Fear Fiction — The Branches of Horror
by Rachel Knightley
Twenty and a bit years ago, I was an English Literature BA student at the university where I’m now a visiting lecturer. Authors were not human beings like me, but grown-ups like my lecturers. Oh yes, and I didn’t like horror.
Sure, I loved gothic literature: that was different. I loved nineteenth century novels full of literal and psychological ghosts, locked rooms, hidden histories, imprisoned wives, questions of identity and alternate versions of self. But horror? Horror was people’s limbs falling off. It was gore. And I was squeamish. So no, I didn’t like reading horror. And I certainly wasn’t going to write it either. Definitely not.
Nineteen-ish-year-old Rachel wouldn’t be entirely surprised by Twisted Branches, my new story cycle to be published by Black Shuck Books on 26 October. After all, I knew I liked psychological and intergenerational mysteries, complex characters and gothic trappings. The death and sex would have all been fine with nineteen-year-old Rachel too. And the ghosts. Ghosts always scared me but they interested me just as strongly, whereas gore scared me without interesting me at all (not all that much change in the gore department). What would surprise me, if anything, is that these things I more than loved that when I read them were an answer to a question my mind hadn’t yet phrased — were horror, and always had been.
Halfway through my PhD in creative writing, my not-yet-partner dared me to write a horror story. I was fresh out of living my own, not least the stalker who would inspire the central “what if” that led to key stories in my first collection (more of that in a moment). My now-partner, then new friend, wanted me to give horror a chance. At first I was reluctant: that’s not my area; that’s not my voice; the all-powerful I’m Not The Sort Of Person Who, chorused in thought habits. Luckily for the voice that would be mine — and already was if I’d only known how to listen — there was a new thought: Why not? Part of that was I wanted to please him. More of it was I wanted to have fun. A chapter of my life had ended, why be precious about what I might find in the next? I let myself be curious. I let myself listen to a voice I didn’t know I had. I had nothing to prove to myself or anyone else, and that made exploration fun.
The story I wrote was the first of my “gothic Richmond” world that you’ll find much more of in Twisted Branches. I took locations and amalgamations of my new home of southwest London and played as fast and loose as came to me with its geography and with my own fears, my own what-ifs. And it was easy. It was fluid. It was, despite being male and nothing like me, me. That story won first prize in Writers’ Forum Magazine’s fiction competition and ended up in Beyond Glass (Black Shuck Shadows, 2021). Horror was where I went when my curiosity became stronger than my “shoulds” — who I thought I was, who I thought I was supposed to be. It absolutely made me a better writer and a stronger person as a result of replacing the old habit of not looking into the shadows with the new habit of looking right in, because that’s where the discoveries are.
What I found through writing my first horror story won’t be news to most people reading or writing for Horror Tree. If you’re here, you already know how broad horror is as a canvas. But this discovery was huge for me at the time, both in terms of freeing my voice and deepening my interest in what our fears want to teach us about ourselves. In many ways, this thinking was directly linked to my realising I wanted to train as a business and personal coach, building on the writing coaching I already did and moving into how creative confidence (thank you, horror) is the ultimate life skill for any career and every personal life. I realised from what I found in horror that life as well as art was about facing and understanding our fears, listening to the stories they’re trying to find ways to tell us. You don’t have to be afraid of yourself, or ashamed. You have to be curious Horror isn’t just emotionally intelligent; it’s emotionally courageous. It allows us to acknowledge the many possible versions of ourselves in any given moment and make an active choice about who we want to be.
It’s long fascinated me to think how different the prejudices we encounter around horror as a genre might have been had it had been named for what it is: fear fiction, the way romance fiction is named as a genre. Horror is and always was the literature of fear, and as a qualified business and personal coach (thank you again, horror) I know that the more I know of own fears — and the more I’m prepared to bring them into the light where I can get a good look at them — the more authentically I make my decisions about my art, work and life. What comes out of the shadows loses its monstrousness, be it something external and unknown or — especially — something internal, a chance for understanding a part of ourselves that was previously unknown. However uncreative any person may see themselves as being in terms of art, the reality of life as a being human is we are constantly writing brilliantly plausible stories about each other in our own heads — and are often talking to and interreacting with others not as they are but as our own fears or wishes have made them: to our projections of the stories we tell ourselves.
But sometimes the monsters are external; the haunting is coming from the outside. In my first collection, Beyond Glass, I wrote a what-if story based a real experience of a stalker who had a history of antisemitism and physical violence. When the man who was going to move in with me had told me he lived with his former partner in separate rooms, that weren’t a couple anymore and hadn’t been for years, the way I found out she saw it differently was him arriving with a large cash on his forehead from where she’d thrown his phone at him. Even as the police computer refused to let me forward the emails she’d sent me, because of the amount of racism it detected in them made it reject them, which the officers standing next to me had asked me to do as evidence, even as she followed me in my then-hometown and in central London, while the living side of me was afraid, the writing side of me was thinking ‘there’s a story here’. I wasn’t ready to tell it then, but much later as I developed Beyond Glass I changed the details, but kept the prejudice, the violence; above all, I kept the essential question that whispered itself to me even as this was going on as a result of my side of the experience: that woman represented evil to me, and I — being Jewish, and having “stolen” the man it turned out she considered hers — represented evil to her. That’s what I thought was the story. But in letting myself tell it, I also let myself see the truer one: that you have a right to your voice, and to your story. That if someone is telling you to keep it to yourself, that’s to do with their own fear and it does not have to become yours. The opposite of trauma, the opposite of shame, is telling the story. Perhaps I knew that even as I lost all sense of self in fear. Perhaps that’s how I found it again.
Each character in Twisted Branches is a question I’m asking myself. Although no one in this story cycle is based on a real person, most are mixed from the colours of at least two or three real-world conversations or experiences in my memory, my observations, my questions about the world. Some of those inspirations — when imagination mixes its colours with memory, observations and questions — were people I’ve cared for or respected “too much” — lovers, teachers, mentors, friends — and where in doing so I’ve lost my sense of my own voice, which could and even should have been the core of identity, in the louder voices of my imagining what they think or feel, making that more real for myself than my own thoughts and feelings. Unlike nineteen-year-old Rachel, I’m ready to see the gothic in the everyday, the horror of being a subjective human, the damage and horror we inflict on ourselves when we don’t choose to listen to our own voices.. I’ve also known the arguments we have with those we love (or fear) go on in our heads after those family members, mentors, friends and lovers have long ago exited the stage. I know the ghosts that truly haunt us are the ones we summon. Where better than the many branches of horror to examine how we haunt ourselves?