Just because spooky season is over doesn't mean you have to pivot to Lifetime movies and all things feel-good. If you're someone who loves a good shiver up your spine in any month, you won't want to miss Peter Counter's Be Scared of Everything (Invisible Publishing), a must-read for both horror fans and anyone interested in smart cultural analysis.
Personal, encyclopedically informed, and full of the sheer joy of being spooked, Counter's essays celebrate the best of horror with wit and insight. Drawing on his own love for the genre and experiences with it, especially formatively childhood ones, Counter covers everything from film to video games to true crime. From The X-Files to Lovecraft to Slenderman internet tales, Counter's ability to talk all things horror is practically frightening. His unique ability to see the joy, therapeutical and culture value, and humour in horror makes Be Scared of Everything a unique and important part of the expanding conversation around the role and function of the genre.
We're excited to welcome Peter to Open Book today to discuss the essays. He tells us about the idea of horror as a surprisingly safe space, how horror can in fact communicate how much we should value and celebrate life, and why forgiveness is an unexpected but essential part of the writing process.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the subject matter you're exploring?
Be Scared of Everything is a collection of 29 essays on horror in culture and society. Combining criticism and narrative memoir, the book examines Ouija boards, UFOs, the occult, haunted houses, sleep paralysis, zombies, chainsaws, and even decidedly non-horrific things like the sitcom Frasier.
There’s a through line in the book about my own struggles with PTSD and bipolar II, and that thread is really where my current passion for horror originates. Horror provides an environment for us to explore the negative thoughts and feelings normally ignored by mainstream culture, and this book is my way of guiding readers to that safe space.
That said, I’ve loved spooky things – especially spooky books – since I was a child. To encourage my brother and I to read when we were elementary school age, my mom made a deal that if we’d finished reading an R.L. Stine Goosebumps book, then the next time we were at the supermarket she’d buy us a new one. More than anything I think that really tied the experience of reading to horror, so as a writer my mind instinctively starts in Halloween mode.
Is there a question that is central to your book? And if so, is it the same question you were thinking about when you started writing or did it change during the writing process?
At first, I came to every topic in the book under the umbrella of, “What does this teach us about our relationship to the unknown?” But as I tried to trace my way to the boundaries of human limitation in each essay, I found myself obsessed with a new question: “How does the journey of horror reflect the value of life?” It was a more vibrant position to come from as a writer since it plays against the expected tone of horror. The second essay in the book, “Celebration of Life,” is the most overt manifestation of this central question, and is, in my mind, the thesis of the book.
What was your research process like for this book? Did you encounter anything unexpected while you were researching?
As one would expect, I read a lot of horror books, watched a lot of horror movies, and played a lot of horror video games. I listened to music (forwards and backwards), and I took a lot of notes. There was also some practical experimentation and travel involved. I conducted seances, I visited an animatronic haunted house on PEI, and I went online shopping for chainsaws.
I didn’t expect that I’d read so many grimoires. Two old mystic texts play important roles in this book: The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage and The Cloud of Unknowing. When looking for translations of the former, I stumbled upon a wonderful cache of esoteric texts, which was searchable, and so I ended up falling a bit deeper down the occult rabbit hole than I’d anticipated, which led to working some magical knowledge into more essays.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
This will sound obvious, but I find a notebook and pen are extremely helpful throughout the entire writing process. The physical act of writing feels like a more intimate process for me, so that’s how I like to write my earliest drafts. Then, when there’s enough of a body of scribbled work, I take the best parts and type it up.
A cork board with cue cards is also really helpful for me when trying to keep an eye on the big picture. For this book I made a card for every essay and pinned them all to the board, which is mounted above my desk. As the chapter order changed, or as I decided to drop or merge essays throughout the process, those developments were reflected in the card layout.
I also listen to individual songs on repeat, especially while writing early drafts, so that I can sustain a specific atmosphere.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
The key to staying encouraged, for me, is to have multiple projects active simultaneously. That way, if I hit a creative wall with one piece of writing, I just change lanes to something that feels more comfortable in the creative moment. I wrote Be Scared of Everything in batches of six essays at a time. If I couldn’t bring myself to write about cannibalism, I could just quickly pivot to work on an essay about UFOs, or occult music, or whatever felt most exciting.
Forgiveness is also particularly important. It’s easy for writers to fall into a shame spiral when we aren’t being productive in a literal word count sense of the term. But writing isn’t just the act of typing, it’s also reading, thinking critically, making sure you’re healthy (however you might define “healthy” for yourself), and experiencing life.
What defines a great work of nonfiction, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
I absolutely love when nonfiction authors play with form and genre. Sometimes there’s an assumption that because a piece of writing is true, it can’t have room for expressionism or experimentation, but I think sometimes – especially with personal stories – the truth is best communicated though avenues traditionally reserved for fiction. Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House is a masterpiece that shapeshifts every chapter, and in my estimation, it’s an example of perfect nonfiction.
What are you working on now?
I have two projects right now, and both are slightly related to this book. First, I have a memoir manuscript about a shooting described in Be Scared of Everything, which I’m in the process of revising before trying to find it a home. That one has horrific moments, but it’s much more in the realm of post-traumatic coming of age stories. It’s about karate classes, theatre school, and the cruise vacation where my dad was shot.
On a spookier note, I’m also in the early stages of a Catholic horror fiction project. I’m exploring a lot of the critical ideas from my essay collection through the lens of my Catholic school upbringing, and I’m excited to see how this one manifests.
Peter Counter is a writer exploring ideas of faith, violence, horror, identity and memory though criticism, creative nonfiction, and playwriting. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his partner, their grumpy cat, an old rabbit, and his family Ouija board. Find more of his writing at EverythingIsScary.com.