Before I even begin talking about my fellow Seton Hill University Alum, David Day, I’m going to brag about the fact that we both have stories in this political horror anthology due out later this month from Scary Dairy Press, so pick up a copy.
Last week, Kenya Wright stopped by and talked about the responsibility female writers of color have to include deeper issues like racism, classism, and sexism in their writing, even if they are writing about vampires with double penises. This week, David Day joins Girl Meets Monster to share his thoughts on genre and how it should be considered an analytical tool rather than a creative one. His thoughts on horror fiction and the connections he perceives between horror and romance raised some serious emotions for me. I’m not crying! You’re crying!
David Day believes the future is a paradox, simultaneously representing beautiful hope and terrible possibility, and that we are on an ever-constant journey to resolve that paradox into the now. David received his MA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in June 2011. He is the author of one novel, Tearstone, as well as several short stories. Find out more about him at his snazzy but woefully neglected website: http://www.davidlday.com.
GMM: Your fragment has a lot going on. Initially, I felt like I was reading a fairy tale, but then I got the sense that we’re in a post-apocalyptic world or, at the very least the story isn’t set in the here and now. There are clear references to a past (or recent present) that are familiar to contemporary culture, so maybe not too far in the future, but the habit of Cassiopeia to fade out of reality tells me this is an alternate reality at the least. How would you categorize this piece? What genre or genres do you typically write in? When you sit down to write, do you have a genre in mind, or do you simply set out to tell a story?
DD: I’d place this one as science fantasy. There are, of course, some dark elements to it, but nothing I’d qualify as horror specifically. It’s meant to have a fairy tale quality to it, and you’re right about the post-apocalyptic setting. The main characters are among the last surviving humans who are either being culled or killed, depending on a few key qualities of their personality that come out much later in the story.
I write among the subgenres of speculative fiction, typically horror, science fiction, supernatural fiction, and dystopian. My inclination is toward horror and the supernatural, and those elements usually surface in every piece, but I have been known to write a story or two that don’t have any horror in them.
Every new story is a unique endeavor for me, and I don’t try to pin it to a specific genre at the outset. My goal in writing a short story is to try and elicit some nugget of human experience. The inclination toward horror and darkness comes from a belief that we are often most human in the darkest of places. Sometimes that darkness draws out the good in us, sometimes the bad. And sometimes the story just falls flat and I move on to the next one. Novels, however, I do try to pin to a genre up front. I’m okay if it changes when working on the first draft, but novels are such an investment in time and energy, and selling them is such a market-oriented activity, that to write a novel without knowing the target readership ahead of time feels a bit backward.
GMM: I know that you write horror fiction, because your work has been published in horror anthologies, but how do you define horror? There was quite a bit of discussion in the writing program at Seton Hill about whether or not we should adhere to the strict, traditional definitions of specific genres, or simply write stories that contain elements of multiple genres, which often feels more natural. Which side of this debate do you fall on? Do you consider yourself a horror writer? Why or why not?
DD: Delineating genres is difficult, in my opinion. Horror can be especially tricky to pin down, due in part to the rash of slasher films in the 80s. Last weekend I sat on a panel on horror at the Imaginarium Convention in Louisville, KY, and one of the attendees asked if there were critical or essential elements that need to be present in a horror story. After a few seconds of silence as the panelists thought, a few spoke on how horror isn’t about this or that specific element, but about the characters. And then the conversation took off.
Horror is about emotions, not tangible things, and for those emotions to surface in writing, the story must be oriented toward the characters. Broadly speaking, horror is all the flavors of fear: helpless, frightened, overwhelmed, worried, inadequate, inferior, worthless, insignificant, excluded, persecuted, nervous, exposed, threatened, weak, rejected, insecure, anxious, etc., etc. Horror uses circumstances to bring these feelings out in the reader, and the best way to get a reader to feel something is through a character’s emotions. For me, horror is not only about those emotions, but the conquering of those emotions, and I believe the most satisfying horror stories are survival stories, where the characters involved are able to push through those emotions. Horror is about dwelling in the darkest of places and reemerging again transformed into something more resilient.
As for adhering strictly to genre, I call bullshit. When it comes to art, there are two kinds of tools: creative and analytical. Creative tools help the artist make something meaningful. Analytical tools help categorize and describe a work after it’s been created. Genre is an analytical tool that helps readers find works they may be interested in reading. Every story should be about some aspect of humanity, and to portray humanity properly requires showing a spectrum of emotions. Every story is a love story, a horror story, a mystery, a fantasy. Imagine going to a concert only to have the musician play a single note over and over. I’ll be generous – imagine them playing a single refrain repeatedly. How long before you get up and leave? I give you ten minutes, tops, unless you’re at a Phillip Glass concert, in which case maybe twenty. Stories that hammer on a single note tend to feel flat. Stories that show the complexity of human emotions necessarily draw from multiple genres. Genre labels help sell fiction, and can help a creator understand what the market potential is for their work, but genre is not very useful during the creative act.
Am I a horror writer? I grew up an avid reader of horror, science fiction, and poetry. I’m largely influenced by the works of Stephen King, Arthur C. Clark, H.P. Lovecraft, Kurt Vonnegut, Edgar Allen Poe, William Blake, Isaac Asimov, and e.e. cummings. If that makes me a horror writer, cool. But if my works appear on a shelf under Contemporary Fairy Tales or Dystopian Victorian Techno-Romance Spy Thrillers, and those labels help the readers who might like my stories find them, then extra cool.
