Thoughts on IT by Stephen King, What it Takes to Enjoy Horror, and Why I Write It

I recently finished the beast of a novel It by Stephen King. (Most people know it as ‘that one about the scary clown.’) Finding a book that will scare me again is sort of a white whale for me. I love being scared. Horror movies often scare me because they have the advantage of jump-frights and suspenseful music, etc. Books are at a disadvantage in the fear department, because if it begins to scare you, you can just put it down until you’re in a different mood. (Few people will pause a movie and finish it days later.) The fear has to be utterly insidious to stick with you from reading session to session, and there’s no such thing as a startle when you’re reading words on a page. (BOO doesn’t work; I’ve tried that one.)

It’s interesting to me that so many people assume I’m hard to scare. They think that because I’m a horror writer I must be tough as nails. The little-known secret? I’m quite easily scared. That’s why I write horror; I know and understand the emotion fear. How can I expect to scare readers if I can’t scare myself? Don’t believe this myth you hear that horror authors write about such things because we’re messed up in the head. That may be true for a few authors; I don’t know. But in my experience, horror writers are the nicest, mildest people you’ll meet. For one thing, we regularly exorcise our demons. It’s a very healthy thing. But also, we don’t write what we write because we’re disturbed ourselves; we write what we write because we’re afraid of how disturbed people (and the world) can be. By and large, we aren’t hardened cynics; we’re observant sensitives.

Don't forget to exercise your demons!

Don’t forget to exercise your demons!

All of that to explain: I’m easily scared, and I love it. I’m not a ‘scaredy cat’ though; I seek out what frightens me. It’s a form of both thrill and conquer. And because I know that headspace so well, I’m good at putting others there. So why do I write horror? One answer out of many is that I’m good at it, and writing what I’m best at is super fun. Few emotions are as vivid and visceral as fear; creating that for readers is seriously empowering.

I can get most of my scares from movies. As I mentioned, movies have the advantage, but since I love books so much, I doubly like it when a book can get under my skin. It’s why I’m a horror reader! That said, although there are many horror books I love, very few have successfully scared me. Fun little creeps? Sure. But body-reacting level of fear is hard to come by. Poe’s short stories when I was a kid did it. The Shining and ‘Salem’s Lot as a teen. And as an adult, House of Leaves (in a different way). Others have come close but ultimately failed to smoke that particular cigar.

Now we’ve circled back around to It. It, as an adult reading it for the first time, scared me. Like really, under-my-skin scared me. I have nightmares all the time (of my own making), but this was the first time a book has given me nightmares since I was a kid. I had a full-on, wake-me-up-scary nightmare about the monster from It. You guys, it was awesome. This is exactly why I love Stephen King.

I won’t give you any spoilers, but since It has been out so long. I’ll tell a tad more than I might for a new release. The famous clown of this story, Pennywise, isn’t actually a clown. He appears as a clown sometimes, but he’s more than that; he’s a shape-changing monster that takes the form of whatever his victim’s fear is. (Thus the ‘It’ and not just ‘Pennywise.’) So if one kid is afraid of werewolves, It becomes a werewolf. If another is afraid of homeless people, It becomes an aggressive hobo. And that brings me to the crux of my post today. What does it really take to enjoy good horror?

My answer is simple: Imagination! There’s a reason why kids get scared so much more than adults do; their imaginations are still stuck in the “on” position. Fear is based primarily in the unknown, the potential for something – anything. That is imagination’s breeding ground. Luckily for me, I’ve chosen a life that keeps my imagination going nearly 24/7. I’ve built a career out of letting my mind wander the unknowns, the what-ifs, the could-bes. So when a really good book or movie asks a scary question, my mind is more than willing to get to work coming up with the scary answer.

There is one more component, though. To really enjoy good horror, you have to let down your defenses. Anything “scary” seems stupid if you laugh at it before you let it sink in. To get a good scare, you have to banish the ego. Drop the defense mechanisms and be willing to feel small and embarrassed. Every once in a while a work will come along that smashes through defenses and scares even those who don’t want to be scared. (Those are cool and fascinating works.) But for most of us, for the rest of the time, we have to allow ourselves be scared. We have to sink into the questions and unknowns rather than racing to plug them with safe answers. Honestly, it’s the most fun way to enjoy horror.

