Tag Archives: Dean Koontz

What Happened to Horror?

I used to like horror. Movies or books, it didn’t matter. Like Westerns, horror stories seem to fall into one of two extremes: excellent or horrible. Not much in the way of mediocre stories in either genre, though there seem to be more horrible horror than Westerns. For every Stephen King or Dean Koontz, there were dozens who maybe should never have seen print, at least in my opinion.

With the exception of crap like Longarm, Westerns have taken a nose dive in the last couple decades. That’s the nature of the business. Westerns wax and wane in popularity, though they seem to be on the rise again, and it’s good to see that. In the meantime, though, I fell off on reading them for whatever reason.

Horror has kept right on plugging along, though I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. I’ll still pick up a Stephen King book and the occasional Dean Koontz—especially if it’s an Odd Thomas novel—but on the whole, I avoid horror like the plague. When it’s degenerated into sparkly vampires who have melodramatic love triangles with hunky werewolves, I’ll find my entertainment elsewhere, thank you very much.

The genre has also shown a tendency to stereotypes. I would imagine that, during the eighties, there were more fictional small towns destroyed by some horrible thing or another—most ending up being men or women who were really ancient demons of one kind or another—than probably exist in this country. Stephen King started this trend with novels like ’Salem’s Lot, where the small Maine town of Jerusalem’s Lot became infested with vampires.

Small towns make good fodder for horror, because when you see neighbors you’ve known all your life all of a sudden start acting hinky, it makes the terror more personal. And since small town people tend to be friendly-but-private, that lets folks get away with all kinds of madness. Problem was, when you picked up a horror novel to read the back, the synopsis almost inevitable started out with something to the effect of In the small town of…

That got old. In a hurry. I decided if I read about one more small town getting wiped off the map by one Satanic force or another, I was gonna participate in some small town horror of my own.

And the movies? Please. Last thing I wanted to watched was the latest iteration of Jason/Freddie slashing up unfortunate people caught in some remote location. When Jason went into space, I swore off horror movies altogether.

But, I decided to try one this week, much to my regret. I guess the title, The House of the Devil, should have warned me off. Thing is, most horror stories have tacky titles like that. Again, it’s part of the business. Besides, the premise sounded good. To quote the opening of the synopsis on the back, During the 1980s, over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic Cults. This film is based on true and unexplained events. It goes on to tell of how one Samantha Hughes, a broke college student, takes on a babysitting job in an isolated mansion. Of course, her best friend warns her off, but she needs the money, no matter how creepy the family is.

Long story short, the first hour and fifteen minutes or so of the 95-minute film are about as exciting as a travelogue of Outback, USA. The movie makes some attempts to build up tension with such tricks as having Samantha call the people from a payphone, leaving the number to her dorm room and yet getting a call back on the payphone before she can get more than fifty feet away. You have to remember that this movie takes place in the eighties, before the advent of things like caller ID so, okay, maybe that’s a tad spooky.

Problem is, they fail to follow it up with much of anything until things start going bump in the house very late in the movie. She ends up getting tied down in the middle of an inverted pentagram painted on the floor with what we assume is blood. The creepy family comes in, does some arcane ritual involving blood poured on her stomach and into her mouth from a weird skull, all timed to coincide with a lunar eclipse mentioned earlier in the film.

Samantha manages to break free and kill two of the family members on her way out—her white shift suitable soaked in blood, of course—and confronts the patriarch in the local graveyard. He informs here that it’s too late, that she can’t stop what’s happening inside her. She’s managed to pick up a pistol—looked to me like it was a .38, but it can be hard to tell on film—and she shoots herself in the head. We cut to news footage saying that astronomers the world over are confused at how fast the eclipse moved off the moon, then pan into a hospital room where Samantha is miraculously alive, her head in bandages. A nurse comes in, injects something into Samantha’s IV, then pats her on the stomach and says that everything will be fine for both of you. Fade to black.

What a major disappointment. 75 minutes of next to nothing happening, followed by 20 minutes of predictability. Spare me. I ended up fast-forwarding through much of it just to see if anything of note occurred.

Maybe it’s my changing tastes, but I really don’t think it’s just that. Horror has gone downhill in a major way in the last twenty years or so, maybe more. Maybe it wasn’t all that good to begin with—with certain exceptions, of course—and I’m just now realizing it.

But in a world where we writers are constantly told to tighten up our stories and keep them moving, I fail to see how this piece of drek got filmed.

So, I guess I’ll go back to avoiding horror, just when I thought there might be some hope for it.

What do you think? Am I right? Has horror degenerated in recent years, or is it just me realizing what has been true all along? Let me know what you think.



It’s a Wrap

Well, it’s done. I finished it Sunday, and the first draft clocks in at 213,860 words, 666 pages. Not exactly a short story, by any means. I’m still a little shocked at its length and the fact I wrote it in about five months calendar time—89 days actual time. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a daily goal of 2,000 words, and I’ve reached a point where I can manage that in a couple of hours on a good day. Now, I just worked that out. Averaging two hours per day—and I think I’m probably being very conservative there—it works out to a little over 7 days actual writing time. If I double it to four hours—probably more realistic, for an average—it’s just under 15 days.

Mathematicians say numbers never lie. That’s true as far as it goes, but in this case, they don’t tell the full story, as any writer can tell you. The figures I just quoted are largely meaningless. All they tell you, or me, is how long I spent setting at the keyboard typing. They don’t tell how much time I spent thinking about the story, or how many hours of sleep I lost looking at ideas from every angle I could think of. They don’t count the time spent reading aloud in my writer’s group and getting critiques (or how many are left. I’m just getting started on that front), or the times I’ve bounced ideas off my daughter and a friend of mine, among other people. Many of whom probably got tired of me asking them for their thoughts on something they had little investment in.

