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Horror Inspiration: Staying Original in a Crowded Genre

My horror inspiration often comes from the things around me--the landscapes and details that I pass everyday. But I live in a region with a crowded writing pedigree, where many others have drawn inspiration from the same things.


My neighborhood runs right down to the ocean: to a narrow channel with a quick current that signs plastered all over the rocky beach warns is not a safe place to swim. It's the kind of place where you can imagine a great tragedy taking place: a day of family fun turned nightmarish when someone wanders too far into the current. It's the kind of place you can imagine a sad, confused little ghost wandering on mornings when the fog is thick.

I'm lucky to live in an area that's full of everyday vignettes that spark the imagination: a rundown barn on an old farm, a historic cemetery full of gravestones rubbed clean by time, the vine-choked patch of woods on the edge of a neighborhood. New England is full of inspiration for horror and that's a blessing and a curse.

The abandoned, wild, and melancholy places that draw my eye when I travel in the region are the same that have drawn plenty of other horror writers.

So, how do you stay original when you're dealing with subject matter and inspiration from which many stories are drawn?

For me, it's about individual perspective. My novel The Cuan is a little bit Gothic horror and a little bit folk horror. It was first inspired by a Gothic mansion that sits on the coast in Newport, Rhode Island. The house is dripping in carved stonework--dragons and gargoyles and other monsters. That it also sits on a cliff with pounding surf beneath it contained the beginning of a story for me. The carvings were so life-like I could see them swooping down from the roofline and to the ocean below.

I love vampires. They're my favorite horror monster and I knew I wanted to incorporate them somehow. But vampires, like a lot of stories that involve the sea and drowning and horror, have been done. What hasn't been done, as far as I'm aware, is a major work of horror involving kelpies, a creature from Scottish folklore.

To me, that's a shame because they deserve a spot in horror canon. Kelpies are a kind of mermen, who frequently appear as horses, tangle young women and children in their manes, and drag them into the water and drown (and sometimes devour) their victims.

There was my twist on the genre and region I was working in--the gargoyles became a kind of water vampire based on the kelpies. I named them cuan, the Scottish Gaelic word for the ocean and built the story around an imagined folklore.

Identity also plays an important role in the story. I tend to prefer psychological horror to blood and gore--maybe it's a side effect of living in New England. But losing the ability to control one's identity is terrifying to me. And that plays a role in the story and in what makes the cuan (and vampires in general) scary.

But it's also fitting, I think, because my own identity--a Scottish American who lives in New England and loves the sea--played a role in helping form the novel into something a little more original than a run of the mill vampire story.

And I don't mean to knock vampire stories. My publishing company, Input/Output Enterprises, publishes quite a bit of vampire fiction. And one of the thing that amazes me when we put together an anthology is how many totally unique and different submissions we receive, all of which interpret the prompt--vampires--in an original way. Most of the stores I enjoy most are the ones I would never have thought to write.

And I would never have thought to write them, even though I largely work within the same genres, because the author's perspective is totally different to mine.

That's something all writers have--a unique perspective that draws inspiration from strange bits of the world that others may walk by, that combines traits that may exist in others but in a totally different way. As a horror writer, I can't quite endorse the "write what you know" adage. I don't know any vampires or ghosts. But, for writers who want to stand out, I think a variation on that piece of advice is a good rule: Apply who you are to your writing. The result is themes that are relatable to others, but story elements that are unique because they come from you.


Katherine Emily is an author and managing editor at Input/Output Enterprises. Her Gothic horror novel, The Cuan, is available on Amazon. This post originally appeared on her Goodreads blog.

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