The Cathartic Benefits of Horror Writing: ‘Loss’ – On the Beautiful Horror of Dying

“There’s nothing we fear more than our own Reflection. We scream at the monsters within us, hidden deep within our hearts. We run and hide from the terrors all around us- the different mirrors that we see.”

― Solange nicole

I’ve touched on some of my writing history already – how I enter the darkness, explore the darkness, write the darkness. I’ve said a little about why I do that, how I’ve always been fascinated by the imaginary horrors, the myths and legends and folklore that tell us about so much about how peoples view(ed) their lives and tried to make sense of the (un)natural phenomena around them. As we have advanced our knowledge of the world, we have created new horrors, have new concerns. Rather than vampires, werewolves and ghosts, these are now what many horror writers wish to explore – or at least vampires, werewolves and ghosts as they might appear in a modern world, as modern metaphors.

For me it’s more than that. As Solange nicole (writer of dark romance and noir chic) says above, we fear our own Reflection. We run from the monsters inside us, because we do not wish to face the side of us that roars, that rants, that would rend and tear if we did not keep those base urges quiet. If we did not have a common ‘morality’ to check them. We are afraid of what we might see in the mirror when we stare back at ourselves – metaphorically and literally at times, literally, for me being unwanted wrinkles, unwanted fat. So if I don’t like looking in the mirror, why do I do it? Why do I write about the horrors that live in my mind? And perhaps more importantly, why do I disguise them in the form of fictional horrors, when the real stuff is bad enough?

Well, part of it is, of course, that fascination with the fictional dark. I’ve been reading horror stories for as long as I can remember, alongside the myths and legends I so love. Then I started reading Stephen King and I found a new direction. I think part of it was how King captures the ordinary person so well in his writing. His characters are real. When he exposes us to the horrors they’re going through, we really believe it. King, I believe, is an underrated writer, and I didn’t just want to read him, I wanted to write like him – a typical enough reaction, initially, when you’re a beginning writer and admire a writer’s style. In the end of course, we start to write like ourselves – anything else is derivative. But something that King says is that ‘We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones’ – and I believe this to be the case. The fictional dark is more easily expressed than the real darkness. This bleeds into the poetics of my horror writing.Bruno Bettelheim says that:

“[A reader] may wonder why he is so deeply moved; and in responding to what he    observes as his emotional reaction, ruminating about the mythical events and what   these mean to him, a person may come to clarify his thoughts and feelings. With this, certain inner tensions which are the consequence of events long past may be relieved; previously unconscious material can then enter one’s awareness and become accessible for conscious working through.” (Bettelheim. 1977)

So why am I so ‘deeply moved’ by horror, and how does what I write ‘clarify’ my ‘thoughts and feelings’? How are ‘certain inner tensions’ relieved by reading – and in my case – writing out the horrors buried inside me? It definitely comes down to catharsis. Reading horror writing and watching horror films has been shown to be a cathartic act. It releases tension within you – you are terrified for a while – the terror comes out in raised heartbeat, restlessness as you read the words or watch the screen, wondering if the protagonists are going to fall prey to the monsters, and then, at the end, when they survive, you release a huge sigh of relief, maybe laugh at your own fear—because it’s not real, is it? – and then you can discuss the merits or otherwise of what you’ve read or watched. Catharsis. The releasing of tension. Or, as the American Psychological Association puts it:

“the discharge of effects connected to traumatic events that had previously been repressed by bringing these events back into consciousness and re-experiencing them.”

Is it a different experience, then, for writers? For me, I’d have to say yes. A resounding yes. While watching or reading a good (‘good’ being a value judgement) horror text may be a cathartic experience, in that there is that release of tension, it’s not the same as exploring those tensions through writing. As King says above, the horrors we make up help us to cope with – and I would add ‘explore’ – the real ones. A common saying – and I can’t remember where it comes from now – is that all fiction is autobiography, and all autobiography is fiction. I’m not sure I’ve even remembered it exactly, but I’d have to say that I believe in the inner ‘truth’ of the statement, and when I look back at my own work, I recognise it. Obviously my characters are not ‘me’ but I recognise the themes, the concerns, within the stories. Things that bother me. Things that keep me up at night worrying. It’s not as though I do it deliberately either – obviously my short stories and prose poems are not directly about ‘me’ or my experiences – but these things keep on creeping in. I think it’s inevitable.

