January is not an easy month for me. If I had my way, I'd still be under the covers, hiding from the world. Unfortunately, life (and sometimes nature) calls, so I have to get up and earn my keep, lest my mother decide that I would look better lounging on the concrete road outside our gate instead of on the sofa in front of the TV. Also, I have to earn my keep as the first guest editor of Philippine Genre Stories, lest Mr. Yu, my esteemed publisher, decide that a collar, Doc Martens and leftover angst from the 90's do not a horror editor make, though he might change his mind if I throw some eyeliner into the mix for good measure.
Why is it that the first month of the year is the month when so many celebrate their death anniversaries? I'm not just talking about the recent demise of heartthrobs Heath Ledger and Brad Renfro's (Why, oh why do the good ones have to go first? I've heard stories of people, upon hearing the news about Heath, ask why it wasn't Paris Hilton instead. Di pwede si Nicole Richie, buntis kasi.).
I know at least four people who died in January, one of them being my father. This is why I've spent most of December and all of January in a slump, with the worst days being the two days that lead up to my dad's death, where I try * not * to replay everything in my head. Good thing we didn't go to the cemetery this year, because I don't like cemeteries, the same way I don't like funerals, hospitals and 'true' ghost stories. All these remind me of death, and death reminds me of ghosts. And I'm very scared of ghosts.
So how did someone who readily admits to being a scaredy-cat end up writing horror fiction? Sometimes I wonder that myself. I certainly didn't start out wanting to read it (I always thought I'd be writing high fantasy, believe it or not). You could say that the genre chose me. If you will look beyond the common vampire/ werewolf/ mummy/ demon love/ resurrection/ evil dead/ giant carnivorous creature/ serial killer themes, you will realize that horror actually gives you a lot of room to work out new and interesting ideas, if you bother to look hard enough.
Not Another Vampire Story!
Part of my disdain for vampire stories is that it's very hard to come up with a fresh take on the undead. Don't get me wrong, I had a major vampire phase the same way some girls have a major pony phase. Modern vampires, thanks to people like Stoker and Rice, have changed the vampire from a repulsive half-rotten corpse to a beautiful, forever young lothario hell-bent on corrupting the equally beautiful, albeit innocent youth. How could you not fall in love with that concept? And how could you not grow out of it? As my mother says, “Good looks won't feed you.” Not even the most drop-dead gorgeous vampire in the world will stand if he doesn't have a good plot to hold him up. And a good vampire plot is hard to come by nowadays.
I would love nothing more than a vampire tale that wasn't a forbidden love or an angsty why am I here or an erotic chu-chu story. This applies to the other tropes as well. Not another forbidden werewolf/ vampire love story (Underworld doesn't count because everyone had cool names and Kate Beckinsdale was really hot). Not another double identity story. Stephen King set the pace with The Dark Half and it's a tough act to follow. And no, Rurouni Kenshin doesn't count because it's not horror. I would like to see more zombie stories, though. One of my favorites is a short film by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes, part of one of the Shake Rattle and Rolls. It involved Gina Alajar (I think) as a forlorn zombie who ate soil because she wanted to return 'home.' And of course, there is Poppy Z. Brite's Calcutta, the Lord of Nerves, which depicts the end of the world as seen in the said Indian city. Horror has many elements an author can play with. It would be a shame not to take advantage of it. Until then, I will prefer my vampires purple and with a penchant for math, my werewolves to resemble Michael J. Fox (or Richard Grieco), and Michael Jackson, black.
One of the reasons I love horror fiction is because it appeals to the lazy girl in me. You know how writing teachers tell you to write about what you know? Horror forces you to write about what you don't know. For one thing, horror fiction and film almost always deals with death and/ or madness. Sure, you have all these mad people running around. But you're not going to believe what they say, are you? They're mad, for goodness sakes! And who knows anything about death? Death isn't like a student exchange program or a job that takes you out of the country. It's a permanent separation from all things material.
Somehow, when your body stops functioning, whatever it is that makes you you and not some bag of flesh (some people call it a soul, I call it super glue) leaves and you become, well, a bag of flesh. I watched my father go from slightly living to very dead. I watched his pulse fade, watched his heart monitor flatline, watched his chest continue moving up and down, not because of his lungs, but because of the respirator attached to him. The last time I spoke to him was the night before, where I told him that I couldn't wait to see him after he got better. He didn't get better, and I haven't seen him since.
Which brings me to the point I'm trying to make: nobody, except Jesus, has come back from the dead, and even Jesus didn't leave notes on what the afterlife was like. Near-death experiences don't count, because even if those who have gone through it really * did * see the afterlife, they didn't stay long enough to make scientific inquiries. This means that you can do with death as you please, no research necessary. All you need is a lot of imagination and a lot of hours clocked in watching CSI and whatever horror film you can find. An oversimplification, I know.
There are so many imaginative and horrifying ways to kill a character. Having an alien burst out from inside a human body used to be novel, but now it's run-of-the mill. One of the freakiest thing's I've seen is the suicide scene in Uzumaki (Thanks, Charles!), where a man inserts himself in a round bathtub in an attempt to mimic the shape of the spirals that plague his town. There are also so many ways to make a character think of death as better alternative. One of the creepiest stories I've read is “The Yellow Wallpaper," where nobody dies, but you sort of wish somebody did, just so at least something would make sense. There's nothing like the story of the living to keep you up at night.
The Horror, the Horror!
What most people forget is that horror isn't a genre per se, it's a state of mind. It's a feeling, an emotion.
After my father died, I had to stay behind to watch the body as it was embalmed and prepared for the wake. I watched the embalmer lay his lifeless body on a slab, cut through his pyjamas, hose him down, and prepare to cut him open. At this point, my uncle (one of my dad's friends), who had been with me all this time, asked if I wanted to leave. I said no. Two minutes later, he asked again, and again, I declined. A few seconds later, he asked again, his voice rising slightly in fear and panic, so I finally said yes, just to calm him down. So. You don't need to be dead to inspire horror. You can be perfectly alive and just slightly off kilter and achieve the same, if not better, results.
This is why seemingly 'mainstream' films like Passion of the Christ (whose screenplay was nominated for a Stoker) and 'literary' stories like “The Lottery” are considered horror. You don't need a creature of the supernatural to scare the pants off your readers, you don't even need a serial killer. It's easy to stick a vampire or a serial killer (or in our case, a kapre or a manananggal – both of which I'm guilty of doing) in the middle of a story and call it horror. And it may be very good horror. But it takes a genius to use a shy motel owner or an entire farming village to wreak havoc on the reader's psyche. Again, Stephen King is a master of this. Though he may use things like fog and falling frogs and freaky cornsilk children to help his stories along, at the heart of it, it is still the shaking of the seeming banality of small town America that makes his stories keep you up at night.
To answer my own question: I write horror because it's got elements that draw me in, it forces me to write about subjects I do not know, and most of all, because it's fun.
Strike fear in the hearts of your friends and loved ones this Halloween. Submit a story to the Philippine Genre Stories Halloween edition!