StokerCon 2019 panel report: “Out There in The Dark: Horror—The Original Literature”


Amanda Desiree attended the StokerCon 2019 panel “Out There in The Dark: Horror—The Original Literature,” which included Robert McCammon as a panelist. Amanda posted her recollections of the panel in the Facebook group Robert McCammon Group.

Full panel L to R: Kathe Koja, Stephanie Wytovich, Kaaron Warren, Robert McCammon, Josh Malerman, and moderator Kevin J. Wetmorel

I attended the Stokercon panel “Out There in The Dark: Horror—The Original Literature” on Friday.  What follows is my memory of the event.  I didn’t take notes or video, and the dialogue is paraphrased and not meant to be a word-for-word representation.  If anyone else who was at the panel would like to add to or correct my recollections, please feel free to do so.

The panel was entirely composed of guests of honor: Josh Malerman (JM), Robert McCammon (RMC), Kaaron Warren (KW), Stephanie Wytovich (SW), and Kathe Koja (KK). The panel was moderated by the thoroughly enjoyable, and seemingly effortlessly witty Kevin J. Wetmore (KJM).

KJM introduced all the panelists and the topic of discussion.  “The very first literature was horror literature, starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Ancient Greek and Roman mythology features ghosts and monsters.” It’s human nature to want to be scared.

He asked about the panelists’ early exposure to horror. JM had read myths in childhood. RMC had read Arthurian legends and myths. “What happens in Greek mythology–and in African mythology too–is that the heroes go up against insurmountable obstacles. They go up against the gods themselves, up against forces of nature. That impressed me.”

KW had a more eclectic background. “I read the lives of saints. The tortures they endured were like horror stories.” (“Ooh, yes!” KK interjected. “St. Lucy with her eyeballs on a plate!”) “I also read about Celtic rituals. And fairy tales. The original fairy tales are gruesome, like Bluebeard.”

“I love that one,” RMC concurred.

“I did a science project on mummies when I was in fourth grade,” SW shared. “I mummified a chicken for a science fair project, and then when I was in high school, I mummified a cat. So studying about mummies and the death rituals brought me to horror.”

“Wait a minute,” RMC said. “I want to hear more about this mummifying.”

SW explained how her father helped her get a chicken for her fourth grade science project. She plucked the feathers, dried it with herbs and oils comparable to what the Egyptians used, and wrapped it up. “People who saw it were creeped out and wouldn’t come to my booth. I was hurt. So for the high school science fair I thought, ‘OK, if you were scared of me before…’ And I told my teacher I wanted to mummify a cat. She thought about it and she agreed to get me a cat. I packed it with kitty litter and for about 60 days, my mom had to put up with a dead cat drying out in the garage. The school made a video of me going through the process to mummify the cat. I built a little sarcophagus for it and painted it and I performed a ritual for it.”

“Is that video on YouTube?” JM asked.

“No,” SW answered, “it’s not on YouTube, but the school still has the cat on display, Now and then I think about breaking into the school and liberating it.”

“You should. Otherwise, what will archaeologists 2500 years from now think when they unearth it?” KJW admonished.

KK referred back to KW’s response in addressing her introduction to horror. (“Continuing the theme of copying off you.”). She came from a devout Catholic family that read her lives of the saints and Biblical passages about damnation. “When you’re a small child, and an adult tells you not to put your hand on the stove or you’ll get burned, and then you do put your hand on the stove and it does burn, when they tell you you’re going to go to Hell if you don’t obey, don’t you think they may be right about that too?”

KJW called on JM. “In your story “On This, the Day of the Pig,” the only story to tell the truth about the upcoming Pigpocalypse, you reference Bad Brains (KK’s book and part of this year’s swag bag). That’s an intertextual reference, where an author brings another author into the story, and it made me think about reading Bad Brains in the context of “Day of the Pig.”  Do the rest of you try to reference other authors’ work in the genre?” RMC said, “I try not to be influenced by anyone else in the genre. I don’t read a lot of horror. I tend to read sci-fi and biographies.”