And even beyond fun; you can learn a lot about yourself if you allow fear in instead of running from it. It is primarily negative, yes, but it’s one of the dominant emotions of the human experience. The best way to overcome negative things is to acknowledge them and learn. Fear isn’t going anywhere. It has a lot to teach us. Do you really want to block it out?

That’s my food for thought for today. As a side note, I had some problems with It. Some really big problems, actually, but that’s the joy of my Not Quite Book Reviews: I’m not giving a balanced review; I’m just ruminating on books I liked. In It’s case, I gave it five glowing stars because it’s the first book that’s truly scared me in years – and that’s nothing to sniff at.

Do you want to be scared as well? Whether for fun or for thought, I’d suggest any of Stephen King’s finest. My favorites so far have been The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot, It, and Pet Sematary. If you sit down with a will to be scared, a willingness to let down your defenses and banish your ego, and a killer imagination, you won’t be disappointed.

When’s the last time a book scared you? I’m always looking for new recommendations!

Posted in Horror | Tagged | 17 Comments

Introducing Ask Annie

Hey guys! Just a quick announcement. On Saturday, at the end of my latest Twitter post for Writer Unboxed, I introduced a new feature we’ll be trying out: Ask Annie. (That’s me!)

My column will still be every other month, it will still be on Writer Unboxed, and it will still be about Twitter for writers. The difference is that instead of having one topic of my choosing that I discuss in depth, I’ll be fielding a few questions from interested parties each time. So — you guessed it — I’m looking for questions!

To make submitting to Ask Annie easier, I’ve created this form. The only required fields are the question itself and a statement as to whether or not you want it to be attributed to you. In other words, there’s a completely anonymous option in this form; I won’t even see who it’s from unless you want me to. But if you would like your question attributed to you, there are optional fields for your name, Twitter handle, and website. In that case, if I choose your question to answer in the column, everyone will see that it was your question (which is nice exposure).

I’m really excited about this new feature, and I’m so grateful to Therese Walsh for being flexible and continuing to include me in the amazing Writer Unboxed team. Not to mention the logo her super-talented kiddo whipped up for us! Seriously, I’m a smitten kitten; check out the graphic at the top of the Ask Annie page.

I have a feeling this will be a great new direction for the column. If you’re a writer on Twitter (or considering joining), I encourage you to check out all of my past posts for etiquette tips, best practices, how-tos, and more. And if you’re already a reader, be sure to stop by my latest post: “The 10 Most Generic Tweets of All Time.” It’s great fun, and as always at Writer Unboxed, there’s pure gold in the comments. :)

And finally, send me your questions!! I can’t wait to read and answer them over at Writer Unboxed. (My first Ask Annie post will be March 14th, but there’s no deadline for these since it’ll be an ongoing feature.) I hope you all have a great week,

Annie

[Note: comments are closed here, but feel free to comment on my WU post!]

Posted in Updates & Announcements | Tagged | Leave a comment

Celebrating 2015 with Color, Organization, and Joy

I love the New Year. It’s no secret that I’m all about goals, and if you do it right, resolutions are just goals in disguise. I love the symbolism inherent in a fresh start; I love the reminder to look back and review – to look inward and take stock. I love the sense of energy that comes with a new calendar and the promise of blank pages.

Last year my Hub-a-dub was sick at New Year’s, so we stayed home. I was bummed we couldn’t go to a party we’d planned on, so to make staying home seem special instead of a let-down, we built a blanket fort in the living room. (Yes, we are young and energetic. No, you aren’t too old to build a blanket fort.) We went the whole nine yards, dragging our mattress out into the middle of the room, bringing out every sheet and blanket and pillow we owned, and even stringing up a strand of Christmas lights inside. We played games, ate a picnic, watched the ball drop on TV, and slept in the living room with the cats slowly collapsing our fort as the night drew on. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite New Year’s memories.

Megafort

This year I was sick. We did the same, but better. (The kitties couldn’t take down Megafort if they tried.) We snuggled, watched stand-up comedy inside the fort, kissed at midnight, and went to sleep. Aside from being sick, I can’t think of a better way to ring in the year.

