Thursday, 29 September 2011

Horror Stories: What's In The Box?

Iain Rowan has posted a good review of The Shelter over at his blog - when I say a 'good review' I don't mean he liked it (although he did, thank goodness) but that it was an informative and perceptive piece, saying many interesting things about horror fiction. I was particularly struck by this:

Horror fiction often disappoints me, as the suspense and dread rises, but then you see the monster, that it? 

This immediately made me think of Stephen King's wonderful non-fiction book Dance Macabre where he makes a similar point about horror - you throw open the door to reveal the monster and the reader thinks 'A ten foot ant! Yikes quite scary! But I can cope with that... Now a 100ft ant, that would be scary...' But of course, if what was behind the door was a 100ft ant, the reader would be thinking: Scary! But I can cope with that...

The image I have in my own head is of a jack-in-the-box - as a horror author, you better have something good springing out of that box. (And that thought always makes me hum this song, but anyway). 

All of which has got me thinking, what are the different ways horror authors solve this problem? Seems to me it's these:

1. Pretend There Isn't A Problem
Maybe, if you're a really skilled author, and having a really good day, you can still get away with writing a story where the big reveal is basically "Boo! It's a vampire!" Maybe.

2. Monster With A Twist
This one is quite common - vampires that turn into a snake not a bat, zombies that run etc. It can be done well   - vampires have been reinvented scores of times, the most recent high-profile case being Let The Right One In. When it's done well it works - the twist creates a frisson of shock, and allows creatures grown dusty with familiarity to be scary once more. But it's damn hard to do, and one suspects there's more failures than successes. Do it badly, and it's apt to seem to the reader like a cheap gimmick rather than anything they should react to, let alone be scared by.

3. Invent A New Monster
If ghosts, werewolves, vampires, aliens and zombies (and alien zombies) are all seeming too stale, then the best thing to do is invent a new monster, no? The reader can't have a jaded reaction to something they've never encountered before can they?

Well no. But there's little new under the sun. Dance Macabre time again (and if you read or write horror and haven't a well-thumbed copy of this on your bookshelf then you really need to examine your life choices up to this point) - King talks about the books Psycho and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as werewolf novels. Werewolf novels? 

Yes, because the really scary thing about werewolves isn't the teeth or fur, but the fact that those guys walk around most of the time looking just like you and me. As does Norman Bates when he's not in his dead mother's dress; as does the respectable looking Mister Hyde. The scary thing is they look normal but can change.

So if you want to create a new monster for your story, be careful. In reality, this method is likely to be identical to Number 2.

4. Only Partially Reveal Your Monster
Now we're talking. I do this one quite a lot - letting the reader glimpse the thing out of the corner of their eye, throwing in some choice description but leaving most to the imagination. The idea being, if the unknown is what's scary, keep it a bit unknown. Lovecraft was a master at this - how many of us could really say exactly what Cthulhu looks like?

Be wary though - if done clumsily this approach can seem to the reader to be a cheap trick.

5. Ambiguity #1: Call Into Question Just What The Real Monster Is
Just because you've revealed what everyone thinks the monster is, it doesn't mean they're right. Maybe it's just an aspect of the real Big Bad. Think Ghost Story by Peter Straub which gets all sorts of ghosts and monsters and scary kids roaming around, but they're all just reflections of the real monster... and of ourselves. You can keep the tension tight if the reader is never sure which reveal is the big one.

6. Ambiguity #2: Call Into Question If The Monster Is Even Real 
Another one I really like. What if it's all in the protagonist's head? Isn't that more scary than a monster, in some ways - especially if you're not sure? The obvious example here is The Turn Of The Screw (ghosts are the perfect monster for this type of horror) but it doesn't have to be as overt as that; a lot of horror can be read in this way.

7. Make The Monster Relevant To The Characters
There's tons of good examples of this one, but to pick a familiar one: in The Exorcist the priest has to determine whether the girl is really possessed by a demon, or just faking or suffering some psychological trauma. But here's the turn of this screw: the priest is losing his faith in God. But if the demon is real, if Evil with a capital E is real, then surely Good with a capital G is too? The priest almost wants the demon to be real... (which dovetails nicely with technique 6. above).

8. Don't Have A Monster
Guess what? Horror doesn't need a monster. Horror needs dread, unease, fear; horror needs... well horror. And a good author can generate this without a bogeyman. To end with an example of my own, A Writer's Words in my collection The Other Room has no psycho-killers, no mutants or mummies. What it does have, hopefully, is a creepy sense of unease as an almost existential situation overtakes the main character. And somehow, with this kind of horror story, where there's no monster as such, the reveal can be seamless.

So, fellow horror authors, what do you think? Have I missed any out? In reality of course authors mix and match these approaches to the issue of opening the box, or the door, to reveal what's been lurking.

In other news, I'm taking part in a 'blog hop' running from 24th to 31st October, where I'll be giving away some books and maybe other stuff if I can work something out. (If you aren't sure quite what a 'blog hop' is, like I wasn't, check out this post from Belinda Frisch, which explains it better than I could.)