“I’m like you, KW said, “reading biographies and history books.  The one time I did try to emulate another writer was in high school.  When The Outsiders came out, I tried to write the Australian version. Instead of the socs and the greasers, it was the wogs and skegs (?), which is slang for minorities and white people.” [I’m not sure I deciphered her accent properly and I can’t find any variations of that latter term via Google that make sense.]

SW likes to read psychology.  “I want to understand why people do the things they do, and for Hysteria ‘her poetry collection], reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” and reading about the history of hysteria and the symptoms was great background.”

KJW next asked the panel what their favorite pre-Stephen King work of horror was. Referring back to an earlier discussion on the Ambiguously Haunted Houses panel, KK cited Wuthering Heights. “It’s an unambiguous ghost story. Cathy and Heathcliff are going to do what they’re going to do and they don’t care what you think.  Emily Bronte was amazing. You all should read that book.” KK also cited an M.R. James story.  “It’s the one where the guy has the magic lantern show.  It makes all these demons come out. It’s an early immersion experience.  What’s it called?  He’s this really nasty neighbor who scares the kids.” It was “Casting the Runes.”

SW named Carmilla as a favorite. “It’s one of the first vampire stories and you can see how it can be reinterpreted and reshaped in other works like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. I also loved the connections between Byron and Polidori [with “The Vampyre”].”

KW praised the work of Celia Fremlin, who wrote quiet domestic horror stories. “She wrote one about a mother who takes her children to the beach, and as she’s lying on the sand, listening to the children screaming and running around her, she keeps wishing she were anywhere else. When she gets up, the sand beneath her has turned ice cold.”

She also praised E. Nesbit’s “Man-Size in Marble” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Bottle Imp.” “Imagine you have a bottle that will grant all your wishes, but when you die, the demon in the bottle will take your soul to Hell. The only way to save yourself is to sell the bottle to someone else, and you can only sell it for half of what you paid for it. So when the story begins, the price is a million dollars. By the end, it goes down to one cent. W hat do you do? How do you get rid of it? Who do you sell it to?  Because they’ll be damned too. The Ring is a similar example.”

RMC cited Poe as a favorite early horror writer. “I read magazines that contained his stories when I was a kid. I couldn’t understand them at first but I kept going back to them and rereading them.  I knew I had to figure them out. ‘Descent Into the Maelstrom’ was the one. I was finally able to use the telekinesis from it in a recent book, The Listener.”

JM was a fan of Faulkner. “There’s nothing overtly horrific about his stories, but they are unsettling. The characters in the community are so isolated from each other.” RMC agreed. “The mental isolation of the characters is part of the horror.” KJW specifically noted “A Rose for Emily” as one example of psychological Gothic horror in Faulkner’s work.  JM also appreciated Hemingway.  “Sometimes I want to hear an elaborate composition and sometimes I want a tight pop tune by The Beatles.  Faulkner is the elaborate composition and Hemingway is the tight pop tune.”

Then KJW segued. “This reminds me of an article John Skipp wrote about the movie Amadeus in which he claimed Amadeus was a horror movie.  (It’s “Death’s Rich Pageantry, or Skipp and Spector’s Handy-Dandy Splatterpunk Guide to the Horrors of Non-Horror Film” in Christopher Golden’s book Cut!)   You have a madman in an asylum who—sorry if this is a spoiler—dresses up as a man’s dead father in order to drive him mad. Are there any other stories you can think of that aren’t expressly horror but contain elements of horror?”

KK immediately brought up “The Lottery” for its brutality. “We’re gonna do this ritual every year, and we can’t explain why we do the thing, but we’re gonna do the thing now, and guess what, Tessie? It’s you!”  She also brought up a Cormac McCarthy novel. “It’s about a brother and sister and the sister has lost a baby. She thinks it’s dead but it turns out the brother has given the baby away to someone. And they’re traveling the country for about a hundred pages, and then you encounter these three horrible people who are also traveling, and you just know that at some point, their paths will intersect and something terrible will happen. What was that book called? If anyone knows, feel free to shout it out.” Eventually the audience came up with Outer Dark.

The works of Flannery O’Connor, particularly “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” came up. KW commented on the juxtaposition of the bloody outcome and the streaks of humor running through the story.  “It’s gruesome, but it’s funny!”

