Some of the contributors of the recently released book; Many Genres, One Craft; are making a swing around NHRS during their Virtual Blog Tour. First up is beautiful and talented Mary San Giovanni. A Bram Stoker Award nominee who has written acclaimed novels since her time at Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction program. Come see what she has to say about what is horror, what makes horror effective, and women’s unique role in the genre.
NHRS: In your essay, “Dark and Story Nights,” you talk about how creating the right mood and atmosphere is important to the strength of a horror story. Would you say that difference between horror stories and stories that use horror elements is defined by the use of atmosphere and mood?
MS: I would; I’d say what defines horror as such is intent; horror’s intent is to evoke fear or dread or terror, all shades of the same basic color of horror. I believe that atmosphere and mood signal that intent not only in literature, but in movies, video games, and the like. Horror as a genre is an exploration of the fight or flight response in us, and what causes it. The mood of a horror piece creates a specific kind of tension to predispose the reader to react to threats presented in a book or on screen with fear/terror or dread.
NHRS: Do you think that there is a misconception between the atmosphere in horror literature, which is more lurking and dark, and the atmosphere of popular horror movies, which tends to be more shocking and tense?
MS: Most definitely. I think the misconception is that horror books must naturally approach the presentation of horror in the same hack-and-slash way as some of the more infamous commercial horror movies. Because movies are such a visual medium, movie makers often lean on the visceral to reach audiences – and this goes back through the slashers of the 80’s, the grindhouse of the 70’s, the bloody shockers of the 60’s, probably all the way back to the pulp Weird stories of the 20’s. The tradition of horror movie making follows more often the pulp roots of the genre more than the quiet ghost stories that predated it. Now, horror as a genre has always sought to push the envelope in striking the core of humanity’s fears. However, with most commercial horror movies, I feel this is often misunderstood — or maybe, the audiences of horror are often underestimated in their collective ability to understand the subtleties of the genre. Whatever the case, moviemakers look for an effect that will reach the broadest range of paying audience members as possible. That effect is often shock or revulsion, sought through intense violence and gore. Those elements then often replace or overshadow the core sentiments that make such violence and gore shocking – the cruelty of humanity, the inhumanity, I guess, of the human race. There are, conversely, some excellent filmmakers whose subtle, quiet works are absolutely terrifying, and my hope is that over time, the diversity of horror as it exists in literature will extend to commercial horror in film as well.
NHRS: Along with mood and atmosphere, what elements define the horror genre outside of all others?
MS: Aside from intent, I’d have to say characters. I think the characters in horror – not the stock stereotypes that serve as monster fodder, but the good characters – present defining elements of horror. Their character, their flaws, and especially their strengths are developed carefully to complement the threat presented. You can’t make someone feel afraid for a character if you can’t make him or her feel for the character to begin with. The audience/readership needs first to feel something for the character in some way. And while that statement is true of fiction in general, I think the creation of a specific kind of character, like the creation of a specific mood or atmosphere, helps set the tone for a work as being that of horror.
NHRS: In an earlier interview, you mentioned that women horror writers “bring a different psychological bent to horror.” How would you describe that bent?
MS: Speaking from personal and shared experience, women are taught from childhood that danger is ever present on the fringes of our existence. We’re told to be wary of (or downright afraid of) things that men often don’t give a second thought to. I suppose that stems from centuries of objectification or victimization of those deemed the “weaker sex.” Although that cultural sublimation and its accompanying helpless worry has been changing for decades, traditionally women have been taught to fear being alone — dark parking lots, dark alleys, letting oneself into an apartment alone. They have been taught to be cautious of seemingly empty vans, men that stare too much, get too close, overpower personal space. They were taught, until the popularity of self-defense classes, to somewhat dismiss their own physical strength and rely on alertness and caution and safety in numbers. This is not to say that men are never taught to be careful; it’s just that the physical threats of harm to oneself are not so multitude and do not take so many forms as they seem to for women. How I believe this dovetails into horror is that since childhood, women are taught to rely on instinct and intuition, to be alert and think fast. Those are primary elements of characters in the survival type horror, and I think survival, physically or psychologically, plays a big part in the character types and approach to horror by women. They are traditionally taught to understand and explore emotions and accept their power – fear, anger, sadness, love. This can make for less linear or for perhaps more complex thought processing. I think that affects the particular way we develop layered plots and multifaceted characters, subtext and theme. Women are so very much aware, and always really have been, of the blatant cruelty and horrors of this world, and there is a kind of darkness of soul that pervades our work because of that, filtered through the lessons of time, experience, and the connection to our emotional core. I do not believe we write devastating darkness because we are compensating for the belief that only men can write scary fiction; rather, I think it’s an inherent part of the way we approach horror. We wring from bodies that understand pain and endurance in a different way, from souls that share a collective understanding of violence through the most primal of drives and emotions. It’s a complexity that I think women are embracing now more than ever before, and it’s there in our fiction, our movie-making, in all forms of our art.
NHRS: Recently, people say how they have started reading horror. They tend to name the Twilight Saga or the Sooki Stackhouse series as the horror books they read. Would you consider this a part of the broadening of the horror genre or misconception of what the horror genre is?
MS: Although I do believe the horror genre is a lot broader than simple slash and splatter, I don’t believe these books are an accurate representation of horror per se. Rather, they use monsters traditionally associated with horror, and may, at times, include suspenseful or horrific elements, to achieve a different effect or purpose. It goes back to intent. These monsters are meant often to represent the outsider as mysterious and different in order to titillate – ultimately, these “monsters” are identifiable as sympathetic, sexy, emotional — kindred to humans. Conversely, horror uses the alien, no matter how human, as a means of evoking fear moreso than sympathy or love. This is a generalization, mind you. I think sympathy and love play a part in horror, just not in the same way, or for the same reason, that they do in the above-mentioned books.
NHRS: If there was one thing about Horror that you don’t think most people know, what would that be?
MS: That horror often celebrates the triumph of the human spirit, the admirable strength and resourcefulness of humanity. Horror is often a reflection of the best humanity has to offer, and by extension (or inclusion) the best that we are and can be. Horror stories, I’ve often said, are stories of hope, stories of the possibility of redemption, peace, and love. They are stories that remind us of the good in the world – in each other, and in ourselves.
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Mary SanGiovanni has a B.A. in English, with a concentration in Writing, from Fairleigh Dickinson U., and an M.A. in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill U.
Mary lives in NJ with her son. Some of her favorite things include video games, movies, books, long baths, art, Asian food, lilacs, dollhouses, woodworking, singing, salsa dancing, and butterflies.
She is of Italian and Irish descent.
She is left-handed.
She believes in God, the Devil, angels, demons, ghosts, fairy folk, aliens, karma, ESP, telepathy, worm holes, other dimensions, Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, love at first sight, Roswell, monsters, and the American Dream, because life’s too short and boring without them.