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Nathan Ripley on the intimidation of writing in “the best genre”

“My respect for the stuff may be why I’ve had such a difficult time writing it” (Photo: Ian Patterson)

Nathan Ripley is the pseudonym of Naben Ruthnum, a Toronto author whose short story “Cinema Rex” won the 2013 McClelland & Stewart/Writers’ Trust Journey Prize. Ripley is the author of two thrillers, Find You in the Dark and Your Life Is Mine, both published by Simon & Schuster Canada. In today’s post, Ripley talks about his high estimation for the horror genre as a factor that might be responsible for keeping him from practising in it before now.

Horror is the best genre. I have no justification or well-thought-out argument behind this, but in both literature and film, from EC Comics to The Criterion Collection, this death-and-annihilation focused genre contains the most of life and reality as I see it and value it. The psychological and sociological potential of horror will never be expended, and neither will its fun or ability to create emotional reactions so powerful that we write criticism not just as an attempt to understand these works, but to handle them at all, to grapple with what has been revealed to us.

My respect for the stuff may be why I’ve had such a difficult time writing it. I’ve felt comfortable with my slow improvement as a writer of crime and literary fiction. But my attempts at horror from my early writing days were so immediately embarrassing, falling so far short of the expansive creativity that I admired in Lovecraft and Hodgson, or the careful prose and wonderful effects of James (Henry or M.R., whichever), Shirley Jackson, or Robert Aickman. When you write a piece of short horror fiction after having read thousands of pieces of short horror fiction, you’re immediately aware of whether it sucks or not.

My first childhood lessons in style came from the ghost stories in collections assembled by Robert Westall and Richard Dalby, as I tried to figure out how English ghost stories that dealt exclusively in the felt and unseen could create such effective images and fear out of words. These are lessons taught by excellent literary writing as well, of course, and that’s why horror’s border is so porous, allowing masterful experimenters like Edith Wharton and Samanta Schweblin to integrate horror into their own style and stories.

Only in the past couple of years, after three books in other genres and many short stories, have I felt comfortable sending horror to the small magazines and anthologies that keep new writing in the genre alive. It’s both taxing and invigorating to be an amateur among betters in a new field, and it has given me another reason to love horror fiction – I constantly feel like an apprentice of the genre, and I’m only just beginning to understand what I’m doing.

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