“Exploring Personal Themes”
by Tom Piccirilli
Let’s talk about ‘theme’ for a bit.
The concept of themes found in fiction has understandably gotten a hard knock in the horror field. After all, it’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to hunt around for when you’re reading some dry academic paper on the ‘underlying homosexual imagery in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ or ‘The abstraction of Historical Evil found in Stephen King’s The Shining.’ It’s the kind of stuff that steals the flavor out of our very favorite pieces of literature.
By the way, I wrote both of those papers back in college.
Also, is it actually possible to write about the so-called larger world themes in horror? Aren’t we supposed to be dealing with simple entertainment concerning fear, suspense and action?
Well, yes and no. Of course you’re supposed to tell a good story first and foremost, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try to explore issues and topics you feel are especially important to you. Specific themes and images that recur in your stories are there either through personal interest or because you want to use them as a memorable signature of sorts, a stamp that marks the work as your own.
You may not even know they’re there.
Offbeat novelist Harry Crews always features what are proclaimed to be “freaks” in his work. Yet he swears that his wife had to point out the fact to him that his first three books feature midgets before he realized he was writing so prominently about them. Crews himself suffered from childhood paralysis in impoverished Bacon County, Georgia and was so emotionally scarred by the experience of having strangers staring at his crooked legs as a child that — even though he eventually recovered — he’s always felt physically freakish since that time.
Finding what incites your emotions, your sense of resolve, and weaving them into motifs and sub-text can be cathartic for the author. Stephen King once said that he felt he was one of the sanest people he knew because he managed to put every frustration, anxiety and phobia he had down on the page, and in the process managed to exorcise those problems. In our fiction we can address whatever personal or social ills we perceive, whatever major arguments and questions we might have about the world. We can route out the most significant feelings
and apply them time and again.
But of course, conveying the substance of this through our fiction can be a double-edged sword. There’s always a chance you’ll wind up on a soapbox without meaning to. There’s also the possibility that you’ll tend to repeat yourself, and that the subject matter itself will hamper your imagination and force issues to the forefront that aren’t necessarily best for the story you’re trying to tell.
So when are you going too far and why should you worry about it in the first place?
Well, you probably shouldn’t. You should simply be aware of the issues that might be hidden between the lines of your work. Thematic plot threads, symbolism, and recurring motifs are simply other means to an end: making your fiction as strong as it can be.
To put a personal spin on it: My father died when I was quite young and I’ve explored the idea of fathers quite frequently in my writing. Father figures are either long dead, forlorn, or tragic personages. This isn’t a reflection
on my father so much as it has become an odd focus of my storytelling. I find value, edge, and atmosphere in investigating that area of my sensibility. That particular figure used to that particular purpose holds some resonance for me as an author, and inspires me onwards.
Religion fascinates and disturbs me, and I often impart this in my work through the subject matter. I tend to fuse elements of my Catholic upbringing with research I’ve done on other religions and the occult. Recurrence of this sort is to be expected throughout an author’s career. We gravitate to that which enthralls us.
It’s also true I have what I call my “water stories.” Since I grew up on Long Island and spent a lot of time at the beach. The vastness of the ocean is a powerful concept, beneath the waves in all that darkness. It sparks a great many ideas for me, a lot of primal urges and awe and panic which I can use in my writing.
Almost everyone will find their own natural signature concepts and images that provide the themes for their work over the courses of their careers. I think it’s important, though not necessary, to have something that you can use as a seal or mark to make your fiction stand out. These are underlying messages that the reader will pick up on.
Edgar Allan Poe repeatedly returned to the notion of the premature burial. Crime writer Charles Williams’ novels are filled with skippers and boats, based on his seaman’s background. Ed Gorman uses the recurring story lines of quaint innocent American backwoods towns often hide the darkest, most vicious secrets. British horror author Simon Clark often uses the end of the world motif as a narrative chiller, exploring mankind’s dissolution and redemption. John Irving uses themes that revolve around abnormal families, children in danger, and the recurrent symbols of bears, private schools, and wrestling. As mentioned, Harry Crews uses the physically grotesque and freakish. These topics and emblems make the work immediately identifiable with the author.