for Best First Novel and Novel of the Year).


Darlene Ryan said...

I have a stack of books next to my favorite chair and I promised myself no new books until that pile was a bit smaller. But you had to say you were a fan of I Am Legend. How can I not look for your book? Very sneaky, Jonathan.

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