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.
I’m back. I hope you all had a wonderful summer, and that you recharged your inner batteries. I know I’m late on posting (it’s been two months since my last post) but a lot of things have happened since then and it was hard to keep up with everything.
One of them was my father’s accident. He slipped and broke his leg almost a month and a half ago, so I had to take over most of the things he was dealing with. That meant hardly any time left for me. Luckily, he narrowly escaped surgery to reset the bone, despite the fact that he completely disregarded his doctors’ orders (and still does). Thanks to his surprisingly speedy mending process, and taking into account his age, what appeared to be a long rehabilitation period (doctors initially estimated it would take him around three months before they removed the cast), will most probably barely exceed a two-month period, if his bone continues to mend as fast as it does.
So, the one month I was supposed to use to polish my novel went out the window. BUT!! I did manage to finish editing most of it. In fact, I’m working on a printed version of it, where I’ll do the last edits before I sent it to my beta readers. See the photo? That’s it!
I got to tell you, it felt good holding it in my hands like that. Funny, it’s not even the final version, but it sure is nice to see it and hold it, you know? It makes it more real, more tangible. That’s something the digital medium will never achieve. Not for me, at least. It’s a strange feeling of mixed awe, pride, and fear, probably because I know there’s only one more step before someone else gets to read it, with the explicit instruction to find and point out even the slightest mistake. It’s daunting, but exciting too, because after their input, I will have a better manuscript in my hands. Thanks to my beta readers, I will have the chance to improve my craft. I know for a fact there’s a lot of space for improvement.
Funny fact: I’ve been editing, revising, and rewriting it for the past nine months (I actually rewrote the book twice; once for a better Point of View, the other to improve the story). 2/3 down the road of editing it with my trusty red pen, and I realise there’s more red ink on the pages than black. Makes me wonder, what on earth have I been editing all this time?!
Who are you? What are you doing here? Wait, wait, don’t kill me! I just want some food, that’s all. Stay back, don’t come closer. I’ll… I’ll… I’ll stab you, I swear it. The glass will cut you in no time, you hear? Stay back. That’s better. I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if I have to. All I want is some food. Do you have any? Look, I’m not going to hurt you, unless you attack me, okay? What’s that? What’s that in your hand? Is it… is it food? Just that? Half a raw rat? Okay. I’m so hungry. Feels like I haven’t eaten in days.
Why are you looking at me like that? No, I don’t know why I am like that. I just am. Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you. You’re the first person I’ve seen in days. Everything is empty. Not a single soul for miles. What’s going on? I saw houses and farms on my way here, but there was no one living there. It’s as if everyone vanished. I thought this place was empty, was looking for something to eat and a place to sleep. I didn’t mean to scare you.
I came by a house on my way here. It was a big white house, with two rows of windows, all of them smashed though, and the place looked like it was about to fall apart. I went inside, called for help. I was hungry. They had a pen but there were no animals. Some chickens ran around free, but I couldn’t catch any of them. Fast birds. I saw… I saw remains, bones and… and… What happened? On my way here, I saw a wide road, full of rusted cars and everyone in them…
There are big structures to the east, I saw them on my way here. Maybe we could go there and look for food or other surv –
What’s your name? I… I don’t know my name. I can’t remember anything, except the last couple of days. I woke up in the middle of nowhere, and I’ve been walking since then, but nothing before that. As if I didn’t exist. Don’t go! Please, don’t go. Are you the only one left? Why are you afraid of me? What is wrong with me? Are we going to die too? Am I going to die? Are we the last ones? Help me, please!
Will anyone read this? Is anyone still alive out there?
My name is John Piscus, and I’m a survivor. The Darkening… I wish I knew more about it, but I don’t. No memory, you see. What I do know is the Darkening claimed the lives of almost every human on the planet by the worst way possible. Stop talking to me! No, no, not you, reader. The two voices in my head. You see, the thing is, I’m crazy. Deranged, mentally unstable, loony, oh yes. Yes, I am, yes, yes, yes. I have two voices lodged in my head. Uh-huh, uh-huh. Two different people talking to me, yapping every single minute of my waking life. One wants me to kill myself, the other to stop at nothing, until as it says, I reach my potential. You think you’re the sole owner of your thoughts? You take it for granted, don’t you? Guess again. You want to make it, to survive? You better make sure you take nothing for granted. Come closer, I want to tell you a secret. Come, come, I don’t bite. Not yet at least. Haven’t turned into cannibalism yet, I’m not like those survivors stuck in what’s left of the cities. Can’t blame them, no food in the cities. But that’s not me. Anyway, here’s the secret; I don’t think the voices are real. No, no, not real. I think one of them is my conscience, the other my survival instinct. Shhh, keep your voice down! They might hear us and start talking to me again. No, don’t ask me about why my conscience has woken. I can’t tell you, I won’t tell you, you can’t make me! Go away! Both of you. Not you, reader. You stay.
What? You don’t know what the Darkening is? Of course, no one left to tell you. The Darkening turned our own shadows against us. No, not shadows, not anymore. What comes out can no longer be called “shadow.” It’s… it’s different. It has substance. It’s alive, malicious, bent on one thing alone; to kill the person it made it. You want to know a fact? It will find you. There’s no escape, there’s no hope. You can’t escape your own shadow. No, you can’t. It’s there, always there. Enough light to cast a shadow, and poof! Your shadow comes to life and you’re dead. Dead, do you hear? DEAD! There’s no escape, there is no hope. Hope is for the weak. Out there, only two things exist; death and fear. You don’t know what fear is, until you realise you carry your own death every step of the way.
The Darkening turned the remaining of us into rats and worms, hiding underground, watching over our backs, constantly looking to the east. If it glows, it kills. No, I will not! My thoughts are my own. Go away! Not you, reader. Anything dark is a good shelter, remember that. If you want to survive, you must have a shelter. Get used to leaving in the dark, for it’s all you’ll ever see. You think it’s easy? Have you ever opened your eyes, and couldn’t tell if anything existed beyond you? Any time where darkness was so pressing, you couldn’t tell if you were awake or asleep? If you had eyes or not? Did you ever stretch you hand in the dark, darkness so thick you thought it had physical substance? That it touched your body, wrapped itself around you, suffocated you? No, reader, you don’t know what fear is until you experience it. You think I’m out of my mind, yes? I am, I told you so. But, you… you don’t know what madness is, until you pry your right to live every single day, not only from the world around you, but from your self. I’m exhausted. So tired. So very very tired.
Shhh! Keep quiet. Did you hear that? I think Raiders are nearby. No, I did not imagine it. It’s Raiders. Can’t you hear them? Raiders! It’s night outside, and they are coming in. Run! They’re inside!