As I was driving about town today, I started reflecting on the difference between mainstream, so-to-speak literary fiction and speculative fiction (usually defined as consisting of the science-fiction, fantasy, and horror genres). I recall reading somewhere, years ago, in the submissions guidelines for a mainstream fiction magazine, that mainstream fiction consisted of whatever did not fit into a genre. Then, I considered that accurate and reasonable; now I consider it somewhat snobbish. In fact, the more I think about it, the more short-sighted and narrow-minded that statement becomes.
Speculative fiction, including the horror genre, deals with fantastic, often surreal, situations. Mainstream fiction, if you go by the definition above, deals with anything not fantastic, not surreal, i.e. the real, events that could happen in the real world. It would seem to me that the truly gifted writer would be the one with the greater imagination, the one who can conjure entire civilizations and fantastic creatures out of his mind alone. My favorite authors for many years have been, and continue to be, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, based on their styles and how their stories can touch me. However, if had to state who had the greatest imagination out of the history of writers, Tolkien would be at the top, simply because he was able to create an entire world out of his imagination (granted most of the ideas were based in Nordic mythology) and make it and his characters believeable. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos would be a close second.
Reading the guidelines of horror publications, I find that many of them do not want werewolf/vampire/zombie (w/v/z)stories. They want something different, original. That is a difficult challenge. I could dream up w/v/z stories all day long, but creating something out of thin air, like Stephen King or Clive Barker does, and to do it consistenly, is truly admirable. I have written one or two stories along the w/v/z line, but now I am taking up the challenge of writing something truly imaginative. I have no good ideas just yet, but I am examining how horror authors of the past came up with ideas and what were their inspirations.
So now here is a question of the night: if you are trying to write material outside the w/v/z tradition, how are you coming up with ideas? Have you put any new slant on horror? Do your inspirations come from dreams or from looking at real-world object and then allowing yourself to explore the possibities if something about that scene was just a little bit different?