Cannonball Read III: Book 1: On Writing Horror

What is Cannonball Read? It is a friendly quantity reading competition courtesy of Pajiba where a group of regular commenters (or eloquent, if you will) race to read 52 books in a year (or 26, or even 13). It's a lot of fun. There's even a group blog this year, but I'm not going back to Wordpress (or Typepad, or Blogger, or LiveJournal, or any variant thereof). One of my ambitions as a writer is to earn enough professional credits as a horror fiction writer to join the Horror Writers Association. It is the premier organization for horror writers and they run one of the most informative website about the industry. At some point, the organization decided to pull together a writing guide aptly title On Writing Horror: A Handbook by The Horror Writers Association. It contains forty-four formal articles as well as a lengthy forward, introduction and conclusion. The writers come from a wide range of the horror spectrum, including literary fiction (Joyce Carol Oates), popular fiction (Stephen King), religious thrillers (Tom Monteleone), and cross-genre (Tom Piccirilli).

The book is divided into eight chapters. Each chapter covers a different aspect of horror publishing. I'm particularly fond of Part Two: An Education in Horror, as I could fulfill more than half of my CBRIII reading by following the recommended reading guides and foundational titles listed therein. Part Six: Tradition and Modern Times is perhaps the most unexpected inclusion in the book. Each of the writers contributes an article on how to approach the inclusion of the archetypes of horror. Some argue for a historical context, others for throwing the rules out the window.

Perhaps the greatest insight to be gleaned from this book is the reality of publishing. There is no rule or singular path, even in as small a field as horror, that will give you the success you desire. For every contributor who recommends a top down approach to submissions (aim for the highest markets, then trickle the story on down to the lowest before revising), there is another who recommends targeting stories to a particular publisher (Weird Tales chooses different material than Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show , which chooses different material than Ellery Queen, which certainly chooses different material than The New Yorker), and yet another author who will recommend selling your work to the lowest bidders to gain leverage with the professional markets (the exact opposite of the top down approach). One writer says character is everything; another says plot is everything; another says style saves a story; another says strip down your work to essential plot and character details. Obviously, the approach is working for each author as they've all been published, well-reviewed, and invited to submit to a guide on writing horror.

The most bizarre entry in the book comes from Harlan Ellison. Ellison is a notorious figure in publishing. He refuses to bite his tongue when he thinks something bad is happening and has sued many collaborators, production companies, and publishers for personal and professional offenses. He has upturned conventions and shocked at awards ceremonies. Yet, for all his criticism of the industry, he is one of the most successful and influential horror writers of the past fifty years. A previously published controversial interview with him closes out Part Five: Horror, Art, Innovation, Excellence. His goal seems to be to call out the industry on all of its perceived flaws, going so far as to "[decide] not to change nothing and [thinks] that events in the 'horror genre' (sic) have added validation to his opinions." Ellison's criticism is not unfounded, even if the most successful streak of his career falls in line with the years he claims are the worst for the entire field.

Perhaps editor Mort Castle provides the clearest expression of the intention of the book in the Afterword. He presents a symbolic story about a false pied-piper that everyone chooses to follow down a path that guarantees no success. The people can learn from his triumphs and failures, but would be highly unlikely to repeat any such sequence of events. You'll get what you want to get out of this book. It just might not be what you expected to get out of it.