Op-Ed – Horror as Hero: Setting the Wrong Things Right

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At much-loved writer and friend Paul Haines’ memorial earlier this year, Cat Sparks gave a speech, during which she said: “True horror is the fact that we’re all standing here today when Paul is gone.” I agree, so strongly. We all deal with real horror in our daily lives, of countless different kinds – horror’s name is Legion. People say “I don’t like horror”, and whilst I understand the sentiment, I think to myself that’s like saying you don’t like breathing. Too bad if you don’t like it. It’s part of life. You’re living horror. I’m living horror. Ignoring and rejecting it makes it sordid, and it doesn’t have to be. It can be beautiful, albeit painful. We can explore it, probe it, know it, and thus, paradoxically, find a framework within which to de-scarify everything around us. Humanity has always lusted to light up the darkness; it is why we needed to discover fire. But you can’t illuminate the shadows without accepting and understanding what lurks within them. Horror is important, and leads us to the light, by holding our hand and allowing us to safely confront the dark.

I, like so many of us, have experienced a great deal of real horror in my life. Humour me, if you will, while I share just a little of it with you for the purpose of context. I’m not going to tell you everything, but I’ll tell you enough to, hopefully, show you why horror is my hero. I have no hesitation in sharing my stories with others; any shame therein is that of others, not my own. So please, don’t feel uncomfortable about reading. It’s safe. Horror is holding our hands. We will not be lost in the night.

My childhood was riddled with extreme familial and parental dysfunction, and as a result I was a very isolated, introverted child, who preferred her own company and found solace in literature from a very early age (I’m talking, like, 6 – I read early, and I read all the time). I read widely, but I always loved horror best of all. I believe there was a reason for my choice of genre, which is the point of this Op Ed, and I’ll get to that in a moment. For now: back to establishing context.

Horror gifted me with reading and writing as power; my superhero skill.

My parents divorced when I was very young, and I think that was a good thing, ultimately, though it meant I spent the following years caught in that boringly traumatic push-pull between them that so many children of divorce experience. Later, the emotional and psychological dysfunction I lived with every day turned into full-blown domestic violence, when my mother remarried an alcoholic psychopath who regularly beat her to a pulp and on more than one occasion actively attempted to murder her. I became intimately acquainted with women’s shelters, halfway houses, and police stations. I attended five primary schools in six years; three high schools in just one month (that was during a period when my stepfather was particularly energetic in his efforts to kill my mother…we moved a lot). As I grew older, I vowed never to be a helpless victim, always to go down fighting, to hit first, to hurt first (not necessarily a healthy thought process in every situation, but one that has saved me many times). Later, when an ill-chosen boyfriend choked and punched me, I knocked him out and dragged his unconscious body outside into the freezing Hobart night (and broke up with him, obviously). Not for me the abused woman role. Never. Ever. Again. I couldn’t save my mother, but I could save myself.

Horror taught me to fight.

My mother died when I was 22. After having survived so many things, including several brain aneurysms, she died alone, of pneumonia. Nobody even knew she was sick. I didn’t know she was dead until days later when my estranged brothers called me to tell me, after one of mum’s neighbours became worried, called the police, and they broke down her door and found her dead on her couch. It was a type of suicide. Actually…no, it wasn’t a type of suicide, it simply was suicide. Even now, it’s incredibly hard for me to accept that…I want to delete the statement because it can’t be true, right? My mother was lonely – having finally left my stepfather, and with me having left the state a year earlier to go be young, flighty, selfish and rebellious in Melbourne (and oh, the guilt!) – destitute, and, I believe, mentally unwell, as she had been for most of her very rough life. She got sick – very, very sick – and rather than seek treatment, I think she saw it as an escape.She kept it secret, like a magical key, and used it to unlock the door out of this life that had always been so harsh with its treatment of her. I remember visiting her house the day of her funeral, finding everything just as it had been when the police broke the door down. Blood-and-mucous-stained handkerchiefs everywhere. Blood liberally soaking her pillow and the sheet around it. (So there was no way, no way, she didn’t know she was seriously ill. No way it was quick. And can you imagine how that weighs on a daughter’s mind?) No real food in the place, but it was clean and tidy – my mother was house proud. Her box of tobacco lay tumbled on its side on the couch where she’d knocked it over when she died next to it – yes, smoking, whilst dying of pneumonia. I remember throwing up in her toilet at the horror of it all. She hadn’t told me any of it, not about being sick, not about being in financial strife, not about anything. We’d chatted on the phone numerous times before her death, and they’d been hopeful, loving, positive, redemptive conversations. I’d called her several times the day she died and thought it unusual, though not alarming, that her phone rang out, unanswered. She would have been dead on her couch right next to the phone while I was calling.

Horror. Real, savage, stark, inescapable horror. Reading and writing it helps me live through it.

Whilst mine pales into insignificance compared to, say, the horror experienced by men, women and children struggling for their very survival in the face of unfathomable violence, starvation and disease in war-torn countries; it is horror, it is real, and it is mine. I live with it every day, and it’s hard not to buckle under its weight. Often, I do buckle. My knees give out from under me and I fall in a heap and I am useless for days, sometimes weeks. In addition to the loving care of my husband and friends, books save me, every time, as they always have. Horror books. Like cures like.

On June 2nd, 2012 (next Saturday), it will be the ten year anniversary of my mother’s horrible, horrible, horrible death. I’ll travel to Tasmania to visit her plaque and be with the memories, good and bad. I loved my mother so dearly. I saw myself as merely an extension of her, we were so tightly connected. Us against the world. Her loss almost killed me – still has the power to bring me to the brink. That’s some of the real horror I’ve experienced. I know I’m not alone – we each have our unique horrors to deal with.

