Posts Tagged ‘lovecraft’

Remember this quote? 

I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.

That was Stephen King, famously, in Danse Macabre. And he’s right, of course. Terror is the finest emotion we could snatch from our readers (at least it is if that’s your goal starting out). But do you know the difference between terror and horror? Recently, I wrote about writing spooky fiction, something, it seems, that a lot of writers have a problem doing, and I base that solely on the fact that there’s very little fiction out there right now that’ll really give you the willies. But is terror, that grand emotion, really even achievable at all? 

Well, because terror is the heart of true fright, I’d say that if you’re writing something for the purposes of being scary or spooky, terror should at least be at the heart of what you’re trying to put to paper (Maybe they should have called the genre “terror,” eh?). But the sad fact is that in fiction, true terror is pretty much impossible to achieve. Unless you manage to make a rusty scalpel leap off the page and give the reader a good nick, that is. Because terror is that primal emotion that we experience when something really, really bad is about to happen to us personally. You just can’t capture that with words, you can’t convey that emotion; sure, you can give somebody a thrill of excitement, you can even make them wary of the dark (if you’re really good), but to achieve terror in a reader is practically impossible.

If that guy with the mask and the chainsaw began walking your way, and you couldn’t get away, the sensation you’d most likely be experiencing is terror. And in a circumstance like that, it’s one of the purest emotions there is. You won’t find anyone’s mind wandering when they’re in the throes of terror, no, they’ll be focused on one thing and one thing only (probably escape). So, bearing that in mind, terror is probably a sensation you’d want to avoid handing to your readers, right? I mean, why would you want anyone to experience a prolonged sensation of what I’ll call Hacking Death Syndrome (without the hacking). And if you did, would there be any chance they’d ever read you again? It actually sounds like the plotline of a horror novel, now that I think of it: A book that the reader cannot put down (literally), in which is written things of such an arcane and bizarre nature that the reader screams himself to death while reading it. (Hm. But that sounds too funny to be horror. Can you imagine someone screaming non-stop while reading a four-hundred page book on the toilet? Hold on, I got the giggles).

So anyway: Terror. Terrorists want us to feel it, right? But did terrorists call themselves terrorists or did some spook in DC come up with the term? I think the latter. Probably a politician. But I don’t see many terrorists crying out about political correctness when we refer to them as terrorists. They seem okay with that moniker, as if, you know, that’s what their job is. But then I don’t really know; it’s not like I have a terrorist focus group handy for a quick Q&A session. But my thoughts are that, as a terrorist wakes up to face the day, his thought process is probably something like:

I think I’ll do some terror this morning, then lunch, and later some more terror. And tonight we make sweet love. Tomorrow is all about the terror again though. Falafel?

If only terrorists had to work their terror schemes on sheets of paper instead of in gunpowder and bombs, it’d be a lot harder to terrorize people. Because even the masters have a hard time of it when it comes to feeding terror to a reader.

In the end, horror, it turns out, is aptly named after all. Some of the scariest fiction I’ve ever read was written by Edgar Allan Poe, but not even that could terrorize me. And let’s not forget Lovecraft. King’s written some pretty scary stuff, too. All I have to do is look at the cover of Cujo and I want to put the book in the freezer (that’s what we do with disturbing books in my house. We leave it there until we’re ready to read it again). But really, it’s not terror at all. It is horror, because we’re looking at it as something that happens to someone else. When fiction scares us, we’re horrified because of what’s happening to those people in the story, who, as circumstance would have it, are experiencing terror. If those things that happen to them in the story were happening to us…then we would understand terror. But you can’t convey that with fiction.  

So, on to horror, which is what we experience when we see someone else’s terror. By writing horror, we’d of course prefer to terrify the reader, difficult as that is, but at the very least we’d want to horrify them. Make them feel the pain of the protagonists experiences, let them inside of the primary fear. If they can somehow come to experience some of that fear themselves on a somewhat personal level, congrats! You’ve just escalated into terror, and you’ve done a Great Job. 

So, in today’s lesson, we’ve learned that the goal is to terrify the reader but, failing that, to at least horrify. Pin pricks and beads of sweat and nervous giggles and diverted glances and creaking doorways and dark corridors and DAMN WAS THAT A BIG FRIKKIN SPIDER…oh. Sorry. <evil grin>I’m happiest when I’m writing spooky stuff</grin>. 

But anything we write can only be false reality. True terror, without that rusty scalpel or big frikkin spider is pretty much impossible to achieve in fiction. Sometimes horror is achievable, especially if you’ve somehow managed to get the reader invested in the words, but terror is what it is for a reason. To be in terror means your life is probably in imminent jeopardy, in which case, you’re probably not reading a book. So, it’s the impossible dream, to write a piece of fiction that’s truly terrifying. You might give me the willies, creep or spook me out, I may feel fear in the pit of my stomach and be horrified at the experiences of the protagonist, but all that really boils down to is…nerves. Tension. If you add a little tension to a story with macabre circumstances, it might be easy for you to make them think they were in terror. That’s where it really gets fun.

In the end, terrorists are terrorists because they inflict pain and fear and horror on people using physical, life-ending methods. So we, as writers of horror fiction, can never truly be terrorists. We are horrorists.


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