Take loss, for example. And abandonment. Anyone reading my posts will know that these two things are terrors for me, and they almost always creep up in my writing somehow or another. When my mother died of Congestive Obstructive Pulmonary Disease – she also had Alzheimer’s, which is a particularly cruel form of illness because it strips the person of their personality – I didn’t really process it. I didn’t know how. I had my father to care for, because he was lost without her, and I was an only child. There was no-one else. My own grief – which I still haven’t processed and which has left unhealed wounds – wasn’t important. And yet I found myself writing about it unconsciously. A funeral scene in a novel, almost exactly the same as my mother’s funeral. People gasping for breath. People losing their minds. The last, given my mental health issues, is particularly close to home. But perhaps the closest I’ve come to catharsis on this subject is the prose poem ‘Loss’ below. It originated in a class taught by my partner, a class on experiment and innovation that encourages its students to look at language differently. To take the language we take for granted and twist it and reshape it into something new and unexpected. The poem below takes the language of death and dying and, I hope, turns it into something new, and for me at least, something strangely beautiful.

LOSS

I. The Artist

An inventive underworld, a sardonic farewell toast by a woman dressed in shades of purple. The artist wipes at one of her nipples. Long dark-meat fingers lift her taffeta skirt, leave her cracked open and naked. A self-dramatizing invocation leaves you spellbound, the words reverberating in a throb of dizziness, visceral performers in a full moon winter. Morning vision hallucinates wonder, grasping at a desired object. Fingers of a hand, a paw cut into flesh, some moonlight off the snow turning the white red. Incidents hushed up by highly artistic persons, and the purple woman, all innuendos and imaginations, mockingly dubious of extravagant detail. Nihilistic prose portrayals, flamboyant extravagances and delightful uncertainty.

A madness that intoxicates, real or unreal word-worlds? Studiedly bloodless stares that utterly destroy you. Gathering small blank cards, standing in a mirage, brief rumbling abysmal resonance. Dancing classes: your reflection in a mirror door sees many naked limbs, revels in a stripped cleft, delights in grunts of satisfaction. Cracked body, aching with cold, many shudders and jerks. A fixed unnerving gaze to a seedy downtown. Sitting at a filthy desk scribbling a surge of panic, writing lies under soft black stars. Fear complicates. Your consciousness becomes crystallised and explicit in super-text knowledge, a fragmentary nebulous manifestation, deeply subtle and dreamlike.

A meditation of certain realities, obsession like an intestinal virus hollowing you out in the company of nightmares and recently suffered illuminations with no antibodies or antidotes and you can never live in the same way again. The permanent termination of a work, a detailed and disturbing awareness and overwhelming inspiration. Crippling expiration.

In a clear voice, a precise work of art, but barely a whisper in the babel of exaggerated disgust. Artistic impulse of grotesque experience – non-existent writing and your words fall away in a collapse of language. Extraordinary pain etched on a wall. Please. Help. Me. Self-estrangement, a terrible compromise. Bare-footed, a sing-song taunt, a giggling mischief. Innumerable damaged bodies. Dies away, a final echo of wheezing laughter and word-displays on a metal plaque: you are devoid of meaning. Tiny star-shaped flowers return to their places in a devastating reality. A waterstained sheet of paper. Blurred words, loss of clarity. Loss of meaning. Loss.

 

II. Degeneration

 

You segue into

a grey emptiness of surroundings. Penetration of outer cell walls degenerate. Amazement. Decay fascination, spectral outline of twisting passages. Delirious and dying words, hostile erasures. Advanced physical deterioration. Dispassion & displacement. The low/lying functions of an ordinary body perpetuate a network of bone, sinew, muscle, arterial-venous ventricles, tubes, tubules

opening out into

randomness and formless things, a chaotic semblance of life. The clawing of fingers, vicious creations. Mutable & un-enduring. A roaring physiological abyss echoes with advanced disease, unpleasantly warm to the touch in a vegetable stillness. A changeless quietude. Bloodshot eyes follow you unseeing, a gurgling death rattle penetrates, a sucking of breath in a reptilian-tongued mouth. Borderline gibberish in malformed brains creates language loss in the flesh-factories of the dying. Dates of nativity & death inscribed on birthing grave-bodies

morph into

fever-ridden heat hallucination, the surreal delirium of a permanently damaged brain. Derangement of imagination, hyperpyrexial phantasms in the back of an unused junk closet,  the scene a secluded graveyard seen through a cloudy haze. A gradual shutdown of operations. An echoing wreck. Skin and bone & emptiness.