“Humor in a story makes the horror stand out more,” RMC observed.

“What’s horror depends on how you look at a situation, KW said, and again alluded to the Haunted Houses panel. “It goes back to what you (KK) said about Eleanor in Haunting of Hill House being malignant. You can put a new interpretation on a story and make it horrific. Think of family photos. You see a picture of a smiling family and they look happy, but then you find out one of them murdered everyone else. And everyone is shocked. They seemed so normal.  You can’t tell anything is wrong by looking at them.”

“That reminds me of a display I saw at a police museum up in Canada,” RMC said.  “An entire family had been murdered and the case was still unsolved. Their family photos were on display, and the bloody sheets. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

JM referred to another of my favorite authors. “Algernon Blackwood has a great story about a man who gets off a train and goes to a hotel in the mountains, but he’s told all the rooms are full. (“The Kit-Bag”). As he’s leaving, an employee of the hotel catches up to him and tells him, ‘Well, there is one room…It belongs to a climber who went out yesterday and hasn’t come back yet.  We don’t know what happened to him.’ He takes the room and he’s surrounded by all this guy’s things, his bag and his clothes, and the whole time, you don’t know, where is this guy? Is the guy dead? It’s very creepy.”

KJW asked, “How do you feel that your work upholds the tradition of the horror genre?”

RMC observed that horror underpins all aspects of our lives.  “It’s part of family life and school and work.  Everything you do involves horror.”

KW noted, “Our national song is about a poacher who drowns himself to escape from the police and continues to haunt the place where he died.” She sang us the chorus of “Waltzing Matilda,” to applause and laughter.  “We had to come up with something to sing at the Olympics. All the other countries had a national song, and that was the only Australian song everyone knew how to sing.”

Someone in the audience mentioned “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.” “But look how that one ends!” KW pointed out. “’Tan me hide when I’m dead, Fred.’  So he gets skinned, and his skin is hanging on someone’s shed!”  People turned to look at SW.

When asked what book they wished they had written (any book, not necessarily horror), KK chose The Poems of Sylvia Plath (given her professed love for Shirley Jackson, I would have expected her to pick Haunting of Hill House). SW chose a Jackson book: We Have Always Lived in the Castle. “It’s two crazy women living in an old house, getting into trouble when family comes to visit, doing all sorts of things they shouldn’t.  And it’s a feminist novel. It’s great!”

RMC named Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. “It’s an incredible first novel. She [Susanna Clarke] creates an entire world. But I couldn’t have managed all the footnotes. I would have gone crazy.”

The time came to take questions from the audience.  Someone asked SW to repeat the title of one of her poetry collections cited in her introduction: Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare.  He thought that was an amazing title.

“The scariest thing in the world is to look at your face in a mirror in the dark,” said another man.  He asked the panelists if they consciously try to insert themselves (i.e., their opinions) into the themes of their works. The general consensus was a deliberate self-awareness in writing is bad.  “In Australia right now, we’re having a lot of trouble with re-homing people,” KW explained.  “I could write a story that says ‘Homelessness is bad,’ but it’s better to be subtle.”

KK asked the audience a question. “Why do you think people have such negative reactions to finding out you’re a horror writer?”

“It’s because of the slasher genre in the 80s,” one person answered. “Now that’s what everyone thinks horror is.” “It’s because people assume what you write is wish fulfillment, and if you’re writing horror, then what kind of person must you be?” said another.

SW could identify with that. “The one time I felt truly uncomfortable was when I was with a reading group–not a horror reading group–and Nos4A2 had just come out. People were discussing it and they were genuinely upset that someone had come up with such an idea, and the way they looked at me when I told them I wrote horror was scary.”

A member of the audience quoted Hemingway. “He said, ‘Writing a book is easy. You just have to open up a vein.’”

“That’s right. You put so much of yourself into writing,” KK agreed.  “And I have so much admiration for people like you [to RMC] who persisted with the language in those Poe stories because you felt that they were meant for you.  Those are my kind of people.”

Finally, the panel wrapped up.  It was wonderful to hear so many insights into the nature of horror (and life).  I enjoyed the discussion and everyone who contributed to it.