Horror novels are simple, right? Just read the ones that are out there.
No, wait. That’s not the right way to do it. Horror novels are exactly the same as other novels. That means there’s always a danger of repeating what has happened before. I’ll do you one better: it’s virtually impossible not to repeat what has happened in the past. The catch is to make it your novel, not Dean R. Koontz’s or Stephen King’s. Was that a little nervous jump? Maybe a guilty look around the room?
What would X do?
Let’s be honest about this, shall we? Everyone looks to their favorites and, deliberately or not, they ask themselves What would X do? If you’re writing high fantasy and you aren’t looking at what C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien did before, you are either extremely confident in your sense of knowledge when it comes to fantasy, or you are dangerously naïve. Maybe both. Crime and suspense? Raymond Chandler, James Lee Burke and Walter Mosley at the very least. Mysteries? Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie are the bare minimums you should be considering. My point is, research and knowledge of any field is your friend. The names I’ve offered up aren’t even enough to be the primer in any of the aforementioned genres.
If you think I’m wrong then consider the following notion. An architect who does not study the successful structures that have gone before is going to make massive mistakes. Sometimes screamingly fatal errors. Want to create a massive stone structure to house hundreds and hundreds of people who wish to share their worship of the Lord Almighty? You could do worse than examining the blueprints for Notre Dame’s cathedral or St. Paul’s in London. Are they the only ones that exist? Not even close, but they are magnificent and they have stood the test of time.
I’m not saying that research is the key to every possible error. I’m saying it’s a starting point.
Now let’s move on to a few other areas where most of us can use a little caution and consideration.
The wonderful world of suspense
Call it dread, call it fear, or call it a bad case of the shivers. Whatever you call it, especially in the horror genre, suspense is key. A palpable atmosphere of tension is your friend and one you can build if you do things the right way. First, try to avoid the tropes. Which tropes? All of them. Okay, I’m being vague, so let me clarify a bit. Not as fun for me, but hopefully useful to you, the reader. Simply put, you’re not likely to top Bram Stoker’s Dracula when it comes to vampires, but the tricks that worked for Stoker aren’t likely to carry over as well in a modern retelling.
The pervasive sexual repression of Victorian England is not as common today. There might be very small clusters of society that would prove me wrong, but they are not the norm by any standards. If you tried writing a period piece on vampires, you very likely could have some fun, but the reason Dracula remains a classic is because it was very well told and captured the era better than all of your research is likely to manage. Doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but you should definitely be aware of what came before your efforts, which brings us back to research.
What kind of atmosphere works? The same sort that always did, but you have to make it your own. In the modern era things are different. It’s exactly that simple. You can either ignore the changes at your own peril or you can embrace them.
A small aside here: Author Fred Saberhagen did a series of novels starting with The Dracula Tape, that beautifully went over Dracula’s perspective on the entire series of events on the novel by Stoker and clarified all that was wrong with the science of the novel. By the time he was done, Dracula was actually the hero of the story, and it worked. It worked because the details of the era and the blunders made by the heroes who were unaware of the changes science and the facts it eventually showed us, were working with Stoker’s thoroughly researched but sadly not fully understood changes in scientific theory and practice. If you don’t think cutting-edge science was a substantial aspect of Stoker’s novel, by the way, you should go read it again. Blood transfusions, anyone? They are commonplace today, but back then they were more theory than actual practice.
The world changes
Back to the matter at hand, writing Dracula today would not work, except as a period piece. Stephen King got close with ‘Salem’s Lot, but even that is now a touch dated by today’s technological standards, and if you don’t think technology changes the rules on a book you have not been paying attention. I’ve heard any number of authors grumbling about cell phones and how they’re a game changer. It’s hard to worry about being alone and isolated when you can dial 9-1-1 from almost anywhere. I disagree; it’s just more of a challenge than it used to be. The world changes and authors must adapt.
Some tropes are universal and will almost always work for you. First, Vulnerability. Everyone feels vulnerable, except for fools. Walk an alleyway at three in the afternoon when there are shoppers all over the surrounding streets and the kids are either out of school or almost ready to be out, and that alleyway might be a little dirty and disgusting, but it’s not really anything for most people to be afraid of. Walk that exactly same alleyway at two in the morning, when the closest light source is a street lamp that’s flickering and happens to be two blocks away and see if it feels the same to you. There are shadows everywhere. There are noises that cannot be easily defined. Was that scrabbling noise a mouse? The wind? A rat, or something much, much worse? It all changes when you can’t see what is making a disturbing sound. Worse, sometimes the familiar sounds are suddenly menacing. Is that your footsteps echoing off the brick walls? Or is someone following you? Is the breeze pushing a plastic bag along the dirty, water-soaked alleyway? Or is someone whispering?
You have five senses. So do most of your characters. There are always exceptions. There are authors out there who remember that better than most and play on those senses as a skillfully as a master pianist plays a concerto. The glory of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is that remarkably little actually happens, or at least little happens “on screen.” A noise in the wall, someone or something hammering at the closed door as a couple of characters are in bed and talking about the possibility of ghosts. Jackson’s ability to create monstrous tension and atmosphere is what makes that novel a legend in the field of horror. In all cases the gift of Ms. Jackson was her ability to evoke empathy with the characters and then exploit that empathy. The characters are exposed. They are vulnerable, and because of the deep empathy brought about by the author’s words, we are exposed and vulnerable.
