Friday, September 17, 2010

Observational Horror

When my book City of Demons was set to be published, I asked author Gary Braunbeck to write the introduction.  In what turned out to be both brilliant and humorous, Gary made the following statement about me:  This is a man who does not see the same world the rest of us do.  I do not mean he sees the world differently than us – he sees a completely different world, and that mad sparkle in his eyes tells you that Scott Johnson is warped in the best of all possible ways – the embodiment of what Oscar Wilde called, “… the divine madness of absolute clarity.”

It, and another blog I read from a fantastically talented writer, got me thinking about the subject of inspiration.  It's a common thing for folks to ask us where we writers draw our inspiration, and while I'm often prone to talking about my "Muse" and other existential methods of pulling the creepy-crawlies out of my ears, there is one place where, to me, there is no short supply of horror.  And you're sitting in it now.  The real world. 

Jerry Seinfeld made his whole career on what he called "Observational Humor."  Years before, George Carlin did the same thing, but he phrased his description that part of his job was "reminding you of the shit you already knew, but forgot to laugh at the first time."  Keeping with that same idea, I suppose a great deal of what I do could be called "Observational Horror."  It might be that I see things differently, or, as Gary said, I live in my own little world.  But to me, there are horrific things all around that most people just don't see, or don't want to think about.  

For example:  You walk down the street and you see a child walking a large dog.  Most folks laugh because the large dog is pulling the kid down the street and it's a tug-of-war that the dog will win.  I see that and I wonder who, exactly, is the pet?  Is the child the one on the leash?  Is he leading the child somewhere that the child obviously doesn't want to go?  The child is pulling back with all his might, but the dog drags the child along behind him with sadistic indifference.  There's an untold story there, of what they do when I can't see them anymore, and that's where the horror lies. 

Another example:  Mimes.  Just what the hell are they anyway?  Street performers?  Some say so, but to me, the silent creatures are terrifying.  Think about the Mime trapped in the invisible box...What did he do to get stuck there?  How long will he have to stay in his prison made of air?  Till he starves?  And who put him there?  I have a theory that there is an entire race of Mimes, and that they're bent on enslaving us, but first they have to learn how to mimic us.  That's why they follow people along in the park.  Their one flaw, however, the way we'll always be able to identify them, is that they can't talk.  When one of them figures out how to speak, we're all doomed. 

Take a good look around the room (if you're in a room with other people).  Who is smiling?  What do you think they're smiling about?  A joke?  Something their significant other said?  The body they have cooling in the trunk of their car?  Look around and see, really see how much of your environment you can take in with your senses.  Look at the tiny forgotten shadows on the floor, the space under the bookshelf, and ask  yourself what lives there.  That little chip out of the paint in the wall?  Was it always there?  What did that?  I shudder to think what it might have been.  

Here's one that keeps people up at night...There's an old internet rumor (that has been refuted by Snopes) that, while we sleep, we unconsciously eat about a dozen spiders a year from the things crawling over us, into our mouths and noses and ears, and we never know about it.  We're asleep.  We're vulnerable.  What else happens when you sleep?  If it's true what some say, that our reality is formed by our own perceptions, then think about this:  What happens when we sleep, and our perception is no longer active?  Does the world just blink away?  Probably not, because of all the other perceptions out there.  But what would happen if everyone fell asleep at once?  Ponder that one while you're lying in bed with the spiders and see how much sleep you get tonight. 

What I'm trying to get across here is that inspiration can come from anywhere.  The tiniest thing can set off a chain of firing synapses that bring about the most horrific story in the world.  The most innocent look might actually the piercing stare of a serial killer.  (Incidentally, and I'm not in any way condoning behavior like mine, but it amazes me how many people get paranoid if you just open your eyes as wide as you can and smile.  Not blinking adds a whole new level of menace.  Just FYI from your weird uncle Scott)

So look around.  See what there is to be seen.  Take it in, roll it around, and cover it in your own brand of nutty awesome sauce, and see what comes out.  I'm willing to bet it'll be something wonderful. 

Until next time.

Shameless Plug:


  1. Psh, a dozen spiders a year? How about the 6 pounds of dog hair I eat in a year? Someday a full-grown Pomeranian is going to tear its way from my mid-section, Alien-style, and dance away doing the hula.

  2. That or you're going to hack up one hell of a hairball! Thanks for the laugh Nikki.
    I'm glad to see someone else point out that we scary people just find the little things and ask different questions. I have often been in situations with students (and had to recognize and control this one) where I gave them 'that look' and you saw the terror in their eyes. What was that look. I can't describe it and when someone points it out and I go to the mirror it isn't there. But they see it - and they fear it. Some say it is the "Mom" look. It makes me laugh but the idea that people know what I write makes them look at me differently.
    It also helps me to present perspectives and questions to my students in everyday real life. Ways of seeing things they hadn't thought of, with just a little tweak. There are many monsters lying within each of us, we as the writer just need to make the reader aware of those monsters they have lying silently deep inside.