Today was a busy day at work, and I had to work through lunch–meaning I haven’t had time to put together a decent post. So I’m going to write up a quickie on a topic I’ve been sitting on for just such an occasion: what makes good horror literature.
First, a story: The Outsider, by H. P. Lovecraft. This is probably my favourite horror story, and it serves as a great example of the point I’m trying to make today. Go ahead, give it a read. I’ll wait.
Okay. The first thing you note about this story is the way it builds–and Lovecraft is a master at this kind of tension. You’ve got the whole story figured out right from the beginning paragraph–or so you think–and so the description and the action can appear a bit tedious. But the more you read, the more “off” everything feels. He drops hints here and there as to what’s really going on, while at the same time putting more and more of a veil over what you think you’ve figured out.
Then there’s the ending. At this point, you’ve probably understood what’s actually going on, but you can’t stop yourself–it’s like rolling down a hill with the break line cut, going fast and faster until you drive off the pier at the end.
And that is what good horror should be.
And, although I can’t claim to have mastered this myself yet, here’s the secret to writing good horror fiction: don’t work too hard. Let the reader do most of the work for you. Get them all worked up. Give them hints, but not too much; give them direction and plot, but leave just enough open that they have to do some thinking. And I don’t mean you should set up a mystery they should be trying to figure out: literally leave out certain details, don’t explain certain things.
A lot of writers are going to say that’s a cardinal sin, but I’ll stand by it. Think of the movie Alien. The whole reason it was scary was because you didn’t see the alien until it was too late. In the meantime, you see people’s horrified reactions, hear them panting as they run through the halls escaping it. And, most importantly: you’re making up your own alien to fit the stimuli.
Writing horror literature is about trusting the reader. You want them to follow along with your story and fill in the blanks, because–and trust me on this–anything the reader comes up with in their own mind is going to be infinitely more frightening than whatever you could come up with. And that’s not because you’re not a good writer–it’s because they know what scares them most. You don’t know that. You’ve probably never met your readers; how are you supposed to know what scares them? They know they’re reading a scary story, so they’ll fill in details with things they find scary. And half your work is done for you.
Okay, okay. I know it’s not really that simple. But it’s a start. And it’s a load off. I think a lot of writers and move makers try so hard to scare their audience that they fall on tired old tropes and ideas that nobody finds scary anymore. The first Friday the 13th was awesome because you’d never have guessed who the bad guy is; by Jason X (or, affectionately, Jason in Space) there’s nothing left to be scared of, so the director has to fill the movie with special effects and tons of gore.
And this is why Lovecraft is always going to be my favourite horror writer. His stories baffle me, complete and utterly. The things he describes have no meaning in this world–most of his characters literally go insane when they confront these things–but that means I can make them up myself. I follow his lead, of course, and every time I re-read a story I know exactly what’s going to happen.
But because I’m the one filling in the blanks, it happens differently every time. And he always gets me.