- The horror writer co-opts the reader’s imagination to scare the pants off them.
- Violation, possession, mutation, confinement and insignificance are all terrifying.
- Engaging the character’s senses engages the reader’s emotions.
- The protocols of horror can be adopted for other genres.
When people ask me what I write, I wave my arms about and say something about science fiction, fantasy or historical, depending on what happens to be on my mind that day. I never say I write horror simply because I don’t think of myself as a horror writer. I don’t even read much horror.
Recently, Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo was published in a science fiction horror anthology titled Qualia Nous. I’d originally submitted it for a completely different anthology, but Qualia Nous was where the editor decided it belonged. It shares pages with an aristocracy of horror authors, reigned over by Stephen King.
It seems I write horror after all.
I doubt Peppermint Tea would have got into Qualia Nous if I hadn’t given some thought to the protocols of horror, not because I wanted to out-King King but because they are useful in any genre. While most genres are defined by their subject matter, horror is defined by the emotions it inspires in the reader.
Those emotions typically fall into two categories: fear and disgust. The latter is induced by graphic descriptions of gore and violation. It doesn’t appeal to me so I’m not going to say any more about it. Fear is more interesting.
What are we afraid of?
Most people have an imagination which they use to imagine things that threaten them. We’re hardwired to do that. When our ancestors were stalking antelope in East Africa, they wouldn’t last very long unless they could anticipate a lion stalking them. Fear comes from the possibility that our imagined threats may become real.
A great deal has been written about the specifics of what make us afraid. Christian Jarrett’s article in The Psychologist suggests that evolution has hardwired us to fear things like snakes. However, a horror writer cannot just wave a snake at the reader and instruct them to be afraid. I for one rather like snakes, and I’ll only fear a snake if it’s a threat to me. So when am I afraid of a snake?
When I can’t see it.
When I’m ploughing through thick bush and my imagination is screaming that I’m about to disturb a cobra or a puff adder. Once I’ve seen the snake, Can stay safe by staying out of striking distance. It’s not the real snake but the snake in my imagination that frightens me.
Leaving specific primal fears to Jarrett, it’s worth considering the broad categories of things we are afraid of:
At its most fundamental, we’re afraid of bodily violation. Rape or violent injury is the most obvious form, but there are more insidious possibilities. We have a finely honed sense of disgust, particularly revolving around bodily fluids, because we’re afraid of infections. The idea of microbes subverting our bodies to their own ends horrifies because we can’t see them coming. We don’t even know what they’re up to until they’ve done enough damage that we can’t help but notice. As with most horror tropes, Edgar Allan Poe got there first with The Masque of the Red Death.
As well as bodily violation, most people build a safe space around them and call it home. We exert control over it. We lock the door so we can choose who comes in and out. We define the shape of their home by arranging the furniture. A threat that appears in the home is immediately frightening because it demolishes the notion of a safe place before it even does anything.
Dean Koontz is the master of turning the familiar items in a home into instruments of terror. His novels are a case study in the techniques of horror.
The most intimate form of violation is possession, because it affects the most intimate part of us: our minds. If we share our self with another entity, can we know who we are? Can we know whether our choices are our own? Are we damned to watch ourselves carry out another’s bidding?
We have a strong sense of ourselves. We know who we expect to see when we look in the mirror. We know our physical abilities and limitations. We may change ourselves by building muscle in the gym or going on a diet to lose weight, but the change is gradual and under our control. Change that is not under our control terrifies us. If you’ve ever been a passenger in a car, there has probably been a moment when you were convinced the car is about to crash. You were suddenly aware of the frailty of flesh and bone at high speed. What flashed through your mind? Was it death that you were afraid of, or was it life in a wheelchair? For me, it’s always the latter. Ceasing to exist is less disturbing to me than the idea of a fundamental physical diminishment.
Many horror tropes take the idea of mutation in another direction. Vampires and werewolves are born of ordinary people. Even if their mutation gives them extra abilities, it’s still horrifying. What power would make it worthwhile to feel your face disintegrate into a dog’s or to know you can never share a warm touch again?
