Statutory disclaimer: This is not meant as a tutorial on writing. Whereas I believe I am a competent writer, I do not believe writing can be taught; creative writing courses and tutorials, in my considered opinion, are useless at best and more often actually harmful to any genuine talent. I took one such course and quit after lesson three; it was the best thing I ever did as far as my writing is concerned.
So, this is not meant as a tutorial on how to write, nor am I making any statement which is not the product of my own thought processes and beliefs. All I am doing is discussing a particular genre of writing, and my own reflections on it. That’s all.
Those of you who have been reading me for some time are aware that a substantial part of my writing comprises what is normally called “horror fiction”.
But what is “horror” fiction?
This is one of those terms hard to define because what constitutes “horror” for one person may mean nothing to another. However, since we’re on the topic, let’s try and establish the parameters for discussion. As is usual in these cases, it’s possible to define what horror fiction is only by marking out what it isn’t. As Arthur C Clarke said in Clarke’s Second Law, the limits of the possible are only defined by pushing beyond them into the clearly impossible.
So, these are the limits I’ll set up for the purpose of this discussion; these are the red lines beyond which horror ceases to be horror.
The boundaries of the horror story:
A horror story doesn’t necessarily involve the “supernatural/paranormal”. In fact, I’d say ghosts, spooks, ESP, people who are capable of starting fires with one’s mind, and the like do not have a space in horror fiction and should occupy a separate genre of their own. I’ll go into the reasons in a minute.
A horror story isn’t necessarily conventionally “scary”. The kind of scares offered by a “haunted house” exhibit isn’t horror any more than a roller coaster ride is horrifying. These are thrills, knowingly indulged in for the pleasure they bring – the vicarious pleasure of being scared while one knows one is in no danger. And, like any other passing pleasure, once they’re over, they’re forgotten. In the course of this article I’ll be talking of what horror fiction should be able to achieve.
Zombies, werewolves, vampires and the like have no place in horror fiction. I’m not knocking creatures of the night; I’ve written on them myself, and will be discussing my own handling of them in the course of this article. They have a long and respectable history in fiction, even though they’ve become sadly diluted for the market in recent days (I shouldn’t really include zombies in that; my contempt for the George Romero type zombie genre is absolute). However, like the paranormal genre I’ve mentioned above, they are strictly imaginary entities, and the normal, sane reader will never forget the fact that they are imaginary entities. Ergo, any scare they provide can only be of the vicarious type, which I’ve just characterised as entertainment only, and therefore not part of horror fiction.
Just now I said that vicarious scares are entertainment only. By that I mean that horror fiction is entertainment too – after all, the purpose of fiction has been entertainment as well as education, right from the time when the first tribal storytellers began weaving their tales round prehistoric campfires. But if something’s going to be horrifying, as opposed to merely scare-for-thrills, it should stay with you after you finish reading it. It should make you think, and it should make you remember it afterwards.
That is what, then, my litmus test for a horror story is: that it stays in the mind.
What constitutes a good horror story:
Now that we’ve roughed out a definition of horror fiction, it’s time we discussed what makes a good horror story, because like any other genre, there are all kinds of horror tales out there, from the excellent to the execrable. Before I go into the particulars, it’s probably time to take a look at one of the greatest.
The best pure horror story I’ve ever come across is also the shortest, and goes like this:
You wake in the dark with the feeling that there’s something in the room with you. You reach out for the matches to reassure yourself, and quite simply and silently the box is placed in your hand.
It’s such a perfect gem because it’s got every one of the ingredients of true horror fiction.
First, and most important, it leaves it to the reader to use his or her imagination. The best scares of all are those the individual person’s imagination conjures up; description immediately leads to a loss of impact. Think about lying in bed in a dark room, watching the outlines of a strange shadow, wondering what it is; and compare that with a detailed description of some aged ghoul with straggling hair and spiky teeth. Which, to any person of imagination, is more frightening?
It is true, of course, that there are people who prefer not to use imagination; these are the people who prefer to have everything written out for them, step by excruciating step. You find them in great numbers on the zombie forums, for instance. But these people are not discerning horror readers, and we can dismiss them as not being germane to a discussion of this nature.
In the tiny story I’ve put up above, the real thrust lies in the uncertainty of the nature of the thing in the dark. It, evidently, can not only see in the darkness – it wants you to see it. Immediately, seeing it becomes a very bad idea; but can remaining in the dark, knowing it is in the room, be any better? Can the reader (you) make a choice?
And that leads to the second, almost as important marker of a good horror story: its capacity to disturb. The next time you wake in the night, will you remember the tale and hesitate, even if for just a moment, to turn on the light – just in case something is lurking there, something so horrible that it wants you to see it? If you do, if you hesitate even for a moment, if you feel a shiver travelling down your spine, then the author’s done his job. A good horror tale can’t be put aside after it’s read, and forgotten. It gets its hooks into you, and never completely lets you go.
Third, it doesn’t go into too many explanations or background. In this story you don’t have to know why you woke, or what woke you, or why you feel there’s something in the room, how it might have got in, or what it might be. Imagine if the author had said that a werewolf had been prowling the city in recent months, and a distant howl woke you, and you smelt a strange rank odour. Would the impact of the story be anything like as severe?
Remember this: you don’t need to know the circumstances in advance, or the build-up to the situation in too much detail, if it’s going to stay horror. If you have a serial killer in your story, and you begin expositing on how he became a serial killer, what made him the monster he is, you no longer have a monster; you end up having a sympathetic character, an anti-hero. That’s fine, actually – that’s a kind of story I personally delight in writing, where I try and put myself inside the heads of Nazi concentration camp guards or murderous African civil war generals. It’s fine, and I know of few better tests of one’s imaginative powers and writing skills, but it’s not horror fiction.