And I haven’t even put in the time to interview experts whose input I hope to get, such as someone from our Fourth Judicial Drug Task Force. And it doesn’t count the rewrite hours I’ll spend once I have some distance from the story.

If you read author acknowledgement pages like I do, you’ve probably seen the countless times an author has thanked everybody including his dog (yes, I’ve seen that). It’s a little like suffering through one of those Oscar acceptance speeches. But they have a point: the writing is done alone, but crafting the novel is anything but a solo endeavor. I’ve bounced ideas off my daughter, my best friend, fellow authors in my group, I’ll be getting help from law enforcement (I hope), and one of my daughter’s friends is going to help me with my Spanish.

And that doesn’t count the inspiration I’ve gained along the way from so many sources. Reading books by people like Robert Crais and T. Jefferson Parker, Don Winslow and Robert Ellis and who knows how many other authors along the way.

Then there’s the moral support. Folks who give occasional opinions along the way and loads of encouragement, chief among them—yes, it’s true—my ex-wife. I would have to say that it’s been her belief in me as well as that of my daughter that’s helped the most. My ex likes my stories and has been waiting for me to finish this so she could read it.

I’ve heard several times that, if housewives were paid what they were worth, they’d probably be some of the best-paid people out there. I have no argument with that. However, I would say that authors are a close second. We put in a lot of hours that are never seen by readers, and only a few of us make to the Stephen King level. Then, if you take into consideration all the time we put into trying to get published—querying agents and/or publishers, putting in as much effort on query letters as we do on novels—essentially working on spec with the expectation of low pay for all that time, and I’d say we’re very underpaid. It’s not something anyone can expect to get rich doing. Yes, it happens, but for every Dean Koontz or John Grisham, there are probably a hundred or more for whom writing is simply extra income, rather than a full-time job. In other words, you gotta love it to do it.

For me, the feeling of satisfaction has been a big payoff. If you’ve followed this blog, you know I’ve talked in the past about how, every time it seemed like I was closing in on an ending, Lyle would up and do something new I had to pull him out of. I was starting to wonder if I was writing the unending novel, if I had the ability to tie it all up in a neat knot. I’ll leave it to the critiques to tell me if I did that, but at least I ended it and can move onto something else. It’s good when character takes on a life of his own like Lyle did. When he does, it’s more like dictation than writing: you’re just recording the events as they happen. Years ago, back in the Dark Ages when writers still used those things called typewriters, Stephen King called it “falling through the page.” It’s a feeling I can relate to, though these days it’s falling through the monitor.

I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I hope to get published for more than monetary reasons. I don’t know how many authors have said that, if you’re doing it for the money, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. I didn’t fully realize what that meant until I wrote this novel. I’d love to see my book on the shelf in a store, love to cash (or deposit) that first check. But what can I expect to get out of it? Realistically? I haven’t checked the crime genre, but I know that, last year, one agent posted on her blog (I believe the address is pubrants.blogspot.com) that the average advance for sf/f ranged from $5,000 to $25,000. Pretty decent pay, but first novels probably tend to the low end of that range and rarely earn back the advance. Give that some thought and you’ll see why doing it purely for the money is silly.

But, like Louis L’Amour, I see myself as a storyteller. I want to entertain. Five thousand years ago, I would have been the guy sitting around the fire telling the tribe about the gods, or ancient heroes, or who knows what. These days, I shoot lower: I want to tell stories from the criminal side of crime stories. It’s a unique challenge, because I have to make the reader care about a criminal. It’s probably a lot easier to make you care about the cop chasing the criminal. I figure that’s why most crime novels are told from the cop’s POV. Or the private investigator’s. Someone on the correct side of law and order. Nothing wrong with that, either. It’s the staple for the genre and likely stems from crime being a subgenre of the mystery—which is always (as far as I know) told from the cop’s POV because the idea is to solve the crime along with the protagonist.

But, as I’ve stated elsewhere, I’ve always had an interest in the criminal mind. Why do they do the things they do? Why do they insist on breaking the rules the rest of us have agreed on? Back in the days of the Saturday serials, it was easy enough to have the bad guy be someone like Ming the Merciless who spouted melodramatic lines about advancing the cause of evil. Audiences accepted this one-dimensional approach, because all they really wanted was the good vs. bad framework.

Who cared about characterization? What difference did some past trauma make to the bad guy’s motivation? He’s evil and that’s all we need to know.

That won’t work these days, and I’m glad. As I think I’ve pointed out elsewhere, even Hitler, as extreme as he was, thought he was doing good. He saw the Jewish race as less than human and a threat. It didn’t matter if his viewpoint was reasonable. As humans, we rarely have reasonable viewpoints (if you don’t believe me, witness the current dog and pony show Congress is putting on. Watch the monkeys prance and caper!). But those viewpoints are always reasonable to us. If I think that all blacks are less than human, for instance, as White Supremacists do, I can find “reasons” to back up my opinion. I mean, if you can stand to listen to it for long (or read it), look at how much they believe blacks taint the rest of us and all that rot. I went to the oldest White Supremacist Website (I wish I could remember the address) and had to just shake my head at what I was seeing.

The point being, these people aren’t criminals just for the sake of being criminal. They aren’t “advancing the cause of evil” or anything so ridiculous. And I don’t know that I’ll keep telling stories from the criminal’s POV. I’m even keeping the open the possibility of writing more sf/f. But for now, I’m happy with crime and criminals.

And very happy to have finished Pipeline. Now the real work will start.