Finding the Emotional Truth in Horror Writing

The novelist Victor LaValle on how dark material hits hardest when it’s balanced out with wonder

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Colum McCann, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.

Doug McLean

Victor LaValle wants to scare you, let’s be clear. His books tend to feature characters in extreme, terrifying situations—stalked by a fanged monster (The Devil in Silver), caught up in a sinister cult (Big Machine), watching a world-ending storm build off the coast of New York (The Ballad of Black Tom). But as much as he borrows from the horror genre, LaValle probably owes more to the fairy tales of Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Angela Carter—stories that feature brutality and inspire dread, but are nonetheless suffused with a sense of magic and possibility. In a conversation for this series, LaValle explained what a novella by the Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe taught him about writing horror: Dark material hits hardest when it’s balanced out with wonder, and ballasted by serious ethical concerns.

In its very first line, LaValle’s new novel, The Changeling—which borrows its title (and little else) from a novel Oe published in 2000—explicitly calls itself a fairy tale. But what at first seems a whimsical story about the way lonely city people find each other soon becomes a modern fable about the anxieties of parenthood. Apollo, a rare books dealer, starts to notice his wife behaving strangely. In the novel’s pivotal scene, she restrains Apollo, murders their child while he lies helpless and listening, then disappears. To find her and finally understand what happened, Apollo scours the scariest, strangest parts of an imagined New York City, a herculean labor of love and perseverance.

LaValle’s work has won the Whiting and Shirley Jackson awards, among others. He teaches writing at Columbia University, and spoke to me by phone.

Victor LaValle: I must have been 26 or 27 when I first read Kenzaburo Oe. I was in grad school, and an ex-girlfriend who studied Japanese literature said I should read his first novel, A Personal Matter. I devoured it, I loved it, and I was disturbed by it. I wanted more, so I took Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, a collection of Oe’s novellas, down from her shelf.

“Prize stock,” my favorite piece in that book, takes place during World War II in a small, remote Japanese village, where a young boy named Frog lives with his brother and his father, who is a trapper. One day a jet plane crashes near the village, and the pilot is taken captive. That pilot turns out to be a black American solider. It’s the first time anyone in the village has seen a black American before.

Word is sent to the nearby town to ask what should be done with this prisoner of war, and in the meantime he’s kept shackled in the basement of a building. As the village incorporates the black soldier into daily life, the children gradually fall in love with him (in ways that can be disturbing to a modern reader), and even the adults become used to him. But when word comes back that the captive is to be sent to the town, the soldier reacts badly and things go horribly all around.

“Prize Stock” showed me a way to write beautifully about horrific things, and do so with a real politicized understanding that still manages to avoid being didactic. This is a story, after all, about racism, about tribalism: Oe is unflinching in his willingness to show how the villagers—not just the adults, but the kids too—assume their superiority over this black man. Presume his inferiority. And yet Oe never tries to get you to like him, the author, by stepping out and saying, “Of course, these people were stuck in their time, and they were terrible, but I am good.” That’s very difficult to do, but it’s the most courageous way to write a story like this. Many writers fear implication so much that they’ll ruin a good story just to avoid it.

When I teach this novella to students, the immediate reaction is often: This is awful, these people are racists. From there, it’s easy to have the attitude that Oe wrote a racist story. But it’s obviously not a racist story if you really pay attention. What I do is go through the novella with them and point out all the ways that Oe very subtly plants clues of a more objective reality. Ways Oe makes a careful distinction between what the characters think and what the author knows.

One thing that usually bothers readers, for instance, is how much attention villagers pay to how the black man smells. They talk again and again about his odor in this degrading way. About two-thirds of the way through the story, the children take the black pilot to the lake because they think he smells so bad. And as you watch him joyously bathe himself, you realize: Of course he stinks. He was in the middle of a war, he survived a crash, and he’s been living in a basement in the same clothes for a week. Anyone would get a little ripe. The real point here is that Oe hits this note and then moves on without too much fuss. But this is when he’s showing his hand, telling you that he knows. That’s why it’s in there.

Throughout, Oe gives us all these little signs that remind us not to take Frog’s perspective as gospel. There’s this great moment where the kids peek down and see the airman in the basement, clutching his legs together and his eyes are filled with either mucus or tears. “It’s almost like he was a human,” Frog later tells us. As the reader, you are supposed to realize that of course he was humanthey just can’t see it.

Oe doesn’t blink at the horrors of life—particularly, say, in the middle of a world war. But the novella’s brilliant gesture is to mute those horrors, at first, by using the optimistic perspective of the child, Frog. The gradual transition from relative innocence into the world of adulthood is what makes the story so chilling.

That theme is established by the novella’s very first line, a sentence I love:

My kid brother and I were digging with pieces of wood in the loose earth that smelled of fat and ashes at the surface of the crematorium, the makeshift crematorium in the valley that was simply a shallow pit in a clearing in the underbrush.

