25 Things You Should Know About Writing Horror
I grew up on horror fiction. Used to eat it up with a spoon. These days, not so much, but only I suspect because the horror releases just aren’t coming as fast and furious as they once did.
But really, the novels I have coming out so far are all, in their own way, horror novels. DOUBLE DEAD takes place in a zombie-fucked America with its protagonist being a genuinely monstrous vampire. BLACKBIRDS and MOCKINGBIRD feature a girl who can touch you and see how and when you’re going to die and then presents her with very few ways to do anything about it. Both are occasionally grisly and each puts to task a certain existential fear that horror does particularly well, asking who the hell are we, exactly?
And so it feels like a good time — with Halloween approaching, with DOUBLE DEAD in November and me writing MOCKINGBIRD at present — to visit the subject of writing horror.
None of this is meant to be hard and firm in terms of providing answers and advice. These are the things I think about writing horror. Good or bad. Right or wrong.
Peruse it. Add your own thoughts to the horror heap. And as always, enjoy.
1. At The Heart Of Every Tale, A Squirming Knot Of Worms
Every story is, in its tiny way, a horror story. Horror is about fear and tragedy, and whether or not one is capable of overcoming those things. It’s not all about severed heads or blood-glutton vampires. It’s an existential thing, a tragic thing, and somewhere in every story this dark heart beats. You feel horror when John McClane sees he’s got to cross over a floor of broken glass in his bare feet. We feel the fear of Harry and Sally, a fear that they’re going to ruin what they have by getting too close or by not getting too close, a fear that’s multiplied by knowing you’re growing older and have nobody to love you. In the Snooki book, we experience revulsion as we see Snooki bed countless bodybuilders and gym-sluts, her alien syphilis fast degrading their bodies until soon she can use their marrowless bones as straws with which to slurp up her latest Windex-colored drink. *insert Hannibal Lecter noise here*
2. Sing The Ululating Goat Song
Horror is best when it’s about tragedy in its truest and most theatrical form: tragedy is born through character flaws, through bad choices, through grave missteps. When the girl in the horror movie goes to investigate the creepy noise rather than turn and flee like a motherfucker, that’s a micro-moment of tragedy. We know that’s a bad goddamn decision and yet she does it. It is her downfall — possibly literally, as the slasher tosses her down an elevator shaft where she’s then impaled on a bunch of fixed spear-points or something. Sidenote: the original translation of tragedy is “goat song.” So, whenever you’re writing horror, just say, “I’M WRITING ANOTHER GOAT SONG, MOTHER.” And the person will be like, “I’m not your mother. It’s me, Steve.” And you just bleat and scream.
3. Horror’s Been In Our Heart For A Long Time
From Beowulf to Nathaniel Hawthorne, from Greek myth to Horace Walpole, horror’s been around for a long, long time. Everything’s all crushed bodies and extracted tongues and doom and devils and demi-gods. This is our literary legacy: the flower-bed of our fiction is seeded with these kernels of horror and watered with gallons of blood and a sprinkling of tears. Horror is part of our narrative make-up.
4. Look To Ghost Stories And Urban Legends
You want to see the simplest heart of horror, you could do worse than by dissecting ghost stories and urban legends: two types of tale we tell even as young deviants and miscreants. They contain many of the elements that make horror what it is: subversion, admonition, fear of the unknown.
5. We’re All Afraid Of The Dark
We fear the unknown because we fear the dark. We fear the dark because we’re biologically programmed to do so: at some point we gain the awareness that outside the light of our fire lurks — well, who fucking knows? Sabretooth tigers. Serial killers. The Octomom. Horror often operates best when it plays off this core notion that the unknown is a far freakier quantity than the known. The more we know the less frightening it becomes. Lovecraft is like a really advanced version of this. Our sanity is the firelight, and beyond it lurks not sabretooth tigers but a whole giant squirming seething pantheon of madness whose very existence is too much for mortal man’s mind to parse.