No, we aren’t talking about the Del James book. We’re talking about Fear, and the words used to create it.
I’m a horror reader. I grew up reading Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Clive Barker, and John Saul. I’m drawn to the horror genre because I’m a little sadistic, a little masochistic, and just a tad voyeuristic. Blood, sex, and death go hand in hand, because all three are things are both exciting and frightening.
My favorite horror novel, to this day, is still The Shining. Want to know why?
Because it still scares the absolute hell out of me.
It is horror in its most basic form: fear. The book reflects a descent into utter madness on the part of a writer. Jack Torrance is all of us, in some form or another. No, I’m not an alcoholic. But I’m not perfect, and nobody else is, either. In some way, almost anyone can relate to Jack.
Added to that, you have a true horror element (possession and the supernatural), gore (bits of blood and brain on the walls of the Presidential Suite), and a good, healthy dose of fear.
“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.”
Wrong genre…I know. But Frank Herbert was onto something when he made this part of the Bene Gesserit mantra. And Stephen King followed it well when he wrote The Shining. That book doesn’t scare everyone… but it scares me because it does what any good horror novel should do – it forces a person to think about the things that frighten them the most.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but the concept of possession scares me witless. The idea of some other entity being in control of me is enough to give me nightmares.
So what does it take to build a good horror scene?
First and foremost, you have to be afraid of something. I wrote a story awhile back called Haunted. It deals with a young man facing ghosts and possession.
Next, you have to be willing to face your fear.
Before you start writing anything, you need to create an atmosphere – when I’m writing horror, the setting is one either devoid of or overloaded by at least one major sensory perk. Either it’s completely silent, or pitch-black, or there’s that hollow emptiness just before a tornado takes form and touches down. Conversely, there might be a storm, or so much noise that my hero can’t think straight, or maybe even flashing lights. The atmosphere needs to convey the feeling of desperation.
The best way to kill a good horror scene is to rush it. I take my time with the discovery… I allow my character to become completely immersed in the psychological meltdown that comes with fear and anticipation before springing the big, nasty thing on him.
In the case of Haunted, Bobby never really knew what happened to him. One minute he was terrified and had the feeling something was following him. The next time he was conscious, it was all over, and he couldn’t remember what he did. But he had a pretty good idea.
Horror stems directly from the uncertainty of the situation.
In Clive Barker’s Coldheart Canyon, Todd Pickett doesn’t have the slightest clue of what’s going on around him until it’s too late. And then the scenery is so changeable that he can’t find reality. He, like Jack Torrence, is chased by his own demons right alongside those not of his creation. And that very thought begs the question: how do you outrun yourself?
Simple answer: You don’t.
You can face your fears, stand up to them and demand that they leave… but that doesn’t always work. Like Freddy Krueger… how do you kill something that doesn’t exist? How do you fight a nightmare?
Bram Stoker was onto something with Dracula. The entire book leaves the reader in a constant state of confusion. That’s scary.
The final element of horror that I want to talk about is gore.
It isn’t a requirement for good horror – look at Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game. That book is completely psychological – Jessie is trapped, chained to her bed by handcuffs while her husband is dead on the floor next to her. She doesn’t get cut up or dragged away or anything like that… the entire story takes place in her head – it plays on her vulnerability, and her fear of being alone.
But gore can also be a great addition to a scene. My friend, Lexxx, just finished her second novel last night. It doesn’t have a title yet, so I can’t really tell you much about it other than it’s pretty damn good. It’s still in the rough draft phase, but I read her big fight scene last night.
This is a paranormal romance novel we’re talking about. But she has a distinct talent for gothic horror that shines through in everything she writes. This fight scene involves snarling beasts, a really brave woman, and blood.
Lots and lots of blood.
Gore is a good horror element because it triggers the squick-factor in most people. It may come down to her editor telling her that the actual popping of flesh strings and shredding of muscle when the bad guy’s throat gets ripped out is too much for a “romance” audience, but it isn’t out of place. The gore is sort of necessary, given the subject matter, even if the more delicate sensibilities of the romance community might groan and say “ick.”
Really, when it comes to writing a good horror story, it’s more about the things left unsaid… the creeping monster behind the curtain, the dark mist at the bottom of the stairs, or even the little voice in the back of your head crying “Redrum… Redrum…” Whether you want to admit it or not, that little voice is in all of us, crying out to be heard.