Oh the Horror!

A moody ruined castle in Ireland – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

If I were you, I would never tell ugly stories about ingenious ways of killing people, for you never can tell but that some one at the table may be tired of his or her nearest and dearest.”
The Screaming Skull, F. Marion Crawford

Do you love all the Halloween competitions on television at this time of year? Halloween Baking Championship is my personal favourite – it’s so much fun to watch what demented inventiveness the bakers come up with! Halloween Wars and Outrageous Pumpkins are also great. If you like any of those, horror may be your preferred reading/writing genre.

I’m more into stylish, eerie horror than gore. Some gore is okay – wouldn’t really be horror without it – but as a main ingredient I don’t love it.

H.P. Lovecraft’s brand of horror was probably one of my biggest influences growing up. I discovered his strange, compelling world of terrible, ancient god-monsters early on, and ever since have loved that sense of creeping dread that infuses his stories. Lovecraft’s horror lives in the shadows, with the things you suspect are there but can’t see, or in awful dreams that make you want to stay awake for the rest of the night. It leaves a lot to your own imagination, which to my mind is where it should be, tapping into your personal nightmares.

So what is horror fiction? Essentially, it’s where bad things happen to people. They don’t get rescued or have a happy ending, unless it’s with a twist that disturbs your mind long after the tale ends.

Classic horror lets the reader follow along as an awful creature OR an evil/maniacal fellow human pursues the protagonist(s) for their own terrible purpose. The first Alien movie did a superb job of that kind of horror. Fear of the unknown is very powerful – viewers and the crew know that there’s something nasty on the ship Nostromo, but neither know exactly what it is, just that people keep dying. The remaining crew race to find it before it gets them, and the movie allows the viewer to feel their increasing terror. We hosted a watch party with that movie when it first came out on video, and I remember spending the entire two hours quite literally on the edge of our sofa.

Horror that has a psychological edge is some of the most effective, I think.

Psychological horror is the kind that messes with the protagonist’s head, and the reader’s/viewer’s. Is what the heroine or hero thinks is happening actually happening? Is the villain who the protagonist thinks it is, or maybe the villain is able to draw them into their tainted web despite themselves? Or there’s something increasingly wrong with a person the protagonist cares about – can the hero/heroine figure out what’s going on in time to save them? You get the idea.

But be careful – many tropes in this kind of horror, like ‘I’m seeing crazy things but no one believes me’, have been done to death, pardon the pun. If, as a writer, you want to head in that direction, I feel you need to give it an effective twist for some freshness.

One of the reasons the movie Scream was so successful was that it took the old clichéd horror movie elements, where the characters do stupid things that inevitably get them into trouble, and mocked them at the same time that it used them. Very clever!

Certain houses, like certain persons, manage somehow to proclaim at once their character for evil. In the case of the latter, no particular feature need betray them; they may boast an open countenance and an ingenuous smile; and yet a little of their company leaves the unalterable conviction that there is something radically amiss with their being; that they are evil.”
The Empty House, Algernon Blackwood

Buildings soaked with evil combine elements of both classic and psychological horror. People either: enter innocently, and are trapped in the building’s malevolent web; go in with knowledge of the building’s reputation and want to either investigate or disprove the stories; or themselves somehow trigger the madness. And so an abode that should provide shelter becomes the terror. We want to find out what the cause is – a lingering ghost, an evil entity that’s crossed into our world, an event so awful that its residue has permeated the building’s walls

“It had a spell put on it by an old fakir,” said the sergeant-major, “a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.”
The Monkey’s Paw, W. W. Jacobs

And then there are the tales of people who insist on messing a cursed object, either naively or despite every warning. We readers know that nothing good is going to come of it, as in the classic tale The Monkey’s Paw, but we read on to find out just how fate is going to punish the protagonist who persists regardless. The results are always horrific  – hence the adage ‘be careful what you wish for’.

Why do we enjoy horror stories? I believe it’s for the same reason lots of us enjoy a good thunderstorm or blizzard – we love the thrill while we’re safely protected from any real danger. We can curl up with a cup of hot tea, snuggled under a lap blanket with a book in our hands, as shivers run up our spines. If the power goes out with a shrieking blast of wind or crack of lightning and we have to read by candlelight, so much the better!

If this post has inspired you to try your hand at writing horror, sign up for this year’s round of National Novel Writing Month, which starts on November 1st. Have some fun, explore your darker side!

I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick—on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labor. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!
The Cask of Amontillado, Edgar Allan Poe

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