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By Chris Hutton
Many writers stress the value of reading to one’s own writing. I won’t quote figures, because I don’t have them, but I don’t think that the value and corollary of being a strong reader to being a strong writer can be overstated. If one isn’t reading, I do not reasonably know why that person would be writing. I write to create stories both that are begging me to tell them and to bring the same pleasure to my readers as a I take from reading a good story. If my ultimate purpose in this world was to bring a little pleasure, a little escapism, that allows another living soul to take solace and make it through the day, I would consider my life well spent.
Thinking upon that I found myself this evening pacing in front of my bookshelves, glancing over the well-worn spines of the many books that I’ve hoarded away over the years, and thinking not just upon the value of reading, but the way that reading shapes us, and personally how it shaped me as a writer. I looked to the books that I had revisited over the years, and began to wonder about my chronology as a reader. What path led me from toddler to a nearing middle-aged adult compelled to write science-fiction and horror?
Perhaps this is self-indulgence, a hasty exploration of myself best taken in solitude, but I have blog posts to fill and deadlines to make, so if you’re willing, then bear with me. And if you’re not, thanks for accompanying me this far. Until next time.
My earliest memory of books probably began with P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? but my earliest fascination with books began, as best as I can recall, with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. That mad rumpus and it’s precedent, those terrible roars, the gnashing of those terrible teeth, the rolling of those terrible eyes, and the showing of those terrible claws, still clings to me. In fact it has such a grasp on me now, even some thirty-odd years later, that it became the first book that I purchased for my daughter (one of which she has numerous copies in multiple languages – all of which I adore).
I can’t rightly say if those monsters began my fascination with the dark and frightening tales that are now much of my evening reading – I cannot safely declare Maurice Sendak a gateway drug to horror – but I do know that the next memorable portion of my journey through literature began yet again with a tale of monsters and ghosts. In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz and Dirk Zimmer is one of the first books that I can remember reading on my own. I have never forgotten the long yellow teeth of The Teeth, or Jenny’s ever present green ribbon around her neck. Images of teeth in the dark and severed heads haunted me long beyond my childhood years until I had even forgotten the name of the book and its creators; but one Google search for those yellow teeth later and I had it, again.
By this point I was in kindergarten or elementary school and I had access once a week to the school library. The books that followed me home ranged from abridged retellings of the Universal Monster movies, to ghost stories, to books on the paranormal and UFOs. I’m not sure what sort of library I had at my elementary school – I can only vaguely recall the one single room, divided by a half height shelf separating the checkout counter from the stacks – but I do remember those books vividly. As I moved into the later grades of elementary, stepping beyond picture books to novels for young readers, I remember the monthly Scholastic Arrow Book Club pamphlets from which I would always choose 2-3 books and eagerly await their shipment. Invariably I chose books centered on mummies rising from the dead, or ghosts hiding in the dark, but I remember each of those journeys with great fondness.
Had I continued on this track, likely my reading and writing would have stayed with the typical ghouls and ghosts. It did through the beginning of middle school. By that point I had fallen into my first literary crush, this for the books of R.L. Stine. This was before Goosebumps became his most-remembered work. Instead I grew up reading his previous series, Fear Street. Here the monsters were rarely of the supernatural variety but consisted more of stalkers, and murderers – boogeymen chasing after teens. My own written stories at this point of my life were mainly ghost stories, preferably spoken around a campfire in the middle of the night.
Around this same time my English teacher, Mrs. Petherbridge, introduced me to the works of Edgar Allen Poe, a man whose writing still haunts me and which begs me back to re-explore its pages on a regular basis. At this point I had entered an AG program for English and suddenly my world exploded with books – usually it meant lists of possible novels that I could read, followed by short book reports (and for a brief and odd stint in seventh grade by calculated word count reading levels and demerits for speaking). During this period I discovered Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Between Poe, Stoker, and Shelley, horror left the realm of the mere ghost story, of the frightening tale to pass away the hours, and showed me its literary peak, the heights of horror that could be reached by masters of the craft. Between Stoker and Shelley I also formed a great appreciation for epistolary horror, a genre that I miss deeply, but to which we shall return.
Then, suddenly the horror genre came to a screeching halt. I became derailed. I began my first literary love affair with The Lord of the Rings. This would have been in seventh grade. That book, and all of Tolkien’s works would follow me for decades. They still call from my shelf every few years for a rereading. Yet I became so enamored with his work that my previous exploration of the paranormal became sidelined with an extreme interest in medieval times and an obsessive compulsion to memorize the minutia of Middle-Earth. Now I can’t say that I could hold my own with Colbert (I couldn’t), but it was a deep well from which I drank often.
This fascination led me to seek any outlet to quench my love of fantasy literature. Soon I was reading Dragonlance, the works of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman sculpting the remainder of my middle school years. Other writers would come and go, but their works and Tolkien’s were a constant.
As I entered those formative years of high school, the range of my reading expanded, though at its core still rested Tolkien, Weis, and Hickman. I became introduced to science-fiction through Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Frank Herbert’s Dune. George Orwell opened my eyes to dystopian literature with 1984 and then the walls of genre fell apart completely as I discovered Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and the tragic tale of Heathcliff and Catherine. This was a strange and diversified time for my reading, but it helped expand my understanding of stories, of the characters at the crux of any good tale, and the range of stories possible.