Now I’m on the mend, but not at 100%, so I’ve been spending the last week or so slow-working and relaxing, mostly reading and getting myself organized for 2015’s work year (which for me, starts today). For Christmas my mom got me this super awesome Erin Condren “life planner” which I’m just madly in love with:

planner

It’s a personalized, designer planner for the hyper-organized (you rang?). I spent most of New Year’s Day doing two things. 1) Filling out this baby with birthdays, holidays, known appointments, recurring meetings, etc. 2) Filling out my 2014 work expenses for tax time. My hubby was sweet enough to set me up an Excel template to use, which I then filled out for 2014 and set up for 2015. I really enjoyed looking at all of my total expenses and earning for 2014, especially with an eye toward how 2015 might be different. What does it say about me that the happiest way for me to spend the holiday is organizing? (Don’t answer that.) To be fair, the pretty, pretty planner full of stickers and designs really does take it from chore to fun – at least now that it’s still a novelty.

But it wasn’t all neuroticism and spreadsheets. It’s also been goals, accomplishments, and colors. Yes, colors. You know how some people really, really love music? Not just in that human nature “Oh, I love music” way that everyone does, but in that “I would die without music” way. Well, that’s how I feel about color. If I had to choose between a life without music or a life without color, I’d sacrifice the music (and yes, I love music) in a heartbeat. I don’t know how to explain it, but colors mean so much to me. All kinds of vibrant, beautiful colors. They speak to me.

So yes, part of my sense of hope and excitement for what 2015 may bring is symbolized by colors. I added a tab to my new planner for goals:

goals

And wrote my goals out with rainbow pens. I divided them up into “work,” “personal,” and “health” this year. I made them all achievable things that I have control over. And I made them pretty, dammit, so I can flip to this page anytime I want as a reminder. Instead of seeing a somber list of intimidating goals, I’ll see a happy list of things that will improve my life and myself.

Finally, one of my personal goals is to celebrate my successes. I’m pretty bad about achieving something and immediately setting the next goal without fully appreciating what I’ve accomplished first. That’s no way to be happy! So as part of that resolution to celebrate more, I’ve made joy jar. That’s what I’m calling it: my joy jar. Any time I have a wonderful day, achieve something I’ve worked hard for, or experience anything I want to stop and savor, I’ll write it on a sticky note (from the multi-colored stack, of course), and drop it into this jar:

celebrate jar

You might notice that I’m a fan of polka dots and orange (my favorite color). My new planner came with some matching stickers. I used one to personalize an empty Yankee Candle jar. (Tips on how to clean empty glass bottles here; skip to the comments for a shortcut.) My mother-in-law gave me this cute little rainbow button bracelet for Christmas, and I think it’s a perfect topper. I wrote in “Celebrate 2015” with my multi-colored Sharpies to make it look festive, and set it on my works-in-progress shelf. I can’t wait to see it fill up with colorful notes. When 2016 rolls around, I’ll go through the jar and read all I have to be happy about in 2015.

Here’s hoping it’s a lot. :)

I wish you all a joyful, colorful, organized (or messy!), spectacularly fresh and open 2015. What are you doing to celebrate?

Posted in Goals | Tagged | 39 Comments

A Dozen Short Stories Worth Your Time

Where I live it’s been overcast and dreary for weeks. And cold. Let’s not forget cold. (Who invented this winter thing, anyway? I demand a refund.) Luckily, there are perks to cold, gloomy days. You get to wear cute boots and scarves when you venture out. Soup tastes better. And kitties become twice as cuddly. But the main one? There are few things in this life better than thwarting the weather by snuggling up with a good book. Bonus points for thunderstorms and a roaring fire (assuming you have a fireplace – let’s not get crazy).

So I thought this week I’d try to help you beat back impending winter blues by sharing some of my very favorite reads. I’ve chosen a dozen stories that I not only liked when I read them, but that stuck with me long after I finished. Specifically, I’ve tried to choose things that many people might not have read already. I have some very famous authors in here, yes, but I avoided choosing their most famous works – so you won’t see “The Lottery” on here even though I love it. Instead, I’m hoping you might try out these hidden gems and love them as much as I do.

My tastes do veer toward the scary and dark, but there are many types of beauties in here! With each story, I’ve included a brief description of why it stuck with me. Of the 12 stories I chose, 7 are available to read online for free, another is only 99 cents, and 2 others appear in the same anthology. I’ve listed them from cheapest to most expensive. You could read everything on this list – plus dozens more stories that come with them – for under $40, less if you buy used. If you ask me, that’s a pretty glorious way to spend 40 bucks. :)

  1. A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka (Also check out my blog post “Thoughts on Franz Kafka.”)

My favorite Kafka! I think this story is far superior to his more well-known “Metamorphosis.” This piece is a beautiful, thought-provoking commentary on what it means to be an artist and a consumer of art.

