Category Archives: horror

Women in Horror Month

Enter, you. You’re a writer. You’re a horror writer. You’re a woman.

***

You go to see a new horror movie. It is filled with young ladies in peril, and then in various states of undress (still in peril), and then in various states of dissection (still in undress). The camera fawns over their destroyed bodies. The one who entered the movie broken gets to live. It’s the reward for her suffering. You come home disappointed. “Well, I could have told you it was going to be like that,” your male roommate says. “If there’s a half-naked girl in the trailer, you know the movie’s going to be rapey.”

***

You are an ambassador of your gender, so you better be good: in your writing, in your attitude, in your openness to overture. Someone generous is taking a chance on you, so don’t disappoint, or you’re the last lady horror writer they will ever try. Don’t scare them off.

***

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Women in Horror month comes around and everybody’s a statistician. Editors lay bare their numbers, and many outlets’ submission data does show that women submit fiction less than men, a fact duly blamed on the female writers for not submitting enough. Not being brave. Of course, you as a woman have never applied for a job for which you feel underqualified, and you have never negotiated a raise. In your current workplace, you don’t engage in as much self-promotion as your male peers. This isn’t just because you’re trying to be nice. You know that a good girl follows the rules and waits her turn and doesn’t push her luck, or herself, onto others. After all, you wouldn’t want to come across as too abrasive. You also notice that some of these outlets only ever seem to publish men, so no wonder you wouldn’t have submitted there. You know when you’re not wanted.

***

You write a story that includes some discussion of gender issues. You worry you’re overdoing it. You worry you’re going to be labeled as a writer with a political agenda, mostly because you are a woman writing about gender. If you were a man, you would be writing a story. But you are a woman and you are writing a polemic. You do it anyway.

***

You are invited to an anthology. You hope it is not just because you are a woman, or because you are young, or because you are (half) a minority. But even if it is, oh well. You believe the editors are trying to do the right thing.

***

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Women in Horror Month is here and it’s a giant popularity contest, even more than writing already is: let’s-name-all-the-female-horror-writers-we-can-possibly-name! You don’t look at the lists, because you know you’re still not on them, and that worm of self-doubt that lives inside your brain doesn’t need any more to chew on (why do you even try?), thank you. Then you feel bad and jealous, and bad because you feel jealous. You re-read the manifesto, “In Which We Teach You How To Be A Woman In Any Boys’ Club,” and remember that progress for one is progress for all. Besides, you feel shitty about promoting yourself anyway – how dare you, who the fuck are you? Then you feel shitty about not promoting yourself – you’re a dumb ass and you deserve everything you get.

***

You go to see another new horror movie, a sequel to one of your all-time favorites. You anticipate that it will be terrible, and it is. It has also introduced a brand new rape-and-captivity subplot to explain the origin of all the evil. It’s our punishment for her suffering. The fact that this movie was made is punishment enough. You wonder what it is with blind old recluses and rape these days. The young female lead rests on her side in bed, her breasts lovingly pressed together by her tight white camisole.

***

When you were young, you couldn’t count any women among your favorite writers. You can’t understand any of the female characters you read as humans, let alone as women. The boys in your American Literature class chortle about them, about how their male creators defined them solely by their “easy” sexuality. Your favorite writer in high school admitted that he never writes female characters, because he knows he would be bad at it. He’s kind of right. But you are also bad at it, and you are a girl! Your best friend, another girl, tells you after reading your novel draft, “Either you have a serious problem with women, or do.” And you know it’s you. You were raised on classical British literature and you love big heroic adventure arcs (like paladins, more paladins please) and what’s more, you hate yourself. Then you read The Bell Jar, and that changes everything. Then you read The Haunting of Hill House, and that changes everything again.

***

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Congratulations – you have helped fill an anthology’s diversity quota. Collect $200. You hope your story doesn’t convince somebody never to read another lady horror writer.

