“What the Hell is That?”
Writing Contemporary Horror Fiction
A friend of mine tells the story of when he was ten years old and lying in bed. He was having trouble sleeping, and so tossed and turned well into the deep redeye hour, that time when, regardless of location, the primal country of our ancestors seems most palpable. As he finally started to drift off, he felt a tug on the sheet, then heard a voice (“Gruff,” he explains, “like a grown man”) whisper harshly into his ear, “Scoot over!”
Sleep never came that night, and, whether ghostly or imagined, the cold-fingered memory still grips his spine.
Or take my younger years. One Christmas Eve, after watching the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol, I sat in bed, wide awake. I’m sure I was joined by millions of others my age, but it wasn’t the anticipation of presents keeping me up. It was the damn Ghost of Christmas Future, who I expected any moment to come drifting down the hallway to my room. I wanted to close my eyes, but was too afraid I wouldn’t see him coming, and so would snap awake to a tall robed figure looming bedside, pointing its long skeletal index finger at me.
It’s difficult for me to believe that one can write truly effective horror — horror that feels organic, new and authentic — without some variation of this wonderful “fright gene”. And while many kids get scared, I’d venture to guess it’s a minority that actually craves such experiences, and would as an adult classify them as ‘wonderful’. They’re frightening at the same time they’re uplifting, texturing the world in rich, noble insanity. I still have them, too, to some degree. They’re baked into the cake. For whatever reason, my brain works often in perverse entertainment to unnerve itself, like when I like awake in the dark, on my side, and think, “I’m alone right now. What would happen if I felt a light tap on my shoulder?”
This gusto for goosebumps, this knack for nightmare, is, I believe, a formative and fundamental part of writing good horror fiction, fiction that is borne of an innate, ongoing process, and not just relegated to Halloween. Such a mindset also encourages originality, because for you the tropes and stock creatures and boardroom frights have come and gone, and you’re out scouring murkier fathoms.
By no means am I insinuating that horror writers belong to some exclusive club that asks potential members to list their childhood terrors for approval. I’m merely saying it helps incalculably if that hungry fascination, both celebrated and unsettling, runs in your DNA.
Take a novelist acquaintance of mine. For years she wrote romance and erotic fiction. Successfully, I might add. But one day she became interested in trying horror, “because it always sells”. I was skeptical — I thought she should no more write horror than I should romance. But hey, I’m open-minded (truly I am), so my reply never went beyond a nod and some words of wooden encouragement.
Her result, while well-written and passable, was largely what I expected: a paint-by-numbers retread of typical genre fare. She didn’t have it in her blood, nor had she sopped up enough of the genre to know what was overrun and what awaited better exploration. Her approach was artificial, mechanical (not helped by the dollar signs in her eyes). I’d seen such things as hers, and had yawned past them. And yet, decades-old work by the greats, which I’ve read and re-read, continue to chill. Stephen King said horror must regularly renew itself, or die. H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson and Clive Barker are some of last century’s revitalizing visionaries. Who’s holding the defibrillators this century? Why not you?
We’ve all heard the mantra that the heart of horror is fear of the unknown. Increasingly, however, that truism is more acknowledged than executed. Since the 1980s publishing bust, when oversaturation proved the genre’s downfall, horror has limped on, like a transient ambling down the road, pitied by faces watching from curtains of snug homes. Dark Fantasy took it in, as has Paranormal. YA has sucked up some of it. It’s been broken down and mixed in with other genres. This is partly why we’ve seen the resurgence of tropes like vampires, werewolves and zombies, all of which hardly represent “the unknown”, not any longer. They’re well known, and so, in this author’s opinion, not very scary.
