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North Carolina: State of Horrorl

Halloween is a time for ghosts and goblins, but the creatures don’t just rise up from the ground unbidden–they are first born in the imaginations of writers and artists.

North Carolina is home to a number of dark creators, a tradition dating back to front-porch ghost stories and extending to comics, films, books, and haunted attractions. Several North Carolina writers shared their thoughts on the continuing popularity of the much-maligned horror genre.

John Parker of Canton is one of the organizers of the Southern Horror Writers Association and is also founder of the independent publisher Post Mortem Comic Studios. He’s developing several horror titles to be released later this year, including “The Cursed and the Damned,” “Fever” and “Project Dorthy.” His series “INK” will be about a living tattoo, and “Shovel” will be an anthology comic that features an ongoing series of horror stories in the “Tales from the Crypt” tradition.

“Right now the horror scene is the best I have seen it in a long time,” Parker said. “In the 1980s, it ruled the scene with the slasher movies, but now we are seeing an even darker side of the horror genre come to life.  Steve Niles (30 Days of Night), for one, has hit the scene and helped bring horror back to the forefront.”

Parker said today’s young people are in the mood for darker fare, whether watching it, hearing it or reading it. “They are into more of the hardcore scene in music, art and reading,” he said. “Even the ones you would never think would be into the whole horror scene are eating it up.  It is a good time for us as writers, artists and film makers.  I hope it stays as strong for a long time to come.” 

Alexandra Sokoloff, a Raleigh novelist and screenwriter, said, “A lot of people love the adrenaline rush of being scared or unnerved–it’s exhilarating, like riding a roller coaster or going whitewater rafting. But I think on a deeper level supernatural fiction explores real issues of good and evil, and questions of the nature of existence itself. It’s a very spiritual genre.”

Sokoloff’s novels include “The Harrowing,” in which five isolated college students play with an ouija board, and “The price,” in which she explores the sacrifices of love and the mysteries of faith. “To me, a good horror novel is cathartic because it bluntly acknowledges that there is evil in the world, but it also shows that evil can be defeated, at least one battle at a time, by good people. That’s the real catharsis for me– to see good win out over evil.”

Scott Nicholson, a Boone author of seven supernatural thrillers, agrees that horror fiction and movies are a great battleground for faith issues. “I like to go beyond the normal boundaries,” Nicholson said. “And once you play with the boundary between the living and the dead, you’re free to really explore what it means to be human and alive.”

Nicholson’s novels are inspired by Appalachian legends and ghost stories, and he’s also developing the comic book series “Grave Conditions” for Post Mortem Comic Studios, featuring a character called “The Digger”’ that introduces short tales with surprise twists and good, old-fashioned scares. “I’m not all that interested in gore and violence,” Nicholson said. “I’ll do it if the scene requires it, but I enjoy the quiet mysteries more. But the great thing about horror is that it works for all kinds of audiences, from ‘Scooby-Doo’ for kids to teen torture for fans of the ‘Saw’ franchise. It’s getting harder to shock modern audiences that are numbed by headlines and war, but I think there are other ways to affect people emotionally and perhaps more subtly and spiritually.”

John Kenneth Muir of Pineville, who’s written numerous books on horror television shows and movies, said horror is simultaneously the most subversive and most moral of genres but is ripe for a change.

“Because horror often operates at the fringe or the periphery of the mainstream popular culture, it is uniquely placed to comment on that culture,” Muir said. “That has been the history of horror. There’s an edict I have–bad times make good horror–and we’re certainly living in some bad times now, between a failing economy and a quagmire in Iraq.  But horror today, both literary and cinematic, seems to be playing it safe.”

Muir believes horror as a product has become too commercial to really be subversive. “Unfortunately, the corporate nature of publishers and studios today is responsible for a lot of dreck that doesn’t really acknowledge the reality of the trouble we find ourselves in.  Too often, the horror we see today is a watered-down remake or PG-13 (so as not to offend).

“I’d like to see horror today becoming a little sharper; a little nastier, a little smarter, and a little more pointed.  Basically, we should be seeing a whole new generation of original films like Last House on the Left or Straw Dogs...but we’re mostly getting remakes of 80s slashers that play on brand names, like Prom Night.”

Richard Danksy, novelist and game designer, said, "I think horror - and things which come from horror - are actually doing very well right now. It's just that things that used to be classified as horror are now 'dark fantasy' or 'psychological thrillers' or whatnot, and elements of horror have been adapted to genres like paranormal romance. But in games and movies in particular, we're seeing some really interesting and novel stuff, and I think that's going to continue as the technology we have to tell those stories gets better and more accessible."

Authors like Stephen Mark Rainey, Dale Bailey and David Niall Wilson help add to the state’s literary tradition, and a number of new writers are breaking into the horror field. With “horror” no longer on the spines of books, though, the audience sometimes has to work harder to find fresh takes on age-old terrors.

“Where is the new George Romero?” Muir asked rhetorically. “The new Wes Craven?  The new Tobe Hooper?   Those are the folks I’m looking for today, and I don’t see them.  Those are the voices that I want to hear, if horror is to have a future equal to its past.”

If North Carolina has anything to say about it, then maybe the future of horror is almost here.

--copyright 2008 by Scott Nicholson. No use without permission.

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Scott Nicholson is the author of eight "real books" and six "fake books" (er, ebooks). Some of the real ones have the same stories as the fake ones. The difference is the "real books" have often been declared out of print by the publisher and removed from store shelves, so his dedicated readers must take extreme measures to find them, including plundering garage sales and stealing from the library. His ebooks are easily available and cheap. The Skull Ring and The Red Church are two such cheap books at under $2 each. But, as the commercials say, the experience is priceless. Visit Scott at http://hauntedcomputer.blogspot.com

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