Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Guest Post: Horror and Romance: A Compatible Relationship by Lee Allen Howard

Hi friends and fiends--

Today in The Madhouse, I'm thrilled to host my dear friend and colleague Lee Allen Howard. Lee Allen Howard’s dark fiction spans the genres of horror, LGBTQ horror, supernatural crime, dark mystery, and psychological thrillers. Howard earned a BA in English, an MA in Biblical Studies, and an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. He’s been a professional writer and publishing system administrator in the software industry since 1985, is the founder of Dark Cloud Press, a publisher of horror and dark crime anthologies, and is a freelance editor of fiction. An active member of the Horror Writers Association, Howard resides in western New York with a ton of books. Readers and writers alike can follow him on social media at https://leeallenhoward.com/contact-lee/#social-media and sign up for his monthly email newsletter at https://tinyurl.com/LAH-signup.

Lee stopped by this afternoon to talk about one of my favorite topics: the intersection of horror and romance. Since I've been listening to the She Wore Black podcast lately, this marriage is something that's been on my mind a lot, so I hope you'll take some time to read about Lee's horrormance, and then check out his latest book The Covenant Sacrifice, which goes live this Friday! 

With whips and chains, 

Stephanie M. Wytovich

Horror and Romance: A Compatible Relationship

by Lee Allen Howard, MFA

Can horror and romance coexist in the same novel? A few years ago, I would have insisted, “No!”

You see, for most of my fiction-writing career, I had a hate, hate, hate relationship with romance. Me, write romance? Not on your life. “I write the dark stuff,” I said. “Gritty, sordid stuff. Yeah.”

Being a horror writer, I celebrated dark fiction while disdaining the “mushy gushy” stuff of romance. (Although, now that I think about it, horror can be “mushy gushy” too, in a very different way—consider the chainsaw…)

Although I once disliked reading romance and had no interest in writing it, I’ve had a change of heart. Here’s why.

In 2006, my wife and I divorced amicably, and I came out as gay. That’s when I discovered that gay romance existed. “Woof!” I said. “Now we’re talkin’.” It dawned on me that I’d hated romance prior to this because I had no idea anything besides cishetero romance stocked bookstore shelves. No wonder I never wanted to read or watch “that stuff”; I couldn’t relate to it, didn’t share the characters’ interest in the opposite gender. Shortly thereafter, I wrote an erotic gay love story for a contest—and won publication. (My pen name shall forever remain secret!)

Despite that success, I didn’t want to pursue a career writing gay erotica. Yet I’d read somewhere that including romance was a way to deepen characterization, raise stakes, and flesh out a novel of another genre. I’ve always written short, so I needed more scenes, more pages. I tried my hand by including a romantic subplot between Kennet Singleton and a girl named Christy in Death Perception, a supernatural thriller. The subplot was simple, short, tame; not a major part of the book.

As I developed the idea and plotted my latest LGBTQ horror novel, The Covenant Sacrifice, a romantic relationship between protagonist Jarod Huntingdon and his childhood best friend, Scotty, became integral to their character arcs and plot. So, I read a few more romances and studied craft books about writing in the genre. Then I developed the relationship between these young men as a major subplot (some might say a dual plot) supporting the horror spine. And, besides enjoying the process, I discovered three reasons why horror and romance work well together.

1. Both genres provide plenty of opportunity for characters to feel and display strong emotions, emotions often experienced in the body: racing heart, tingling sensations, hyper-awareness.

Awareness is a crucial part of both horror and romance. Your protagonist and love interest should always be alert to each other’s presence. Their senses should prickle when the other character is near. They should focus on one another more than anyone around them. Romance characters feel, feel, feel.

The same should go for horror characters when dangerous antagonists show up. I’ve read and edited too many horror stories where the antagonist appears and does something horrific, but the characters barely react. If your characters aren’t frightened or terrorized by horrific events and those who cause them, will readers be? Readers take emotional cues from characters. They want to feel what your characters feel, but they can’t unless you actually put your characters’ thoughts, emotions, and physical reactions on the page. After studying and practicing writing romance, I’ve spent a decade improving this aspect in my writing, and it’s paying off.

My LGBTQ horror fiction takes characters’ psychological, emotional, and physical reactions to antagonistic forces a step further. Character fear is often compounded by an antagonist’s callous—or outright threatening—expression of homophobia. Homophobia has set my awareness on edge from an early age until this day.

So, why do I work this subject into my dark fiction? Because, where I came from, such treatment was my unfortunate experience, resulting in a lifelong sensitivity and fear of being ostracized, demeaned, or physically attacked because of my orientation. That’s why homophobia—especially religious homophobia—is a primary trope in my LGBTQ fiction. This is certainly true in The Covenant Sacrifice.

2. Another similarity horror and romance share is the necessity of forcing characters into a situation they cannot escape.

The supernatural threat in The Covenant Sacrifice is complicated by a violent rainstorm that traps everyone in the remote rural valley of Annastasis Creek. When local residents go missing, abducted by their dead relatives who have returned from the grave, Jarod and Scotty participate in the search. This time together forces them to admit and resolve their differences in order to rekindle their relationship.

Another way to keep your romantic characters together is, when they find themselves in a crowd, cloister them in a corner. Like when Jarod attends Scotty’s father’s funeral, and they renew their acquaintance at a photo board.

(Total aside: It occurs to me how often funeral homes feature in my fiction. One is a primary setting in Death Perception; in another, a pivotal moment takes place in The Bedwetter: Journal of a BuddingPsychopath; a crisis point in my short story, “The Gloves and the Glasses” happens in a funeral home; and again, of all places, the meet–cute in The Covenant Sacrifice takes place at the photo board near the open casket. But that analysis is for another day—along with examining recurring scenes of conflagration in most of my novels, including my YA gothic, The AdamsonFamily, not to mention the many horrors I’ve buried—or unearthed—in the cellar…)

3. In horror and romance—really, any genre—putting the love interest in danger raises stakes for the protagonist, generating reader identification and suspense, tension that encourages readers to turn the page to see what happens next: something wonderful, something awful, or both.

I’m glad I got over my dislike of romance. With the right characters, it’s actually fun to write. Most importantly, I learned that horror and romance work well together—like being scared to love or loving to be scared. You’ll find both in The Covenant Sacrifice.

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