Does Anyone Actually Die In This?: A Horror Writer Reads Romance
Last night, I read a romance novel.
This news, I realise, is unlikely to shock anyone to their core. I mention it, though, because I don’t read romance. I read, and write, horror and crime: stories about murders and monsters, heists and serial killers, terrified people running for their lives and the great big mythological evils chasing after them. My go-to big-hitter writers are guys like Stephen King and Peter Straub, Val McDermid and Ben Aaronovitch, and - more recently - indies like Sonora Taylor and Hailey Piper and Kealan Patrick Burke. I’ve heard of Nora Roberts, sort of - but only because she (or so I understand) writes crime under a different name.
A Harlequin-devourer, I am not.
(So very not, in fact, that the phrase “Harlequin-devourer” makes me think less of romance than of terrifying, monstrous clowns from the Commedia dell’arte. But let’s not dwell on them).
A very good friend of mine, however, is a romance fiend, and has long extolled the virtues of the genre and of sites like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. So when, over the weekend, I finally had some time on my hands after wrapping up my latest novel - which, suffice to say, is a veritable banquet of asylum ghosts, decapitations and tentacled Things rising from the void - I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about, and leapt headlong into what was, for me, a very different kind of reading experience.
The book I chose, Lucy Bexley’s Must Love Silence - a lesbian romance about the unfolding relationship between an extremely introverted audiobook narrator and the recovering alcoholic writer who hires her - was a delight: light and sweet and fluffy, and (I imagine) exactly the sort of thing you’d like, if you liked that sort of thing.
I really enjoyed it, even if I did find myself wondering every few pages whether one or other of the women would turn out to be a werewolf (minor spoiler: they did not). But I also found it useful, as a writer, to step briefly away from my usual genres - and to think about what, as a crime and horror fiend, I could learn from romance.
The thing about horror and crime fiction is this: stuff almost always happens in it. Objectively happens. Monsters rise and threaten people; serial killers run rampant until they’re stopped (or, in the case of - say - Hannibal Lecter, they hook up with an FBI agent and leave the country under an assumed name). Vampires take over the town. The Crimson King tries to topple the Beam.
What I’m saying, I guess, is: action, of one sort or another, is kind of a lynchpin of a lot of crime and horror sub-genres, with only a few honourable exceptions (mostly in the psychological horror space: The Turn of the Screw, The Blair Witch Project, and stories like them).
But the thing about romance is this: not much happens, objectively speaking. Broadly (or so my romance-loving friend tells me), romance novels follow a pretty standard trajectory: Person X meets Person Y (or Persons Y, Z, A and B), a bunch of obstacles (real or imagined) get in the way of them having sex/getting to know each other/falling in love over a candlelit dinner, and then, finally, the conflict is resolved, and they get their happy ending.
(Or rather, because romance - as I’ve learned - has as many sub-genres and genre-specific acronyms as crime and horror: their HEA).
And it struck me, as I was reading Must Love Silence, that I’d really struggle to write anything at all in that genre. The comparative lack of action, I think, would stymie me; I’m not sure what I’d do to spice up a narrative, if I couldn’t add in a grisly death or a sea monster (or, indeed, a decapitation) with the zeal of an amateur chef let loose on the spice rack.
The magic of romance writing - the real alchemy of it - seems to me to be in building not worlds or monsters, but characters: characters that readers care about and can invest in sufficiently to carry them through 200 or 300 or more pages of prose in which the stakes are low-key and emotional, rather than life-or-death.
A lot of horror writers, I should stress, do this already, as standard: nobody in their right mind would argue that Stephen King, for example, doesn’t create memorable characters. But the point for me, I guess, is that not all horror and crime writing needs its characters to be memorable for the story itself to work. For me, at least, a really good monster, or a bunch of memorable deaths, or a terrifying fictional universe/backdrop can carry a story and send me (pleasurably) reeling, even in the absence of a compelling cast.
(Take Clive Barker’s Books of Blood - which are, for me, among the best collections of horror stories out there. The ideas and central imagery in pretty much every story are so unforgettable - from the giant made of bodies in In The Hills, The Cities to the Candyman in The Forbidden - that the characters themselves really don’t need to do much work at all except stand and watch and, in some cases, be murdered horribly).
So the lesson I’m taking from my brief sojourn in Romance Land is this: I want to learn how to do more with less. How to better build a narrative outwards from character, not just inwards from a really epic beast or plot twist.
(Though I’m not willing to leave the epic beasts at the door quite yet).
My characters will very likely still die in a host of unpleasant ways (in the horror fic, at least; the women in my crime series seem to be going strong, even three books in). But they might also get the opportunity to learn and grow as people, before they get eaten.