This is a question constantly asked by the people in my life – namely, my mother, as I continue to confound her with my tastes that differ so much from her own. It’s asked with a mixture of wonder and confusion that I could write with such glee about the creepy, frightening, and abnormal. I’m a regular person who likes to bake, still sleeps with a stuffed animal, giggles frequently, and cries during everything from an epic movie to a sentimental song.
Because it’s only the lost, demented, and broken who are drawn to dark fiction, right?
Everyone is fascinated by horror, fearful and awed by anything Other. Some of us are aware of what we are getting into, experienced travelers seeking an emotional vent or a wild escape. And a fascination with darkness is no more strange than a blind worship of the light; one cannot exist without the other. An appreciation of Darkness is like a dash of salt to highlight the best ingredients, showcasing the diverse characteristics and subtle beauty of a hand-crafted meal.
Where did my love of Dark Fiction come from?
I always loved to read, but I don’t remember learning. My parents read to me all the time from our seemingly endless supply of Golden Books. I had my favorites, and Mom said she would sneak up to my room to find me all alone and reading aloud. She never knew if I memorized the words from her recitations, or if I was actually reading on my own. I don’t know, either, but my best early memories often involved magical escapes through the paper pages of ordinary books.
My grandmother read to me, as well. I recall lying next to her, snuggled up before an open book of fairy tales. Not the cute Disney versions, but the dark European fables that creep us out to this day. Rapunzel, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Little Mermaid, and so many more. Stories of physical and psychological abuse, gruesome obstacles, human and fantasy monsters, mutilation, degradation, suicide . . . and I loved every bit of it.
Maybe it was because these bonding times were precious. I loved my grandmother, after all, and her commentary always kept me laughing. Her frustration with rampion, the lettuce from the witch’s garden in Rapunzel – why not call it lettuce? and who’d trade a baby for something so ridiculous? She’d praise Cinderella for her humble attitude and staunch work ethic, reminding me one day I might find my own prize Prince. She’d warn me against too much curiosity and blind trust, like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White who blithely followed strangers to their doom. And despite her old-fashioned notions on the importance of princes and husbands, she’d scoff at the Little Mermaid for giving up a beautiful life beneath the sea to chase a man who didn’t really want her. A man who rejected her, chose another, which led to the poor Mermaid killing herself. She became sea foam to avoid causing the prince further discomfort, what a waste.
Learn from these girls, you’re smart enough, Grandma would warn. I wish it was that simple, but even with clear-cut lessons we sometimes fall into the same traps as our heroes and heroines. But that’s ok; if we find ourselves in a similar situation, our subconscious will light up and proclaim – Hey, I know what to do here!
There were lessons in these stories. Even if the settings were often frightening, my imagination soaked them up like a thirsty sponge. I became the princess of my own reality, a forlorn girl beset upon by real and imaginary monsters. We witness horrors every day, whether on the news or in the lives of our loved ones, and we all have our personal tragedies, some much worse than others. These unfortunate occurrences are just a part of life.
Foolish make-believe fantasy and stories, why don’t you grow up?, most of the adults in my life complained. No, I firmly believe those stories guided me through childhood’s often unfair obstacle course. Dark fiction has never failed to lead me towards the pinprick of light inside tunnels thick with shadow-shrouded monsters, hungrily awaiting a misstep from lost travelers. And spoiler alert – adults continue to be beset by pitfalls and disappointments, but we are not completely defenseless. Unlike children, adults are empowered by knowledge and experience which allows us to choose any branch we fancy along our path to recovery.
When my teen years crashed into me, I understood why fairy tales and horror stories were important. Monsters are everywhere in real life, whether disguised beneath human skin or lurking within us in an attempt to overtake our squishy brains. We can’t fight the monsters if we remain ignorant of their defining characteristics and inherent weaknesses, and those are often found in the metaphors of film and literature.
