Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Why Writing Horror is Hard

Book genres are a little like high school stereotypes. Romance is the head of the drama club, always over-acting and swooning onto over-stuffed couches. Sci-fi is the fellow in horn-rimmed glasses with a calculator that clocks more power than your main computer, and who may or may not have a work table with a functional light saber on it. Westerns and Adventure novels are the inseparable tough guys; lords of the grid-iron, a little pushy, a little on the slow side, but good enough when you remind them to act like people. And Horror... well...

Horror is, to put it bluntly, the kid everyone was afraid of. You know the one; death metal tee-shirt, homemade piercings, and that glint in his eye. Some people said he was harmless, and other people knew that somewhere deep down inside it was only a matter of time till the bomb went off.

You knew something was wrong when you discovered his happy place.
The problem is that a lot of readers fall into that, "you don't really take him seriously, do you?" category when it comes to horror. That's easy to do, particularly when the only sort of horror you've seen involves brutal, pointless torture under bright fluorescent lights. However, Nihilism in a hockey mask does not horror make. If you're wondering why your attempts to chill your readers' blood are coming out lukewarm at best, then you may have forgotten...

Horror is Quiet

I'm only going to say this once; jump scares are not horror. Roaring chainsaws, snarling monsters, and howling beasts are not horror. Horror is not a scream as a crazy person runs toward you with a fire ax. That may be scary, or unsettling, but it isn't horror. Horror is a whisper you can barely hear, but which you're sure is somewhere right behind you. You might even see what it is, if you're brave enough, and you can turn fast enough.

There is no Slender Man in this picture.
You know how in the movie Alien we never really get a look at the creature in its full form? We see the aftermath, we hear it in the walls, and we catch glimpses as it skulks and skitters from the corners of our eyes, but we never really see it. In an original cut of the film when Ripley was stuck in the escape pod with it there was a scene where we got to watch the creature stand up and face her. A full-on, no tricks, fully lit shot of the alien rearing to its full height to stare down our heroine. Do you know what that did?

It destroyed the horror. Because when put out under bright lights it was really, really easy to see it was just a guy in a humanoid suit that wasn't really very scary.

The lesson you should take away from this is subtlety. Good horror is like good sex. It starts slow, builds tension and anticipation, and then when you can't take it anymore bodily fluids fountain all over the place while people scream.

Horror is Intimate

Let's go back to that sex thing for a moment. Let's say you're in bed, and you know you have a night of much-anticipated intimacy coming. Your partner kisses you softly, and says they'll be right back. You hear them pad to the bathroom, and shiver as you strip off your clothes. You lay there in the dim light, and you hear them returning. You see their silhouette, and smile. They slide into bed with you, you kiss them, and that's when you realize something is terribly, terribly wrong.

Her eyes... what happened to her eyes...
The point I'm making here is that horror doesn't come at you when you're expecting it. It follows you, smiles at you, and makes you think it's just another story. You don't notice that it's getting closer and closer, until you turn and realize you're nose-to-nose with a fang-toothed fiend. In order for horror to be effective it has to get under the reader's skin. It has to make the reader trust it, and be willing to take off their clothes (in this case a lowering of their mental and emotional barriers). And then, only when the reader is really ready can horror show itself and have a real impact.

Horror is Personal (And Visceral)

Everyone has a friend with a weird fear. Maybe it's raw meat, or little spiders, or old people. Regardless of what it is, though, a situation that would barely even register in your mind could leave your friend rattled for hours, if not for days.

Horror knows what those things are, and it seeks them out in every, individual reader.

Oh god, it's coming right at me!
In order to be effective horror needs to be visceral. It needs to reach right into the readers' guts and start yanking on their cables. For instance, is your reader afraid of spiders? If so then all you'll need to do is mention a character seeing a bulbous, black-bodied arachnid perched in its web, with the wet jewels of its multi-faceted eyes twinkling in the twilight. Other readers may not have an inherent fear of spiders, so just seeing it won't be enough. In that case you'll need to have it scuttling across a dirty wall, jerking back and forth in an unsettling pattern. Perhaps a character sees it feeding, mummifying a tiny victim before spiking into its body and draining it of blood like a vampire with segmented limbs. Maybe your reader needs to feel the pin-pricks of tiny, hairy legs as it drags its body along your character's arm, or the chittering sound before the spider plugs his ear by crawling inside.

That last one got you, didn't it?

There are certain, nearly-universal things that will trigger revulsion and horror in someone. One is a violation of the self, but others may include injuries and pain, sensations and tastes, or even smells and sounds. The agony of torn muscles or snapped ligaments can make stoic readers squirm, and descriptions of the miasma of rotting carcasses or the slimy, clingy feeling of swamp muck as it tries to pull someone under can hit a reader right where his or her amygdala lives.

Know what scares people, and be able to turn on the ghoul lamp no matter how mundane something should be.

Horror is Real

One of the primary reasons horror is hard to write is that you have to make the reader believe it. More often than not you have to convince the reader that werewolves, zombies, curses, ghosts, and a bevy of other beasts and monstrosities are not only real, but that they're in the room right now!

Can't tell if drunks... or shambling corpses...
Horror, more than almost any other genre, requires an iron-clad suspension of disbelief. Every person your reader meets, every average day and long night needs to feel authentic. From the dialogue your heroes engage in, to the urban legends they encounter, everything needs to be organic. If they come across as artificial then your audience might see behind the curtain. On the other hand one reason that small-town-with-dark-secret stories work (and have arguably made Stephen King into a millionaire) is that we believe these places and people are real.

The internal logic says that if the small-town professor, his wife, and his son are real, and his neighbors, the highway he lives near, and even the town he works in are real, then of course the ancient burial ground that resurrects the dead must be real, too.

Shadows and Starlight

For all its power to elicit terror and to make the pulse race, horror is a fragile thing. You know your book can't actually harm the reader, and the reader knows it, too. You have an empty gun. Your job is to hold that empty gun to your audience's head and convince them, at least for a moment when you cock that hammer, that there really is a bullet in that chamber.

Do you feel lucky, punk?

If you'd like to see how well my horror measures up to this guide then check out American Nightmare by clicking the link below the picture, or check through the other titles available on my Amazon Author Page. If you'd like to support me and my blog so that I can keep producing content like this then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and become a patron today! If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or all three.

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