Still, fantasy literature was my mainstay and it could not be so easily deterred. It would remain…
…following me to college. At this point I discovered J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, along with George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. The former intrigued me through its evolution of style, tone, and subject as a reflection of the growing maturity of its characters and its audience, while the latter intrigued me for the stark realism with which it portrayed its fantasy world and the re-sensitization to violence that it’s primary character deaths imbued upon the reader (something that did not carry over to the later TV series). Now Tolkien, Weis, Hickman, Rowling, and Martin formed the core of my library (favorites like Poe, Shelley, Stoker, Orwell, and Brontë not withstanding).
Yet, something strange happened at this time as well. I found that my previous love of horror came calling back to me, and it found its grounding in the works of Stephen King. I consumed his books, devouring as many as I could (I’m a slow reader, so that does have its limit – especially at that point in my life, when fantasy literature dominated). I began logically with The Eyes of the Dragon, then segued into his horror works. To this day my favorites are Carrie, The Dead Zone, The Shining, Duma Key,‘Salem’s Lot, and It. His non-fiction book On Writing is also an extremely compelling read, and one of the best books on the craft of writing that I have ever read.
In 2006 I began graduate school, majoring in Writing for Screen & Television. My reading time became limited, and my obsessiveness over Tolkien finally began to dwindle (despite a deep love for his work that I will never relinquish). I wanted to move on and read a larger variety of work. I continued my exploration of King’s oeuvre, but also expanded into mystery fiction reading the works of Michael Connelly (of which The Poet is my favorite), Kathy Reichs, and Michael Crichton. Not willing to leave fantasy completely behind, I searched for new authors that could come close to the heights that I found in Tolkien. Philip Pullman came the closest, with The Golden Compass or His Dark Materials. The audacity of the book, the mingling of a child’s tale with an all out examination of, if not war against, religion intrigued me, and I am still greatly impressed with the scope and courage of the books.
With graduate school behind me, life became consumed by patterns that fluctuated between one of three stages: 1) looking for work, 2)adjusting to new jobs, and 3)finally acclimating to a job and reclaiming time to read and write. During these years, of which I am still in the middle, my writing has often had to confine itself to short works. Due to this constraint I found myself delving deep into horror short stories (the story type I most often write in short form), exploring once more the works of Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, and now also H.P. Lovecraft.
Simultaneously, the meandering path of my career realigned me with an early love of science, reawakening my fascination with space, and in the past ten years two distinct branches of fiction reading have emerged: science-fiction and horror. Leaving now behind the foundational works of my youth, I’ll look to the writers from whose work I’m currently reading.
On the science-fiction front I have explored the works of Arthur C. Clarke (Rendevous with Rama being my favorite), Carl Sagan (Contact and his non-fiction masterpiece Cosmos), James S. A. Corey (or Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) and their series The Expanse, and more recently Andy Weir of The Martian fame and whose second book I am eagerly anticipating.
With horror I continue to read Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King (all of whose work is vast enough to keep me occupied without exploring other authors), but I have also been actively searching for new (or old) authors whose voices I have not yet heard. Among these my most recent discoveries have been John Ajvide Lindqvist (Harbor), Nick Cutter (The Troop), Joe Hill (Heart-Shaped Box), and Dan Simmons (The Terror), though I am also looking into David Wong (John Dies at the End), Scott Smith (The Ruins), Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), and Ania Ahlbom (The Pretty Ones). During this exploration I came across my favorite modern horror book due to an excellent recommendation by the ever talented Nate Ruegger. The book: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. Never has a book so actively engaged me, redefining the scope and bounds of a story, and exploring epistolary style with such a layering of tales. If you haven’t read it, and you don’t mind a dense, multi-layered read, it is worth your time.
I suppose I’m supposed to have one of those, right? Well, I do. It comes back to the very first two paragraphs of this post: the value of reading for a writer, and the way it helps mold us and the stories that we tell.
I have to wonder if it weren’t for Where the Wild Things Are and A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories would I write horror? If it weren’t for Stephen King would my horror stories take character as such a central focus? If not for H.P. Lovecraft would that writing not have such an other worldly exploration at its center? If not for Dracula or Frankenstein would I still find myself compelled to explore the human themes at the heart of my horror stories? Would my tone be different had I never been exposed to the rich atmospheres crafted by Poe? Every one of these writers and these books has shaped the type of horror story that I write. They have helped me find my voice.
Yes, I do not write fantasy currently, but it was the longest mainstay in my years of reading and I know for a fact that it imbued me with a sense of world. Tolkien, Herbert, Pullman, Martin, they all crafted worlds complete with mythologies, religions, histories, languages, and cultures completely unique to their works. The level of detail needed to write within those realms and still keep your story center stage is astounding, and from reading those works, I learned to create my own worlds (whether modern or futuristic) with a depth of history, culture, and detail that grounds my work. This allows my fiction to rest upon a solid foundation, a reality that allows a reader to suspend disbelief in the story itself due to the level of reality presented in setting – at least I hope that it does that.
Finally, what have I taken from the collective works of Orwell, Card, Clarke, Corey, Sagan, and Weir? A grounding in science. I like my science-fiction heavy on reality, close to near future, human tales bound by physical laws. I love worlds where astronauts still float in zero G or artificial gravity is a product of centrifugal force. I like colonization that has failed to terraform but exists precariously with nothing between colonists and death but man-made habitats. My stories have become those that explore issues of society, politics, environment, technology, and philosophy, and use the future to explore those themes.
This is simply a matter of making my case. As a writer I am a product of what I have read. Without reading, I am nothing – not in a literary sense. So if you want inspiration, if you want to find a voice as a writer, please, no matter what else you do, read, and do so with a voracious, insatiable appetite. Never stop. That’s my lesson for the week, I guess. Hopefully it hit its mark.
Anyway, Happy Writing All!