Guest Blogger: Alexander Gordon Smith
In five days I head off to the States again for a book tour. It’s so exciting!! I’m in Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York, which are four places I have always wanted to visit. I know it’s going to be an amazing, if exhausting, three weeks of wonderful people, stimulating conversations, fantastic sights and huge food. But if my experience last year in the States taught me anything, it was that at some point somebody is going to ask me why I write gory, violent, bloodsoaked, nightmare-inducing horror stories for teenagers. Last time this happened was when I was in Utah. Everybody there was so welcoming and polite and gracious, but one person (who shall remain nameless) accused my books, and horror in general, of inciting violent behavior in readers.
This is what I wanted to say to him, although I actually just spluttered a bit and walked away (because I’m English). And just in case it happens again on this tour, here is why I write horror!
I openly and proudly admit that I am a horror writer. I love horror. To me it is the most human of genres, because with horror comes humanity, heroism and hope. Sure, bad things happen in horror. Bad things happen in my Furnace books. Terrible things. Gallons of blood is spilled, limbs and lives are lost with alarming frequency, terrifying creatures stalk the cells at night and, later on in the series, millions of innocent people perish in gruesome fashion. But nowhere in the books is this violence and terror glamourized. In fact, as with almost all stories in this genre, the purpose of it is to show the real strength of the human heart.
In essence, the Furnace series is a story about friendship and courage, about heroism and hope, and about love too – not the smoochy “love” of certain popular YA books, but the love you have for a brother, a best friend, the love that keeps you standing shoulder to shoulder with someone even when the battle looks lost. At the start of the story Alex, the main character, is a criminal and a bully. And inside Furnace he has to commit much worse crimes to stay alive. But the horror of what happens makes him a better person because he comes to understand that without courage, without friendship, without hope, he will lose himself to the nightmare of the prison and the warden’s devastating plans.
In short, when things are at their very worst we see people at their very best. That’s why horror is such a powerful genre, because it reveals the hero inside all of us, even when that hero is buried so deep we think it doesn’t exist – just like with Alex at the start of the book. When characters are threatened with violence they show tolerance and perseverance and forgiveness (as well as kick-assedness); when they are face to face with their nightmares they show boundless courage; when they are confronted by evil – whether it is age-old and world-ending or simply human cruelty – they show goodness; the inhumanity of their world brings out their humanity; and at the very end of things, when all seems lost, they have hope, which is quite simply the most important ingredient of any horrific situation. These things don’t come easily, of course, the characters have to fight for them and they don’t always win. But essentially it is the horror of their story that saves them.
And as to whether or not horror is suitable for children and teenagers, I would argue that reading a good horror story is an essential part of growing up! Fear as an emotion is older than we are as a species, we once needed it for our very survival because the hormonal rush it gave us turned us into superhumans. Nowadays we spend less time running away from lions, but fear – and the knowledge that we can overcome it – is still an important part of growing up. Reading horror stories gives us a taste of what it is like to face up to danger, to be challenged and victorious, tested and triumphant. This is why I was so addicted to horror as a teenager, I think, because I needed to know that I could face the challenges of growing up. I needed to know that I had the strength to survive. Horror stories give us the confidence to live life the way we want to, the same way fairy tales implant vital lessons in the unconscious minds of young children. They let us know that we have what it takes to be our own heroes.
I have a friend who once complained that writing horror was cheating, that all we do is say “boo” and expect the reader to spend the whole book running away screaming. But he got it wrong too, because horror isn’t about running away. It is never about running away. It is about standing up to your fears, it is about how to confront and triumph and survive and grow. We do say “boo”, but what we really want is for the reader to say “boo” back, because that’s what horror does (for characters and readers alike) – it scares us, but in doing so it makes us stronger.
And that’s what I will tell anyone who argues that horror is simply gratuitous violence, terror and rampant gore. For me, H is for Horror, yes, but is also stands for Heroism, Humanity and Hope. What does horror mean to you?
Alexander Gordon Smith, 32, is best known as the author of the Escape From Furnace Series, made up of LOCKDOWN, SOLITARY, DEATH SENTENCE, FUGITIVES and EXECUTION. He also wrote THE INVENTORS– which was runner-up in the national Wow Factor Award – and THE INVENTORS AND THE CITY OF STOLEN SOULS, both of which were co-authored by his eleven-year-old brother Jamie. The first novel in his third series, THE FURY, will be published this year.
He is the author of two creative writing handbooks, INSPIRED CREATIVE WRITING and WRITING BESTSELLING CHILDREN’S BOOKS, a number of screenplays that are currently in development, several non-fiction books and hundreds of short stories and articles.