Author JA Konrath is on a blog tour promoting his latest work, Afraid (a horror novel written under the pen name Jack Kilborn coming out next month, in paperback and audio). His widely popular blog, A Newbie’s Guide Publishing, just wasn’t big enough, so he’s going around invading other people’s turf. Today, he joins me for a visit as we chat about extreme horror:
M: In the tradition of “less filling”/”tastes great”, are you an atmospheric horror guy or an extreme horror guy?
J: I won the World Horror Con Gross Out Contest a few years ago, so I’m no stranger to extreme horror. But I also beleive that a reader’s imagination is more powerful than any detailed description of gore I could come up with.
So I sort of straddle the line. I like suspense, and atmosphere, and terrible things certainly happen in my books… AFRAID has a body count of over nine hundred. But I prefer a tense lead up to the horrible deed, and then keeping the gore to a minimum. In my writing.
When someone tells me I’m being too graphic, I ask them to tell me which scene they’re referring to. In every case, they use many more words to describe the scene than I did.
M: Folks keep tossing around different phrases that may be describing the same thing. What’s the difference between splatterpunk and extreme horror (or even gross out), and why is that sort of approach making a comeback?
J: If the goal is to cause fear, it’s straight horror. If the goal is to make you gag, then it’s extreme horror. Or extreme something. It’s possible to write a disgusting scene without blood or violence.
The written word is provocative. Always has been. If used properly, it can make people laugh, cry, think, get angry, or get ill.
As a species, we’re fascinated by disgusting things. As writers, it’s our jobs to make our readers feel something. Put the two together, and some writers are bound to go for the gross out.
M: How much do you think is due to the rise in “torture porn” movies like Saw?
J: That’s just a new name for something that has been around forever. Shakespeare, DeSade, Gran Guignol, freak shows. In the 60s we had the first splatter and mondo films, in the 70s grindhouse exploitation, in the 80s slasher flims. One of the first films was the electrocution of an elephant. Reality TV shows actual death. Go on YouTube and count the number of videos featuring skaters breaking their bones.
Pain, and death, are part of life. It fascinates us. Because art imitates life, we’re going to have movies like SAW.
M: Is it just me, or is this exactly the kind of horror that seems really easy to do, and many category horror writers attempt to emulate it to be hardcore, but is actually difficult to do well? In other words, extreme stuff is easy to screw up, isn’t it?
J: Grossing someone out is a particular talent, but it’s not very hard to do. Grossing them out while also making them care is really difficult. If the reader feels for your characters, they will fear anything bad happening to them.
In AFRAID, some people die horribly. I don’t do that to titillate the reader with graphic descriptions of gore. I do that to make the reader afraid that the same thing might happen to the characters they’ve grown to like.
M: Let’s face it, there are only so many ways to describe viscera to the point where it gets tedious. We ought to be about more than just splattering blood all over the place. Artistically, we near a precipice to do, for example, postmodern exploration of horror. How can writers better use extreme horror to explore the literary form?
J: We have a prurient fascination with violence and and gore and death, whether we want to admit it or not. Whenever there’s an accident, there are rubberneckers.
As authors, we should use violence for more than just prurient thrills. Done properly, violence can enrich a story, raise the stakes, add depth and dimension, and also enhance themes.
I’m pretty sure there will be people who won’t finish AFRAID because of the violence. But those who stick with it will find themes of love, forgiveness, redemption, and courage.
So it’s like a feelgood book, that will also scare the crap out of you.
M: Is there room for extreme horror in mainstream book selling, or do you see it always being the fringe of even the horror market?
J: It’s fringe, and it will stay fringe. We’re still too conservative a society, still too uptight and judgmental, still too interested in our own sense of right and wrong and what people should and shouldn’t be allowed to read, watch, believe, smoke, etc.
On the other hand, we do have a capitalist, open market economy. If there were a huge demand for gornogrpahy, someone would be selling it by the truckload.
M: Who are some of the folks you are reading these days? And who do you think are some folks doing extreme horror well?
J: Ed Lee and Wrath James White are experts at it, though Lee is more tongue in cheek and Wrath tends to be a little more serious, except in his short stories, which are hilarious. I recently shared pages in an anthology called LIKE A CHINESE TATTOO with Cullen Bunn, who has a really gross, and very funny, story in that collection.
Jack Ketchum has an heir in Jeff Strand. Strand is known for his funny gore stories (I even collaborated with him on one called SUCKERS), but his new novel PRESSURE is a real kick in the teeth. Like Ketchum, Stand makes you care about his characters before putting them through hell.
If you want to see who is currently pushing the limits of good taste, visit www.horror-mall.com, and you’ll find a wealth of vile prose to enjoy.
Ultimately, whatever your personal taste, we need to remember that stories are there to entertain. Different people are entertained by different things.
For some, it’s a CGI lion with Ben Stiller’s voice. For others, it’s a group of psychopaths who slaughter everyone in a sleepy Midwestern town.
If you prefer the latter, AFRAID goes on sale March 31.
If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say “hi”, feel free to stop by my message board. We always welcome new voices to the conversation.