On the ‘plane on my way home to be with my mother’s ten year old ghost, I’ll be reading a horror book. It will keep me company. It will look after me.

Through all the things I’ve outlined above, the professionals who got me through the horrors in my life weren’t doctors, they were horror writers. Stephen King was a better father than my own and remains so to this day. I might’ve had to listen to my stepfather beating my mother through thin walls, but hey, the world was dying from a plague and the apocalypse was looming, man! Jack Torrance’s demons were far worse and more powerful than mine, Carrie fucked people’s shit up when they messed with her, and Rose Madder exacted the revenge on her abusive husband that I wanted to exact on my stepfather. There were bigger worries than mine in those books, so I escaped and found relief and reassurance there; and there were solutions. The victims fought. They got revenge. They got justice. Even when they lost, there was rhyme and reason. There is an order to things in horror, a savage, merciless order (as in life), and I love it. It comforted a little girl living amid blood and tears and violence, and it comforts me still as an adult.

It’s why I have always read horror, and it’s why, now, I write it. To not only be able to escape to those words, but to have the power to shape and craft them myself! Oh, bliss! What a privilege!

To put the wrong things right. To remind myself that I may have seen a monster ten feet fall, but that there are monsters thousands of feet tall out there, so it’s not so bad, really – I can survive. To get justice. To escape. To reassure myself I’m not weird and others have danced in the abyss with monsters too. To confront death and destruction and know I can accept it, even if I can’t defeat it. To face insanity and know I’m already insane – we all are, we all float down here – and so there’s nothing to fear, because the worst is already here with us. To fight. To fight. To have the power and strength to go back in time and no longer be a powerless little girl, to be an arse-kicking huricane who can devour my evil stepfather and visit pain and destruction on everyone else who ever hurt anyone.

I write and read horror to set the wrong things right. Horror is my hero.

How about you?

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About Felicity Dowker

Melbourne-based writer Felicity Dowker is a multiple finalist and/or winner of various awards for her short stories and reviews, including the Ditmar, Chronos, Aurealis, and Australian Shadows Awards. Around 30 of Felicity’s stories have been published in Australian and international magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, most recently including Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror Volume 2 edited by Liz Grzyb and Talie Helene from Ticonderoga Publications, and Circus: Fantasy Under the Big Top edited by Ekaterina Sedia from Prime Books. Felicity’s debut short story collection Bread and Circuses was launched by Ticonderoga Publications in June 2012 - find out more at http://www.indiebooksonline.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=118&osCsid=b5c32d273115fb7255450d035e6b6205.

6 thoughts on “Op-Ed – Horror as Hero: Setting the Wrong Things Right

  1. A brilliant piece, Felicity! Thank you for sharing such a personal post.

    I’ve never really thought about WHY I read/write horror, but you have me thinking now. I’ve had a good life, fairly free from any sort of emotional trauma, and so I have none of the reasons you have. So why? Why do I enjoy reading and writing it so much? Your post makes me think I should examine that a little more.

    Either way, your bravery in writing such a personal examination of yourself, and of the horror of literature and life, is incredibly moving. Thank you.

    Lots of love,

  2. Maybe you read/write horror *because* you’ve had a good life? I think horror is inherently normal – it’s part of life, it’s entrenched, it’s in the good and the bad – and therefore, exploring it is normal. Whatever normal is.

    Or maybe you simply enjoy it at pure face value, which is also totally fine.

    All roads lead to horror! =)

    Thanks for the very kind words. x

  3. Yeah, maybe. I remember watching Hammer Horror and the Universal monster films when I was about six or seven. First read ‘Carrie’ when I was nine and became a ‘constant reader’ from that point on. There is a definite fascination coming from somewhere, and everything I write turns dark eventually. I like horror for the same reason some people like rollercoasters or bungie jumping – it’s the thrill I enjoy, the chance to confront fears. Why that is? Who knows; I couldn’t give a reason. But then, I’m not a very introspective person, and I’m not very brave. Maybe a psycho-therapist could drag it out of me?

  4. Thank you for bearing your soul so poignantly Felicity… and although I embrace horror fiction for markedly different reasons, I completely understand yours.


  5. I’ve gone from a cold to a sinus infection to pneumonia myself. It’s very easy to get so weak that calling a doctor again is an insurmountable amount of effort. I remember seeing a doctor at least once and calling for several other prescriptions when the first one didn’t work. Finally I was too tired to even care. My husband finally took an interest and called my doctor who told him to take me to a hospital for Pete’s sake. I hope it makes you feel better that your mom may not have meant to die & leave you. She might have gotten too sick to look out for herself and slipped away. It’s easier than you’d think.

  6. That was an extremily personal piece in a very open forum, which can’t have been easy, so thank you for sharing.

    I’ve had my own share of bad things happen in my life, from broken homes to family deaths in less-than-pleasant circumstances to witnessing some tragic events, although I’m not sure it was on the same scale of what you’ve detailed. I’ve taken refuge in fantasy stories more than anything else, because it’s shown me that there’s always an alternative. I can’t remember whose quote it was, but someone described horror as good for children because “They’ve already been exposed to monsters. This is where they get to see that monsters can be killed” and that’s always struck a bit of a note to me.

    My writing tends to take refuge in a bit of humour (and hopefully one day when/if more of my stuff is published I’ll be able to claim I’m a humorist or something) largely because I really can’t fathom why some things happen or why people do the things they do. There’s got to be some suitably illogical or ridiculous spin to it, so I try and make one up so what I’ve seen makes sense. Being able to control the horror in your writing sound like similar sort of motivation.

    I’m still learning to love horror writing (on bright sunny days) to widen my repetoire. I’m hoping my current offering from Ticonderoga due out very shortly will ease me in…

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