***

You and your roommate have seen a lot of horror movies: bad ones, good ones, so-bad-they’re-good ones. You have also noticed that you have never seen male rape depicted in a straight-up genre horror movie. “That would be the worst thing,” your roommate says, shuddering. “As a guy? That would be the most terrifying thing to watch.” You reply, flatly, “Yeah, well, that’s how it is for women, all the time. And we just have to deal. We just have to get used to it.” On-screen, some anonymous woman is crying and afraid.

***

An anthology you are in is accused of reverse discrimination because it is populated solely by female writers. It is accused of having a political agenda (because reinforcing the status quo is never political; only disrupting it): promoting shoddy women over competent men. Other people launch defenses: you have to over-correct to break structural inequality; many anthologies are essentially male-only because no female writers were chosen or submitted to be chosen; it’s important for our society to make sure marginalized voices are heard and the male voice permeates SF/F/H as it is. Meanwhile, you are hit with a soft psychosomatic blow to the stomach. Oh no. What if you are actually shit?

***

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You attend a Superbowl watch party with about 50 other people. When they air the trailer for the next season of Stranger Things, everyone cheers loudly. You are much more subdued. Your coworker leans over and confesses he has yet to watch this show. You say, “Yeah, it’s good. I’m not as enthusiastic about it as most of these guys, because…” “Because you’re a writer,” he guesses. “…Because I didn’t like how it treated its female characters,” you finish. “Like I said,” he says, laughing. “Because you’re a writer.”

 ***

You are lucky. You were supported, by both men and women with more clout and experience and influence and power than you. You try to believe in yourself enough to trust that this support had nothing to do with quotas, nothing to do with anything except your writing. You believe, as good girls always do, that SF/F/H is generally meritocratic – certainly more so than your day job, anyway.

 ***

You have been published since you were 21, and you still feel like an interloper who wouldn’t fit in and wouldn’t have anything intelligent to say. So you are still, mostly, quiet. You find it amazing how confident men are in talking about their work (young men, old men, much-younger-than-you men), how confident they are in talking to older and more established writers, how easy it must be for them to see themselves in their idols. How nice it must be, you think, to feel like the place at the table is already set for you.

 ***

It’s Women in Horror Month, and you read some article asking Where Are All the Women, Are They Just Not Writing?  And you slowly bash your head against the wall.

 ***

Movies Pictured: It Follows; Under The Shadow; The Witch; Darling

Soundtrack: “Sick” – Salem

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“Wish You Were Here” [the playlist]

There’s not a lot more I have to say about “Wish You Were Here” that I didn’t already tell Christian Coleman in my interview – he even asked about the inevitable playlist. So I’ll just share the full list – a mix of tongue-in-cheek commentary on “third world democracy” and its hustlers from “Paper Planes” and mystical exoticism from “Voodoo in My Blood,” and the genuine emotion that nonetheless underwrites motivations in this story. Ultimately, that’s all I want from horror set in foreign lands: to at least remember that the foreigners are also people, who deserve to be just as well-rounded as the tourists.

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“Wish You Were Here” is part of Nightmare magazine’s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror issue, with original fiction edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

“Paper Planes” – M.I.A.: All I wanna do is [bang bang bang] and [ka-ching] and take your money. Third world democracy, yeah I got more records than the KGB, so uh, no funny business.

“The Keepers” – Santigold: I walk by with smoke in my eyes, like we don’t know where we’ve been. That’s it, boy, just state your case, you’re just as wrong as you were then. We’re the keepers – while we sleep in America, our house is burning down.

“Voodoo in My Blood” – Massive Attack: Barely, barely grieving. Keep the front door open. Wipe that cheeky grin and come on down. [Fun fact: Rose is named after Rosamund Pike – partly because of this video! See if you can spot the other celebrities (they played couples in Hollywood movies) among the tourists!]

“Manifest Destiny” – Zola Jesus: You gotta help me out. You gotta make it happen for me. How will we survive? Just let your spirit rise and don’t worry about the rest. [This is the song I obsessively listened to while writing this.]

