Ghouls, ghosts, aliens and serial killers fill the air as UNC Asheville offers horror fiction writing for the first time in school history.
Award-winning fiction writer Taylor Sykes walks students through the process of writing horror stories in her What We Write in the Shadows course, which meets every Monday and Wednesday.
“Since horror is a creative interest of mine, I was eager to bring this genre to the English department at UNCA. Students don’t always have a lot of opportunities to explore genre and speculative fiction, and this class welcomes those who write non-realistic fiction,” Sykes said.
The class spends time studying texts from a range of subgenres, including folk horror, haunted houses, science fiction, monsters, slashers, and meta-horror. Additionally, the class examines a wide range of fiction and film, where it follows stylistic techniques and tropes apparent in classic and contemporary horror works.
“Horror is, by nature, an intentionally disturbing genre. In this course, I ask my students not to run away from fear – rather to embrace it, confront it, and harness it in language,” Sykes said “Fears of the unknown are universal, and this class allows students to investigate the unknown in a safe space. Even though we cover darker subjects, we laugh a lot in class in order to shed some light on the horror,” Sykes said.
The fiction writer studied creative writing and English at Purdue University. She continued her studies at NC State where she earned her MFA in fiction. After school, Sykes published several short stories in the horror genre and a standalone short story. She won the 2017 James Hurst Prize for Fiction.
“I feel incredibly privileged to be able to work with Professor Sykes in this class. It’s invigorating to be able to work with an experienced author in the field, and it encourages me to produce the best writing possible, as well as to continually work to improve myself,” said Catherine Sawyer.
Sawyer said they took the course because of their deep love for the horror genre.
“I was thrilled to see this course offered, as I think it gives me the experience I’ve been missing in developing my horror writing craft. I believe horror not only serves to scare us, but to hold up a mirror to the darker sides of humanity, allowing us to explore topics and events that are traditionally considered unsavory. But sometimes it’s also fun to be scared,” Sawyer said.
Sykes said By exploring a range of fiction and film, students can gain an understanding and appreciation of the literary devices present in both types of texts, and then experiment with these techniques in their own stories.
“I like the community of the class. We’re encouraged to speak freely and honestly with each other, and it’s so inspiring to be in a room of other writers who are passionate about the subject. I also loved the assigned readings and movies. I often enjoy horror media in my spare time, but analyzing classic horror works with a group of enthusiastic writers gives me a greater appreciation for them,” Sawyer said.
Elder Jacob Sharpe said they were never a big fan of horror movies. They were introduced to horror literature during readings in a course taught last semester by Associate Professor Anne Janson.
“I found a love for horror literature that I didn’t expect, given that horror movies aren’t my favorite genre of film,” Sharpe said.
Students say they enjoy writing outside of the normal stream of fiction. They expressed how beneficial this course is for their scholars.
“My main goal was to allow students to write outside of conventional ‘literary fiction’. Horror is also a very welcoming genre and offers a great diversity of narratives. People also tend to see horror as a strictly shocking genre, but it can be so much more than that,” Sykes said.
The professor continually asks, “What makes a good horror story?” Students respond in different ways.
“I believe there are many elements that can make a good horror fiction story; however, I have my own specific horror writing interests. I’m more of a character-driven writer, so I tend to put more emphasis on novels that focus on their characterization. That being said, some stories we’ve read that include amazing characterization would be “We’ve Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson. These stories provide characters that have intriguing and often absurd motivations that reinforce the horror/gothic elements the author tries to portray with the generally dreary and dark settings,” said Sharpe.
Sykes said the class had a lot of fun freaking out this semester and she hopes to be able to teach the class again.
“A good horror fiction story should make you feel an emotion. It can scare you, upset you, disgust you, interest you, or countless other strong emotions. Good horror doesn’t have to be scary, but it should leave a lasting impression on you. Stories speak to each reader in a different way, and they serve to open our eyes to something new, whether it’s your inner self or the world outside. Sometimes good horror just makes you feel like you’re reading something wonderful and that’s important too,” Sawyer said.