Published in Lights Out! Issue #5, February 1991
The State of Where
by Robert R. McCammon
First things first. I want to thank you for your interest in my writing. If a writer had no readers, he or she would be a voice speaking in an empty room. I am very, very grateful to find my room full of appreciative ears, and I can't tell you how much that means to me.
I presume that if you were not interested in me, you wouldn't be reading this issue of Lights Out! Hunter Goatley has done a magnificent job in putting together this newsletter, and I'm proud to call Hunter my friend. The task of doing something like this is often thankless, usually a major pain, and a test of the nerves when the editing and printing deadlines roll around. So: thank you Hunter, you're doing a spectacular job.
Well, I guess that since this is my newsletter it's also kind of a forum for my voice. I feel strange about this whole thing, really. When I began writing professionally, in 1978, I never intended to become a celebrity or "star." I still don't intend to. I am first and foremost a writer, and I am blessed beyond all blessings because I have readers and my books are selling. Which, of course, is the bottom line for the publisher. I have a different bottom line; I've always thought that the success of a previous book means I can write another one. I live from book to book. From child to child, if you please. Each one, I hope, gets a little better. Different, yes. But better, I hope.
You may be wondering about the title I've chosen for this article. It's exactly as it says. I want to tell you where I am, and where I'm going.
I've just finished my new book, Boy's Life, which will be out either in July or August of 1991. I'm starting the next book in the middle of January, and hope to be finished with it by the end of May. Under the Fang, the anthology Martin Greenberg and I edited for the Horror Writers of America, will be published by Pocket Books in the summer of '91, and the paperback edition of MINE will be out, I believe, in May. I just signed a contract for all my books to be published in Japan, and there are all sorts of great things happening in other countries for me. Sometimes—well, very often, actually—I can't believe all this is going on. It seems like a dream, and that someone else is at the wheel and I'm just along for the ride. I am living a life I never could have imagined, when I was ten years old and pounding out my ghost stories on a Royal typewriter my grandparents bought me from a junkshop.
Now, I have to tell you this: I probably won't be writing any more supernatural horror novels, and I want to explain why this is so.
The field of horror writing has changed dramatically since the mid- to late-'70s. At that time, horror writing was still influenced by the classics of the literature. I don't find that to be true anymore. It seems to me that horror writing—all writing, no matter what genre—needs to be about people, first and foremost. It needs to speak to the pain and isolation we all feel, about the disappointments we have all faced and about the bravery people summon in order to get through what is sometimes a crushing day-to-day existence. Again, I don't find that to be generally true of the horror field as we enter the '90s. Something of rubber stamping and cookie cutters has gotten into this field, and it's an unfortunate fact that even the best writing is judged not by its own merit, but by what the general public understands to be "real horror"—namely, the brutal and brainless garbage that Hollywood throws out as "entertainment" for the "lowest common denominator."
And, my friends, it's killing us.
A sense of wonder and beauty has been drained from our field. It has happened slowly, over a period of years. Without wonder and beauty, our writing and our dreams are lifeless. Without humanity in our work, we are left with senseless rage and violence. Such things are all too common in our world: are we here to try to make things better, or to try to compete with the heavy darkness that is bludgeoning people's minds into Silly Putty? I, for one, want no part in layering more darkness onto that weight, and calling it a "fun entertainment."
It's just not right.
I understand the benefits of entertainment and escapism to the society. Such things sell. But it seems to me that the balance is way out of whack now. Horror writing has lost its grace and character, in favor of dumbness influenced by movies. A new generation of writers and readers is advancing. They will think that violence and gore, brutality and meanness sell, and that's what they will write and read. Publishing companies encourage what has worked before, to the detriment of the future. Readers come to expect less and to like it. Writers pocket their cash and outline the next book, which must be like the last because the publishers say this is what people expect and like.
Does this cycle really, truly, help anybody?
No. Not the writers, because if we write by formula we turn off our imaginations and we limit our scope of ideas. Not the publishers, because even though they might make a ton of money in the present, they're impoverishing their futures by advocating a rubber stamp mentality that cripples talent. And certainly not the readers, who may get hooked on the "scare" element of horror fiction but whose very literacy is threatened by the cookie cutter approach to writing. If writers stop taking chances and risks in favor of the "sure thing," writing itself becomes dry and predictable, all the life and fire sucked right out of it. We are left, then, with mindless slavery to money, with selling not works from the heart and soul, but works that are dictated by the marketplace. And that, my friends, is death.
Oh, you can get rich doing it that way. Sure you can. You'll never be poor selling escapism, but Jesus Christ, there is so much more to life than that! There are questions that need to be asked, and people and worlds explored, and life to be affirmed and death to be examined head-on without the need for shapes in sheets and haunted houses.
That's what I think. Today's escapist horror fiction has become irrelevant in our tortured society. So where do we go from here?
I hear, as you probably do, a lot about "the cutting edge." This means, it appears to me, experimental fiction. That's great. We need more experimental fiction. But why is it that "the cutting edge" means more and more graphic violence, more brutality—particularly against women—and fiction that seethes with rage and meanness? It's a mirror of our society, of course. But as writers, we need to be leaders too. We have voices that touch a lot of people not only in this country but all around the world. Why is it that we don't use those voices to help people instead of simply painting the social mirror darker and darker?
I am weary of celebrating death and evil. I just don't want to do it anymore. If my readers want only a celebration of evil, darkness, and death, then I am a miserable failure.
I'm asked this question occasionally: "What scares you?" I always give this answer: "Confinement." Most times the questioner looks at me as if he or she thinks I'm talking about being locked up in a dark closet or chained in a basement by a slavering madman. No, that's not what I mean. My fear is of confinement of the mind, of being told I must write this way or that way about this subject and that I have no choice but to do as I'm directed. I find being a "horror writer" has become a confinement. I sense walls closing in on my choices, because of what I've written in the past.
Well, my way of doing things is to start busting down walls.
I don't want to be a "horror writer." I don't want to be a "psychological suspense writer," or a "mystery writer," or a "dark fantasy writer." As far as I am able, I want to destroy those walls of category that try to define what a person is and make him controllable. I don't want to be controllable. I want to be free, and by God I am going to be.
I am not shutting down, you see. By turning away from the strictly supernatural novel, I am walking into the real world. I will always have my own distinct voice and my own way of looking at things. I will always be a kid at heart and I will probably never be as good a writer as I would like to be, but I must walk my own path. I have to. Where I'm going to go I'm not sure, but I do know this: it's going to be one hell of a terrific trip. Because look at all those roads that lead out of the graveyard and into the realm of life. There are so many of them, and so many choices! And that sun is so bright, and those hills are so green! And there are things to be seen and learned, and stories to be written there, away from the shadows of the tombstones.
That's where I'm headed now. I hope you'll go with me. If not, not. I understand. But I have to put the demons, ghosts, and vampires away in their boxes and I have to go somewhere else. It sure is a big world, beyond the door of the house on haunted hill. That's where I have to go.