“Soccer Game” – Johann Johannsson (Sicario OST): [instrumental, but if you remember this ending scene in the movie – the soccer game punctuated by gunfire – you know exactly why I included it here]

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In Defense of The Price

I miss high-stakes horror movies.

I miss not knowing who’s going to die. I miss not being able to telegraph the end. I miss protagonists that make bad decisions. I miss last-minute twists. What I really miss are lasting consequences. I miss horror movies where every bet is off save for one eternal rule: The Price.

This is the law of The Price. Imagine that in every horror movie, there is a troll under the bridge who collects the fare – The Price – for crossing over from the so-called normal world, or their ordinary existence, into the world of the dead or the damned or whatever else. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision to trespass across this boundary – a character decides to use a ouija board to contact a dead relative; a character uses a spell to hex a rival – and sometimes it’s not – a character makes a wrong turn down an unfamiliar road; a character takes in an orphaned child. Sometimes it’s a total freak coincidence – a character gets a phone call from an unknown number; a character sees a neighbor being murdered. However it happens, that character has tasted the forbidden fruit of the abnormal world, and now they have to pay The Price.

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The Price can be paid in a variety of ways, but it’s not a blister that heals with a band-aid. Here are some good options: character death; character loved one death; character damnation; character incapacitation (mental or physical); massive character dislocation. And yes, sometimes it’s terribly unfair: all I did was check-in on my brother! But fair isn’t the point. The point is to recognize that that other world is powerful, palpable, and not to be fucked with. Oh yeah, and that life’s not fair. It’s Arcade Fire’s “Black Mirror”:

The black mirror knows no reflection
It knows not pride or vanity
It cares not about your dreams
It cares not for your pyramid schemes
Their names are never spoken
The curse is never broken

I don’t know when I learned about The Price, but I remember the first time I noticed that it was missing: the Anthony Hopkins exorcism movie The Rite, where no one seems to pay any price at all. The Rite really shocked me, because of any horror movie subgenre, the exorcism movie is typically the most brutal, given that it deals with literal pure Evil.

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I initially thought that not paying The Price is symptomatic of a movie being part of a franchise, as in The Conjuring series, where no one seems to ever be of any serious risk of anything other than having the fear of God put into them, presumably to keep Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson headlining a universe of Psychic Superhero movies. But horror franchises have been paying The Price for years, and that in fact The Price has jumpstarted various creative detours compelled by the deaths of primary characters (Nightmare on Elm StreetHalloween, and Friday the 13th all killed their original final girls.)

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So now I think it’s something else: now I think there is a strange reluctance to make horror movies that are “too dark.” I think maybe we want updated versions of the original don’t-go-into-the-woods morality tale: if you do go into the woods, if you’re a good person you’ll figure out how to defeat evil and walk away unscathed. That’s some bullshit, folks. Not only does it: (a) not reflect the reality of how bad things actually happen, (b) represent a pretty self-defeating morality tale – so it’s okay to go into the woods, eh?, but it (c) sucks all tension out of what is supposed to be a tense experience. Oh gee whiz, wonder if this nice little American family with three little kids is going to survive the haunted house!

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Some bullshit.

Because The Price isn’t really about trespassing unseen boundaries. The Price is about that great price we all must pay for being alive, being human, being part of a cruel civilization – the guilt of knowing you are sitting comfortably in your home while terrible things are done to people no different from you halfway across the world; the fact that tender hearts are the most vulnerable; the knowledge that you are alive and well because your ancestors made cold-blooded choices that victimized other people – or else they were the victims, and did terrible things to survive; the sinking feeling that someone knows what you did that summer. To quote another song, this one “Courage (for Hugh Maclennan)” by The Tragically Hip:

the human tragedy
consists in the necessity
of living with the consequences
[of actions performed] Under pressure

That’s The Price, my friends, and we all must pay it.