As an illustration, think about two of Thomas Harris’ books (the books, dammit, not the – gah! – films) featuring Dr Hannibal Lecter. In The Silence Of The Lambs, he’s a genuinely disturbing figure, a cannibalistic murderer of unfathomable intelligence who doesn’t need to be “dissected”, as he puts it; he is what he is, without apology to anyone. In its sequel Hannibal, all that mystique is thrown right out of the window along with the corpse of one of his victims. The book’s crammed with endless details of his past life and what made him what he was. With that came a level of vulnerability that the Lecter of Silence never would have had; and instead of fearing Lecter, we root for him all the way. Not a good idea at all, if you’re writing horror.
Fourth, there is no blood splashing around or excessive violence. Personally, I find excess violence a complete and absolute turn-off. Yes, there’s a time and place for gore and violence, but an endless repetition becomes merely numbing. Violence for the sake of violence is a marker of one of two things: a failure of imagination on the part of the author, who uses it as a filler; or else immaturity on the part of the target audience. As I've discussed here, I consider the George Romero-style zombie genre to be the most immature of all fiction aimed at an adult readership, and I find it no surprise that it’s filled with repetitive and excessive violence; both from the writers, who tend to stick to a very constrictive formula of guns and profanity, and from the readership, who demand nothing else.
Once again, as a comparison, we should take a look at the two Lecter books I mentioned. Silence has its share of violence, but it’s almost entirely off-screen, so to speak, and the book does not suffer for it. In Hannibal, the violence is crude (to the extent – spoiler alert! – of eating a live person’s brain and feeding it to him) and overt throughout. Long before the last chapter, the average reader’s thoroughly turned off, and more likely than not is skipping through the violent passages; and any book which turns off its readership fails miserably.
Fifthly, there’s no overwriting. This is something which irritates me no end, to be quite frank – the author who doesn’t know when to quit. One of the features of good writing – in any genre – is to know when to stop. That’s the primary reason for my deep disdain for Stephen King; his relentless, flamboyant overwriting. Have you read Christine? If you have, did you think it a good idea to bring in the car’s ghostly owner at the end, when the car was doing fine by itself at causing mayhem? This story says just as much as it needs to say, and then stops.
These are the five points of a good horror story illustrated by the little tale I mentioned, but I’ll now add a couple more. Admittedly, these are completely subjective; they work for me, but they may not work for you.
The first of these additional points involves what I find disturbing. As I said, the touchstone of horror is its capacity to disturb; and while I am not at all disturbed by orcs or goblins or undead monstrosities from beyond the grave, I am disturbed, and deeply so, by human beings. The reader who’s familiar with my kind of horror fiction will notice that in them, humans are the source of horror. If any goblins, zombies, vampires or trolls happen to feature in my tales, they are most likely protagonists, and the reader is encouraged to sympathise with them. As we all know, humans exist, and can be almost preternaturally dangerous, in ways hardly imaginable.
Have you ever heard of Armin Meiwes? You might know him better as the Rotenburg Cannibal, a man who advertised on the net for a victim willing to be eaten – and found one. Which is more frightening, a fictional flesh-eating creature, or a very non-fictional human who’s capable of the kind of things Meiwes did, and filmed himself doing?
The second of the things I find disturbing is mental illness used as a plot point in horror fiction. After all, our own minds are closer to us than anything else, and the one thing we can’t defend ourselves against. One can shut oneself in an armoured room and never go out. One can seal oneself inside a sterile bubble for life, assuming one has the finances available. But one can’t defend oneself against insanity, other peoples’...or one’s own.
This is why Poe, in his less baroque moments, was such a great writer. It’s all about psychological horror, and that’s the most disturbing kind of horror there is.
So, that’s what I aim for when I write – a story that will stick with you. I don’t really care if you thrilled to it or found it scary; but if you lay sleepless in the night thinking of the implications of what you read, then my job’s been done.
I’ll close this article with one of my own stories, an old one (I wrote it way back in 2006) but one in which, in retrospect, I find I tried to use all my own precepts of horror fiction. Here it is for you to enjoy, or not; just as you like:
The kitchen is almost dark. Only a ray of light sneaks in through the small ventilator, a blend of streetlamps and a waning moon.
The cockroach is almost black. No highlights gleam on its shell. It is large, and in the near-darkness the patch on its carapace shows a pale grey.
The cockroach scurries out from behind the door. It pauses, Poised on its six capable legs, its long antennae flicking around, tasting the air. Appearing to make up whatever passes for its mind, it darts purposefully towards the kitchen table. Skirting the table leg, it scuttles across the floor toward the small cabinet under the sink. Squeezing with some difficulty through the crack under the cabinet door, it hesitates again, then heads for the plastic garbage pail. The tiny scraps of yesterday’s refuse that cling to the outside of the pail make it easy for the insect to climb the sheer side. The lid of the pail is a little ajar, and the cockroach slips inside.
Running rapidly down the inside of the pail, the cockroach passes – and ignores – a polythene bread wrapper, some pungent onion peel, and a crumpled toothpaste tube. And then, at the bottom of the bucket, it seems to have found what it was seeking, for it squats over a little pool of a tarry substance that might have been dark red had there been light to see it by. Small motions of the mandibles convey little portions of the substance to the creature’s mouth. After a little while, the cockroach moves again, tentatively, following more dribs and drabs of the tarry substance till at last they lead it to their source, the half-denuded skull the sitter had thrown there after she had eaten the rest of the baby.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012