  1. A Voice in the Night” by Steven Millhauser

I found this treasure in a collection of literary fiction, and this one stuck with me the longest. It’s executed in a unique, effective way that works for readers (and that writers can learn from).

  1. The Colour Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft (Also check out my blog post “Thoughts on Lovecraft.”)

Again, my favorite of a classic author isn’t the popular favorite. “The Call of Cthulhu” didn’t do much for me, but the subtle, utterly fresh concept in this story struck me as genius. This is science fiction horror for the reader who likes neither.

  1. Jackalope Wives by Ursula Vernon 

I didn’t even mean to read this one. I was skimming it to get an idea of the taste of the Apex magazine editors, and this unusual story just sucked me right in. I couldn’t have stopped and gotten back to work if I’d wanted to – but I didn’t want to. This tale is part fantasy, part myth, and all gorgeous.

  1. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin

I finally tracked this story down after the fourth or fifth friend recommended it to me. What can I say? They were right. This is a story you never forget. Everyone should read it.

  1. Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come for You, My Lad” by M.R. James (Also check out my blog post “Thoughts on M.R. James.”)

Sometimes you just want a good old fashioned ghost story, you know? Especially on Christmas Eve. For me, this one did the trick. It was traditional enough to get me into that mood, but not so old as to be difficult to get through. It delivered several chills, and was just a fun read.

  1. “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” by Joe Hill (Buy it for $0.99 as an ebook single)

This was my first taste of Joe Hill’s work, but not my last. The man oozes talent. Beautiful prose, interesting techniques, one part melancholy and one part charming: reading this story is like taking a master class in fiction, but way more fun.

  1. “Jack-in-the-Box” by Ray Bradbury (Order The October Country paperback for $7.35. This one is chockfull of fantastic stories; the price is well worth it. Also check out my blog post “What Ray Bradbury Meant to Me.”)

I think this might be my favorite Bradbury. I’m not sure. (Don’t make me choose!) It’s definitely in my top five. Immediately after reading this strange and compelling tale, my mind was on fire with ideas of my own. I can’t recommend it enough.

  1. “Philanthropist” by Suzanne Rivecca (Subscribe to Granta’s archives for $12.99 or buy The Best American Short Stories 2013 as an ebook for $8.52 – free if you have Kindle Unlimited)

This is one of those stories that caught me off guard. It seems like a simple, quiet, literary tale, but the impact is astounding. The end of it actually caused me to make a noise out loud, a sort of surprised “oof” of emotion, even though I was home by myself.

  1. “The Tooth” by Shirley Jackson (Find it in The Lottery and Other Stories as an ebook for $8.89. Again, more than worth that price for all the quality stories included. Also check out my blog post “Thoughts on Shirley Jackson.”)

“The Tooth” is one of the best tales of psychological horror I’ve ever read. It’s literary, too, and it will absolutely crawl under your skin and stay there. Note: I highly recommend you don’t read this story when you have a tooth ache.

  1. “The Callers” by Ramsey Campbell (Find it in The Best Horror of the Year Volume 5 in ebook form for $11.19. If you’re a horror fan, this is a must-buy anthology.)

This is a weird story. I suspect it’s not for everyone. For me, it was unsettling to the point of being uncomfortable, which is pretty difficult to do. It put Ramsey Campbell on my list of authors to read more of.

  1. “Some Pictures in an Album” by Gary McMahon (Also available in The Best Horror of the Year Volume 5.)

This is one of the most disturbing horror stories I’ve ever read, and there’s not a speck of gore. If you like your scares on the creepy, chilling, psychological side, this one’s for you. It’s the opposite of light-hearted, but man did it stay with me.

~*~

There you go! Twelve wonderful stories that are well worth your time. These should keep you happily, cozily reading for a good chunk of your gloomy winter days. (Hey, being scared makes for even cozier reading because you’re afraid to get out of the covers!) And if you’re looking for something specific, I’m happy to give you my recommendations. I hope you all read a lot, enjoy, and stay warm. Happy holidays!

Posted in Reading | 19 Comments