be afraid

I moved house rather abruptly the week before last, which resulted in several things, including a much nicer house. But two of those things in particular are what I want to talk about here: 1) I had to set aside the things I was writing for several days; 2) I watched a lot of Forensic Files

When you're rapidly packing an entire apartment and tiredly unpacking it a few days later, you need lengthy background distractions that don't require much attention or thought. Forensic Files is perfect. If it weren't for the Netflix pulse-check asking very few episodes if we're still watching, Forensic Files would play until the heat death of the universe. 

A major life interruption like moving house puts writing on hold for a week or two. Part of being a writer who is by now relatively comfortable with my routine is that instead of being worried about that interruption, I welcomed the chance to stop writing and simply think about my work-in-progress for a while. I knew not only that I could get back to it, but that the break would do the story good, because it would give me time to work through some things I'd been glossing over in the initial rush of drafting. Thinking is a vital part of writing, but because it's so hard to quantify and doesn't produce any concrete results we can brag or complain about on social media, it's hard to give ourselves permission to do it.

This is why writers are always talking about how we get our best ideas in the shower, or at the gym, or while falling asleep at night: the moment we let ourselves slow down enough to have meandering, unfocused thoughts, we come up with story ideas. It turns out packing a shit-ton of boxes is the same, and it turns out that packing a shit-ton of boxes while watching true-crime television is even better. 

See, the book I'm currently writing is a horror novel. Probably. Mostly. Maybe it's a thriller with supernatural edges? A creepy dark twisted thing? I'm bad at defining genres; that's why I never stay in one lane. What I do know is that it is about people who have experienced terrible things finding themselves in a position where they get to experience more terrible things at the hands of terrible people. Some of those things are weird and supernatural, but some of them are utterly mundane and driven by equally mundane motives.

It turns out that if you want some sort of existential reassurance that you don't even have to dig all that deep into human nature to find horror to heap upon horror in fiction, all you have to do is watch seventy-five episodes of Forensic Files in a row. The main thing the producers of Forensic Files want us to take away from the show is that science solves crime, but the real take-away is this: People are terrible. People are fucking terrible. People are the absolute worst. People are better at being monsters than any monsters we can ever dream up.

As a human person who lives in the world surrounded by other human persons, this is very upsetting and endlessly terrifying. But as a writer who very much wants to tell stories about the darkest aspects of human nature, it's fascinating and strangely comfortable. There are no mysterious dark depths to human nature: everything is right there on the surface, serialized across endless seasons of half-hour snippets of DNA tests and life insurance scams. 

Horror is a wildly subjective genre because fear is so intensely personal. We're all afraid of different things; the horror that is going to make us hide under our cats whimpering in fear differs quite a lot from person to person. That doesn't mean there aren't universals, but it does mean that a writer has to interrogate what are assumed to be universals very carefully before committing to them. 

I've joked many times, in many different places, that I could write an entire PhD thesis about why women write better mysteries, thrillers, and horror than men. It's only partly a joke--I don't need another PhD; one is quite enough--but it all comes down to how convinced I am by what the characters fear. I am not always convinced by what (mostly white, straight) male authors think I ought to fear, largely because those fears often represent, you know, ordinary life for everybody else on the planet. A horror novel in which all the terrible acts are inflicted upon women and children in the main character's life only makes me think the author lacks empathy and perspective. A horror novel in which a man is driven mad by the isolation, disorientation, and loneliness of not being believed is a bit hilarious to any woman who has ever tried to tell the world that she's in pain, that a man is not to be trusted, that a system is cruel and unfair. All women live in a world in which they see things nobody else sees: abuse, harassment, humiliation. All women live in a world in which their most excruciating pain is assumed to be irrelevant whereas a man's most insignificant discomfort is extraordinary

Not all horror is gendered, although I think it is more gendered than many men who write in the genre want to admit. And not all fear is gendered, but some of it is. (And, yes, it is also affected by race, religion, nationality, sexuality, identity--there are so many intersections that writers from all over the world are dealing with in their stories and in their lives, including many amazing horror writers.) That's where Forensic Files comes into it. An acknowledgment of this fundamental imbalance in what we have to fear is what the often mocked but always popular genre of true crime offers to its fans, who are mostly women: Yes, the world is fucking terrifying, and it is more terrifying for women than men. Yes, there are monsters everywhere, and they are your husbands, bosses, ex-boyfriends, pastors, neighbors, sons. Yes, that queasy feeling of discomfort you get when a certain man looks at you on the bus is legitimate. Yes, the lizard-brain jolt of terror you get when a silhouette looms outside your window is a good instinct. 

Yes, you are in danger, and not from the great mysterious forces of the uncaring universe, but from the person standing next to you.

Yes, there is something in the darkness. There is always something in the darkness. That is never the question. The question is always whether you would be able to recognize it when it walks in the light.

Once you notice that human existence is a constant river of real existential horror--the horror that comes from realizing that your existence can be erased by shitty men who choose to be greedy, violent sacks of offal for no fucking reason--you can't stop noticing it. You can’t pretend it’s confined to the experience of one type of person or another, no matter what society and tradition would have us believe. The idea that our entire lives are constantly being shaped by the violence and callousness of ordinary people who suffer minimal consequences is genuine nightmare fuel. 

Which, once again, is terrifying for a human person living in the world. That’s why we all have anxiety! For a writer, especially a woman writer of dark fiction, it provides endless inspiration. Writers are ghouls. We write about terrible, terrifying things because we need a way to process terrible, terrifying things. 

So I watched a lot of Forensic Files over the past couple of weeks. When my roommate and I put it on, we say, "Let's watch some murder." And all the while the little hamster wheels in my head have been turning over this new book I'm writing. It wasn't research; it wasn't about my book at all. It was about a mild distraction while we packed and unpacked thirty or forty boxes of books. (Although the episode in which a couple that owned a scrapbooking store killed another couple for fun and then the dude sat in the hot tub with their heads was more than a mild distraction because WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT FORENSIC FILES. WHAT. THE. FUCK.)

Story planning isn't always what we expect it to be. Brainstorming isn't either. It isn't as though there is any shortage of terrible, terrifying inspiration in the world--have you seen the world lately? But I never know how all those shards of real life traumas, crimes, and mysteries can all combine into the kaleidoscope of ideas that make up a story. I just know that I need to give them time and space to shake around.

Moving house was a huge interruption in my work--although a major upgrade in life; the new place is freakin' beautiful--but that downtime has also given me space to think about this new story, space I didn't realize I needed until I was forced to take it. To think about what the characters fear and why. To think about how easily people will harm others, how little reason they need, how few consequences there are. To think about how cruel people can be in preserving their own status and power. To think about why people become complicit in terrible acts in the service of others. To think about what the world looks like from the point of view of somebody who commits a horrific crime, or covers one up, or makes excuses for a criminal, or genuinely believes that nice young men from nice families can do no wrong. To think about how all choices can be bad choices, all situations can be dire, all bonds betrayed, and how people persevere anyway. To think about how all of that weaves together into tales of trauma and survival. All vital, vibrant elements of a horror novel, or a novel about horrifying things, whatever this one turns out to be.