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Bennington Horror Story: The Ins & Outs of Horror Fiction (with Dylan Walawender)

I had the opportunity to interview Dylan Walawender about horror fiction and the class he took in the first seven weeks this fall, Horror Fiction & Film, taught by Paul la Farge. Dylan is a reading enthusiast and hopes to study writing and literature during his time at Bennington. We talked about the different influences that led him to take this course and what horror means to him and how it has impacted him as a writer. 

Iva: We’re going to talk about your opinions about horror fiction and film, as well as the course you took—Horror Fiction and Film—and what that was like. So to start, just tell me about horror fiction. What’s your relationship to horror like?

Dylan: So, you know, I grew up. And as most kids do, I believed in things, in the paranormal, and I had an overactive imagination, and I developed a pretty big fear of it. And then, you know, as kids do, a little five-year-old Dylan didn’t like the thought that when he went down the road to visit the sheep or something, there might have been a ghost in the house. And then I grew up and it just started to become more of a fascination. And then, as I was looking for what to study in college, it became a little bit difficult, because there were so many different things that I wanted to do. Eventually, I settled on this concept that if you are studying literature, then you’re inherently working with emotions, and to focus on those emotions as they’re portrayed and used and evolved throughout the literary world across different mediums. And of course, horror fell into that. To me, fiction and film are just an exploration of one facet of the very difficult and complex range of emotions that humans possess. There’s a very fine line between love and hate. There’s a very fine line between horror and comfort, between over and above. That’s an abstract way that I think best conceptualizes it for me.

Iva: Awesome, that’s fascinating. So did this, in a way, push you to apply for the course? And what did you gain from it, in regards to horror fiction as a concept?

Dylan: As I started to register for classes, there was that emotional lens through which I want to look at literature. And so, of course, to see horror fiction present was extremely convenient. Plus, I love some of the older Gothic works and stuff like that—Emily Bronte, Oscar Wilde—who I just found myself drawn to over the summer. So once I saw that the course was available, I wanted to really jump on that because it explored a lot of different things that I wanted to work with. I went in there not really with any expectations, but I learned quite a lot about horror itself. I came out of it learning about the different facets of it, from Lovecraftian Horror, to the paranormal, supernatural horror, and the way they function in different ways and how they’re similar. And the different ways people can approach it. You know, scholars, philosophers, they can try to figure out what scares them as much as possible. But at the end, it’s just sort of a gut reaction, it’s that you’re faced with a scenario and then that’s how you react, there’s no explanation to it. That was a concept that came through in the class that exceeded my interpretation of what I was going to be going into.

Iva: That sounds really cool. So during the course and while you were studying, what was something that jumped out at you? Specifically, regarding the writing aspects of horror? 

Dylan: It’s a very delicate craft. Because there’s been so much out there, especially now with the perpetuation of mass media. You can look in any direction and there’s gonna be some horror movie coming out. I mean, now that it’s coming to be Halloween, usually there’s like a dozen different horror movies that come out. And, you know, not all of them are good. So it’s just trying to work with the craft to try to find a way to break out of the cliché, but also work within some of the subtleties of the genre as well. We looked at the presence of events and how the events are horrific. But once you turn that on its head, and start to work with the concept of the non-event and what happens when something happens, then something doesn’t happen. And you’re left with the horror of the unknown within that gap. It’s working with items like that, the presence of silence and things like that. That’s when the craft really starts to become difficult and very, very interesting because these are things that we don’t even notice because they’re designed not to be noticed. 

Iva: You mentioned the gap, the unknown? Do you think that that’s like a big part of horror? Does that make the readers more enthralled? The cliffhangers, being left with essentially no closure…

Dylan: The way I’ve started to think about horror is when you’re left in the space that is occupied by the unknown. It’s almost like the reader is left with a question. And when they see this gap, the space in the narrative, and they’re filled with those questions, they strive to answer them, and they’re not easy questions at all. You sort of enter the state of spiraling and it’s like a natural reflection of if you’re presented with a scenario that sparks great anxiety. It’s really a result of the unknown, and trying to answer all these questions that we have, but ultimately not being able to because it’s so far outside of what we understand and what has been constructed around us in the world. I think that’s the ultimate role of the unknown. And I think it’s a pretty big piece no matter what horror or fiction you read, or write, or watch.

