Jeff Jacobson is a writer and teacher. He writes ridiculous novels, mostly about monsters, guns, and probably too much blood. Sometimes he writes scary short stories. Born in Northern California, he has lived in Australia and Taiwan, and now lives in Chicago. He enjoys the occasional monster movie, hard-boiled novel, cheap beer, and good tequila. He has two awesome kids who are a lot cooler than him and he's lucky enough to soon marry the most wonderful girl in the world. Cesar Toscano As a horror writer and professor, what are some tips or skills you would give to new horror writers? Jeff Jacobson Probably the same thing I tell all my students. Most "rules" of writing can be broken, but there's two rules that you can't argue with. Well, you could try, but you'd be wrong. First off, if you want to be a writer, you gotta get words down. Put your ass in a chair in front of your computer or even better, put pen to paper. And you gotta be consistent. Shoot for getting something down every damn day if you can. Next, read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Not just horror, that's a given, especially those that built the foundations of horror, but anything and everything else that catches your attention. Non-fiction is full of horrors. Be open to inspiration, because fear is such an elemental condition of being alive, it can come from anywhere. Not just stories, but music, art. Personally, the Francis Bacon painting at the Art Institute chills me down to the bone. CT How do you come up with concepts for your horror stories? JJ I think most storytellers often ask themselves "what-if?" types of questions all the time, exploring possible scenarios and consequences. Most of the time, the idea doesn't lead anywhere interesting, but every once in a while, something will snag in your brain and you keep circling back to it, probing at it like it's a sore tooth and you can't leave the damn thing alone. For whatever reason, the kind of stuff that catches my attention is often quite horrible. I might have a bit of a sadistic streak in my writing; I'm only a little ashamed to admit that it makes me laugh like hell as I'm crafting a particularly horrible scene and I'm simultaneously thinking of the reader's reaction. That's part of the fun of writing; part of what keeps me going. It's sure not the royalties. But as for where the ideas come from...no clue. It might have something to do with why some folks are drawn to horror in the first place. There's a theory that deliberately seeking out art that will frighten us is a coping method, a way of dealing with the mundane horrors of everyday life, such as cancer's inexorable growth or the cruelty of abuse. CT When it comes to craft in Horror, what are some rules you feel necessary? JJ I pretty much just shot myself in the foot saying there's only two rules to writing. But I think it would be fair to add one that focuses specifically on speculative fiction, like horror or fantasy. Whenever you're writing about something that is different than our world here and now, you'll need to establish "rules" that govern this world. For example, if you're writing fantasy, you need to figure out how magic works in your world or whatever. And you have to convey that to your reader without getting bogged down in world-building. But for horror, let's say you've got a ghost story. It takes place mostly in our world, with the exception of this particular supernatural element. You have to somehow explain the "rules" of this world to your reader- what is a ghost in this world? What is it capable of doing? Can it touch you? Or is it merely visible, but ethereal? I think you gotta establish a foundation, so folks understand implicitly how things work in this world. That's how you can build scares. If anything can happen, there aren't clear, logical rules and consequences, your reader will eventually stop caring, mostly because the writer hasn't established a solid sense of causality. CT What horror films or books have influenced your work? JJ I was about to start my freshman year of high school. Now, this is way back in the dark ages of the 80s. I grew up poor in a rural area, so we didn't have a VCR. Even though we didn't have a VCR, I still was drawn to video stores the way an alcoholic might wander down a liquor aisle. I'd had my eye on George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1979). I don’t know why exactly. The simple description of cities overrun with the living dead must have appealed to the action fan in me. And I thought the cannibalism element was cool. ‘Course, I couldn’t comprehend what Romero had managed to capture. At that age, maybe any age really, I think the mind is only capable of imagining what it has previously experienced. I knew what cannibalism meant. That is, I understood the definition in an abstract, academic way. I was not prepared for the visions of hell, the way the zombies took ACTUAL BITES OUT OF THEIR VICTIMS’ FLESH while the victims screamed and writhed. I don’t remember anything until we were back at my friend’s house, and the movie had started. The very fabric of my world opened underneath me and without quite realizing it, I slipped into the cold, unrelenting grip of a nightmare. Here was a society collapsing; no one was helping anyone else and our species would kill itself. We. Were. Doomed. Something in my young mind snapped, crackled, and just plain shattered. Maybe it was a sense of innocence. It scared the hell out of me. I’m older now. That suspension of disbelief is heavy now. But back then, I didn’t have to struggle to raise it to my eyes, back then it was more like a net. It clung to me and I couldn’t escape. And we hadn’t even gotten to the violence yet. We hadn’t seen one zombie. It’s brilliant. Romero doesn’t show us anything. We just listen to the science guy trying desperately to get the news people and the audience to understand the danger. “They eat their victims, you understand?” Then we get to the S.W.A.T. guys invading the projects. Another assault on my innocence. I lived in a town of six thousand people, surrounded by farmland, and had never even heard of something called the projects. Dawn of the Dead taught me that there aren’t many good guys. The S.W.A.T. guys are shooting people left and right. And not just shooting them in the way I was used to where somebody who got shot simply clutched at their bloodless chest and toppled over. Oh no. Bullets were exploding through flesh in fountains, geysers of blood. Then the psycho cop—and that’s another thing, I thought cops and S.W.A.T. guys were supposed to help people—the psycho, racist policeman kicks open a door and pulls the trigger of his .12 gauge and the poor bastard’s head just explodes and it happens so fast and is so unexpected I felt like my own head had exploded. I wanted to crawl behind the cushions of the couch. Things, of course, go from bad to worse. When that first zombie takes a big, meaty, downright chunky bite out of his wife’s shoulder, I lost it. Total, pants-wetting terror. I numbly got off the couch and mumbled something getting a glass of water. Before I could get out of the room, I saw the zombie take another bite out of his wife’s forearm. Oh God, it looked real. I wanted nothing more than to turn it off. But of course, I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t look like a coward in front of my buddy. I stumbled into the kitchen, sick and lightheaded. My heart was going to explode. I tried to take as long as I could, but it couldn’t look like I was lingering, avoiding the movie. I realize now the movie induced a panic attack. I kept wandering from the couch to the kitchen, trying to keep the nightmare contained to the TV. Afterward, I was exhausted. All I could do was crawl inside my sleeping bag on the floor. I lay awake half the night until crumbling into an uneasy combination of nightmares and tossing and turning until I didn’t know if I was awake or asleep, what was real or imagined. Here’s the thing. You horror geeks will know what I’m talking about. The next day, that movie was all I could think about. I was hooked. All I wanted to do was watch Dawn of the Dead again. And again. I couldn’t get enough. Something about the fear of death, the lawlessness, the blood and gore, the apocalyptic setting, the nihilism, and the sick humor all mixed to create a movie that was irresistible to this young man. Maybe this is what truly great art does to you: It challenges you, it blows apart your established perception of the world, it makes you see your life with a deeper understanding. And if you’re really lucky, it scares the hell out of you.
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