I’m in the process of publishing my second short story, most likely in a month’s time. It’s a horror story, titled At Horizon’s End. Horror is a genre I feel more comfortable with, primarily, I think, because it allows me to play
with darker and grimmer settings and endings, which I love. Now, to be clear, I don’t write the gory, splatter type of horror. I’m happier writing the psychological type, the subtler one.

Which made me wonder, what does a horror story need to have to be effective? Of course what follows is my take on it, as I understand it and the way I write it. It doesn’t mean it’s the only way.

First of all an effective horror story needs a strong setting. Regardless if your story takes place in a room, a town, on another planet, on a dark spaceship, over frozen forests and mountain ranges, setting can be your best ally, because it creates mood and sets the tone. Take Stephen King’s IT for instance. It’s the simplest setting one can get; a town with a sewer system. But with something sinister in those sewers. When I was reading the story a few years ago, and I was at any point where the heroes were walking or cycling on the streets, I kept thinking that something may pop out of one of the sewers. Even where there was no mention of said sewers at a particular scene. Why? Because King’s descriptions of the sewer in that early scene (I’m trying to avoid any spoilers, which is why I’m being so vague) made me keep it at the back of my head, and made me expect something nasty to come out of there at any moment.

Depending on the story and a writer’s style, a horror story needs to play with some keywords that will draw the reader in. I can’t give you specific examples, since it depends on each writer’s style and how each story evolves.
But when the writer transports you to a dark room with dripping sounds all around, it adds a little something when said writer describes the sound of dragging feet or the sound of creaking floorboards as the house settles along
its beams. The choice of words (dragging and creaking in this example) have a greater impact than writing that someone walked upstairs and sounds came from the house. The choice of words in the latter example is poor.

One of my favourite things to use in horror stories include characters and situations who are contrasting the general idea of the story. For instance, if my story involves Death (personified) at some point , then I will most likely choose a child for a main character (as is the case of At Horizon’s End). Why? Because on one hand we have a child’s carefreeness, which also represents life, and on the other we have the grimness and the frailty of life.
In my mind, it can’t get more contrasting than that. When I was brainstorming for my first novel, The Darkening, the idea of pitting a survivor of an apocalyptic event against the shadow he could cast at any given moment (which is one of the most natural things to occur, since our world is full of light and we rely so much on our sight) was extremely intriguing. For the past year, I’ve been struggling with a horror short story (that keeps getting bigger and bigger, by the way) that takes a married couple, who at first glance love each other. As the story goes on, the events that unfold strip away their humanity and love, while at the same time exposing their secrets and their view of each other, by forcing each of the two to do something horrible in order to carry on living. Selfless love acts versus survival.

Of course all the above are pointless unless the writer uses a villain who is a million times stronger than the hero. That villain could be the world, a phenomenon, something out of this world, or, if you aim for the gory/slasher type of horror story, perhaps another human who is wicked (make sure to give them wants and fears – you want the villain to appear like a real person after all). And all this because the writer wants to evoke fear. No unbeatable villain, no fear. No fear, no horror.

When it comes to pacing, the writer needs to be crafty. In my understanding, there needs to be an exponential escalation of negative effects from beginning to climax. If your story deals with only one negative event, then
you need to build up to that moment, and when it comes, hit the reader as fast as possible, as hard as possible. For example, if your whole story revolves around a character’s choice about whether or not he/she should stand up to Death and challenge him to obtain something very important, then play with the anticipation your pacing can create. Build it up throughout the story, perhaps by having the hero questioning the effectiveness of such a choice, then when the moment comes, have your character make that choice. From there on, take your reader on a roller coaster unlike any other. If it’s a series of bad things happening, make sure each is worse or scarier than the previous, then hit the reader with the worst, the epitome of nastiness, in one swift go. Anticipation depends on pacing. Much like the roller coaster I mentioned earlier, you could start your story slowly, and leave the reader constantly wondering what will happen next, always hinting at the worst (foreshadowing). The writer can also allow the reader to get a glimpse of a positive outcome for the hero, but it has to be snatched away for the negative climax to have the greatest impact. Another way to do it is to hint on how terrible the outcome of the given choice will be, and at the same time, force the hero into a corner where that choice is a one-way road. The writer can also allow the reader to settle at a state of relative peace by having the hero overcoming minor negative effects, in order to amplify the negative outcome of the climax.

If the writer uses anticipation properly, then it creates the next important thing for a horror story: dread. The writer can allow a constant underlying question of “what’s going to happen to the hero next? What will the cost to
the hero’s soul be?” My understanding of dread is that it usually works best if the writer sprinkles a little mystery in the horror recipe. If it’s a given that the hero will die at the end of the story, and the reader knows this, dread is vital to make the story appealing. In the short story I’ve been struggling with for so long, it is an undisputed fact that the heroes will not come out at the end of the story the same way they walked into it. The reader knows this. The reader also knows that things will get better, if the heroes do one thing, which will be catastrophic for the other. So the question becomes, “who’s going to come out with the least damage and how will they do it? What will they have sacrificed in the process? What will the villain do to keep them from succeeding?” The reader knows something the characters don’t (or simply refuse to acknowledge) and that builds dread, which adds to the anticipation.

All the above (dread, anticipation, fear) are visceral emotions the writer needs to play with and ultimately, exploit and amplify. But the writer needs strong descriptions for this, which takes us back to setting.

Finally, the writer could also use tragedy to his/her advantage, and/or drama (but drama only in its modern Greek sense, which means unpleasant effect or unwanted situation, which is different from what ancient Greeks meant when they used the term, and vastly different from what nowadays passes for drama in the western world). If the writer aims for a sense of tragedy, then it’s important to bind it with character flaws and poor choices, and perhaps make use of strong contrasts, like I mentioned earlier. All this should add to the empathy the reader develops for the hero throughout the story, which also allows readers to “experience” what the heroes feel.

So, what are your favourite horror stories?

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4 thoughts on “Elements of Horror

  1. It by Stephen King like you mentioned is quite brilliant and stays with me even though I read it 30 some years ago. I think because of the characters and like you mentioned the setting. I also really like Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, mainly because of the claustrophic and isolated setting. One man surrounded by his enemies.

    1. I haven’t read I am Legend (I did see the movie – the new one, not the old one), but I’m a firm supporter of using setting to create good horror. It creates fear and, to me at least, dread.

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