Writing in the Dark – Horror and Suspense in Literature.

There’s no getting away from it, a lot of people enjoy being scared. From roller coasters to haunted houses, games, films and books the market for Horror and all it’s sub-genres is huge.

As an example, Peter Benchley published ‘Jaws’ in 1974 and it was picked up by Zanuck/Brown to be turned into a major motion picture, directed by Stephen Spielberg in 1975. Many people are aware of the production issues that plagued the film and that the animatronic shark was named ‘Bruce’, but did you know that the town of Martha’s Vineyard (the stand-in for Amity Island) was initially concerned that the release of the film would kill its tourist industry as surely as if they did have a man-eating shark? Well, the exact opposite was true, Tourism to Martha’s Vineyard tripled after the film was released and to this day, more than forty years on, the island cultivates its association with the movie franchise as a premier destination for horror movie fans.

So, how does that translate to writing horror, how do we make it work in a era post ‘Saw’, ‘Hostel’ and the rise of the so-called ‘Torture Porn’ genre? Without images, special effects or tension music it’s not as easy as throwing gore at the page and seeing what sticks, I can tell you that much. As a horror fan myself I can still only give you my personal views on what makes something scary. While the genre is flooded with material, for me as much of it is laughable shlock as is truly terrifying so I’ll share my thoughts for you in the hope that they prove beneficial in your creating.

One of the key stones of good horror isn’t even the scares, it’s the characters. Whether you’re writing dystopian crime thriller or occult body-horror, if the audience don’t care about your characters then you’re more likely to get a laugh when they inevitably die than a gasp or a tear. Worse still would be a shrug and an ‘eh’ response to your carefully crafted execution scene. The trope of ‘the macho asshole’ getting what the audience thinks they deserve is proof of that. If the audience feel empathy with the character and their struggles it will encourage them to ‘feel’ as the character feels when they’re uneasy or afraid making your job of scaring the reader that much easier. Pay attention to your characterization, encourage the audience to care.

Slow-burn tension is another good tool, steadily building the idea that all is not what it seems, making the familiar slowly more unfamiliar, threatening or outright dangerous is one approach to take. Occult horror follows this pattern all the time. It’s a favorite trick of Stephen King (see also Dean Koontz and James Herbert). There’s a term among those who study and work to build humanoid robots, ‘The Uncanny Valley’ whereby an seemingly human object that isn’t human engender feelings of fear or revulsion in observers, that’s the kind thing you’re trying to encourage (but without the humanoid robot focus). The Stephen King novel ‘Desperation’ (and ‘The Regulators’ published under his pseudonym Richard Bachman) take this approach, the ‘normal’ becoming abnormal. Taking examples from real life it’s a well-documented phenomena that the victims of home-invasion, whether they are present for the even or not, can struggle in finding that their home is not a ‘safe place’ anymore. Again it’s something you’re trying to encourage within the bounds of any horror that the usually ‘safe’ aspects of our everyday life aren’t anymore. You’re building a creeping sensation of unease among your characters up until the tipping point where they find out why.

Alternately you can pull the rug out from under the cast almost straight away. It’s a regular feature of Apocalyptic or even Post Apocalyptic fiction with the characters often reminiscing about the world as it was before, a means to encourage empathy from the reader. ‘The Walking Dead’ did this quite successfully with the character Rick Grimes but that’s only one fairly recent example. The third book of ‘The Rats Trilogy’, ‘Domain’ by James Herbert starts with a thermonuclear explosion over London and goes from there, you don’t have to have read either of the previous works to pick this one up either (though I warn you there are scenes of sexual violence within). Horror based around animal antagonists build on very primal fears, the fear of being hunted and eaten for example. ‘The Rats’, ‘Jaws’ even ‘Cujo’ make use of that primitive fear. It’s also employed with zombie horror though that plays more on the fear of mortality and of becoming ‘other than we are’.

Throughout the horror genre it’s the application of fear on a cast of characters that the audience identifies with and feels empathy for that provides the payoff as they either die, or ultimately overcome the danger that has been posed against them. Those fears can be general concepts that nonetheless plague our subconscious minds, fear of the dark or the unknown or they can be more specifically targeted, fear of spiders or *shudder* clowns. We’ve seen many from ‘Arachnophobia’ to ‘IT’, ‘The Hunger’ (Alma Katsu, Donner party inspired survival horror) to ‘Bird Box’ by Josh Malerman but still the  audience craves new and inventive ways to be scared, to investigate and shine light into the dark places of the human psyche and, more often than not, to truly feel ‘alive’. Continuing protests against properties in the horror-genre cite the old argument that it ‘desensitizes’ people, that it ‘makes monsters’ who go out and perform horrific deeds. It rarely works live that, the ‘violent games breed violent acts’ argument just doesn’t hold up under the weight of close scrutiny. The sad fact is that there has to be some instability there in the first place, something that sadly goes undiagnosed, unacknowledged or untreated in the first place. For the vast majority of the audience it’s the sensation of our heart-pounding in our chest making us feel ‘alive’ that drives our interest in the genre and it’s the thrill of exploring the themes behind and expanding on that thrill that drive some of us to write it.

Contrary to the vocal protests of a very small community, writing horror doesn’t make you a monster. Exploring themes of fear and trauma in a fictional setting, via the means of a human monster or an inhuman one doesn’t make you one yourself. The battle of ‘Good vs Evil’ or ‘Innocence over Corruption’ is the most common core concept of any horror fiction and (if a few secondary characters get murdered and maimed along the way) it’s all in fun, right?

The main problem facing you as a horror writer is how to make your work original, just like any other genre. There are so many Serial Killer stories, Undead or Diabolic vengeance Revenants out there. So many monsters from Vampires to Werewolves to the Bunyip and beyond being drawn out of folk-history. Animals from Spiders to Sharks, Bears to Birds brought to the fore in the name of new ideas. What you write, how you write and who you write will prove the proof of your manuscript. You can and will find your audience, no matter how niche and remember.

Selling a hundred-thousand copies might make you ‘successful’, but putting one smile on one face makes you a success.

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