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Writing Spooky

Keep in mind when I write articles like these, I’m not offering advice, necessarily, I’m just communicating my own thoughts into the works of writing. Take it as advice if you like, but I’m just an ol’ hack, so you might be loster later than beforer…Anyway, let’s get to it.

Did you ever curl up with a scary book and find yourself peeking over your shoulder to make sure nothing’s lurking in the shadows? It’s one of the things that keeps me reading books, but it’s very, very rare. I’ve read horror from the best authors in the genre, but I rarely find a book that really creeps me out. 

Writing spooky fiction is more challenging, to me, than even writing action sequences. To get into a reader’s head and make them wary of the dark corners is tough, and sometimes we try to achieve it through overkill, by making the story overly gory. Keep in mind that often it’s the unseen that’s scariest; just telling someone you’re tearing off an arm and chewing the gristle with a blood spattered baby bib around your neck isn’t going to really scare anyone. It’ll gross them out, sure, but it won’t be spooky.

Movies have it easier.
Movies have an easier time of it, it seems, because of course they have the visual and auditory mediums to accentuate the story. Buy why does it seem so hard to get spooky fiction written down? In fiction, one would think, we’re not restricted by simple visual and auditory mediums. We’ve got the whole of the reader’s imagination to stimulate, right? One of the key ingredients is the same ingredient you’d use in any fiction piece: tension. The best horror sequences I’ve ever read didn’t benefit from grotesquery, but from the unknown, the behind-the-scenes mysteries that keep everyone on the edge of their seat, including the reader. 

Just compare The Legend of Sleepy Hollow the book to the various movie adaptations. In the book, you never actually see the Headless Horseman, you only hear of its legend. In the movie, generally, you’re going to get ol’ HH himself, galloping through the mist and chunkin punkins. Could a movie have been filmed without the HH? Sure, but that would have required a master stroke, and master strokes are rare birds and generally don’t make a lot of money.  

For example: The Shining. A creepy book as well as a creepy movie. But the movie was different from the book in many ways. Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance wasn’t really that good of a fit. Torrance was really just a regular-looking guy, a teacher-archetype from the New England states, who was slowly losing his mind and had a penchant for booze. Nicholson looked crazy from the get go, though, and in the film, it worked.

In the book, little Danny was hounded by the hedges, and in one particularly terrifying sequence, was running away from them, and every time he turned around they were a little closer, but he never actually saw them moving. The hedges played a pivotal role in the movie, as well, but in an entirely different way. They were more representations of the family’s isolation and fear. But in both applications it worked out very well. The movie business doesn’t benefit from the imagination of the audience as it does in fiction, so Kubrick adapted the story to fit what the audience could respond best to. 

Granted, there are times when one of those master stroke movies feeds the audience’s imagination, but with most movies, any thinking about what’s going on comes later. While the movie’s running, there’s too much sensory input to involve the imagination. Take the Blair Witch Project. What really made that movie a master stroke was the involvement of the audience’s imagination. The witch of the movie, the horrible horror out in the woods, was never actually seen at all. But the movie was no less scary for it. The movie incorporated tension and let you, the audience, imagine the horrors that lurked. Jaws was the same way; although you did get to see the shark, it didn’t come until later, and by that time you were already freaked out about it. 

But back to fiction…
So how do I, as a writer, get that level of tension in my own stories? Well, we’ve got to learn first to separate horror from humor. Sometimes horror can be funnier than we want it to be. It can be a nice break for the reader when you incorporate some humorous elements into the story, but why would we want to cut them any slack? We want them crapping their pants and sleeping with the light on. We don’t want them comfortably chuckling as they take off their glasses, put the book on the nightstand and turn out the light, going softly to sleep thinking cheerful, funny thoughts. 

For instance, refer back to the short sentence I wrote above, about chewing the arm gristle with a baby bib around your neck. That’s humor, not horror. It may not be very good humor, but you get the idea. For it to be horrible, the main thing we need is to be able to connect with the character whose arm is being chewed, be able to visualize the monster that’d doing the chewing, and forget about the bib altogether. Nothing funny. No humor. Immerse them in fear. Tangle their hair with rats nests and grind their nails to the quick with naked stone. Keep their hearts pounding with the tension that never abates, that only builds and grows. Write to the beat of a different drum, one that only sounds with regular, booming bass: Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Make them feel it. 

Sounds easy when you put it like that, doesn’t it? I know, me too. But here’s the point of this rambling article: I don’t think there’s much good horror being written right now. I ready Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, and it was pretty good, but in recent memory I can’t remember a book that really got me creeped out. It may be that the public doesn’t want it right now, or it could be that publishers are playing it safe and staying away from the really high-tension stuff. But I think the public does want it, and it may just be that it’s a genre worth exploiting.

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