A Treatice on Speculative Fiction:
Why We Read it and Why We Write it
"I can't read that stuff. Doesn't it give you nightmares?"
I hear that a lot. From strangers even, while I'm sitting on park bench with a Stephen King paperback in my hand. It amuses me. I've never been tempted to walk up to someone I've never met in a restaurant eating... say, runny eggs... to announce, "I can't eat that stuff. Don't you worry about samonella?"
I admit it; I enjoy a good scary book. And the less its based in reality the more I'm inclined to read it. Orcs are good. Space ships are better. And the real page-turners that have me chewing on my fingernails and jumping at sudden noises for the last fifty pages are the best.
It's not everybody's cup of tea. I find myself defending it frequently though, from folks like the stranger in the park who interrupt me while I'm reading to ask why I want to put myself into a world full of monsters.
Let me let you in on a little secret. We live in a world full of monsters. Well, freckled with monsters, at any rate. Pick up the newspaper and give it a read sometime. Real people out there do real awful things to each other everyday. Real people that do awful things when they're not walking around like regular citizens, helping their landlady take out her garbage, or hassling perfectly happy people reading books on park benches on a sunny afternoon.
How do you get your head around that? How do you deal with the monsters in your midst?
Well, if you're a writer, you can put that monster in slime and fangs on a spaceship and then blow it out of the god-damned airlock.
There's something to that.
I've been hooked on scary stories since I was a little kid. When the Scholastic Book Club order form would make the rounds in elementary school, I was immediately hunting through it for "Scariest Campfire Stories" or the choose-your-own-adventure books that wove me through a haunted house. By the time I was six or so, I was begging my dad to read me Stephen King short stories, with all the considerable dogged persistence that only a child that age can muster. (The first one he read me was "The Monkey"; I remember it well and those stuffed monkeys with the little symbols in their hands still creep me out.)
Look, some people jump out of airplanes or bungee jump or ride roller coasters that spin you around and upside down. It's not so different.
So why with the scary?
Well, I don't want to get all abstract on you here, but have you considered that the story that you're reading about the slime monster from Planet X might be about more than it appears?
[I've been talking about horror here, but I'm going to broaden the spectrum for a minute because sci-fi, fantasy, and a lot of genre fiction fall under the onslaught of arrows shot from the same bow.]
Star Trek tackled issues like racism and sexism long before it was politically correct to address them openly on television, and they got away with it because the people they were talking about weren't human, strictly speaking. Frodo's struggles in Mordor can easily be read as any sort of addiction story. Consider for a second that the axe murderer that the intrepid detectives are tracking in the paperback world in your hands may be more (or considerably less) than a literal psychopath.
There are real people standing on the edge of Mount Doom everyday, folks, looking down at their own evil precious sitting in the palms of their hands, trying to talk themselves into letting it fall. Folks out there are trying to figure out how to escape the monster, beat the odds, salvage a life after a personal apocalpse. This is real. This is scary. And it's hard to deal with, so we shut it out in the real world, or worse, we become apathetic.
Some people write scary stories to pluck something that's not understandable out of the world and put it down in controlled conditions, like a bacteria sample in a petri dish, to study it, figure out why and how it does the things it does. Because if we can define it, maybe we can do something about it.
Some people write scary stories to warn against the future, or dredge up the past. Some writers do it to pull the baggage off their own backs. And some (all?) do it because you wake up one morning and a story is perched there on your chest looking at you, and the only way to get the little bastard to leave you alone is to put it on paper.
Please don't confuse the voice of the author for the voice of the piece. You don't have to worry about what would happen if you met Stephen King in a dark alley. With an imagination like that, he's probably more afraid of dark alleys that you are. And he's probably a nice enough guy. Most folk are. Writing about monsters doesn't make you monster. It's just what has been given to you to write about.
Similarly, the reader of a murder mystery is not an aspiring serial killer looking for ideas. The fans of Lovecraft aren't like to go insane from literary osmosis. Reading a Poe story does not imply that you wall people up in your basement as a hobby. Just because you found intellectual value Orwell doesn't mean you're cut out for a career at the NSA.
No more than the sky diver is suicidal, the avid gamer delinquent, or the football fan violent.
I had an English teacher in high school who said that the unique identifying feature of American literature is the search for identity. I thought then, as I do now, that this is a fantastic load of shit. All literature, all art even, is about the search for identity. Science too. We're all trying to figure out who we are: on an individual level, as a species, as an organic mass amongst many standing on a rock hurtling its way through space.
Stories are a way we break that down. Take it apart into manageble pieces and see how it works. It's a way to look at the heroes and villians in our own life stories, and to come to grips with our own mortality. Sometimes its easier to look at this stuff sideways rather than straight on.
I'm not saying you have to read horror novels to analyze these kinds of issues. Do what you do. I'm just saying it's a valid choice.
So Mr. I-Interupt-Nice-Girls-In-The-Park-To-Disapprove-Of-Their-Choices-Of-Literature, yeah, sure, I get nightmares sometimes. You're telling me you don't?
That's what I thought.