What follows below is an email interview I conducted with horror-fiction writer Chase Will inspired by the recent release of his novel Moving Through. I was interested in corresponding with Chase because I thought our genres were so different, and because I am, in general, averse to the horror genre be it in fiction or film. I hoped to gain insight into what exactly it was about that genre that so attracted and inspired him to use his storytelling talents writing horror. I was not disappointed in the result. By the end of our “conversation,” Chase had politely educated me on how wrong I was and on the personal and societal value of the horror genre.
Whether you’re a fan of the horror genre or not, I promise that if you read the entire interview, you will become a fan of Chase Will. He is truly both a gifted writer and a brilliant critic. I encourage you to follow him on social media and to read anything of his you can get your hands on.
Who is Chase Will both personally and professionally?
First and foremost, I strive to be empathetic. Whether I’m meeting someone for the first time in real life or doing a brief character sketch on paper, empathy is something I treasure. It seems to be in short supply in today’s political climate. The world is far more interesting when you try understand what makes others who they currently are, and empathy comes with the understanding that we’re always evolving as individuals and doing the best we know how. I travel the country for work, and the people I meet on the road have been very influential on how I tell character-driven stories. I’ve come to appreciate there’s no such thing as “purely bad” or even “purely good,” and one of the easiest ways to fail as a writer is to assume anyone you’re writing about falls into either box.
What/who sparked your love for reading and writing?
My parents. When I was a kid I’d always see my mom with a book in her hand, and my dad always had a Stephen King in front of him before falling asleep at night. They told me I couldn’t read these books because they’re “too scary for little kids,” which made me just want to read them more. I would sneak into my parents’ room when I was four or five, flip to a random page in one of these books expecting monsters to pop out at me, and I was underwhelmed by them. With the sort of arrogance only a five-year-old can master, I thought, “I can do this way better than that Stephen King guy! He’s not scary. I’ll show them ‘scary’!” So, at school, I’d practice telling stories to my classmates during recess, reveling in the attention I garnered and the way I could have my classmates asking, “What comes next? Do you know the next part of the story yet?” Of course, I got into trouble over a story that was particularly gross, and my parents were shocked to hear about the stories I was telling when my teacher showed them handwritten copies at a parent-teacher conference. Totally worth it.
Talk about your writing process.
My writing process has pretty much never changes. Since I was fourteen or so, my process has involved writing at least two handwritten pages every day, and my handwriting is very small and neat. After finishing a handwritten draft, which almost always reads like an outline, I type everything out, print it, and re-read the printed pages. Then I go through what I’ve written and start making a mess with a red pen, circling and starring problematic areas and writing in the margins how I’d like to change sentences and sometimes full chapters. I rearrange things. I write from a different character’s viewpoint. Sometimes I trash the whole draft and start completely over. I learned this method from a writer named Darren Shan, who lives overseas in London and who I’d correspond with sometimes via air mail. He told me the most important thing is to just get the first draft done quickly and worry about correcting mistakes later, and that writing with momentum prevents you from losing interest in your own work or getting distracted from other story ideas. He also inspired the way I look at subsequent drafts, since he does eight or nine drafts per book, something I’ve heard others call “overkill.” It’s a slow way of finishing a book but, as Shan taught me, it’s better to put each draft aside for a month or so and work on it with fresh eyes each time. I know people who only write two drafts of their books in quick succession, and their work is almost always lousy with errors and bad writing.
What is it about the horror genre that so appeals to your reading and writing tastes?
One thing I appreciate about horror is its ability to show you something meaningful in an abstract way involving all manner of strange things. Nothing is every black and white in horror, at least not in good horror. Monsters are typically victims of circumstance and never really “evil.” Take the film adaptation of Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein, two of my all-time favorite films: the monster struggles to fit in with society after being given life by a mad scientist, but no matter what he does or how inherently innocent he is, he’s outcast from society and hunted just for being different. In Stephen King’s novel Cujo, the beloved neighborhood dog isn’t “evil,” he’s just a confused animal who got bitten by a rabid bat, another victim of circumstance. I would even go as far as to say that the creatures in Japanese horror films like Ju-on: The Grudge aren’t truly evil; most of the time they’re victims of a curse that’s supposed to represent societal expectations and the true evils of the world. It goes back to empathy.