This accomplishes so much. First, Oe sets up that this is a culture with a local crematorium, which tells us something about how this society takes care of their dead. More importantly, there’s that little aside: It’s actually a “makeshift” crematorium. This sets up a situation that is inherently dramatic or strange—it’s not an official crematorium, and it’s been hastily arranged.

The last—and, to me, the best—part of it is that there are two kids playing among the fat and ashes of the makeshift crematorium. That’s a striking image no matter what culture you come from: two children playing matter-of-factly among the dead. And yet there is no sense of superstition, or of fear, no sense of it even being a sacred place. They might as well be playing in the dump. And so, as a reader, I ask, “Who are these kids? Where are their parents? Why isn’t anyone watching?” I start asking all these questions right away. The idea that children live a separate existence from their parents, one that is half-feral—both beautiful and dangerous—becomes central to the story. All that is accomplished with one damn sentence. That’s astounding.

Oe grew up in a remote Japanese village like the one described in “Prize Stock,” and you sense him recalling these people and places with a kind of sweetness and happiness. Even as Frog watches the black airman shit into a bucket, there’s this optimism and joy. Bodily functions aren’t shameful. Why would you, the reader, assume they were? That perspective, I think, is vital to making this novella work. If it had been told from the father’s viewpoint, or the town clerk’s, they all would have been much too dispassionate, cynical, grim, fearful, adultish about everything. You wouldn’t have that vital dissonance between the tone with which things are written, and your adult understanding of the horror that occurs.

The thing I really love about the novella is that, in the end, the abhorrent side of human nature wins. It’s not that the kids save the soldier and get their parents to think of him as nice, and everybody lives together nicely—though, briefly, you almost hope that this will happen. Frog just gets worse. We watch him transform from a relatively innocent child to a callous adult. Oe is unsparing in his assessment of this change. In fact, he seems to suggest that callousness is the cost of such a transition.

There’s a scene in the basement, when the terrified soldier has taken Frog hostage because he doesn’t want to be sent to the town—where one assumes he’ll be tortured as a prisoner of war. The soldier holds Frog as a hostage and Frog’s father comes at them both with a hatchet. The dad doesn’t hesitate. He swings at the airman, and hits his child as well. That’s one moment of horror, an instant where you can no longer pretend that a child’s point of view is going to survive. But to me, the truly hammer-to-the-head moment is towards the end when Frog finally calls the black soldier a “nigger.” Someone asks about an odor down by the crematorium and Frog says, “That’s the nigger’s smell.” It’s explicit: He is no longer a child. He’s signed up for the adult perspective on things. And the last scene shows him literally walking away from a dead body before the other children come to see it, because he can no longer stay with him. He is no longer one of them. All of this is, in a word, horrifying.

This is the kind of horror that’s best, and most lasting. The kind that speaks to a deeper emotional truth. It’s not simply about a monster, and what that monster looks like, it’s what the monster means.

It’s hard to say exactly why I’m drawn to the horror genre, but I think one true answer is this: In literature, I like extreme situations. You really don’t know who people are until they’re tested. These almost impossible-seeming situations are where the soul of a character gets put to the fire. As a reader, I love the feeling that I’ve had as much as I can take, then finding out there’s more.

When I was younger I would sit down to write for five, six hours in a tear. Though I was only actually writing for an hour or two—I was also listening to music, watching clips of stuff, and so on. But after our son was born I had much less time to fuck around. So my wife and I set up a routine. When our son was first born we agreed that each day, each of us would get two hours out of the house, no more than that.

I found a Dunkin’ Donuts around the corner from me. I sat down there and worked from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. every day. When I came back, my wife would leave from 12 to 2 p.m. It became our pattern.

Now, I’ll write almost every weekday, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., three to five days a week—then the rest of the day is mine to do whatever I wish with. Weekends we’re with the kids, so I’m not doing any kind of writing then. I’m more productive just doing two hours a day, five days a week, than I ever was previously. Not everyone thrives on routine, but I do.

I’ve got a friend who’s a serious writer though he hasn’t published a book, or even a single story, yet. He’s got a full time administrative job, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, five days a week. He and his wife have three kids together. The building where they live has, a community room. Weekday mornings, at 5 or 5:30 a.m., it’s empty—so this dude goes down every day at 5:30 a.m. to write for an hour. Every day. For 15 years. Maybe he’ll publish in his lifetime. I certainly hope so. But what I know is that this dude is as real a writer as I have ever met. Dedication is what earns you that title, not publication.

Sometimes, I tell myself: Look. If this dude’s getting up at 5:30 a.m. and doing an hour, you can be out by 10 a.m. and write for two hours. The productivity is good for producing pages of course, but there’s another benefit. Writing that regularly has taught me to be far less precious about the lines themselves. I don’t mean careless. I mean fearless. It’s like the old pulp writers. Look at the bibliographies of Dashiell Hammett, Poe, Fitzgerald, and Patricia Highsmith—they were just machines. It allows you to let go of some preciousness, to have a routine like that. You know you’re going to write a bunch of garbage, most days. And that’s okay. How I stopped worrying and learned to love the junk. That’s what the trash file is for.