How Horror Seduced Me, or, How I Went Over to the Dark Side

CW: wet crotch, underpants, disease, body parts.


I

As a child, rummaging through the house for buried treasure was a favourite pastime, an exercise which ranged from digging through the cracks in the settee for long lost trinkets: combs, toy cars, dismembered action figures, dried chicken drumsticks (I heap all the blame on my sister for that one) to sneaking into my parents’ bedroom and poring over my father’s medical textbooks. The massive tomes with full color pictures of patients instantly captivated me and I found myself fascinated with the ways sickness could warp human features into something other. It was, well, horrifying. But that didn’t stop me from looking at them again. And again. And again.

It was during one of these treasure hunts that I found my parents’ secret stash of movies (no, not those movies). I popped in the first cassette into the VHS player and watched a now familiar opening scene: a car full of friends rolls up to a holiday cabin in the woods. It was The Evil Dead. I watched, terrified and yet morbidly fascinated (much as I had been with the medical pictures) as the evil claimed the friends one by one.

Needless to say I scarred my young mind by watching it, and endured several nights of nightmares. But like the books, I kept returning to the movie again and again, until I knew every minute of it by heart, until my dreams were a never ending reel of possessed clocks and rapacious trees and demons boiling out of the depths of hell.

That was the first cassette.

The second was an Old Nollywood movie called Diamond Ring 2, in which an idiot teenager and his friends rob a grave, stealing – you guessed it – a diamond ring off a freshly interred corpse. The vengeful spirit puts the foolish boy into a coma and gives his family 24 hours to find and return her ring or forfeit his life. I haven’t watched that movie in eighteen years and I still remember the soundtrack. Yeah.


II

Every culture has its ghost stories (which is a catch all for legends and tales bordering on the horrific) and growing up in Nigeria, I heard my fair share of ghost stories. But these weren’t tales we whispered by the light of campfires (why would you leave the comfort of your home for the cold uncertainty of the wild???[the wild is filled with a certain subspecies of humans with a penchant for body parts]); the tales were told in the cold light of day, in between mundane tasks and conversations, in the matter-of-fact tone of one commenting on the weather, which made it its own special brand of terror.

When I was ten we moved from the rented apartment we’d lived my whole life to our own duplex. And as I sat with my siblings watching Shrek on the new TV, behind us my parents chatted with their friends. I heard my dad say about the old house: “they say the landlord seeded the compound with the bones of some dead girl, buried her skull in the roots of the palm tree.” I whipped around and gawked at him, and he very patiently repeated what he’d said. I flashed back to all the times I’d sauntered past that palm tree, all the times I’d rested under it in between playing football with my goons and said, “why didn’t you tell me?”

“Did you really want to know?”

Did I really want to know? No. Would it have made a difference if I knew? Most definitely. But that didn’t stop me from thinking of all the times the palm branches had scratched against my window, and wonder if it wasn’t the spirit of the girl pleading to be set free.

Good Lord.


III

Secondary school introduced me to horror in its literary form. After the initial Harry Potter frenzy, I happened upon a Stephen King book in the library: Misery. I enjoyed it so much that I hid it where no one could ever find it, and stole to the library whenever I could to read it. Up until that point I’d only seen horror movies, become overly familiar with the beats, so to speak. But reading Misery opened my mind to a whole different kind of terror. With a movie, you’re more or less stuck with the director’s vision of the events and characters and setting etc (which is not necessarily a bad thing); with a book, you are the director of your imagination. And oh, doesn’t imagination like to run wild? Reading Misery, Paul’s pain was my pain, his terror was my terror, and the evidently unhinged Annie Wilkes was the stuff of nightmares.

But what really fascinated me was how simple words strung one after the other could light up the cinema of my mind, and evoke visceral reactions even more lasting than some of the movies I’d watched. It’s not surprising, then, that when I finally put pen to paper in the hopes of becoming a writer, what came out was a horror story.

The oldest and perhaps most visceral of human emotion is fear and I found catharsis in the ability to master my fears, in the ability to dream up dreadful situations and explore them on my own terms. If horror is fear of the unknown, then I gain power over it in the knowledge of the outcome, in an almost clinical detachment as I watch my characters navigate horror.

Creators of horror are rarely – perhaps never – scared by the stuff they create, because the horror is theirs, and they’ve seen it in its underpants (hell, they bought the damn underpants); the terrified are the readers who are kept in the dark and watch with soiled crotches bated breath the characters navigate horror.

Do I still look twice at the shadow in the corner of my room? That depends on a host of things, chief among them being my mental state at the given time. But best believe that by the time I put pen to paper I will have known that horror by its name, and bought it some damn underpants.

BTS #2: Guardian of the Gods

Here’s a brief rundown of how I wrote this story. There’s potential spoilers here, so if you haven’t read it, and don’t want to be spoiled, go here.


A question was all that really set off this story: what happens if men gained such power as to rival that of the gods? What happens if men grew so powerful that they could – gasp – kill gods? And if so, why would they do that? What followed was weeks of brainstorming as a whole new world formed in my mind as I sought to answer the question. I soon realized, however, that this question was not one to be answered in 5,000 words; it was going to be a sprawling fantasy of epic proportions.