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Horror movies that are all about The Price pictured above: 1) The Ring; 2) The Exorcist; 3) Candyman; 4) Pet Sematary; 5) Retribution [Sakebi].

 

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The number of the bEast is 999

When our old travel agent died, we asked the private investigators next door for a recommendation. They gave us the number of a Joe Pulver who they swore could get them to hell and back, by any means necessary. I figured that by “hell” they were talking about Kansas or Baghdad, and “any means” meant Amtrak or Greyhound. Turned out I was wrong.

I called Joe the first time about booking my boss on a round-trip flight to Los Angeles for a one-day conference. “City of Angels,” said Joe. “More like City of Demons.”

“Right,” I said. “Can we book a flight that gets in on the night of Monday the 21st, and then back on the morning of Wednesday the 23rd? Just one business class ticket.”

“You got it,” said Joe, even though I hadn’t heard any typing from his end. “I’ll be sending your confirmation shortly.”

It showed up in my inbox almost immediately. It was all wrong. It had my boss coming back from a two-day, $999 trip on Thursday the 23rd from a Los Angeles whose airport code was not LAX, but CRC. “Please check to make sure that you are happy with your itinerary. Let me know if you have any questions. BEST! !!”, he’d written. I quickly hit Reply.

“Dear Joe,” I wrote, “What is CRC? And it should be Wednesday the 23rd, right?”

His calm reply reassured me: “It’s a regional airport, not LAX. I made sure the return trip is confirmed for the 23rd. You should be all good now.”

My boss barely noticed when I gave him his itinerary. I thought all was well until he called me after landing, and the static was so loud I could barely understand his words. There was something about roads of glistening bone and seas of battered flesh and a pale yellow moon. I figured that he had forgotten to take his medication. I told him to eat some dinner and go to bed.  But two hours later he called again, hysterical, saying that people were chasing him and chanting.

“Are you at the hotel?” I yelled into the phone.

“The hotel was swallowed,” he replied. I thought I could hear a very old bronze bell, or something, tolling in the background. I tried to think of where such a bell existed in Los Angeles, but I don’t know the West Coast. “I was forced to flee. Oh God! The moon!”

So I called Joe, even though it was the middle of the night, and told him that we had to get my boss out of L.A. and back to his doctors immediately. “Please change the return flight to Tuesday the 22nd. I’m going to try to get him back to the airport.”

“No can do, sister,” said Joe. “He has to do his time, the time that was given to him.”

“He’s having some kind of breakdown! What if he hurts himself?”

“I’ll tell you what,” said Joe. “Put him in touch with my colleague on the ground in L.A. She’ll keep him safe. The name is C-A-S-S-I-L-D-A.”

I gave Cassilda’s number to my boss, and then he stopped calling. In fact I tried calling him on Tuesday the 22nd and it went straight to voicemail. I sent Joe an email, asking him who exactly Cassilda was and what she did. I’m going to be honest: I was afraid she was a hooker, and that my boss hadn’t even shown up at the National Conference of Auctioneers and Appraisers.

Fair Cassilda will be your master’s guiding superstar light in that dead City, Joe wrote back. Thanks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I repeatedly typed out “Dear Joe, what the fuck?” But for some reason I kept hitting the backspace and I eventually just decided not to send a reply at all. I paid our bills and re-organized my filing cabinet, and then went out and took a really, really long walk home. I collapsed into bed just before the rain started and when I woke up, it was Wednesday the 22nd. So said all the newspapers, the good morning TV anchors, my computer, the paper calendar from the Chinese restaurant. I sat down at my desk and put my head in my hands, convinced that something fundamental had changed, but not sure what. Once or twice I thought I saw someone watching me from the hallway, but I couldn’t seem to muster up the strength to get up and check.

Of course my boss didn’t come back that day. He came back the next, on Thursday the 23rd. Just as Joe said he would. He seemed better now. Calm. He took his coffee and read the paper and asked me, with great enthusiasm, if I’d be going to the fair tonight. “I hear it’s the talk of the town!” But we don’t have a fair. At least, we didn’t used to. “I’m taking Cassilda.”

