Novels, short stories, articles, non-fiction books, Scott A. Johnson does it all. From zombies to demons, he writes it all and writes it well. As both a teacher and mentor in the Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction program, he helps the next generation of horror writers learn the chops of creating effective, engaging stories. So let’s see what he has to say about realism, literary merit, ghosts, and the ever popular zombie.
NHRS: In your essay, “Blurring the Line: How Reality Helps Build Better Fiction,” you show how even the fanciful need to be infused with reality and logic so that the reader’s suspension of disbelief isn’t taken for granted. You use some horror cliches to prove the point. Do you think horror fiction’s conventions are taken for granted and lack that reality in some cases?
I think that many writers don’t take the logical step of researching and actually thinking through the consequences of many actions, so that lack of reality does happen. But on the subject of cliches and conventions, there’s a reason for all the cliches. Yes, we’ve seen the kid run from the spider, screaming, over and over again, and it’s a cliche. But it’s also reality. it also really happens. So, yes, they are taken for granted because people have seen many of them before. But one has to ask how he believes he or she would act in any situation.
NHRS: You wrote a blog post about “Observational Horror.” Along with what you wrote in your essay, do you think stories that have that spark of inspiration from something in reality, rather than the “let’s write this kind of horror story” inspiration, tend to be the stronger ones in the genre?
One tends to be more effective, in my mind, than the other. I think the stories that draw on inspiration from outside sources have a greater chance of connecting with the audience than the “let’s write a monster story” type.
NHRS: Literary fiction is sometimes defined by its inherent realism or hyper-realism. Why do you think that, despite some very literary horror books being published recently, let alone in the history of horror literature, there is still a snobbery to the genre no matter the amount of realism is included?
I disagree with inherent realism or hyper-realism in “literary” fiction. There are too many cases, on both sides of the fence, where the rule doesn’t apply. I think any kind of snobbery toward any genre, whether it is horror or romance, is wrong. What causes it, I can’t say. If it’s ignorance, jealousy, self-importance… it doesn’t matter. Here’s the thing: All writers are trying to do the same thing. We are trying to A) tell a good story, and B) make an emotional connection with the reader. That’s it. I think that as long as you can connect with the reader, make them feel what you want them to feel, then you’ve done your job. Boring them with purple prose that drags on for pages and pages about a single leaf falling to the ground, to me, is a masturbatory practice that is of little benefit to the reader and does nothing but inflate the writer’s own sense of self-worth. I remember, when I first got published, I was snubbed by the “literary” types. When I asked what the difference was between our two writing styles, they couldn’t answer me. When I asked why mine was bad, why horror was so far beneath them, they couldn’t answer. Yet, when I listened in on their lectures, they yearned to make readers quiver with words, hoped to make them flush with a phrase, prayed to instill some emotional connection. And isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? Lovecraft said the oldest and most powerful emotion known to mankind is fear. Should we, as writers and artists, shy away from that because we find it base? Or uncomfortable? Or are we so afraid of our own fears that we cannot confront them? Personally, I think that “literary” folk who look down on horror are a bit cowardly. Do they really think they could do what we do? I doubt it.
NHRS: Zombies are very popular right now. They are a creature that never goes away in popularity, they just ebb a little. There are people that are just tired of zombie stories, as well. Do you think there are ways to pull in readers, new and old, into zombie fiction with this fatigue starting to settle in some people?
As you say, they ebb a little. Right now, they’re coming off a crest and moving back into the “tried and true” category that leave people looking for the next big thing. They’ll come back in, but in order to draw new readers, you have to build a better zombie. You have to give them either the quintessential zombie story (which is unlikely), or you have to give them something new. I personally feel the zombie-fad has run its course for this time around. When it comes back again, it’ll shamble back into the light and take the world by storm again.
NHRS: You write a lot about ghosts, both fiction and non-fiction. Horror could even be said to be built on a foundation of ghost stories. Yet, it seems as the ghost’s presence in books grows weaker. Why do you think writer’s skirt that convention so much when it seems like it would be the most realistic monster to work with?
Because, while it is the most realistic monster, there are only so many ways to do it. Think about how many ghost stories (most of them) are revenge tales. How many are “jilted girlfriend” tales? The typical formula goes something like “Character discovers ghost, learns history, solves history (or makes it worse) and either dies or lives to tell about it. The other reason is that we’ve been so tainted with the Hollywood ghost story that it’s difficult to create a realistic story that’s genuinely creepy. Folks who’ve never been on a real ghost hunt don’t realize that it’s hours upon hours of sitting in the same spot, waiting for something to happen. With a ghost story, it’s difficult where to draw the line between realistic and Hollywood.
NHRS: If there was one thing about Horror that you don’t think most people know, what would that be?
Horror, Romance, Erotica, and Comedy are all, essentially, the same genre. All three deal with the same two plot lines (either a person [or group] goes on a journey [be it spiritual or physical or emotional] or a stranger comes to town), all three deal with a buildup of tension, and all three deal with a big release of that tension. You could easily swap a scream for a laugh and use the same story, but have vastly different meanings. Also, that horror writers are some of the nicest and funniest people I’ve ever met.
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Scott A. Johnson is a professional author specializing in horror and true ghost stories. He currently has eleven books in print and is the Paranormal Studies Editor for Dread Central. In his free time, he teaches Kajukenbo karate, hunts ghosts, and spends time with his wife and two daughters. And this blog is updated when he feels like it, not according to some schedule.