I write dark stuff. I’m not saying that to sound edgy or pretentious. In fact, I don’t like to nail myself down as strictly a horror guy. I write steampunk and superhero stuff. I’ve done scripts for presidential biography comics. I’m currently working on a crime novel in the vein of a grindhouse film.
Still, almost anything I write has some measure of shadow over it. Curse of The Black Terror, despite being a superhero comic, was darker than a lot of what is considered horror on the shelves today. Mastema takes place in a fantasy world of demons and wicked sorcerers rather than elves and kindly wizards. Even bedtime stories which I tell only to my son and niece are filled with mad science and reanimated kings of rock n’ roll.
There was a local comic creator – now this was years ago after I had just published my first comic – who was talking shit about my stuff to a friend who hung out at the LCS. He evidently thought I was trying to be edgy and hip with my drug addict protagonist and violent conflicts. I did a lot of thinking when I heard that, searching myself to see if there was any credence to the accusation from the more successful writer.
After an honest assessment, I found that I was being true to my literary voice. How one writes is shaped by myriad factors – philosophy, religious and political views, personal experience, education, storytelling influences. Those factors are going to be different for me than they are for the guy who dismissed my work as pretentious and that’s totally cool. I don’t even hold any ill will for this guy bad mouthing my comic. It wasn’t his thing. The important part of this anecdote is that I didn’t let the negativity of a slightly more experienced writer steer me away from being true to myself.
On the flip side of this, my first ever short story read like Douglas Adams writing Fight Club fan fic. Like many inexperienced authors, I was trying to imitate writers who I admired. There is more than one unfinished horror story told in first person by a tragic intellectual amongst my notebooks as well. The reason I mention this is because I was also able to be honest with myself when I was poorly imitating the greats. I saw what I was doing, and I corrected it. Not because I was being derivative, but because I was being dishonest. Writing is about self-expression. If you aren’t willing to actually put yourself out there, then what’s the point?
My advice to writers, new and experienced, is to periodically get introspective and take an honest assessment of the factors that serve as your muse and make sure your work matches up to it. Why periodically? Our world views change and evolve. Our tastes expand. Our knowledge base grows. All these things should affect how we write. If they aren’t, perhaps we are stuck in comfortable stagnation.
Recently I gave some deep thought regarding the ideas and stimulae that most influence my own writing. Below is a list of the three factors that seem to have the largest impact on my literary voice.
Cosmicism, science, and atheism
Cosmicism is a literary philosophy, born from atheism, that suggests we live in a vast, indifferent universe, devoid of any cosmic father figure. If you take it a bit further, it is the view that the universe, and any higher intelligence within it, is actually malevolent.
Lovecraft, who pioneered this movement, was an atheist like me. There were no saviors in his work. Just man pitting his wit against a vastly superior enemy, and often coming up short. Some of the writers who came after him, August Derleth in particular, bastardized this concept and introduced benevolent gods to counter balance things. While this is a more commercially palatable version of Cosmicism, I find it watered down and compromised by fear.
In the days before NASA, printable prosthetics, and clean energy, the idea of a universe with no god must have been terrifying. I can only imagine, in the shadow of the Great War, that Lovecraft and other atheists of the time must have had an incredibly pessimistic view of the future.
I feel that in modern times there is a new breed of optimistic Cosmicism, though. Not the diluted, cosmic yin yang of Derleth, nor the utter despair of Lovecraft. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a contemporary astrophysicist and rock star of the science community, has said on more than on occasion that the universe is out to kill us. Tyson understands that God is not going to step in and redirect an asteroid from hitting us. He knows that Jesus won’t come and reverse climate change. He understands that one new strain of bacteria could end humanity. But he is optimistic, and so am I.
Because I believe in humanity. We don’t need elder gods to swat away asteroids or meteors, because we can do it ourselves.
Where gods have failed to heal the sick and maimed, we can eradicate diseases and print prosthetic limbs. In short, we are the counterweight against the uncaring and sometimes adversarial universe around us. This idea of new Cosmicism is an important part of my world view, and it presents itself strongly in my novel, The Devoured.
Myth, Folklore, and psychology
Since I don’t believe in the supernatural it might seem odd that I list myth and occultism as influences on my writing. Something doesn’t need to be real to hold value, though. And reality can be a subjective matter to a writer. If something exists in the mind of even a single child, doesn’t that make it real on some level? Are gods less powerful because they exist only in ink and neurons, or are they more powerful because they capture the minds and souls of the most advanced creatures in known creation?
Myth and folklore have been a lifelong interest of mine. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been enthralled by stories of Camelot, Asgard, and Olympus. As I grew older, this expanded into a fascination with folklore and urban legend. Stories of gods, monsters, and consequence all offer psychological insight into the collective consciousness of mankind.
Additionally, they are the most thoroughly workshopped tales ever told. Over decades, century, and millennia, mythologies have evolved with mankind, changing to suit our psychological needs yet remaining pure enough to glean eternal truths about human nature. Odin has worn the mask of a warlord, a grifter, a Nazi, and a metal head, but beneath the superficial differences and rebrandings, he represents the same aspects of the human condition – growth, cunning, and sacrifice. These are ideas as old as man.
When you tap into myth as a writer, you are tapping into symbolic shorthand that speaks to the blood and soul of the reader. Some may not consciously realize it, but the archetypes of our gods and monsters, at least those who have survived to the modern age, hold permanent real estate in our shared psychology. The names may change, and details may shift, but Mithras is Baldur is Christ – and each of them is a part of mankind’s shared yearnings and fears.
Whereas myth is fairly universal, folklore offers insight into the minds of a smaller subset of people. This might be regional, based on the shared experience of a certain community (water monsters in a coastal area) or tied to a particular time period (cursed video tapes). Folklore has a more distinct flavor than myth, and can be used as a tool of tribalism to connect people of a certain region or a certain age. I’ve found borrowing from folklore particularly helpful in creating a richer, more specific setting. It can also be useful in crafting an atmosphere of “us versus them”.
Sympathy for the devil
I’ve always had a soft spot for the bad guy in fiction. I have a Cobra tattoo on my shoulder. As a kid, I liked Jason better than the campers. As an adult, Milton’s Satan became my favorite literary character of all time.
To make a good guy interesting – I mean a real altruistic Peter Parker or Steve Rogers kind of motherfucker – you have to fuck the poor bastard six ways to Sunday. And since most people are writing stories about good guys, you have to get real creative in ways to torture your protagonist in order to avoid regurgitating the same old crap. But a bad guy…a bad guy is always interesting.
The second half of Paradise Lost, once Satan takes a back seat to Christ, is considered by many (myself included) to be utterly unreadable. When people quote Milton, they quote his devil. His depiction of Christ is almost never talked about. Why? Because when Jesus isn’t raising the dead or hanging from a cross, he’s boring. For real, how many Jesus movies are there? The Passion of the Christ comes to mind right? And that movie was only so big because it was like a biblical version of Saw. Show Jesus feeding the poor and philosophizing about the evils of wealth and count those box office returns!
For a more modern example, let’s take Gregory House, a brilliant, misanthropic, drug addicted doctor, and insert him into any episode of Grey’s Anatomy. He may not be as dreamy, but didn’t the show just get way cooler? I think so.
My own stories are filled with morally ambiguous main characters that would classically be considered villains. The old man from The Devoured is a confederate soldier, with no qualms about shooting down anyone in his way. My Black Terror was a vengeance driven lunatic, more akin to Michael Myers than the original character. In my comic the Wrong House everyone is a bad guy and the roles of protagonist and antagonist shift with the reader’s widening perspective.
What are the most important influences on your own work? Feel free to comment below.