I began writing at age twelve and, of course, I didn’t have a clue. My first book was hundreds of pages of absolute nonsense which I barely remember, but it served a purpose. Each torture and heartache suffered by my teen protagonist drained a bit of my own anxiety and sorrow. It wasn’t always enough and, for a time, I needed to hurt myself in order to achieve the same effect. But it helped, and it allowed my perspective to expand and change.
Turn that frown upside down, think happy thoughts, people might advise. Focusing solely on the positive is a lovely anesthetic. Unfortunately, only embracing the light isn’t enough. It numbs the symptoms without treating the disease.
Dark fiction presents us with alternate realities – fantastic monsters, wicked human antagonists, horrific situations. We’re grounded in an often instructive tale thanks to engaging and relatable characters. Those characters prove through their tumultuous trials that we might survive our worst nightmares.
Stephen King was my first overt exposure to the horror genre. My best friend and I were kids, fifth graders, and she began reading It. She loved the novel, but I was intimidated by all those pages. Instead, I got The Shining from the town library. And no, we didn’t have that kind of library where kids were blocked from the adult section. Different time and place, and the world has changed a lot since then.
I dove headfirst into the terrifying landscape of the Overlook Hotel. As a kid, I didn’t understand Jack Torrance’s descent into madness, fueled by overwhelming guilt for his all-too human failings and sins. But Danny Torrance, he spoke to me. A quiet kid, a bit strange with his imaginary best friend, Tony, who lived in his mouth. A special kid with a gift that allowed him to shine, even if that light attracted unimaginable evil across a warped and wicked hellscape. Every kid wants to be special and gifted, and even the happiest kid has to face monsters eventually.
Danny was smart, and his gift of the shine acted as both a curse and a blessing. It unavoidably attracted the monsters, but it also warned him of their approach. Advice and training from his gentle mentor, Dick, also taught him his powers offered both protection and an escape route. I loved that. It’s a message of hope, that even while facing the worst things the world can throw at us there is always a way out.
However, sometimes the most obvious messages are scorned or ignored. Who hasn’t been bored when a fictional character is unbelievable, exaggerated, or too good to be true? This can be a problem in any fiction, but I’ve encountered it often in the “important'” books we’re encouraged to read in school. Not all, mind you – some classics are indeed revered for a reason. Too often the elite works of contemporary literary fiction are hailed for their perfect prose and “riveting social commentary,” condescendingly reminding its audience about the real world and the pitfalls of modern life (shockingly, some people need to be told real hardship exists). But I’ve struggled through many of those books that are staunchly cemented in reality, the stories narrated by homogenous characters as tantalizing as a blob of plain cream cheese.
The metaphors of fantasy and horror add spice to the ordinary, everyday characters who are supposed to capture our attention. I related to Danny Torrance, my fairy tale ladies, and various troubled protagonists from humble origins. These characters are iconic and unforgettable thanks to the cleverness of diverse authors and creators who gleefully reeled us into their worlds. Other characters influenced my childhood with lessons I rely on even now – Sarah from Labyrinth, Jack and Lily from Legend, Bastian in The Never Ending Story, Jen and Kira from The Dark Crystal, Michael from The Lost Boys and so many more.
Underdogs don’t always start as heroes – some are good and pure, some are tainted gray with flaws. They’re exposed to impending danger and stalked by evil, but they are willing and brave enough to take a stand. And the evil can be anything – monsters and goblins, vampires and devils, or even something as inexplicable as The Nothing. No matter how intimidating the odds, they stand and triumph. Even as a child, I realized if they could survive against impossible adversaries and win, then I could too.
And that is why I write my dark little stories. Some lean towards fantasy, some are pure horror – most often, I just combine it all. Some have make-believe monsters, but sometimes the monsters are us. No matter what type of beast you face, there is always a way out – an escape before the point of no return. Stories have power, and they can teach us through example if we open ourselves to their cathartic magic. Through fiction, we dare to imagine that we could be the heroes of our own tales. And even in the darkest depths, a light can appear to illuminate the path already marked for us by our favorite fictional characters.