"What's the worst thing you've ever done?"
Ghost Story, by Peter Straub
Frank Warren may well have one of the scariest mailboxes in America, stocked as it is every day with the desperate secrets of hundreds of people. His community art project, PostSecret, invites strangers to send him their deepest secrets on anonymous postcards they are encouraged to decorate; he's received over 180,000 so far and even published them in several books.
The secrets range from the mundane ("I bought an expensive sewing machine to make my sister jealous") to the insightful ("My entire life has been a lie of omission") to the terrifying ("Every day I contemplate suicide and if you knew why, you'd want me dead too."). They're succinct, personal, and emotional. Some are inspiring, others are cathartic. Some are undoubtedly untrue. All of them remind their readers that someone, somewhere shares even their darkest urges, fears, and ambitions. Time and again, people have praised the PostSecret books and web site with helping them through their most difficult times.
These tiny anonymous messages, each of them powerful and naked and visceral, can teach a lot to writers, especially ones in the business of evoking the strongest emotions in the horror genre.
Why? Because in less than fifty words, ordinary people have often managed greater emotional impact than most horror stories and novels I've ever read. I'm pretty sure the one "I have tasted my own menstrual blood" in The Secret Lives of Men and Women is scarier in seven words than any two-hour movie full of hatchets to the skull. Everything about that postcard's "plot" is left to our imagination, and we're left to construct the kind of person and the kind of life in which that confession makes sense. Maybe my imagination skews a little dark, but even the good explanations I invent for it are still creepy.
I've read through several of these books now, listing the characteristics that make these PostSecrets so powerful.
- They're succinct, rarely more than a sentence long. That sentence is usually written directly with a subject-verb-object structure. These are the quick pricks of a syringe, not the long draw of a knife.
- They take courage and abandon to write. These are the secrets of people no longer holding back, laying out their deepest pain and fear for everyone to see, giving away something of themselves away forever. Even the "untrue" ones are revealing, if only as twisted wishes.
- They're personal; they reflect what their writers need and want. They each contain an engine of motivation, some great dream or nightmare resulting from someone's specific experiences.
- They're specific to one person's history. Universal as our wants and terrors can be, these are about specific people who want and fear those things, and their PostSecrets imply a life history. They are insights into a particular person in a particular situation.
- They're rich with deeper implications. Each of these sentences is the tip of an iceberg showing just above the surface of the sea; most have been carefully chosen by their writers as the most representative and revealing of their lives. With only a sentence, we somehow understand far more about a person--even if we're imagining the rest of the iceberg ourselves. Indeed, maybe this use of our own imagination makes it all the easier to empathize with these characters: we add our own lives to theirs.
But how does this matter to horror writers?
Well, first, you could certainly do worse than to write a series of PostSecrets for your characters, nailing down their fears and histories in one confessional sentence. Not only does this help you clarify what they most hope and dread, it helps remind you that your characters are people with voices of their own--things they'd say if they could, if only you'd let them.
Horrors have a terrible habit of inflicting themselves on just the perfectly wrong person at just the perfectly wrong time; of course Robert Olmstead from Lovecraft's "Shadow Over Innsmouth" would have to find his way to Innsmouth of all places during his antiquarian and genealogical tour of New England, and of course he's somehow related to the Marshes. His whole experience feeds upon his latent anxiety about his lineage. Likewise, knowing your own characters' anxieties--really knowing them--can help you write their stories more sharply.
Second, writing fictional PostSecrets might help you brainstorm stories by starting with the most powerful aspects of the story, the human ones. Inventing secrets can sometimes develop a character and a story far more efficiently than any outline. Here are some that I'm inventing right now as I write this:
- "My husband has never told me what he keeps in that barrel."
- "Nobody but me noticed when my brother disappeared."
- "I wish I'd helped that girl running into the woods."
- "I've dreamed all my life that I'll die in a red convertible, and that's what my parents bought me for graduation last week."
- "I used to pass on the beatings my father gave me to the dog."
- "I keep a gun in my confessional booth in case someone ever tells me they've done what my brother did to me."
Lots of those are lame, maybe all of them. But they're all personally horrific, and that is the kind of horror that sticks longest with an audience. Try it yourself and you'll do far better than I have here.
Finally, there's one other tenet of good horror we can learn from PostSecret: if it doesn't make you uncomfortable to write, you're probably not going deep enough. It's easy to write about other people's horrors from a comfortable distance, but those aren't the stories that matter to readers...or to you. Some of us write horror for the same reason someone might send in a postcard--because there's something painful we have to say.
If the stories you're writing aren't making readers (or you) squirm, if they're coming back from editors because they lack power and substance, then maybe you need to write some PostSecrets of your own. Why are you writing horror? What of yourself are you giving away? What fears are you facing? What are you risking? What is it costing you?
If nothing else, these PostSecret postcards and your short stories should have one thing in common: a refusal to deny the costs of being conscious and intelligent and perceptive in a contradictory world. They should hurt a little to write. They should hurt a little to read.
So what's my PostSecret? Shouldn't I pony up with something personal? Okay: "I'm not sure I'll ever write anything good enough to counteract the pain my father caused to so many people...or the pain I've caused, either."
More than that you'll have to find in my stories.
I suspect that Frank Warren and the writers of those PostSecrets would be mortified to think we're perverting their project to write horror; God knows those postcard writers have seen more than enough. Most of the postcards are life-affirming moments of powerful self-revelation. But I wonder if we're not still pursuing their same objective, showing that we all have secret fears and anguish--and that saying them aloud can sometimes set us free.
Will Ludwigsen will soon reveal new secrets in upcoming stories in Cemetery Dance, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and the Interfictions II anthology. For online secrets, check his website at www.will-ludwigsen.com.
Disclaimer: Neither Horror World, Nanci Kalanta, nor the Horror
World web host are responsible for the opinions or reportage of authors published by Horror World. All copyrights and
liabilities thereto revert to authors upon publication.
Visit the Horror World Column Archives