As Sarah Hoyt so eloquently described in her blog, writers chase the voices in the dark: the shadows between madness and the bright light of day where the realms of stories can be found. It’s not a coincidence that assorted creatures of Other – in every culture I’ve studied, I might add – are said to belong to either the twilight or the darkness.
If you look back far enough, that’s where our ancestors likely huddled together for fear of the predators, watching the light fade. And maybe in the morning, one or more of their number was gone. That edge between daylight and true darkness is where human fears have lived for centuries. It’s embedded in languages all over the world.
And way, way back, probably from soon after language emerged, some of our ancestors tried to ‘tame’ that shadow by telling stories about it – another trait that’s shared by all humans is that things that are known andÂ named are less frightening than the unknown terror in the dark.
Some of them lost to the shadows. Others built something from them that was real enough to become myth, legend, or even religion. Those stories were handed down through generations, shifting with each retelling, until gradually, the voices in the dark lost their terror.
Not all of them. The further from the light you go, the more frightening those voices become. But in a world that’s largely driven away darkness (at least in the literal sense, in the USA. It’s almost impossible to find anywhere in the lower 48 that has no light at night) even the idea of the voices starts to seem a bit, well… primitive. Odd.
Unless, like writers, you seek the shadows and the voices, and transform them from the dangerous things they are to something that keeps enough of the truth to draw readers in, but makes them harmless things, amusements to be shared with friends.
There’s a danger to the world we’ve built for ourselves, where the dark has been chased away and people are forgetting why they ever feared it. If you don’t remember why the voices are dangerous, they can be terribly seductive – especially if, like many writers, you’re something of an oddball (speaking for myself here, I’m usually an oddity among oddities. I’ve just stopped caring what anyone else thinks about it and let it all shine through. Mostly, anyway. The bits that scare even me tend to stay under tight wraps, for good and sufficient reason – as anyone who’s read my darker works can attest). Who doesn’t want to belong? Who doesn’t want what they do to matter? When you Mary Sue your way into a world owned by the voices, you can do that – for a time.
There’s always a price. For writers, that price is in the constant questioning of their sanity – and sometimes, outright madness. Whatever it is we tap into, whether it’s the collective subconscious of humanity, our own hidden selves, or something stranger and darker than that, it’s not the safe, sensible world of anyone’s daylight life. This is where that urgent desire to kill that irritating person next to you comes from – and without ingrained rules and a certain amount of conscious restraint, there’s not much that’s stopping you. The darkness has no ethics. It seeks power, by whatever means it can.
A large part of civilization is devoted to socializing that innate desire and directing it into activities that benefit more than just the person doing them. We writers do that by pushing the voices into a structure, building their visions into a story that anyone can read and enjoy. Most of the writers I know do it because weÂ would go mad in short order if we didn’t. In doing so, we serve others by making the voices in the dark that much weaker.