But I needed a test story, if you will, to see how well this world holds up. Enter Guardian of the Gods.

As opposed to the planned epic (I am now in the initial drafting stages), this was really an examination of one character and her needs and wants, and how it plays into the greater cosmic game. Ashake has lived all her life in the mountain-temple, together with her fellow acolytes, taking instruction from the priests on how to commune with the gods in a divine back and forth (in Yoruba cosmology the priests of Ifa cast cowries across divination boards to decipher the will of the gods concerning a person or certain events).

What follows is a slow unraveling and discovery, as the world she knows is yanked from beneath her. This concept is one that has always fascinated me, We all live in little bubbles, and most of what we know has largely been externally influenced, from the news to basic tenets of culture, passed down over the centuries, and for the most part we are told things and we take them as truth. But what if the truth you know is not actually truth? What if this has all been specially curated by unseen forces to keep you locked and docile, your independent thought clasped in chains or deliberately steered in a different direction so that you stumble, ignorant and frustrated through life?

Well that got deep real fast, haha.

Anyway these were the questions burning in the back of my mind as I wrote this story. I initially planned for Ashake to confront these “unseen forces” in her world in an epic battle, but decided that would take away from the story, which is much more quiet, and primarily about how she comes to terms with what she is, and her role in the grand scheme of things.

January update

Is it just me or it feels like there’s been 200 days of January? Quite a lot happened this month and now that I look back and reflect on everything I think I understand why.

Writing
The bulk of this month was devoted to The Novel. I queried this late last year and got a few agents to bite, but they all turned it down, save for one who gave me a detailed feedback and invited me to resubmit if I ever revised. Her notes lined up with most of the critiques I’d previously gotten so I decided to tackle them. I won’t lie it was hard. It’s still hard. Most of what I’d written had to go, and I’m still not sure I’m satisfied with this version. We’ll see where it takes me. I’m looking to finish this by February ending so I can send it out to the betas then start querying in March.

Reading
Kicked this year off with The Hobbit, then went on to the Golden Compass, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. I read these books as a kid over ten years ago. It was very enjoyable rereading scenes I’d forgotten and just reliving the emotions which captured my tween heart. Next I read Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. I read his First Law trilogy late last year and thoroughly enjoyed the narration. Joe Abercrombie is a master of characterization. I particular love how every chapter in his books reads like a short story, complete with a beginning, middle and end.

Life. Well this month was devoted to exams, and even though I didn’t study thoroughly I somehow managed to pass Neurology and Psychiatry. I’m not complaining. Also I finally got to see my sister! After 5 years. She studies on one end of Russia and I on the other end. Between us there’s over 15hrs of flight and a shitload of ticket money, so we never could visit each other. But she had to go renew her passport in the embassy and since Moscow’s only a few hours from where I stay it was the perfect opportunity to meet up. Yay! I mean we video chat and text and call, but to see each other in the flesh was surreal to say the least. I grinned like a fool the whole time:)

Awards Eligibility 2019

So this year has been pretty interesting. I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a writer, and have learnt more and honed my craft. The first half of this year was dedicated to writing that damned book, while in the second half I focused on short fiction.

I had 2 stories published this year, both of which I’m incredibly proud of:

Faêl published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, is a fantasy story about a witch king, a cunning moon goddess, a war criminal seeking redemption, and how their lives intersect in a climax that has been millenia in the making.

The Muse of Palm House published in The Dark, chronicles the dark history of an old colonial manor in a fictitious Nigerian town, and the unsuspecting artist who moves in there to kill himself.

Well, that’s it! Two stories in 2019 and they are eligible for all the awards. Happy reading folks!

Behind The Story #1: The Muse of Palm House

Here’s a brief rundown of the inspiration behind this story. There’s potential spoilers here. If you haven’t read this story, go here


First came the house.

I’ve always been fascinated with haunted houses – the classic gothic dark vibes, so when I set out to write this story I knew immediately it had to feature a haunted house – but with a twist. This was not going to be your typical ghost story.

Next came the haunt.

The Picture of Dorian Gray also influenced my decision here. I thought instead of having a painting which ages while the subject retains youth, why not have an entity whose way to the wider world is through a painting? Because what is more permanent than a picture – or painting?

Third came the damned.

I had 2 elements. A house and the concept of the painting. I needed last ingredient. The medium through which the story will be experienced. I’ve usually always thought that horror is best served on an unsuspecting character. Indeed the first half of the story might not read like horror. You might think it’s a contemporary piece on an artist long past his prime seized by sudden inspiration (and you’ll be forgiven for thinking so, this was intentional). I thought why not have a main character who’s so self-absorbed and consumed with his own affairs that he doesn’t see the house for what it truly is? That he doesn’t see Lara for what she truly was?

All the pieces came together and the rest, as they say, is history. I wrote this feverishly (much as the main character’s feverish painting). I thought long and hard about how to end this story. In the end I went with the ambiguous ending, because it is horror after all, and some things are best left unsaid, or in the this case, unwritten.

I’m really proud of this story, I think it’s accomplishes everything I set out to accomplish.