Jay Wilburn, writer of dark speculative fiction, is heading a tour and documentary on writers who write dark fiction, and how they navigate the world of publishing today. Learn more about this awesome event, which is in the fundraising stage now. Meanwhile, I’ve asked Jay to tell us what it means to “write dark.” Enjoy!
Writing Dark by Jay Wilburn
There has to be something different about a person that writes horror. Damaged people might be able to tap the dark back alleys of the mind where these sinister forms of imagination exist. That might be unfair because everyone could be defined as broken or damaged by some exacting measure of judgment. All people have a touch of darkness. Some foster it and some are far more touched than others.
Insane people could have an insight into writing about insanity from a purist view of the “write what you know” school of thought. I might be morbidly curious to read the blog posts and ramblings of a schizophrenic that suddenly does something newsworthy, but reading a fictionalized novel from a true schizophrenic would probably be a tough exercise. Psychopaths certainly know the mind of one from the inside, but might be hard pressed to create a novel about such a character that connects to readers emotionally. Sociopaths could make problematic writers. Borderline sociopaths might make damn good authors. I certainly hope so for my sake.
The problem with this notion is the idea that writing dark would be a sure sign of damage. That hardly seems fair. Many probably suspect as much, but it does not pass the sniff test. It smacks with the stink of censorship and justified preconviction. This damp blanket does not keep a person warm. This sideways logic leads people to try to cure the darkness we see in the world by trying to erase the words and images artists use to discuss what they see.
No, writers of dark fiction have to bridge worlds a bit. There are always outliers. Authors with no damage at all and authors that are writing what they know in splatter punk stories populate the lonely ends of the ever-growing bell curve of published writers. Most are tapping dark potential in their own minds and communicating it back to the ordinary damaged readers in the middle of the curve.
A person who wants to read about gorillas picks up work from biologists and anthropologists. Few assume that a novel from the gorillas themselves is in the works. All the gorilla authors I know have used ghost writers. Ko Ko was a fraud. Pet your kitten and stop selling more books than me. Now if a gorilla ever did manage to write their own book about gorillas, that would be something to buy and get autographed.
Darkness in writing comes down to the requirement of truth. Stephen King wrote on this subject from the standpoint of justifying his use of profanity in his dialogue. Many rising authors have to temper this to get published. King stated that his first requirement in writing was to truth. He felt no obligation to the morality police. He agreed with his mother that profanity was the language of the ignorant. He also believed that writing about ignorant people required being true to their native tongue. King contended that profanity was the language of people hitting their fingers with hammers or being filled with terror too.
As King recounts his memory of the car accident that nearly took his life and damaged him terribly in a literal sense, he recalls the surreal dialogue with the fellow that struck him. I remember reading it and thinking that King was exaggerating because the lines read with the exact voice of one of his characters. Not a specific character from any of the many novels of his I had read, but the lines sang with a harmony that I recognized. The next line in King’s narrative of these events was his thought before he blacked out again “I’m going to be killed by a character right from my own novels.”
He heard it too. The notion of art imitating life is a misinterpretation of really good art speaking truth. King had found the truth in the dialogue of the ignorant until we both were reminded of his fiction when a real person spoke as King had captured their tongue.
There is plenty of light to write about, but the truth is that the there is a lot of darkness in the world too. Authors can give it a soft brush in their writing, but all conflict in any story comes from a touch of darkness. Writers that are really digging for truth are going to have to give the darkness that wraps the truth they seek a much more intimate touch. Speculative fiction in particular gives the author a broader medium to explore the truth about darkness in our world using the tropes of monsters, the worlds of the paranormal, or evil creatures walking around in human skin all around us.
Some people hear stories about women chained in basements in the middle of neighborhoods in walking distance from their homes for ten years and don’t know how to process that. Others hear it and they wonder how many basements have not been discovered yet. Writers around the world are reacting to these glimpses of darkness, by using the tool of the written word. Some are doing it well and some are writing bad torture porn. A few on the end of the bell curve may be writing really good torture porn. Many are using monsters and metaphors to speak the truth about the darkness in a way that lets readers see past it or through it to truths they had not considered. Readers will use horror and other forms of dark fiction as tools to address the disconnect events like this create in the world.
People can’t wrap their minds around real life horrors because they can’t see past the darkness. They can’t flip the page on life to follow the arc past the stubborn present. The darkness in life makes no sense because it is not the entire truth. It is only half a conflict. It is only a piece of the story.
As all stories must have conflict, we are drawn to darkness as writers and readers because it serves a purpose in finding truth in the written word. People are afraid when they care most about the characters. Darkness does not get its own story. The story is about something else and the monster serves to get us there. Good only shines in contrast to the darkness around it that tries to swallow the light, but fails. Randomness scares us in life and targeted darkness scares us from the page. We already feel fear, pain, anger, and rage in our ordinary life. If those things never find voice on the page, there is nothing for readers to do with those emotions. There is no place to find the truth that encapsulates those negative feelings or a full story that gives them context and perspective.
Dark fiction serves an important purpose for writers, readers, damaged people, and ordinary humans. The page can involve ordinary humans in dark places or it can be populated with all manner of speculative creatures. Sometimes the darkness can win in stories because that truth sings with a harmony to the lives of many readers and writers.
I believe it serves for writers to be able to bridge back to the land of the light. As dark as the world may seem and as often as darkness seems to win, there is a truth that light pushes back the darkness even as darkness fails to snuff out the light. This truth can be seen in the flame of a candle, but one must go into a dark place to see this and appreciate its beauty.
As dark writing serves readers, the audience must have the work presented to them. The 2014 Dark and Bookish authors tour and documentary is an attempt to tell the story of the storytellers that are drawn to dark places in search of truth for their fiction. Find out more about the authors involved in this project. Become a part of helping to tell this story because it is the story of the writers and the readers.
It is your story, so help us tell it: https://www.facebook.com/DarkAndBookish
Thank you, Jay; lots of intriguing insights about writing dark fiction. And may you have a horrifyingly successful Dark and Bookish tour!