Crossing over from horror to crime fiction
Like Poe’s Tell Tale Heart, horror has beaten a constant tattoo around me.
Monsters, ghosts, demons, UFOs have always been an endless source of fascination; my gran used to save me the ‘Unexplained Mysteries’ cards she got free with Brooke Bond PG Tips when I was a child in the 80s; she knew full well what made me tick. The macabre has underpinned every creative process I have ever undertaken.
From Jan Pienkowski’s pop up picture book Haunted House (My old copy has become my 5 year old son’s firm favourite), through to the Point Horror series in the 90s and all the way to the masters like King, Herbert and Lovecraft; I have always had an insatiable adoration for horror fiction. I’ve also read a great deal of true crime. Serial killers would be my special subject if they ever dumbed down Mastermind enough and had me on.
I began my own horror penmanship at school; year 6’s effort a sort of Day of the Triffids pastiche entitled Attack of the Killer Flytraps illustrated by my own (not very) fair hand! From that moment the writing bug burrowed its way under my skin from that moment and gorged itself on my creative juices (of course it did, right?)
My teenage writing (cocktails mainly containing mixological monstrosities of demonic creatures and unrequited love) eventually levelled out into more coherent stories, and in my late 20s, a short story about demon possession called ‘Black’ was published in the now sadly defunct horror magazine Ethereal Tales in 2010. Three years later, I wrote a novella entitled The Black Land about a cursed island off the Northumberland coast which was published by American independent publisher Blood Bound Books. This was it, I thought, I’m a horror writer at last.
But, of course, as every writer knows, the path to the elusive publishing deal is pock-marked with rejection. I wrote two full length ‘horror’ manuscripts. Both have been rejected by just about every literary agent that represents horror.
Crime has also been a genre I’ve enjoyed but never tried to write; I found it somewhat inscrutable. Thomas Harris, Steig Larsson, Kati Hiekkapelto for example; masters of the genre; their stories, more their craftsmanship just seemed so clever, something I could never even begin to replicate.
It was a meeting at the New Writing North office that inspired me to attempt to write crime. Someone asked me if I’d ever heard Serial. I had no idea what Serial was (did it involve monsters? No, not for me then.) But I gave it a shot and was hooked.
I adored the format of it, the narration interwoven with interviews from those involved. It gripped me and posed a nagging question; why has no one written a novel like this?
So I wrote a ‘crime’ novel named Six Stories, trying to replicate the format of Serial in about 3 months, frantically, just in case someone else had the same idea as me. The lurking horror inside me had to make a few appearances, however, how could it not?
Then I shelved it.
I have no idea why; I had jumped two-footed into a new genre and just written. Head down, until it was done. But this did not compare to any crime writing I’d ever read. Was it even strictly crime?
I found that writing crime is not altogether different from writing horror, the line between the two is often blurry – check out Yrsa Sigurðadottir’s work for a truly excellent example of crime/horror crossover.
Of course, with crime you have to steep yourself in reality but really, writing about a real person who can commit terrible atrocities might actually be far scarier than any transdimentional demons you can think of (except maybe Pennywise). Hannibal Lecter or Brady ‘Mr. Mercedes’ Hartsfield are horrors in themselves and the scariest thing about them is that they feel real. These people could exist.
I now don’t write thinking ‘this is going to be a crime novel’ or ‘this is going to be horror’ anymore and that feeling is liberating. Trying too hard to write in a particular genre has, more often than not, has felt restrictive and rendered poor results. Six Stories was just a strange little deformity, a mish-mash of both that fell out of my head almost by accident. Of course, I chucked in an element of horror (plus a nod to Lovecraft, see if you can spot it!) too and it felt good, it felt right to do so. A book is a deeply personal thing. A book comes from the heart.
The macabre still holds me in its claws and will always influence my writing; as writers we like to stick to what we’re familiar with but if there’s something I’ve learned is just to write, unbound…you never know what shambling, eldritch horror is lurking around the corner…
Matt Wesolowski is an author from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the UK. He is an English tutor and leads Cuckoo Young Writers creative writing workshops for young people.
Wesolowski started his writing career in horror and his short horror fiction has been published in numerous magazines and US anthologies. His debut novella The Black Land a horror set on the Northumberland coast, was published in 2013 by Blood Bound Books and his latest horror novella set in the forests of Sweden is available in Dimension 6 magazine through Coeur De Lion Publishing.