This time it was Joe who called me. When I saw his number I crouched beneath my desk so my boss wouldn’t see me. “Just wanted to make sure you made your flight back all right,” he said. “The Storm is growing, so I hear.”

“I want to book another flight,” I whispered. “To wherever I was before.”

“I’ve already booked you. Sunday the 27th, back to Carcosa, the home of Truth.”

So I went home, packed my bags, sat on the stoop of my apartment, and just waited. From the hill where I lived, I could almost see the fizzling lights of the fair.

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a walking study in demonology

In responding to accusations that her character Amy Dunne in Gone Girl perpetuates misogynistic stereotypes, Gillian Flynn says:

the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably bad – trampy, vampy, bitchy types – but there’s still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish … I don’t write psycho bitches. The psycho bitch is just crazy – she has no motive, and so she’s a dismissible person because of her psycho-bitchiness.

And also, in explaining her predilection for writing villainous women in general:

I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some. The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves — to the point of almost parodic encouragement — we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side. Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.

As someone who is writing her own female villain right now, I would like to suggest a few of the noteworthy “bad girls” that came before her and helped to inspire her – female villains that are authentically scary, violent, and arguably evil (I’m generally uncomfortable throwing around “evil,” despite writing in horror). They’re also so enrapturing that you just can’t look away. Clearly, there are many other types of female villains – the Bad Nurse, the Vain Actress, the Jealous Wannabe. The girls on this list, and the one I’m writing, are what I’ll call Superpredators.

Merricat Blackwood, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

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It’s to Jackson’s credit that you don’t quite realize it at first, but Merricat is a mass-murdering little psychopath who kills nearly her entire family for no reason and allows her older sister to take the blame. She exhibits no remorse and no regard for anyone except herself (and maybe her cat) – even her “care” for her older sister is ultimately an attempt to resist any undesired change in her life regardless of the cost she inflicts on others. She’s completely lacking in empathy – completely absorbed by her own logical system, a self-made witchcraft – and completely fine with that.

Tomie, Tomie, by Junji Ito

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Tomie was also born bad to the bone, but she’s more demon than psychopath. Always appearing as a beautiful, conniving high-school girl, Tomie breaks up relationships, ruins friendships, and inspires murder. Inevitably, she always winds up on the wrong side of somebody’s knife, but Tomie is unkillable – an eternal embodiment of the cost of desire. I’ve always thought there was something very bold about Ito’s decision to make his demoness both unquestionably evil at the elemental level and also a perpetual victim of horrific, very human violence.

Beloved, Beloved, by Toni Morrison

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Beloved was the first female character to scare the shit out of me, because Morrison writes her so incomprehensibly alien, so “not right.” She is clearly dead yet clearly corporeal, and imposes an oppressive gloom over a makeshift family that is already struggling uphill to stay together. Like Tomie, Beloved reflects the evil of human society and the darkness of the human heart. Her ultimate childishly selfish objective is to drive everyone else away from her mother using whatever means necessary so she can have her mother to herself – and, apparently, to consume and destroy life.

Daisy Buchanan, The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Daisy is oft-dismissed as an ineffectual non-character, but I consider her a non-violent, slothful psychopath. Daisy is vapidly selfish, does not demonstrate capacity to feel for anything except objects (over-the-top melodramatic performances aside), and I think there’s a compelling alt-reading of this book in which she murders her husband’s mistress in cold blood and manipulates her brutish oaf-husband to have her cloying lover killed because he’s begun to inconvenience her. The fact that none of the male characters see this is demonstrative of how well she’s learned to game them.

Callisto, Xena: Warrior Princess

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Try as I might to root for bad-ass and rather boring Xena and idealistic jokester Gabrielle, it was unstable, evil, hyena-laughing Callisto, a female mix of Heath Ledger’s Joker and Apocalypse Now‘s napalm-and-surf-loving Kilgore, who always stole the show. She was such a shameless fiend. Callisto wasn’t born bad – she was driven mad by watching bad Xena kill her family. Like any classical supervillain, Callisto is completely warped by her desire for vengeance over Xena, which she also frequently mistakes for a desire to be Xena.

