Growing Into Gruesome
by Selah Janel
Now that you’re stuck with me, the door is bolted, the tires slit, and all the other necessary precautions taken, I suppose the best way to kick off my week of posts is to introduce myself. I am and probably always will be Selah Janel, and I write all kinds of stuff, mostly in the speculative persuasion. Most of my writing, though, tends to have some sort of dark element, and whether it ends up as straight horror, urban fantasy, or filtered through some other mish mash of weirdness just depends on the story and how I’m feeling that day. I find that it’s nearly impossible to take dark elements out of my work, though, and I’ve honestly stopped trying. For me, horror means versatility, and there is a kind of elegance and clarity in the rules of mayhem vs. morality.
I did not always appreciate this.
I grew up a fairly timid, gullible kid, and an imaginative one at that. It’s hard when you’re in that selective headspace where anything could maybe be possible, especially as a kid when you already feel at the mercy of the world. Obviously, horror movie commercials freaked me out something fierce and I was at the mercy of certain relatives who thought it was hilarious to tell me bedtime stories about demons stealing parents away, or put seed pods under my bed and tell me that Audrey II would grow and eat me if I was bad, or fake demonic possession during a road trip in the middle of nowhere…fun times.
However, I was also the weird little girl that absolutely loved urban legends and often forced my friends to tell me blow by blow accounts of what had happened to the notorious friend of a friend of their older siblings or something. I was totally the one who’d sneak off and read the back of the boxes of horror movies I’d never see when my family went to a video store to rent a movie, the one who’d gleefully overdose on all the bizarre, sparkly death that were the cartoons of the 1980s. It was an odd, uneven dichotomy, and one I never really understood myself until I was much older.
I’ve always been a reader, but it was primarily classics or literary or fantasy, things that seemed my style. It wasn’t really until college that I started seeking out the really weird, the beautifully strange. I half suspect it was because a lot was going on that felt out of my control, so instead of reverting to childlike instinct to feel helpless and overwhelmed, I got angry. And instead of lashing out, I started reading things that made me think, that inspired me to get one step closer to accepting my creative nature in all its forms. Ray Bradbury was devoured, I latched onto Anne Rice for a good long time, Poe was rediscovered, Lovecraft was a long lost playfellow, I threw my arms around all the old Irish ghost stories I’d forgotten, Stephen King’s work became a friend, and those led to the discovery of Poppy Z. Brite, Neil Gaiman, Nancy A. Collins, Shirley Jackson, which led to embracing older horror movies, which led to the realization that it wasn’t that I didn’t like horror, it’s that I had to learn to like it on my own terms. Which is fair – you’re not going to like every food item put in front of you, so you can’t expect to crave everything under a certain genre label the same.
As I developed a deeper appreciation for the genre, something else shifted. Being a theatre major who wasn’t living in NY or LA, and given that at times you just take work as it comes, I got involved in some fairly high-level haunted attractions in the area. First came the performance aspect, then came costume design work. Suddenly I found myself not just appreciating the vampires, the creepy killers, the deranged hillbillies, and so much more…I was part of it. And I wasn’t just a part of it…I was responsible for a good deal of it. I was the crazy chick behind bars lunging at people, I was the camp counselor being stalked five times a night (six on Saturdays), I was the one having to create new looks for all these wild, freaky creatures that needed a facelift. It’s true that you do have to get past a long production schedule, budgets, a lot of meetings, and other unsexy things. I never thought I’d ever be discussing what the right amount of blood is, what kind of zombies are we going for, and what’s this vampire’s real intent? Besides all that, what do certain brands of monsters actually look like and is there actually the money around to pull that off when there’s so much else that has to get done by a certain date? I’ve had the odd experience of being not just a consultant/designer/creator, but also someone in production who has to implement all the crazy, and there’s a lot to it, a lot more than people think, some that would depress you, some that would make you laugh, and some that’s just frustrating no matter who you are. Beyond that, though, there is a really odd and awesome form of empowerment: as a creator you suddenly get a jolt out of contributing to something so cool, whether you’re talking tangible stuff like a suit or a book or something more ephemeral like a performance.
There is so much freedom in the horror genre, which is liberating and terrifying. Not only does it give authors and artists of all types the opportunity to paint with a huge palette, but it also is a huge responsibility, because if I can’t come up with something interesting with all that freedom, than man, how much do I suck?
It took really taking part in the genre for me to connect the dots to full-on love it. I had to remember that zing of excitement in the cafeteria when some kid told me about how he’d heard how a family was eating dinner and a spot on their ceiling grew vast and bloody and they were suddenly dragged to hell. I had to remember how freaked out yet how excited I was to have a friend’s older sibling give me the narrative play by play of the latest Nightmare on Elm St. I had to journey back to remember that time I may have ran an underground library of creepy material in my jr. high locker for those who weren’t allowed to take home RL Stine or Scary Stories to Read in the Dark. I had to discover what it was like to be part of that claustrophobic dread that I got when reading Bradbury’s The Next in Line or King’s N. I had to feel the heady allure that comes with creating something just this other side of wrong.
I had to remember and learn all of that, then had to realize that I really, really wanted to explore it in writing. I had to want to let the dark and weird out, I had to yearn to wear it like a gnarly old pair of walking shoes that may be of questionable origin but you don’t care because they just feel so damn good on your feet. That journey also slowly built up my courage to write it, to dig in and figure out not just the parts that I love, but the parts that I could actively do well, myself (because let’s be super honest: what we love and what we can actually pull off are sometimes two very different things). So while I’m not necessarily fond of watching excessive gore, bring on the psychological, bring on the monsters, bring on the readable splatterpunk, bring on the elder gods, the super-grim folklore, the vampires, the ghosts, the ghouls, the weird things that happen to people you think you kinda know and all the rest, because they are awesome and definitely have a place in not just the world, but my crazy, creative train wreck of a life.
Selah Janel is quite comfortable watching horror movies these days, though Willy Wonka still makes her somewhat uncomfortable. Catch up with her on her blog, on Facebook, or on Twitter.