Most of us value our freedom, and loathe the idea of being confined. The confinement may be fatal in itself, but even then the confinement horrifies us more than death. The horror of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado comes less from the fact of a murder being committed than because the victim is being buried alive. They are being confined to death. Slowly.
Nor is it a coincidence that Stephen King, who is best known as a horror writer, has written acclaimed prison dramas like Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
Most of us are the protagonist in the story of our own life. You are a secondary character in my story, and knowing that I am a secondary character in yours makes that no less true. It’s a natural supposition for a mammal that experiences
the world through its physical self. ‘Here’ is wherever we happen to be. It’s frustrating to be reminded we’re no more than extras to people who occupy a significant supporting role in our own story. It happens every time our attractions are spurned or our boss hasn’t noticed our work is pivotal to her department. How much more frightening is the thought of something so powerful that the best we can hope for is to be voiceless extras, but there’s a strong chance of becoming a light snack.
I’ve never felt that sense as strongly as when I’ve been reading HP Lovecraft. To read The Call of Cthulhu and At the Mountains of Madness is to be immersed in a universe populated by entities so powerful they could brush our entire planet aside on a whim. To set eyes on one is disastrous, but not because they’ll bother killing us. We don’t matter enough for them to bother. The mere sight of them is enough to drive us insane.
Lovecraft’s power does not lie in his prose. I find his pace slow, his characters two dimensional with at least one dimension being hysteria, and I can’t share his love affair with adjectives. In spite of that, his mythos imprints itself into the memory with a brand of pure fear.
The monster under the bed
Once upon a time, the reader was a child who couldn’t sleep because they were afraid the monster under the bed might get them. Their parents showed them there was no monster down there. They’ve slept soundly ever since. If I’m writing horror, my job is to put the monster back under the bed.
The reader is no longer a child. He’s grown out of the conviction that every dark corner hides the monster who makes the noises their parents call the central heating. He needs some convincing. The good news is that if he’s reading horror, he’s willing to work with me.
In a critique of one of my stories, someone once described horror as the literature of the senses. It’s such good advice that I wish I could remember who said it. Every one of the five plays a part in dropping the reader into the head of the viewpoint. Conversely, one way of doing that is to deprive the viewpoint of one or more senses. That thought informed Coldwater Cottage, where the viewpoint’s sense of touch is restricted by his gloves.
Because fear comes from the imagination, the best way of frightening the reader is to offer them a few gaps for their imagination to fill. I trust my reader to dream up something more terrifying than I can describe. As soon as the monster emerges into the light or the reasons behind the haunting are explained, its physical or metaphysical limitations are known and defined. At that point, the viewpoint either needs to start overcoming the threat or get eaten to bring the story to an end.
Horror on the page and in film
Alfred Hitchcock described the difference between suspense and terror in an article I pontificated about a few months ago. He was talking about film, but the differences are just as relevant to the written word. We feel suspense when we know there’s a monster under the child’s bed but the child doesn’t, and we feel terror when the monster leaps out and grabs the child. The two are mutually exclusive: if we know the monster is under the bed, our imagination will conjure up a much worse outcome for the child than can be described. If the monster grabs the child, it must be unexpected because anticipation will reduce the event to an anti-climax.
As useful as Hitchcock’s analysis is, we should be careful about learning the wrong lessons from film. Many horror films are intended to be watched in company, so people can argue about who will survive and who will be dead by the halfway point. Hitchcock once said he deliberately put in moments of terror so dating couples could leap into each other’s’ arms.
Reading is a solitary pastime, in which the reader and writer are alone with one another’s’ imaginations. The reader wants surprise, not formula.
Not only horror readers want to be horrified
The principals of horror are to identify primal fears and engage them through the reader’s imagination. Part of the reason it’s worth studying the technique of horror writers is that those techniques will engage a reader in any genre. If you can scare someone, you can engage them. If you can engage them, you can keep them reading.
That’s why all of the stories I’ve listed below overlap with other genres. I always thought of them as historical, science fiction or fantasy stories that happened to include an element of horror. It’s not for me to say how successful they have been, but to submit them for your judgement. Teleki-li for now.
Full text of Cassandra’s Cargo
Preview of Coldwater Cottage
Preview of Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo
Preview of Summer Holidays
Preview of The Redeemed