Horror, in real life: writers and their mental illness demons
Horror writer Lee Murray examines how anxiety and other states of mental unease affects the lives and work of other New Zealand horror novelists.
Despite being a scribbler from the moment I could hold a pencil, I came late to writing. The same applies to my dual diagnoses of anxiety and depression.
People seem surprised when I tell them, protesting that I’m way too smiley to suffer from any of that. And yet that mean-eyed wolf has been lurking under my bed, nipping at me and stealing my breath for as long as I can remember. Recently though, I’ve been trying to be more open about my mental health, and I’m not the only one: in Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety (published by VUP), editor Naomi Arnold brings together 30 New Zealand creatives who write with candour and verve about the impact of anxiety on their lives and their work.
In an attempt to widen the conversation, I consulted some of my Kiwi horror colleagues for their perspectives.
I spoke with horror scholar, author and poet, William Cook, whose works include Blood Related and Dreams of Thanatos. “On some level, horror fiction gives me the freedom to explore the darkest aspects of my own psyche and to make sense of the evil inherent in humanity, just as it does for the reader,” he said. “My predilection for writing psychological horror fiction, comes from that dark place of experience. Moribund thoughts tap on the window of the mind like Poe’s raven, and I write that telegraph in words on the page.”
His comment echoes that of the great Janet Frame, herself a life-long sufferer of mental illness. “I am not really a writer,” Frame wrote. “I am just someone who is haunted, and I will write the hauntings down.”
Dan Rabarts is a multi-award-winning horror writer, and my Path of Ra series co-author. He said, “Perhaps we’re all a bit twisted on the inside and take great pleasure in the awful things we put down on the page to traumatise our readers.
“Or maybe we really do wrestle with demons, and what comes out on the page is the outcome of those struggles. I’m no doctor, but I know my people, and it’s not that much of a stretch to say that most of us go toe-to-toe to a lesser or greater degree with some form of anxiety or depression on a daily basis. I’m sure this is not exclusive to those of us writing dark fiction, but is there some deeper purpose to expressing these demons on the page, if that’s what we’re doing?”
Rabarts’ question is clearly rhetorical and yet more than one author I spoke to alluded to a deeper purpose for horror fiction. JC Hart, author of Te Ika, an acclaimed horror short, talks of a need not just to reflect, but also explore the things that fuel our anxiety.
She said, “I write about isolation and otherness because they’re things I’ve felt my whole life, either in a physical, emotional, or mental sense. Rather than ignore that, I want to explore it, to uncover it and see what lies beneath, not just for myself but for others.”
Her forthcoming novel Butcherbird, written as part of her Huia-Māori Literature Trust Te Papa Tutu mentorship, does not shy from dark themes. While she was writing the supernatural horror thriller, Hart’s grandmother passed away, making the creative process especially difficult since the book’s Taranaki farmstead setting was based on her memories of her grandmother’s home. However, the outcome, in Hart’s view, is her best work to date. “I may at times be afraid of the dark,” Hart writes, “but darkness calls to me, and I can’t help but answer that call.”
For many of us, including Cat Connor, author of the Byte techno-thriller series, writing horror fiction offers a measure of safety. “For me, exploring darkness in a safe space — the process of writing — enables me to create a buffer zone; I explore how bad something can get while knowing I can walk away.”
I asked Dan Rabarts about this notion of distance with regards to Riptide, a story about grief, mental illness, and self-destructive obsession which appears in Simon Dewar’s Suspended in Dusk 2 and which won Rabarts this year’s Australian Shadows Award for Best Short Story.
“I started from a place of simple personal experience, a childhood event that haunts me to this day,” he said. “Swimming on an isolated beach in the Coromandel, I was caught in a rip and, not being a strong swimmer, was dragged under and pulled out to sea. Fast-forward several years, and I have children… The story had something it needed to say; the characters needed me to voice their hidden pain, and all of this came out in Riptide. If I was to stop and unpack that story, I might find a whole lot more of my own issues hiding behind those words, but I’ve chosen not to.”
Issues hiding behind the words. That sounds a lot like distance to me, and it seems it works both ways. Ever heard that cautionary tale about not annoying an author or they’ll kill you off in a book? There’s a reason that exists, as William Cook explains: “Depression and anxiety influence the way one views the world. Paranoia, negativity, anger, and, most of all, fear, are the resulting emotions and states of mind that someone with these tiresome afflictions lives with every day.
"Presenting a mask of normalcy is the wearisome task that accompanies this melancholic and tedious existence, but in fiction I find my escape and release.
"In fiction, a writer can be themselves through their characters. Norman Bates, Pennywise, Jack Torrance, Regan MacNeil, Hannibal Lecter, Damien Thorn, Frankenstein, Dracula, and Patrick Bateman are monstrous representations of the human potential for evil, not only in general terms but also as expressions of their respective author’s own inner thoughts and feelings. What better way to express negative emotions and thoughts, than to create a character who can realise those feelings in the most brutal, violent, and cathartic ways…on paper, rather than in real life? A writer can vicariously maim and kill all their enemies, seek revenge on those who have wronged them, and destroy worlds they no longer want to live in.
“And so it is with my own writing,” Cook goes on. “Without it, who knows where I’d be now. Wasting away in a jail cell or a psych ward having inflicted some terrible retribution on the world, perhaps.”
Hart admits that for her too, writing is essential to her wellbeing. “Until recently, my mental health was shaky more often than not, but writing helps keep me focused and sane — people often think I’m joking when I say that, but it has literally saved my life on several occasions.”
It wouldn’t be the first time an author’s writing has saved their life. We only have to look at Janet Frame. After a suicide attempt, Frame spent eight years in mental hospitals and received two hundred electroshock treatments. She was about to undergo a lobotomy, but when her doctor learned her debut collection, The Lagoon, had won a major literary prize, she was released.
“My writing saved me,” she would later say.
Frame’s situation was extreme, but it serves to highlight the inherent connections between mental health and creativity, and creativity and wellbeing. Emerging horror writer Tabatha Wood, author of Dark Winds Over Wellington, and convenor of Well-Written, an online collective for anxious writers, said, “I recognise that writing every day helps me challenge my anxieties, release tension and frustration in my mind and body, and brings order to my daily routine.”
William Cook: “Anxiety drives my pen forward.”
“What is the point of facing down demons,” Rabarts insists, “if we can’t hang their corpses from our battlements, so that others know they can be tamed?”
Lee Murray appears at the Headlands panel alongside Naomi Arnold and Victor Rodger at the Tauranga Arts Festival this Saturday, November 2. Full details here. https://www.taurangafestival.co.nz/event/headlands-324