I attended several different sessions today while at the World Science Fiction Convention. I still need to clean up my notes and verify the spellings of author names and their works before I can publish my notes on my blog. This session was particularly interesting and included Ellen Datlow who I can honestly say is a force of nature.
Here are my notes:
Horror And Dark Fantasy Writers: What Makes the Story “Horror” or “Dark Fantasy”?
Presenters: Kari Sperring, Ellen Datlow, Kaaron Warren
Kari Sperring has a new novel called, “Living with Ghosts”.
Ellen Datlow is Ellen Datlow
Kaaron Warren has a new novel.
The following are my notes from attending this panel on Aug. 6, 2009.
Ellen Datlow asked, “Do you write to write dark? Do you imagine them thematically as being darker?”
Kaaron Warren says she doesn’t head out to be dark but her stories just end up there. She related a story of when she was young and she remembered a story that she had read where a younger sister is killed by her older brother. It fascinated her that the older brother killed the sister.
Kaaron asked Ellen why she chooses the stories she chooses. She told about a story about a Kelly Link story about two siblings who almost kill one another. This did not really answer the question.
Kari Sperring said when she writes she writes stories that worry her and she relayed a story about reading a story about the edge of where you really don’t want to be there. She feels the allure of that place where you really don’t want to be there. She isn’t sure where things come out from. She tries to go one stage beyond where she is comforatble.
Comfortable is that one step beyond where you feel comfortable. If a story is uncomfortable and may make you feel bad to write then it may work.
Ellen relayed that she feels there is a continuum from fantasy to dark fantasy to horror. Horror is not to make you feel comfortable and cozy. She talked about the paranormal romance making horror figures like vampires cozy and safe. Horror needs to be scary and not cozy and safe.
Ghost stories can be just fantasy. If they are going to be horror then they need to be scary. Humorous horror doesn’t do for her what she wants horror to do.
Kaaron talked about if a horror story is going to have a laugh it should be the kind of laugh where the person runs across the road and almost gets killed and then laughs at the experience. Laughing at the horrible things that happen and getting the reader to sigh at the world of the bad guy.
Datlow said that irony can go with horror.
Datlow said that Neil Gaiman is funny and charming and horrific.
Kaaron:How do you know if you have something that is horrific?
Datlow: It has to start from a point where you believe it. It has to start from a place where it could happen– some kind of real event. Supernatural fiction must have a solid feel of the real surroundings.
Warren: You have to feel the setting to make it real.
Sperring: You have to be able to get the reader into the head of the character. Shelter by C. Brenchley was recommended.
Datlow: She says that she has read books where she felt invested in the story and then the author pulled the rug out at the end of the story and it pissed her off.
Sperring: Full sensa-around. That seems to add to horror. The sensations.
Warren: Taste is important. What does the taste of something in someone else’s mouth taste like.
“Lowland Sea” by Suzy McKee Charnas. A story about plague but the description of the horrors happening is calm and very well done.
“Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin was also mentioned.
Question: Start the story in the real and move it into the unreal– is that what you meant? Yes. Datlow said that writing a supernatural horror novel is very hard to do because it is hard to maintain the suspension of disbelief.
Question: What about alternate reality fantasy and maintaining the horror? Mieville and his world building is described as being brilliant by Datlow.
Terri Carr wrote a short story that is brilliant and totally not comprehensible because the aliens are so well constructed and maintained.
Sperring said that if things are so well conceived then you get comfortable in the mind of the character who is other. She brought up Tanith Lee’s use of details also as a way for realism to be constructed.
Ellen Datlow said that she cannot read about animals being hurt. She believes that Black Beauty is a horror novel and she found it very disturbing. For her animals being hurt is worse than people being hurt.
All three started talking about how when you expect one thing and then suddenly things are not what you expected. For instance in the most simple terms getting coffee with milk and it has sugar in it. Or Fearless Vampire Killers when they save the girl and then the girl turns around and bites them. Twisting things slightly out of focus can make things horrific.
Question: What taboos do you think are in place in pushing the bounds when writing horror?
Warren doesn’t like to write about children being hurt and doesn’t put children into her stories.
Sperring says that this is very cultural. She is British and believes that class differences are a taboo and changes in class are somewhat problematic. She says that many vampires are aristocratic. She says there are two Britains where one is Trainspotting and the other is Four Weddings and a Funeral. She says that also there are things that are not to be done to parents.
Question: From the point of view of the two classes, lower classes are associated more with horror because of the association of violence? Is this true?
Yes, possible from Sperring.
Datlow spoke about homosexual horror that has been published after Sperring said that there were some cases of authors being persecuted after writing homosexual horror fiction from about ten years ago. She thought this may be a taboo.
Question: Difference between dark fantasy and horror in terms of physical and psychological?
Datlow: Horror gives a great sense of unease. (This is after the questioner brought up Connie Willis’ Passages.)
Warren: It is the things that sometimes tap into people’s subconsciousness.
Sperring: The boundary between dark fantasy and horror is a difficult. And slippery thing to determine. She also talked about the twisting around of things and they stick with them and that can be very horrific. She relayed about reading a story where the characters walk into a mansion with a conservatory and the light is odd because there are bodies up on the roof and the light is filtered around the bodies and the image is changed.
Susan Forest just joined the group. She is a short story fiction writer.
*****Just an aside. I am finding it very interesting that this entire panel is women. I asked if women write more horror and dark fantasy. Datlow forcefully said NO. I asked if there was a difference in the fiction that women write versus men. Sperring said that she thought that men write more horror and women write more dark fantasy. She said that women tend to have more upbeat endings and there is often an element of romance. Harrison and Mieville were brought up and I asked if there was any distinction between horror, dark fantasy, and New Weird– Datlow jumped all over me and said absolutely not. She said that she very much dislikes the descriptor of New Weird and that New Weird is nothing different or new and that it is the same as the old weird. She suggested taking a look at Weird Tales.
Sperring brought up that there is a perception that women are supposed to be the objects of danger. Forest said that she thinks that women write their horror and dark fantasy from a different place– they have more fear being the “weaker sex”. There was some discussion about how men experience bullying that is physical and that women experience bullying that is more psychological.
Question: Do you think that the genre allows you to play more with female roles? One of the panelists has a female serial killer as a character. She agreed with this statement.