Andrew Pyper is the bestselling author of The Demonologist, The Killing Circle, and his latest, The Residence, a supernatural horror novel set in the White House in 1852. Not only one of Canada’s best known and most widely respected genre writers, Pyper is also a highly articulate defender of the craft of writing horror fiction. In today’s guest post, Pyper addresses what he says is the most prevalent question he gets asked about his writing practice.
Why write horror?
This is the question I get asked more than any other (at least in interviews, though “What’s for dinner?” would win if you counted all contexts). I suspect it often comes from a place of marketplace analysis: Do you really think this is the best category through which to move your product? Other times, I detect the unintentionally patronizing flattery of bafflement. You’re a good writer, you could sit at the grown-ups table if you chose to, and yet there you are, outside in the dark. Why?
I’ve given dozens of different replies over the years, none wholly false, but none quite hitting the mark either. I will attempt it again here. (The question this time, to be clear, having been posed by myself).
The primary compulsion toward horror – or speculative fiction, or genre, or dark fantasy, or psychological thriller, or any of the categories used to describe my work – is that it’s exciting to write. It’s thrilling to create thrills. When a reader reaches out to tell me that something I’ve written has kept them up at night, or given them strange dreams, or has changed they way they see some aspect of everyday reality, the satisfaction buoys my spirits for days. Writing horror is fun.
But that’s not the only reason. I’ll offer two more.
The more intellectualized response has to do with the necessity of genre fiction in addressing a world that’s swiftly leaving the space for conventional realist fiction behind. Climate change in all its terrifying forms. The rise of authoritarianism in the “home of democracy.” A mysterious virus behind a global pandemic. UFOs confirmed by the Pentagon. Our consciousness voluntarily uploaded onto phones to be traded by corporations and governments. Twenty years ago – ten years? five? – these would have been pitches for genre novels. Now they’re our lives. Speculative fiction is no longer “out there.” It speaks the language of the moment.
There’s another point, related to this but distinct, that’s trickier for me to express. It has to do with creating stories that mutate existing mythologies. This is different from the academic interest in “subverting/transcending genre” or the nudge-nudge-wink-wink of “playing with tropes” or “fanfic” devotional texts. I’m thinking of mythology in the sense of our day-to-day understanding of the world and its characters and our place in it. It’s that understanding part that I’m interested in scrambling. While more mainstream literary forms tend to be better at affirming existing beliefs, or making cases for specific change, speculative fiction is better at approaching things without the same didactic or pronounced interests. Horror comes at us from the ground up so that it changes the rules of what “the ground” even is. Of course, it can be conventional too, and achieve conventional goals. But at its best, horror fiction alters the very landscape of reality and opening our minds to wilder reconsiderations or encounters with suppressed truths.
The preceding 480 words are riddled with generalizations, and therefore vulnerable to exceptions. And to be honest, I don’t consciously think about my second and third points when I’m conceiving a novel, as I live, thankfully, in the mental space of my first point. But on the occasions I think about why I do what I do, the idea of opening minds by unanticipated or uncomfortable or subconscious turns of the screw is what dances through my thoughts. Doesn’t all fiction share that aim? Perhaps. But horror gets there in ways that are harder to shake. It lives on, dangerously, after the cover is closed in ways where meaning gives way to feeling, argument to revelation.
Did I mention it’s fun?
Andrew Pyper’s new novel, The Residence, is published by Simon & Schuster Canada.