Katie Featherston, Paranormal Activity

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It’s hard to pick just one female horror spook – they are all over the place, and are usually the angry victims of a patriarchal society – but I went with Katie, the demon-possessed heroine/antagonist of the Paranormal Activity series, because her transformation from relatable girl-next-door to a non-human uber-monster is so shocking and tragic. Katie is also the victim of the patriarchy, having been saddled with the demon by her brother-in-law, and despite her unthinking post-possession brutality, the PA series loves her like Scream loves Sidney Prescott – she’s the bleeding heart of the franchise.

Maybe it’s because I’m absorbed with horror that I think there’s no shortage of evil women. The horror-related question I’m asked most often by friends is “why do all ghosts seem to be women?” and no matter how you answer (I have several stand-by explanations, and I’m sure there are many others), there’s no avoiding the very close relationship that women have with evil, or at least the dark, in horror. Things are different in political fiction – there are some morally corrupt Mata Haris, the Bond Girls who are on the wrong side of Western civilization, but they’re the women Flynn would dismiss as vamps. A lot of political novels have either one female character – a love interest or ingenue, flat with goodness – or no female characters (except a revolving door of prostitutes). It’s easily argued that politics and governance are a man’s game, but real life shows that women can very easily be political villains, no matter whether you think that’s Margaret Thatcher or Jane Fonda. Lady Macbeth aside, I’m not sure fiction has quite reached its full potential on this front. But I hope my girl Carly will be a worthy contribution.

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The Control Group

I’ve been really digging Emily Carroll’s horror comics. My favorite so far has been the very ghoulish “Out of Skin.”  Her wife Kate Craig’s comic “Heart Of Ice” is great too, especially if you love arctic horror (and who doesn’t?).  

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I really admire artists that can draw scary things, mostly because I can’t imagine possessing that delicate of a balance between creative expression and mental control: I am pretty confident that if I ever created anything like one of Junji Ito’s comics, I would immediately burn it for fear of it coming to life. Not that this isn’t something I worry about with writing too – even though I write what I broadly classify as horror (I prefer “dark”), few things that I’ve written actually terrify me in the way that Ju-On, for example, terrifies me, and I think there’s a little part of me that doesn’t want to push that envelope because I’m afraid of my fears manifesting in real life. There are enough horror movies about writers who go forth to learn what fear is and cross one bridge too many (see also: reason I’m not about to go live in an old house for three months to pound out my final draft).

Of course, I have written stories featuring elements that frighten me – “Red Goat Black Goat” probably being the prime example, since that was based off a childhood story that scared the shit out of me, although “Girl I Love You,” “The Five Stages of Grief,” and “Pugelbone” also creep me out – and I haven’t gone crazy. I have “retained control” (get back to me if I ever write a story about crawling ghosts, though).  I’m sure horror illustrators don’t go crazy either (although I still think there’s something about image that is much more powerful than written text). They created it, after all; they control it. I think this is actually at the heart of the reason a lot of people tell horror stories – whether in text or art or film or music – they want to conquer some fleeting thing, some image, some sentence, some idea, that scares them. They want to wrangle it into something they can understand and control.  Which gets to something that Emily Carroll talks about in this interview, something that I’ve sort of dealt with too when people ask me to explain a story like, say, “Absolute Zero”:

So often people will treat that story like it’s a mystery with One True Solution, as though the final panel is a puzzle to be solved, but it really isn’t like that at all. And that was on purpose – growing up, my least favourite part of any horror story was the part towards the end that explained all the scariness away. Because I want to keep away from that in my own work, I made the conscious decision to leave the ending of that story (and preceding events, really) ambiguous and unresolved, in an effort to create a haunting feeling even after the comic ends.

 

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