Maybe you heard about the arrest of Jose Luis Calva, who is described as an “aspiring horror novelist.” Police found a draft of his manuscript Cannibalistic Instincts, along with pieces of his girlfriend stashed in various places around his apartment, including in the frypan. I know, I know, I had the same reaction: it’s pretty unfair to call him “aspiring.” It sounds like that draft was finished. And not just finished, but comprehensively researched. Sure, some people say you’re not a novelist until you’re published, but in this day of print-on-demand and internet vanity presses, is that really a meaningful distinction? I say, if the guy went to all the trouble of crafting a story arc, putting words on the page day after day, and boiling his girlfriend’s flesh, he’s a novelist. Give him that.
I’m sometimes asked how much research you should do when working on a novel, so let me say: this is probably too much. It wasn’t just the girlfriend, you see; there’s also a missing ex-girlfriend and a chopped-up prostitute. That seems excessive to me. One, I could understand. I mean, I wouldn’t support it. You let horror novelists start cutting up hookers, and the next thing you know Tom Clancy is commandeering nuclear submarines off the coast of Florida. Or, I guess, appointing ghost writers to do that for him. But the point is I can imagine a frustrated Jose at his keyboard, a half-finished sentence dangling from the screen, thinking: “How do you sever a femur with a railway spike?”
Three corpses, though, that’s getting carried away. I haven’t read Cannibalistic Instincts, but I bet it contains long, tedious passages where Jose was unable to resist info-dumping his hard-won knowledge onto the reader. That’s the problem when you get to body number three: your research overshadows the writing. At that point, Jose really needed to be cutting fewer limbs and more adverbs. Fleshing out his story, not his apartment. Also, having a supportive spouse or girlfriend can be really important, especially to a first-time writer, so I can’t help but think it was counter-productive to eat her.
But there’s something in this tale to make writers everywhere feel a little better about themselves, because no matter how bad your own work is, at least you wrote it without butchering anybody. That’s a plus in anybody’s language. The corner Jose has backed himself into is that even if his book is published, when people read it they’ll be thinking, “Yeah, it’s good… but is it three murdered innocents good?” It’s extra pressure he doesn’t need. I mention this because I’m sure there are unpublished horror writers out there thinking, “No wonder I can’t get an agent; all the other horror writers are out there sawing limbs.” Sure, that probably provides a certain amount of realism that could elevate your fiction to a more visceral plane. I mean, I’m just guessing. And it’s hard to ignore the fact that Hollywood bible Variety reported this story with the line, “How soon before someone gobbles up the film rights to this?” But still. Call me a purist, but I prefer to do things the old-fashioned way: dismember people in my head.