GMM: There are hints at romance, or at least, unrequited love in your fragment. Do you often include romantic relationships in your stories? What inspired the relationship between the narrator and Cassiopeia?
DD: When I was at Seton Hill, I developed an appreciation for some similarities between romance and horror in terms of the focus on character and emotion. I’ve come to believe the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is fear, and isolation as an intense precursor to or flavor of fear is a highly effective trope in horror as is demonstrated in this awesome montage of “No Signal” clips.
Notice how most of the movies cited are horror movies. I don’t necessarily try to include romantic relationships in stories, but I do try to use love relationships such as family bonds or even intensely tight friendships as a foil to isolation. As a writer, I believe having characters move across the love-fear spectrum gives a more complete view and increases the effect on the reader.
As for what inspired the relationship, I’m not sure I can point to any particular experience. Both the narrator and Cassiopeia suffered through a lot prior to their world going to hell. Sometimes we find strength when someone else’s well-being is at stake, and sometimes just having a hand to hold can make the most difficult of times more bearable and give one the will to persist.
Untitled Fragment, by David Day
Cassiopeia stumbled on a red pine’s thick root, her pink locks fluttering across my face like a kaleidoscope of butterflies. I tried to catch her, but she slipped from my grimy, sweaty hand and fell to the forest floor in a boneless heap. She lay still and silent, as if sleeping, her breath shallow and faint.
Her fugues grew worse with each day.
Something large shuffled through the woods, too far away for me to get a good fix on it, yet too close for our safety. I stretched out on the ground, spooned up against Cassiopeia, and placed a hand over her mouth to guard against any sudden outburst. Sweat covered her bone-cold skin, the faint smell of old heroine oozing from her like thick, cloying perfume.
“I think I hear one,” I whispered, more for my sanity than for her benefit. “Keep quiet.”
She moved her head slightly, the semblance of a nod, no doubt a tremor, but I wanted to believe otherwise. I stared up through the trees at a sky darkened for months to a confusion of shadow and light, never night or day, but always somewhere between, as if the earth had become stuck between dreaming and waking. Smudges of light riddled the fabric of the sky, stars barely discernible from the slightly darker background of space. I gave up on trying to see them, closed my eyes, and listened.
The steps echoed regular and heavy, the clip-clop of a trotting horse, their staccato rhythm heading our way.
Cassiopeia struggled a little, probably frightened even in her current state. She squirmed against me, groggy and weak, hopefully coming back around, but if we moved, if it found us…
I clamped down a little harder, enough to quiet her without hurting her.
I shifted and by some ill turn of fate caught a glimpse of the juggernaut through the trees as it paused, a great pillar of mahogany skin stretched over thick muscles, massive rubbery wings folded against its back, a thin barbed tail curled in a smooth s-shape, knees on the wrong side of its legs. It bent slightly backward and pressed its thick, clawed hands into the small of its back.
I managed a breath, then the creature took off again, galloping with surprising speed and agility. I waited, frozen, gulping thick breaths, then, listening as the last of the hoof-beats faded from earshot, slipped my hand from Cassiopeia’s mouth.
She rolled over to face me, awareness in her eyes for the first time in hours, pink strands of damp hair plastered to her forehead.
“I want to go with them.”
I brushed the threads aside, heart thumping a little harder as I fought the urge to draw her closer, envelop her entirely. Instead, I laid a palm across her cheek then rose and pulled a bottle of water from my tattered pack. I offered her a hand, which she accepted with a blatant scowl that sunk my heart further. I sipped from the bottle to mask my hurt, savored the lukewarm liquid before swallowing, and passed the water to her.
She accepted the bottle, shrugged, and as she sipped she flickered like some grainy art-house film. The bottle fell through her hand and landed on a bed of decaying white oak leaves, water spilling like blood. She solidified, whimpered, then retrieved the bottle before it could bleed out.
I could relate to her spells of delirium, having floundered through withdrawal myself, but this flickering of hers, the slipping out of reality like some half-forgotten dream, unnerved me almost as much as the devil in the woods.
She handed the bottle back, nearly empty. “This the last one?”
I nodded, rubbed her shoulder, reassuring her of our safety, reassuring myself of her existence.
“We’ll find more soon. I can smell the saltwater on the air. We’ll head north when we hit the ocean, and we should come across a town before long. Felt like we passed through one every ten minutes driving to my grandmother’s cabin as a kid.”
I told a half-truth, unsure if I smelled the ocean, but Cassiopeia looked comforted. We walked in silence until our bodies could take no more, hours it seemed, and while the smell of the Atlantic was stronger with each step, we did not reach it.
Even if she didn’t talk to me, I was thankful Cassiopeia stayed with me. Though her episodes were more frequent, she appeared more sentient than she had in days. Maybe her system was finally expelling the last remnant of her backslide from before.
We stopped at a small pond to bathe and, once clean, we settled down to sleep, each of us bone-weary and spent. We curled up between two worn comforters stolen from a child’s abandoned bedroom in Skowhegan, back-to-back. I listened to the slow, steady rhythm of her light snoring, wishing for more intimacy, knowing she would never feel the same, hanging on each beat of her breath like a totem of sanity.
It took more than an hour for sleep to find me.
Next week, David X. Wiggin joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a piece of fiction hidden under your mattress that might benefit from a second look? Send it my way at firstname.lastname@example.org.