More often than not, in both films and in literature, mankind is objectively more “evil” than the monsters they create, and although we deny the beasts within ourselves, horror has a way of spotlighting them and showing us where our darkest desires and rage-filled thoughts can take us if left unchecked once too often.
Other than “Don’t read it,” how might you respond to someone, like myself, who is put off by the misogyny, sadism, and excessive violence found in many works of horror?
I’d argue that horror doesn’t inherently include these elements, at least not the horror I’m typically drawn to. Sure, there are always movies like “Saw” and “Hostel,” where the violence is front-and-center and oftentimes overtakes the plot and character development. But, more often than not, horror is more about atmosphere and pacing. Horror is about making the reader/viewer “horrified,” and that’s a very subjective feeling. What’s disgusting to one person is another person’s nightmare. For instance, I’m deathly afraid of spiders. Some people might call me a bit of a wuss…but those people might also be afraid of clowns, which I think is downright soft of them and hilarious.
When you pick up a horror book or movie, you’re agreeing to be offended to some degree, and that’s just part and parcel to feeling horrified. The only “innocent” horror movies I can think of are those lame “found footage” films that people seem to be pretty fond of, and these movies almost always include demonic possession or ghosts, which I would call “vanilla horror.” It’s just lame. These works are rarely challenging to the reader/viewer, especially in film format. However, there’s a book by author Paul Tremblay called “Head Full of Ghosts” that turns the demonic possession and found footage tropes on their heads by focusing more on the characters and their own secrets. I won’t spoil anything about the book, but mental illness and broken family dynamics are the true horrors here. I highly recommend it.
Going back to movies like “Saw” and “Hostel,” works that I’d say fall under the “splatterpunk” umbrella, I’d argue the violence serves a purpose in these works. In the “Saw” franchise, for instance, much like in the movie “Seven,” the killer is making a statement about societal evils and the monsters we’ve allowed ourselves to become in terms of how we view people who are different from us or who don’t fall perfectly into the boxes we’ve created for them.
Splatterpunk, as a subgenre of horror, is all about using elements of disgust and violence as metaphors for larger issues and presenting an author’s thesis in an unexpected way. David Cronenberg is a master at this. Cronenberg’s works are heavy with sexuality, and some might call movies like “Videodrome” misogynistic at times, but you have to look past the surface level and ask yourself why the artist chose to include these elements and how they aid the story. Quite simply, there’s more to it than just overt violence, nihilism, and misogyny. The only movies I write off completely are in the same vein as “I Spit on Your Grave,” where rape and violence against women is what drives whatever passes as “story.” These movies are garbage. If a writer spends more time describing a rape than they do describing the emotional fallout and societal repercussions of the assault, the writer has failed, and they’re a total hack.
We have the internet nowadays, so finding a horror book or movie that challenges you to a comfortable degree while not overtly disgusting you is pretty easy. I’d recommend giving horror a chance and avoiding the urge to write off the entire genre because of a few bad experiences. I’ve seen absolutely terrible romantic comedies…but I can’t write off that entire genre, can I? Don’t shy away from being offended. In complacency lies boredom and jadedness.
What, if anything, do you bring to the genre that separates your contributions to the horror genre from other authors?
Again, I’ll go back to empathy. I love my characters far more than I love my stories, and whenever terrible things are happening to them, I’m not rooting for a bloodbath. Just the opposite. I want to see these characters fight tooth and nail to survive and thrive, and I want to see them win. They’re all going through different struggles, and I try to refrain from making any two of my characters completely similar, so as I’m doing my research and going through various drafts, I’m becoming more aware of societal issues and the impact they’ve had on these characters. Sure, I’m the guy holding the pen or sitting at the keyboard, but the characters really drive what happens to them and how they handle the scenarios I throw them in.
Take, for instance, my latest effort Moving Through. This isn’t strictly a horror book, and I would be reaching to say it even falls into any one subgenre. It’s a coming-of-age novel about a group of teens mourning the death of a mentor they wholeheartedly loved and understood. This mentor was one of the only people who truly worked to understand them and accept them for what they were, so with him gone, emotional horror and existential dread comes into play. There’s a scene midway through the book that I would call “horrifying,” in that the main character is struggling to accept his friend’s death. As someone who recently lost a beloved family member, there was an intense feeling of intimacy with what this character was going through, and all the emotional monsters came out to play with both of us. Part of me was afraid to even delve into these things because they can be very painful to dredge up…but horror author Jack Ketchum taught us all “Don’t look away.” Looking away from that sort of emotional intimacy makes dishonest writing and flat characters. I wanted my characters to be real as possible, so I went there with them with, embraced empathy, and wrote everything they were feeling after their devastating loss.