 

III. Dying

 

she floats on relentless brain-music. dying. fearful. she whispers inside herself ears deaf & death to thought & consciousness. thought repeats thought repeats thought repeats: my work is not yet done. not yet done. not yet. not…

afraid of bad things. of mystery. of grace shimmer, glister voracious. the map of moments spreads out: seconds minutes hours days months years decades centuries millennia aeons. inevitable, decay thicker than water. desolate angel (wings torn away) fallen to the unhallowed ground of a hospital bed. fallen & broken on the ever-too-fast-spinning wheel of years. this is what she has come to. tumour invasion. the hardening of lung tissue. necrotic tissue. the ever/never-breathing emaciation. feels her body withdrawing. her mind drifting

on oramorph dreams in a place with no windows. hears the howling legion, dark water lashing. winter ghosts haunt their feeding ground, tread softly across far fields toward the bone factory. she follows, frostbitten beyond exile, a weeping apocalyptic beauty. joins the painted man on the dark road rising & he trades in skin, hungry hearts. carries contagions, disease & infections up a twisted ladder

to the hidden cities, a screaming silver body surfing on the riptide of souls. a kiss on a raven’s wing & seven deadly pleasures tempt her. pain. denial. sorrow. grief. fury. acceptance. surrender. reaches the outer gate & hears the groaning shadows & casts a cold eye as the tear collector scratches out the language of dying. elsewhere, thought forms in shades of blood & shadow. & she dreams of

resurrection. clothed in a robe of feathers, objects of worship casting away stones from the shadows of the closet in a house on the interstitial edge of the ghosting tide. an undertow beneath the surface boats the drowned life, a world of light-breaking cold. a time of absence in the shard-splinters of the tesseract & lucid dreaming. what happens when you wake to the sound of dead hands clapping? here she lies. cries her debut swan-song. her last & final lament.

 

Lesley McKenna. 27/03/2013

 

References:

 

Bettelheim, B (1977). The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and importance of Fairy Tales. London. Vintage.

Cherry, K. (2019) ‘The Role of Catharsis in Psychotherapy’ at Very well Mind:   https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-catharsis-2794968 (accessed July 11th 2019)

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Who is the ‘I’ Who Writes?

‘The house of fiction does not readily admit the self… Your relationship with it, as its creator, is tenuous, complex, subtle, utterly demanding. You are in it; you are absolutely stripped bare in front of it, exposed; yet somehow you are supposed to make sure that, at the end of the day when the lights are dimmed, the fire’s blazing and everyone’s sitting comfortable, it isn’t you they see.’ (Sue Roe. ‘Shelving the Self’. 1994. p51) *

Sue Roe here is talking about her experiences of novel-writing, how a writer immerses her self (as opposed to herself – so I shall treat myself here as my Self.) in the writing process as a piece of work evolves. And yet, as she says, the author must take care not to be visible in the finished fictional narrative, for any number of reasons, both good and not so good. Is this true, and if so, can we really avoid exposing our Selves?

I’ve been thinking about this. A lot. Especially recently, during this latest, long bout of depression, when writing anything at all has been ‘about’ my Self. About my life, and how I feel consumed by it, but am unable to express it in the way I (used to) know how to. Through the written word. Because I think about how exposing the written word is. How we are laid bare, even flayed by our own words. Once they are written, will we not be judged by them? And found wanting? And that’s scary.

Anyone who writes, especially those writers who allow people to read their work, in whatever way, will probably recognize this sense of exposure. This feeling of ‘What if they think this is me I’m putting out there?’ and ‘What if they judge me by what I write?’ As a senior lecturer in creative writing, I’ve found that this is very common in student writers, who are often self-conscious about what they ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ write about. It’s my job to try to reassure them that there aren’t ‘can’s and ‘can’t’s; there are only possibilities and their job is to convert those possibilities into the best writing they are capable of. But I sympathize with them, have been in that position myself, as a previous student of creative writing. Students often think they should be writing for the lecturer, especially for assessments: If they write something a lecturer likes, is interested in, it might get them better grades.

When I was a level 3 student on course for the first class honours degree in creative writing I was later to achieve, I had a conversation with a friend who was in level 2. He knew that I was getting good grades, and he asked: ‘Do you write assessments knowing what the lecturers like to read? Do you write to please them? Is that what I should do?’ I actually found the question quite insulting, although he didn’t mean it that way. But in some ways, it was as though he was questioning my writing integrity. My answer was the same then as it is now, and I stand unflinchingly by it: ‘I would never write to please anyone but myself, if it compromised my writing.’ And I say this to students: it doesn’t matter what I like. It doesn’t matter if I don’t like (insert pet hate here) – it’s what you like that matters. Write what you’re interested in. If you don’t, it will show, and why would I be interested in an piece of work you don’t really care about?’

