Boo! It’s Halloween season! To celebrate the spookiest time of the year, we are sharing five tips from five masters of the horror genre, so you can learn how to scare the living bejeezus out of your readers.
Read on to find out Clive Barker’s, Stephen King’s and Thomas Harris’ methods of making stomachs sink.
H. P. Lovecraft
Famed for his cosmic horror, Lovecraft actually described his writing as Weird Fiction. People who study literature for a living bicker about the minutiae of the differences between these things, but they’re basically two names for the same thing. Here’s what Lovecraft has to say about writing in his genre:
“Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.”
Lovecraft’s preferred flavor of horror is making the reader feel insignificant in their wishes and desires. Within his writing, we leave the egotistical world where anything that matters to us people matters to the universe at large. Nothing that we know to be true — from axioms of societal structure to scientific truths — we can be sure of anymore. Now that’s scary.
The author of such books as The Hellbound Heart and The Thief of Always says that good horror explores the relationship between people and their desire:
“Horror fiction has traditionally dealt in taboo. It speaks of death, madness and transgression of moral and physical boundaries. It raises the dead to life and slaughters infants in their cribs; it makes monsters of household pets and begs our affection for psychos. It shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.”
“And to that list of taboos I now add another list: the forbidden sub-strata of sexuality.The obsessions with parts and people we keep in our private thoughts; the acts we dream of but dare not openly desire; the flesh we long to wear, the pains we yearn to endure or inflict in the name of love.”
The premise is that we fear what we want. Horror, according to Barker, tasks itself with exploring that desire and what prevents us from pursuing it. True horror begins when we learn that control over ourselves and what we want is shown to be unreliable, flimsy, and hollow.
R. L. Stine
The bestselling children’s horror author, with over 300 books released and over 400 million copies sold, definitely knows how to scare. The author of the Goosebumps and Fear Street series says that, when it comes to writing horror, it’s something you show know from experience:
“You just have to know it. I’ve been doing it for so long, and you just have to know it. I have one rule with this “scary kids” stuff, which is that kids have to know it’s a fantasy. They have to know it can’t really happen. And then once you do that, they have to know it’s not part of the real world. Because the real world is a creepy place for kids right now. For everybody. Once you do that, then you can do a lot and I feel like we’re OK. We’re not scaring them too badly.”
Stine stands out in his view that his writing should not expose his readers to the horrors of the world, but rather protect them from them. With him, it’s about knowing what line not to step over. In contrast to Clive Barker, Stine believes that playing with taboo is — well, taboo. Still, even without delving into the territory of gross-out ‘horror’, he manages to construct a good plot with solid scares.
Stephen King is possibly the most successful horror writer ever. His output is nothing short of prolific, and his fans span generations, class, and nationalities. Dismiss him for being pop all you like, horror writing with a broad appeal is worthy of appreciation and study, and anyone who writes genre fiction knows to look closely at writers who transcend their genre to reach readers outside it.
King’s broad appeal is due to using a broad number of techniques to horrify the reader, but one of the things that unifies all his stories is that characters are one on one with what terrifies them.
“…horror fiction is a cold touch in the midst of the familiar, and good horror fiction applies this cold touch with sudden, unexpected pressure. When we go home and shoot the bolt on the door, we like to think we’re locking trouble out. The good horror story about the Bad Place whispers that we are not locking the world out; we are locking ourselves in…with them.”
Since we necessarily empathize with characters we read about, we join them inside these scary, dark places, and the things that terrify them terrify us just as much.
It’s not widely known that Thomas Harris, author of The Silence of the Lambs, took inspiration for the character of Hannibal Lecter from a real-life man named Alfredo Ballí Treviño. He was a doctor sentenced to prison in Mexico for cutting up his victims and packaging them into small boxes. In his recollection of the events, Harris writes this:
“You must understand that when you are writing a novel you are not making anything up. It’s all there and you just have to find it.”
This is probably the most important lesson for writers of any genre to internalize. Horror is all around us, and most task themselves with hiding themselves from it. As a writer, your job is to explore the horror to its deepest levels, and shine a light to it for the whole world to see.