My Editorial Response to the Horror Writer’s Association

Here’s my editorial response to the Horror Writers Association (HWA) and its Mental Health Initiative.

It is very important, as the Horror Writer’s Association points out in their Mental Health Initiative, to recognize a problem. I was a person who was raped by six men at age twelve on a fishing jetty in Seal Beach, California, and who could not speak afterward (I was mute). I couldn’t attend school for a month, and I had a World War Two hero father, so instead of confronting my real demons, I chose to drink and abuse drugs to self-medicate for most of my teen years and on through adulthood and my eight years in the Armed Forces.
I didn’t confess this mental health problem until I finally got clean and sober and had a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous. I will be clean and sober for 38 years on March 15, 2023, at age 77. I have been a published author, an English teacher for over 25 years, and a firm believer in the Twelve Steps of Recovery, and I am open about my recovery from mental health issues, most especially with those people I sponsor.
The main problem I have with this HWA “declaration,” is that real horror must be faced by people who want to stay sober and clean. You don’t get better by running away from your demons. As Dr. Carl G. Jung has noted many times, “It is through the integration of the Shadow and the acceptance of evil that one can be ultimately cured of mental illness.” To do this, in my mind, one must first recognize that horror, whether real or fictional, means that the ultimate portrayal of that evil—pure evil—should never be reduced by an author to somehow “give hope” or to reduce its affect on the reader.
According to our First Amendment, we have the freedom to express anything short of “yelling fire in a crowded theater” or, stating, in a non-fiction piece, how one can, step-by-step, successfully murder somebody, Rice v. Paladin Enters. – 128 F.3d 233 (4th Cir. 1997). Otherwise, I believe an author has the right to portray evil for what it really is, as this is the core of horror writing. Apologizing for, placating, giving asides, forwards, afterwards, long explanations, and all the rest, merely clouds the issue of the fact that real horror is all around us, every day, every minute, and every second we breathe. It’s a fact of modern-day life that in a society where the prevalence of gun purchases keep escalating with every mass killing, and every hate crime gets worse, the horror bar is raised for the horror writer to even be able to portray such growing evil and to scare anybody living in this society. These adult citizens can read. They don’t live in La La Land. If they don’t like lurid, gut-wrenching horror, then don’t read it. Is the HWA worrying about a financial bottom line of some kind? Are they afraid of scaring away horror readers?
They might just scare away great horror writers. It’s difficult enough getting published, with most publications only accepting 1-2 percent of all submissions. Must we then read watered-down, apologetic stories and novels with a “trigger index” included in the back?
This is what drove me crazy: the fact that six men wanted to fuck me in the ass, and pound my head while doing it, and laugh about it. Until I could visualize this again, write about it, and see what happened to me, and then forgive myself for being “a little bitch” and not fighting back, I could not get sober or stay sober. I have worked with people who needed to confess such horrors to get well.
As an English professor, I had fellow vets return from war zones and they wanted to confess to me what they were ordered to do, in their essays. The fact was, they had “medical chits” from the government that ordered the instructor “not to cover any material that would trigger this person, such as war, violence, and social/psychological problems.” This was bullshit, as my fellow vets were obviously needing to talk, and I learned, in my own recovery from violent acts perpetrated against me, that writing about it was one of the best methods that helped me get well!
Therefore, as a brother vet, I allowed them to write about their experiences, the good, the bad, and the ugly. This was very cleansing, in the Aristotelian (purging of pity and fear) sense. They also did not hide from facing the facts of pure evil in the world because they had experienced it.
Hiding from evil is exactly what kept me drunk and using drugs for forty years. Hiding is what keeps vets and otherwise good folks mentally ill. In horror fiction, in my opinion, we have a chance to show pure evil to the reader’s consciousness as a warning about what’s out there to be conquered so we can get well. Sometimes our teachers are pure evil. Sometimes our military leaders are pure evil. Except, the purely evil ones will never get well, and we need to show that. Otherwise, as any rape counselor will tell you, “The trauma never leaves. You must confront it for what it is, to maintain your own sanity.”
I kind of like the old school yard saying as well, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” What the HWA is advocating is that authors need to become gatekeepers of pure evil and somehow lessen its effect upon the consciousness of an adult reader. I never do that. And I never will do that. I show evil for what it really is: pure evil. This evil may not be “politically correct,” it may not sell more copies of my stories, and it may not get me membership in the HWA (I’ve been out of membership for twenty years now) as an independent author.
As an author of horror, the better I can show a purely evil villain, the more scared my reader will be. To me, that’s a good thing, not a pejorative way to torture folks needlessly. Not when half of all murders in the U.S.A. in 2020 were never solved, and that number is increasing. Just by apologizing to a reader about possible mental illness if they read my story or novel, will not help the facts go away. We live in a frightening, vicious society that has folks in it who have no pity—they see it as a weakness, as a matter of fact. Truly mentally ill, evil folks, laugh at apologists and protectors of the sheep.
Going down this road, in my opinion, will lead to moving the Horror genre into the fantasy realm. Nope. I like horror to scare me straight, as they say, and I might possibly get well by seeing what’s out there in the night, and inside my head, “bad to the bone,” through the artistry of a great writer of horrendous horror—especially psychological horror, which is my favorite sub-genre.


Thanks for letting me share.

James Musgrave

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