Of course, writing what interests you brings back the idea of self-exposure, of showing everyone who reads what goes on inside your head. Of being ‘absolutely stripped bare’. Students often worry about writing about controversial subjects; and I guess in these troubled times, they’re wise to be wary, but…. I worry about that. Quite a lot. For example, I teach writing horror fiction (a subject often sneered at by Literary Writers, but which is its own way of writing about the (sometimes) otherwise inexpressible) , and for one of my sessions, I sometimes teach extreme horror (Splatterpunk), in which I invite students to be as explicit, uninhibited and gross as possible. And even then – even with that permission – some students still worry. Again, it’s wise to be wary. It takes a lot of reassurance that I won’t judge them. That I’m not there to be a moral barometer. The only judgements I make is on their writing, the quality of their writing, and are they saying what they want to say in the best way to say it. But what they say is up to them. And that we have to get used to exposure if we want to communicate. Once they accept this permission, students often find that their writing becomes liberating, rather than constraining. Watching this happen is, I feel, one of the best things about what I do. It’s one of the few reasons that keeps me in the job when everything else in Higher Education is becoming consumed by… consumerism.

Still – who is this Self that writes? And are we always the subject of our own work, even though it’s disguised as fiction, or poetry, or drama? My personal opinion is that we almost always write about what goes on inside us. We write about what we care about, and this reflects our Self, to a greater or lesser extent. Again, as a sometime writer of dark fantasy and horror, I write about what scares me, and what I think is relevant to my (inner and outer) world. As a one-time poet, my poetry often seemed to want to talk about women’s issues – fertility, abortion, maternity, although it has dealt with themes of horror too – death, dying, and, especially, the futility of our existence – but in very different ways.

If we look at the work of some other writers, we can see recurring themes running through their work. Stephen King, for example, in his book about writing On Writing (2002), talks a lot about how his childhood, and living in a small town, influenced his writing, and when we look at his work, we can see it. Childhood – its horrors as well as its innocence – is constantly explored. The settings are almost invariably the small town, or enclosed spaces, exploring the claustrophobia that such places evoke. And his characters are often writers who are troubled. Possibly the best example of all of this (for me, at least) is The Shining (1977), in which we get the motifs of The Child, The Writer, and The Place, all in one truly frightening book. Likewise with his vampire novel Salem’s Lot (1976), which mostly deals with The Writer and The Small Town. It (1986) deals with The Child(ren) and the Small Town.

But the writing persona we employ when we’re writing is just one of the many masks we wear and we wear different personas for different kinds of writing. We are complex organisms,  and the idea of the single self, the unified self, is no longer accepted. We are fractured beings with many facets reflecting those fractures  – writing is one facet of who we are. And yet, it’s everything too. For me, recently, it’s been everything and nothing. Part of why I want to write this blog is to explore that.

Of course, as mentioned above, we are sometimes judged by what we write. People often assume that what we write is who we are. They assume that people who write horror or about psychopathic killers must be that way inclined themselves. They assume that people who write comedy are constantly laughing and funny. We know both are far from the truth, and yet the myths linger, as myths do, albeit they evolve.

I remember doing a reading of a very dark piece in which a cheating male character gets stabbed and killed by his psychotic girlfriend. One of the audience, who I thought knew me, came up to me afterwards and said: ‘But I thought you were such a nice person…’ I said, and still say, to that kind of comment – ‘My writing reflects my interests, maybe sometimes my issues, but if I was that person, or the characters I’ve produced, I’d have been a long time in prison, or a secure wing, by now.’ I am NOT my characters. But I do facilitate them.

On our course, we encourage self-reflexivity, something that every writer, in my opinion, needs to develop. Every student writes a contextual study along with their creative pieces that explores their aims and intentions for the piece they’ve written, how they’ve created it, and – because we must never forget where our writing comes from – what precursors they have researched. And – importantly – does their work succeed or not? Writing these studies gives insight to their writing Selves – we’ve found them very valuable, and students usually do too. I’m not saying that every writer should do this. Of course not. But I believe that good (value judgement, but hey!) writers are truly aware – as far as it’s possible to be, because there’s always a hidden something you can’t explain to yourself or anyone else – of who they are when they write and what goes on inside them that produces what it produces.

This is, in part, what this blog hopes to do.

 

Works cited.

Roe, S. ‘Shelving the Self’ in S. Roe et al, The Semi-Transparent Envelope (London and New York: Routledge: Marian Boyars, 1994, 47 – 92)