Iva: Tell me about your number one horror fiction book that you would say sort of captures the essence of horror, but still allows for the writer to come through and reach the reader in their own unique way. 

Dylan: That’s really tough, because there’s so much out there. Each time period I guess has its own benefits. If we’re talking the 19th century, I think Frankenstein really takes the cake. Especially because Frankenstein, you know, if you step outside of the horror, you step into another genre in and of itself, because it’s a very well-crafted novel with a lot of different sorts of ladders to climb. But I think in general, the short stories of Kelly Link are very intriguing because they play with the idea of the weird, which is like to take normal objects and tweak them a little bit. So they’re a little bit wrong. Like, one character is just referred to as the Crocodile. But she’s just a corporate boss. To take that familiarity, the familiarity of an authoritative figure, and to break that down into something lurking beneath the briny depths of a swamp or something. It’s a very subtle way of producing discomfort, plus her prose is very poetic and symbolic. It throws the reader in a new world while also staying within the familiar. I think that that’s really what makes it successful, and is what defines the genre for me. 

Iva: Can you name a book that legitimately made you scared, or spooked?

Dylan: The Human Chair was definitely that story because it was so realistic. And it was so graphic with its descriptions. The story is about this guy who hides in a chair because he’s lonely. And then he’s like, I’m gonna steal from the rich, but then he sort of starts to gain sexual pleasure from being sad within the chair and just, it’s so chilling. It’s so jarring and disgusting. And it’s only nine pages, nine pages of a short story that made me squirm to the essence of my being. 

Iva: Regarding movies, are there any films (psychological thrillers, horrors) that made you really scared and maybe uncomfortable?

Dylan: Yeah, I think Silence of the Lambs was really one that made me squirm, because not only was the concept so chilling between Hannibal Lecter and Jame Gumb—not even his story, but more so the imagery of the squalor he’s living in and the things he does. I mean, he’s sewing patches of skin to get to create a new body for himself. And it goes deep into that realistic psychology that hits a little too close to home. Plus, some of the images, like when Clarice is walking down the saddle and the one guy yelling at her. It’s disgusting. It’s chilling. It makes me squirm.

Iva: That’s a great choice, I agree. It’s one of my favourite horror movies, too. Do you think you would personally ever dabble into horror fiction? 

Dylan: I’ve been thinking about that myself. I think it would be interesting, but it’s a very taxing craft, because you’re working with some very, like, not fun themes. We had the option of writing a creative piece for our final and I finished it a couple of days ago. That was a very exhausting process. And then to have to go back and edit it, it’s just like digging up. So I think maybe here and there. But I would need a hefty enough break in between. Besides, I myself prefer to write poetry. Maybe I can incorporate the emotional side of horror within the craft of poetry. That might become a very interesting project that I might work on in the future. But I’d say there’s an interest. Yeah, for sure.

Iva: Okay, well, if you have any recommendations for the reader at the end, I’d love to hear them. 

Dylan: One story that I think is really important to read is The Ballad of Black Tom. It’s a story that takes an H.P. Lovecraft story and turns it on its head as a means of retaliating against him and his racism. The story was written by Victor LaValle. Another essay, it’s not necessarily horror fiction, but it can be used to explain movies like Get Out and The Ballad of Black Tom and Zone One, is Afro-Pessimism and the End of Redemption by Frank B. Wilderson III. It goes into detail about the African American experience in America and how the systematic racism ingrained within the country can be used in the literary world as a reflection, as well as in a horrific sense. Then there are short stories by Leonora Carrington. She’s very similar to Kelly Link when it comes to writing style; it’s very poetic and very imagery-based. But through that imagery, it’s taking the real world and breaking it down into something unfamiliar, which is, I think, really interesting. The rest that we read was very popular stuff like Frankenstein and Dracula, but I definitely think that those ones, in particular, are important. They are examples of good horror. 

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