Do Politics Belong in Horror Fiction?

Whether it’s social media or a world spinning out of control, people are becoming more and more politically opinionated. Which begs the question of us horror authors and readers: What should be the role of politics in fiction?

My view on politics is that it’s rarely about rationally weighing policies and mostly about rigid ideologies (many of which contain a lot of good, some almost entirely bad, none of which can be completely on point all the time). And where do ideologies come from? The lens through which we view the world, a.k.a. developmental psychology (check out Spiral Dynamics if you’re interested in that topic).

All that being said, one of my favorite things about the horror genre is there’s a lot of room to make a political point—typically “the moral” of the tale—without hitting people over the head with it. The thrilling plotline works a sleight of hand where readers focus on the story while taking in our “message,” often symbolized by a killer, monster, or other dark force.

And while I certainly also enjoy horror without any premeditated societal commentary whatsoever, I believe it’s almost impossible to write without one’s views inserted in some way (consciously or not). Likewise, intentionally or not, that’s usually how most agents, editors, and publishers choose a lot of their projects.

Personally, my favorite horror fiction is when the story is the broth and politics the seasoning. And I hope that’s what I did with my forthcoming eco Jewish folk horror novel, CHARWOOD, to be published in 2023 by Aggadah Try It, an imprint of Madness Heart Press.

Despite having worked as a professional and volunteer environmental organizer for over twenty-five years—interrupted by a several year stint as an environmental journalist—I did my best to come at this novel as a horror author first and foremost, an advocate second.

If I succeeded, it’s because of a framework I picked up from a writing class called, The Circle of Opposites. Here’s how it works.

First, draw a circle. In the middle write a general topic, which, in the case of CHARWOOD, is “Nature.” On top, jot down a theme within that topic you’d like to explore: “Protect Nature.” Now, on the bottom, put the opposite of that theme, as in, “Harm Nature.”

On the right, come up with examples of positive manifestations of the theme, such as, “Preserve forests.” On the left, negative examples of the opposite like, “Cut down forests.”

But the tricky/fun/interesting part is to also include elements that masquerade as the positive theme but really oppose it (in this case, pretending to “Protect Nature” by logging forests). And finally, aspects that seem to be contrary to that theme but actually embody it (such as mistaking backcountry wildfires as something that will “Harm Nature.”)

When an author uses the Circle of Opposites, the goal is to make sure the story at least touches on all of the above. Doesn’t mean you can’t focus on one over the others, or even make judgments about which are better or worse. But this is where so many writers desperate to make political or ideological points go wrong. As in, they leave out “the other side” because they don’t want to bolster such opinions. Of course, what they’re often doing is giving that perspective more power by refusing to refute it, and meanwhile, sacrificing the depth of their work.

When we sacrifice the tale to the ideology, not only do we limit our fiction but damage our cause. Because if our heavy-handed moralizing instantly turns off the many readers open to a new point of view, we’ll only attract those who already agree with us, and ultimately not change any minds at all.

I did my best to make use of The Circle of Opposites in CHARWOOD, focusing on the story first and messaging second. Whether I did so or not is up to you to decide (if you’d like to review an ARC, please contact me at Josh AT JoshsWorstNightmare DOT com).

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