Location, location, location
Want to know why so many horror writers use a small town setting? My belief is because the author can better control every aspect with a small town than they can with a major city, like Manhattan. There are exceptions, of course. New Orleans leaps to mind. That place is as atmospheric as any place could ever be, from cemeteries to bad weather, dark alleys, mildew and a pervasive history of bad things happening, New Orleans is party city for a lot of writers. Also, Anne Rice brought the city to lavish life with her Interview With The Vampire and following Vampire Chronicles books. Ms. Rice is another example of an author who took an old trope—in this case vampires—and breathed new life into that particular revenant. Though her vampire saga is rife with sexual repression and tension it is not the same sort that Stoker employed in Dracula, which makes a major difference in a very different era. See? Thought you caught me not paying attention but you were wrong. I’ve done my research.
Small towns are a unique microcosm. They are more isolated—yes, even in the era of cell phones, because coverage is often spotty—they have a network of guilt that is not seen in many major cities. What do I mean by that? Everyone knows everybody’s business, even if they don’t much talk about it. Small towns are a perfect way to make a newcomer feel isolated, because it is so very often true that anyone who wasn’t born in a small town will always be considered to one extent or another, an outsider. Outsiders always suffer. Sometimes it’s in small ways sometimes in much larger ways but there is an inherent discomfort that comes from being the new kid. The psychedelic and often just plain weird movie The Wicker Man (1973) and the aforementioned Shirley Jackson’s amazing tale “The Lottery” are both perfect examples of how much the outsider can suffer. Leave us not forget Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn.”
Location is often seminal to the tale being told. Small towns and foreign locales can make that sense of being an unwanted intruder far more intimate and I recommend at least considering the notion.
Of course big cities can be strange places too. New York might be home to several million people, but if you’re coming to the big city from Fleabite, Missouri, the experience is going to be a very eye-opening one. Try replacing the wide open spaces with the literal concrete canyons of Manhattan for the first time in your life and see if that doesn’t leave you feeling lost and alone in a city that never sleeps, and a place where, if you are lucky, you get a few hours of moonlight on even the clearest nights.
A good plot is a must
A good plot, and I don’t mean the burying kind, is a must. You need the same important aspects for a horror novel that you do for any sort of novel. You have to have a good plot. You have to have believable characters. You have to have realistic aspects to ground the fantastic concepts you’re asking your readers to accept. Paul Tremblay’s amazing Head Full Of Ghosts works as well as it does because the characters he creates are lifelike in the extreme. He doesn’t have to discuss exactly what they look like in vivid detail. He doesn’t need to give you lavish backgrounds. Instead he creates people you might well know and puts them into the setting that would be most comfortable for a young girl like our narrator, and then he throws in the unsettling and rapidly terrifying troubles of what might or might not be any number of ghosts. It works because the sense of dread grows slowly as the surreal pushes through into the world of the mundane. The plot is simple enough, but handled with expert craftsmanship.
History creates believability
Sounds like a lot to take in? Not really. Good plot, realistic world (with a few exceptions), five senses that must be employed if you’re going to have believable suspense (an absolute must for horror), empathy and sympathy don’t hurt. A good sense of history is also required. I don’t mean the history of the world; I mean the history of the story. ‘Salem’s Lot by King works as well as it does because, interspersed throughout that story are bits and pieces of the history of the characters, and the town itself, as well as that most important icon in the tale, the Marsten House. The tropes of vampirism are all there, and King willfully uses all of the exact same tropes that were employed in Stoker’s Dracula, but they are made believable because the small town of ‘Salem’s Lot is believable, We can damned near see the place and the people are all familiar to us. By the time things start to go wrong, truly wrong, we are invested in the characters and their world.
A dash of the surreal
So, history, empathy, setting, character and plot. All of the exact same things you need for any good novel. Then add in a dash of the surreal, the unnatural, or even just the chilling. Thomas Harris’s The Silence Of The Lambs, won the Superior Achievement in a Horror Novel award from the Horror Writers Association the year it came out without ever employing anything supernatural. Suspense, tension and dread overflow the pages of that novel. The end result, by the way, was a hundred attempts to capture the exact same feelings again in a slew of serial killer novels that met those high standards very rarely. Why am I saying that? Because, as I have often stated publicly in the past, there is no point in trying to follow the success trail of others. Do not write to a market. The markets are, as they have always been, mutable. The success of (God help me) Pride, Prejudice and Zombies brought about roughly a trillion quick knock-off imitations that took, oh, perhaps a month to write in most cases, because the real work of the novel, the stuff that mattered, had been put in place by the classic authors who created the originals. It is Jane Austen’s work that drives Pride, Prejudice and Zombies. Seth Graham-Smith gets a nod from me for coming up with a unique idea, but most of the books following his example are sub-par at best and sold like they were sub-par. That’s not meant to be insulting, but it’s also not meant to be a compliment. Take what you will from my opinion on this matter.
The novel that is uniquely yours
So now we are up to:
- Tension, and
Just because Peter Straub had success with his novel Ghost Story, doesn’t mean you should drop whatever you’re doing and write a ghost story. Not the least because, as anyone who has read the book knows, ghosts aren’t the only thing going on in Straub’s amazing novel. Write the story you need to write. Write the novel that you would truly enjoy reading, and half of the battle is over. Write a novel that is uniquely yours, and the only thing left is a modicum of talent, a basic understanding of the rules of Grammar and Style and, of course, the luck factor that can never be denied.
Why are you still here? Go, write!
James A. Moore is the best selling and award-winning author of over 45 novels, thrillers, dark fantasy and horror alike, including the critically acclaimed Fireworks, The Seven Forges series, Blood Red, the Serenity Falls trilogy (featuring his recurring anti-hero, Jonathan Crowley) and his most recent novels, The Tides of War series (The Last Sacrifice, Fallen Gods and the forthcoming Gate of the Dead), Avengers: Infinity and Predator: Hunters and Hunted. In addition to writing multiple short stories, he has also edited, with Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, the British Invasion anthology for Cemetery Dance Publications.
Along with Christopher Golden and Jonathan Maberry, he is co-host of the Three Guys With Beards podcast.