I’m not saying this is a new thing, and I’m certainly not the only writer to “go there” with his characters, but I think this trait separates me from a large number of authors who seem to say “yeah, whatever, let’s get back to describing the blood spatter and the monster’s ‘impossibly sharp’ teeth!” Some of their stuff is ‘impossibly bad’ writing, which is something I personally dread.
I know that you are a horror film buff as well. What influence, if any, do you think horror cinema has on your fiction?
I think horror cinema has helped me appreciate the intimacy prose offers. When you’re watching a film, you’re typically watching events unfold from the perspective of a fly on the wall, and you often only know what a character’s emotions from what they say, how they say it, and how they move. There are limits here that simply aren’t present in prose. In prose, you have a much larger toolbox to craft your story with, and you can typically do so without as much clumsiness as in film. We’ve all seen movies that have on-the-nose dialogue and corny moments that are inserted simply for exposition. A benefit of writing prose is having many, many paths to chose from in showing your characters’ struggles rather than telling about them. Some might say I’m off the mark here, or even that I’ve got it backward, and maybe that’s been their experience.
I’ve also been told by readers that my books tend to read like movies in the reader’s mind. Descriptions are usually vivid, the action is fast-paced, and the readers are working in tandem with my writing to see what I see. That’s one of the greatest compliments, knowing that readers are working with me rather than just passively reading description after description and just passively taking the journey, page after page.
Who are your favorite authors and works of horror fiction that you would recommend?
Cormac McCarthy’s epic novel Suttree is one I would recommend to anyone who wants to see what good writing can really do. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is another. And then there are books like Off Season by Jack Ketchum that are more visceral and rawer, sometimes hard to read due to the violence being depicted but never boring or repetitive. Anything by Jeff Strand is good, and he’s able to blend humor into his horror without ever taking away from either of these elements, something I wish I could do even half as well. Kristopher Triana is a writer I found out about recently, and he hasn’t let me down yet; he has a way with words that any aspiring writer should envy, and while his horror is of the “bloody and disgusting” variety, he makes me care about the characters to a surprising degree, which I think separates him from many of his splatterpunk peers.
When you’re not reading in the horror genre, what others do you enjoy?
I really enjoy classic literature. One of my reading goals this year is to finish Moby Dick and Don Quixote. I’m also reading David Foster Wallace’s epic and sometimes-controversial novel Infinite Jest, which has been a delightful experience so far…though it’s over a thousand pages and sometimes drags to the point where I set it down and read something else for a few days. I average somewhere around a book every two days, and I spend most nights reading, so I try to mix in a little bit of everything. I’ve even tried reading books I’ve been instructed to hate, like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. I didn’t enjoy these books, mostly due to the poor writing quality, but I can see merit in them and their contribution to enticing audiences to give reading a chance. Plenty of objectively “bad” fiction has been a launching point for lifetime readers.
Give a one or two sentence synopsis of Moving Through and your best pitch to a prospective buyer/reader.
A group of high school Seniors mourn the death of their mentor while inciting a school-wide rebellion.
What’s next in the writing que or Chase Will?
I’m currently polishing up my next novel, Parasitic Host, which is about a post-college identity crisis and includes a monster trying its hardest to be human. This was loosely inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and also by Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it has a comedic tone in the first half that I’m embracing after the emotional toll of working on Moving Through for several years. I think people will really enjoy this one and embrace the change.
I’m also signed on as a vendor at Scares That Care in Williamsburg, VA at the end of July, which I’m over the moon about. There are so many great people in the horror industry, and the time they spend finding ways to raise money for charity is often overlooked in favor of the “sexy” side of the horror industry. What are the best ways for someone who’s interested in your work to get their hands on it?
My books are all available on Amazon. However; if you’re averse to making Jeff Bezos richer and would like to purchase these books directly from me, you can find them at www.ChaseWill.com