If you're a fellow horror author (and let's face it, if you've read all of blog post so far there's a good chance you probably are) and want to take part, check out the Coffin Hop webpage.


Michael Montoure said...

Funny that King should be perfectly aware of this problem -- and then turn around and end It with a giant spider. Heh.

My favorite example of this is The Haunting -- the original 1963 film only shows us a door, bent inward by the pressure of an unknowable something on the other side, and it's scary as hell. The 1999 remake parades a multitude of CGI ghosts across the screen, and manages to be about as scary as your typical episode of Scooby-Doo.

Deborah Walker said...

Great post. I love posts about the craft of horror.

I'm fond of number 7, where the monster relates to the characters. I also like it when the monster is described using unexpected language.

Alain Gomez said...

Horror does need more horror. So true. The biggest fear should always be fear of the unknown.

To this day, the Borg on Star Trek Voyager still creep me out. I think they did such a good job depicting them. What makes it scary is that you never fully see "the assimilation process." All you hear are the screams.

James Everington said...

Michael - I think the problem is even more acute for movies; even if the concept is good if the CGI or whatever looks bad it's still ruined.

Aaron Polson said...

I think horror authors fail when showing me the Big Bad. A corner of the Big Bad is always scarier. Show the effects of the Big Bad. Big Bad's leavings...

That's scary.

Unknown said...

I've only written a few horror stories and in all of mine the horror isn't about what kind of a monster is revealed but rather how we discover that someone we have been reading about all along is, in reality, monstrous. I've never much cared for monstery-monsters. I like the monster being someone we thought was one of us -- until we found out about the thing they did or were doing that we didn't know about.

James Everington said...

Big Bad's "leavings"? As in poo?

A specialist market you're going for there Aaron...

Andre Jute said...

Nice one, James.

I think a skilled writer will avoid the race to the bottom of the pit of incredulity of ever bigger monsters by elevating his story to the realm of the mind. Bloody hell, that sounds pompous. What I mean is that the writer will use readers' imagination much more liberally than he will use words on the page. Couple of examples:

In THE SURVIVOR I set the reader up with a monstrous, genuine, universal horror, only for him to realize that there is a bigger horror, and for the most subtle readers the still bigger philosophical horror of the author turning such materials into a love story. (Probably just as well that readers are too stunned to express their outrage...)

"High Fidelity", one of the pieces in TWO SHORTS, is about the gruesome death of a pet, but it is neither shown nor mentioned, and the reader thinks it is comedy right up the last line when all it turns dark.

Of course, the risk in either case is that the writer loses his readers, that only the subtle will catch on. But I think most people who read a lot become pretty smart about writers and their red herrings and tricks— and their subtleties.

This is probably also easier for me than for someone who sets out to write horror, as a genre with conventions to be observed, possibly including a proper reveal, as I merely set out to tell a story, and if it turns out to be horror, gee, what a surprise.

PS You can pay 99c each at Amazon for the shorts I used as examples, or you can get them FREE from Smashwords:

THE SURVIVOR is free from

TWO SHORTS is free from

James Everington said...

Thanks Andre. I think you're right - the writer who approaches this problem without being straight-jacketed by horror conventions (particularly now, when so many if those conventions are cinematic, not literary) will be the one who deals with it in an interesting way.

I also think, upon reflection, that the issue is slightly different for short stories and novels. To grossly generalise, the short story is more likely to climax with the reveal; the novel more likely to have half its length still to go.

jim bronyaur said...

Less is more in horror. Which is why I think old horror is better than new horror... the movies now need gore and special effects because that's what movies require. They need to make that $15 ticket worth it... or something.

The greatest horror scenes are the ones where our minds fill in the blanks. Like Michael said about THe Haunting... seeing the door bent, letting our minds explore the ideas set up...

A good horror writer will setup everything up for you to explore with your mind.

Now, don't get me wrong, there is a place for gore in this world, yes, yes, but in terms of good horror, it's about the setup and the emotion.


Suzanne Tyrpak said...

Great post.

For me, as a writer and a reader, there's nothing scarier than the human mind.

I like psychological horror, dread of the unknown, and I love the protagonist to discover or suspect their own insanity--and the insanity of others.We are all capable of being monsters.

I also like to find horror in every day situations gone awry can be extremely scary. Situations that should even be fun, like carnivals. Carnivals are always creepy. Settings where we're somehow out of control and our perceptions can't be relied upon. That, for me is horrifying.

Naima Haviland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Naima Haviland said...

One of my fave examples of Numbers 3 and 4 is Stephen King's short story, The Raft. An amorphous shape on the water ingests the teenagers on the raft one by one. What's scary about the story is that there's no escape route. What's interesting is how each character reacts. The reader doesn't need a scientific explanation as to what the shape is (at least, I didn't). And the story has renewed relevance since the BP oil spill.

James Everington said...

Hi Namia - The Raft is a great story; it's one of his that's always stuck with me.