Writing Beautifully Disturbing Things

“Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin.”

—-  Mary Shelley, from the novel “Frankenstein” (public domain)

Although I have read almost more books that I can count by Stephen King, my favorite book wasn’t written by him. I also enjoy books not by “commercial authors,” of which – for better or worse – Stephen King is considered one of. My favorite book is “A Prayer for the Dying” by Stewart O’Nan. He writes dark literary fiction, but when I stumbled upon this book and finished it, I was shocked. This was horrifying to its core. And, delightfully beautiful.

By Stewart O’Nan

It was this book that inspired me to write in a new fashion.

“A Prayer for the Dying” is the story of a lawman, minister, and undertaker – all the same person – in a time of plague. But it’s not just his story – it’s yours as well, because the novel is written in second person.

Not many writers can pull this off, at least, not that I’ve seen. But this book is brilliant. You feel the emotions stronger, you feel the desperation as if it was yours, and you know the horror is real, because you are the one confronting it. Stewart O’Nan scarred me for life with this one, and I liked it.

But more than the unique perspective, this was the first modern horror(ish) novel I’d ever read that payed as much attention to the prose as it did to the events. The way he uses the language is an essential part of the story, for it puts you in the proper time, and the right place to see the things that are happening. It takes place before cell phones and the internet and the automobile. It is about a time when people rode trains, and bicycles, and sent messages by telegraph. I think in that time, attention spans were longer, and people looked to words not just to be thrilled, but to be enraptured.

When you think of horror as a genre, a few authors come to mind – Lovecraft, Stoker, Poe, Shelley. None of these writers would be given a chance today, because “literary horror” is not considered marketable, at least, by many in the business. But I wonder why? “Dracula” still scares me when I read it, and I’ve read it more than once. The words keep bringing me back. Poe frightens me with poetry – an art form that is decidedly on the out in popular media – and the line I presented at the beginning of this post – a line from “Frankenstein” – shows how deeply we can connect our fears to the beauty of our existence.

I wonder what you think? Is there a place in the market for a book that tells what could only be considered a “horror” story, and yet does not follow the pattern or the style of modern commercial fiction?  Would we have such staples of our culture as Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster if writers of a century ago were concerned with churning out as many novels in a year as they could? Or is it our fault for wanting something much simpler to read, that doesn’t challenge us to take note of the more subtle uses of the language? Will literary horror – like a mummy rising from a tomb – live again?


14 thoughts on “Writing Beautifully Disturbing Things

    • I’ve heard so many people say “Don’t even try second person – it never works.” But this is my favorite novel, and I think it works more then effectively.

  1. This book sounds amazing. I think there’s a market for literary horror (well, literary anything) it’s just not a making one rich market. My reading stack right now has everything from Phillip K. Dick to Larry Correia to an incredibly dense book on Jan Svankmajer. I think if it needs to be written you should write it and the people who need to read it will. 🙂

  2. I don’t believe I’ve ever read a novel in second person. I’ll have to try it out. I think people who are really avid readers enjoy good writing, no matter what the genre is. Horror may not be as mainstream but I think it has an audience. I also think you have to write what is meaningful to you no matter what the market is.

  3. The cover artwork for your novel, Wind River is stunning. I studied Mary Shelley at college and every now and again I like to take out Frankenstein and Valperga for a read.
    It’s good to read a mix of literary and commercial horror, keeps our brain cells from dying 🙂

      • It’s been years but thinking back it was women’s Gothic fiction, the public V the private sphere, the Byronic hero and lots more. We had to queue to sign u for this class. I remember it only accepted 12 people so I was up at dawn to make sure I got it.

  4. The way you describe A Prayer for the Dying makes me think that you would enjoy Dan Simmon’s Drood. It is a suspense/horror novel about the last years of Dickens’ life, told through the eyes of Wilkie Collins. Well written, and made me really interested in Dickens again.

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