Some of the best inspiration for those looking to break this rut can be found not necessarily in mainstream books but in the thousands of utterly bizarre reports posted everyday in archives and message boards of websites catered towards strange phenomena. Even documentary-style TV shows like Paranormal Witness can offer up good fodder. Whether you believe these people or not, it’s for sure that nothing can be as weird as reality. And I don’t just mean Victorian-garbed girls fading into thin air, or Sasquatch strutting through the brush. Consider the following example of a man who, while living in the jungles of Hawaii, was invited to dinner by a neighboring couple, Tom and Anne, whom he’d always considered nice, but odd. He goes on to explain:
“One night …. I was over at their house as usual and was sitting at the table having some food and conversation. I was eating, looking down at my plate. Tom and Ann were saying something. All of a sudden, like a switch went off, they stopped talking in mid sentence. I looked up from my plate, across the table at Tom and Ann next to him and I saw them there, as if frozen in time. Their mouths wide open with their eyes and their mouth’s completely black. And I don’t mean normal black. I mean a deep, empty black. Blacker than any black you’ve ever seen your life. Almost like another dimensional black. Their mouths as black as their eyes. You could feel the black (if that makes any sense).
I was immediately struck with a sense of fear. As I stood up and looked at them, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I wasn’t high, I wasn’t drinking, I was just seeing something that I couldn’t understand. I contemplated running through that dark jungle full of fear to get home. When everything returned to normal, like a light switch turned back on, as if nothing happened at all.”
There’s another report in England of a couple encountering, early in the morning, what they called a “stickman”, a flat, silhouetted humanoid they compared to the logo on the door of a Men’s public restroom. It’d been “lolly-hopping”, was their term, until it stopped, realizing they could see it.
Those are just two of an infinite number of examples. I bring these up not to revel in weirdness, but to suggest how deep and dark those unexplored fathoms can be. So grab a flashlight! And of course, while I tend towards the supernatural, or extraordinary, keep in mind horror does not have to be physically inexplicable, though it does involve something inexplicable, like the who or why of the creepy (and very earthly) home invaders in the underrated film The Strangers.
Most really good horror fiction also, for me, is like a solar system. In the center pulses the Central Big Idea or Image, which nourishes the smaller ones orbiting it. Of course, this can be seen in other genres (notably theme-layered literary fiction), but I feel it’s particularly significant with horror. It’s usually the image or idea that starts the juices flowing, that spools out the rest of the story. It’s the image that, when successfully realized, will survive in your reader’s minds (and dreams) long after the closing passage. Think of The Shining, for instance, and you think of a murderous father pursuing his wife and son.
My forthcoming horror novel The Prince of Earth began with the image of a young woman injured and alone atop a misty mountain in the middle of the Scottish Highlands, where she is plagued by a malevolent force. To me, it was a powerful aesthetic vision, and the progenitor of all else that came after it. And this image wasn’t attached to any specific idea. Oftentimes, the idea, or ideas, are built into the image, and it’s your job to decode them and discover them, unearthing the morbid delights in that visual package.
If it’s not entirely obvious, I’m not a big outliner. I realize this is subjective, and in all fairness I have been known to what I call “micro-outline” a certain section or chapter I’m having trouble with. Every writer should do what they feel works for them. But when it comes to horror, a genre that relies on suspense, surprise, underlying trepidation of what’s around the corner, I’m mildly suspicious of outlining. If you as the author are the first to take the journey of your story, unsure yourself what lurks out there (or within), that shows in the result. It gives the book a heartbeat, a greater sense of intrigue, doubt and wonder. If the tale is more or less composed as a “Fill in the Blanks with Scare A, B, C”, or a connect-the-dots exercise, it tends to dilute the reading experience.
And, of course, if your Big Image proves too big for an outline, it may just break its cage, maul your mind and tell you other ways of doing things. And wouldn’t that also be a wonderful experience?
Mike Robinson has been writing since age 7, when his story Aliens In My Backyard! became a runaway bestseller, topping international charts (or maybe that was also just a product of his imagination). He has since published fiction in a dozen magazines, literary anthologies and podcasts. His debut novel, Skunk Ape Semester, released by Solstice Publishing, was a Finalist in the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
Currently he’s the managing editor of Literary Landscapes, the official magazine of the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society (glaws.org). His supernatural horror/mystery novel The Green-Eyed Monster is now available from Curiosity Quills Press, as is his psychological horror novel The Prince of Earth. His next novel, Negative Space, a quasi-follow-up to The Green-Eyed Monster, debuts August 17th, 2013.
Link to Mike Robinson’s Author Page: