Or, horror as a subgenre in your novel.
Horror. From Mary Shelley to Bram Stoker, to Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, to H.P. Lovecraft, right up to the modern masters King, Barker and Herbert, authors have a long history of telling scary lies for fun and profit. But what exactly is horror?
Is it the monster that lurks in the darkness? Is it the dark half of your personality set free? Is it the unintended consequences of your decision?
I’m primarily a horror author. But I’m talking here not about writing a horror novel, but about how you can include elements of horror in just about any other genre of novel.
The first question, of course, is why should you?
The truth is, if you are an author you already may have. My first publication, Reformed, was decidedly sci-fi. It had horror elements, and for some reviewers these were the most effective parts of the story. Why?
The first reason is that good horror, whether it’s an element of another story, a single scene or a whole novel, enriches your writing in many ways. For a start, it’s compulsive reading. As soon as a character is in danger the reader wants to know what will happen next. Has the author thought of a fate for this character worse than anything I’m expecting? How will the character get through? Will the character get through? Can I stand to read what happens? 1984 is no horror novel per se. But it does have many elements of horror, particularly Room 101. As readers, we are desperate to see what torments will be put to Winston Smith and to see how he will react.
Secondly, good horror is revealing. It puts your characters under pressure. It enables writers to reveal a character’s strengths and expose their flaws, often at the same time. Take Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien. At the start of the film, she’s a competent crew member, undervalued by some of her colleagues, and no leader. By the end of the film, she’s had to dig into reserves of strength and resourcefulness that weren’t apparent at the start. Or look at the way Clarisse Starling has to endure Hannibal Lecter’s psychological abuse in order to catch Buffalo Bill. Conversely, look at how Frank in Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart (the story that became the Hellraiser film) agrees to go with the Cenobites even after they tell him what will happen if he does. Again, this whole scene is compulsive reading.
Finally, to introduce an element of horror into your writing is to introduce contrast. A well-written sense of anxiety or fear during the horror passages, or of letup when the horror has ended, throws into sharp relief the other themes and elements of your novel, making them all the more powerful. See how strongly we root for Luke Skywalker after seeing the horror of his aunt and uncle being killed by Stormtroopers. He’s no longer a sightly sulky youngster dreaming of joining the rebellion. Or take the recent Avengers sequel: how much more dramatic does the appearance of Ultron seem, given his interrupting the party scene?
In the same manner, the author can take a horrific character and contrast it with a more positive one, making the latter all the more appealing. How angelic is Matilda when placed next to her parents and Miss Trunchbull? Or Harry Potter when compared to The Dursleys, let alone Voldemort? Or Charlie compared to all the other children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Subjecting your protagonist to a dollop of horror also increases the reader’s empathy for him or her. Horror is just another ingredient to improve your writing.
But what constitutes horror?
Broadly, horror is the knowledge that something awful lurks around the corner. That feeling of nervousness, of inevitability, of sliding towards a terrible outcome. Not just knowing it, but feeling it. And making your readers feel it too.
For me, the loss of control is a key thread running through all my horror. In Reformed we have technology taken to the extreme, where citizens are under constant surveillance and afforded little self-determination as a result. In The Tor James is held captive by the Tor itself; in part two Joseph is under Rebecca’s sway, who is in turn under the control of a darker force; and in part three of the novel Andrew loses his will to the energy in Dadeni cottage.
But it’s not just my horror. Take King, for example, and the predicament Paul Sheldon finds himself in in Misery. Or the bullies’ victims in IT. Or look at Frodo almost losing all self-control to the will of the ring. Even in something as light as Spiderman there is horror. The character Venom is a symbiote; an alien being that merges with a human, Eddie Brock. Prior to this, the alien formed a new black suit for Spiderman. At first, Spiderman found his powers -his strength, his agility, his intuition- greatly enhanced. But soon he found himself fighting outbursts of anger and rage. He had a mighty struggle to rid himself of the suit. He was almost subsumed by the creature. The writer, Todd McFarlane, used a classic horror element in a kids’ comic book, and to great effect. It’s Jekyll struggling with Hyde. It’s Frodo and the ring.
Horror is universal. As we’ve seen, elements of it exist in every other genre. In the thriller, the protagonist risks losing his family, his livelihood, something dear to him. In fairy stories we have the character of the witch or the evil fairy; the curse placed on the young girl; the captive in the tower. In fantasy, the necromancer. There are milder examples too. In rom-coms we have the prospect of the protagonists losing their lover and being left alone.
So. We’ve seen how horror elements can add a depth and a richness to novels of any genre. How it can drive a narrative or deepen a character. We’ve looked in brief at what constitutes horror in a broad sense; how horror doesn’t have to mean blood and guts, doesn’t have to mean the supernatural. For those readers and characters with claustrophobia, a short story set in a stuck lift would be horrific.
But we’re not talking about writing horror stories. We’re talking about adding horror elements to other novels. In fact, even in horror novels I would argue that the non-horror elements are often the most horrific. We’ve looked already at IT. I read it again recently and what I found most horrifying were the bullying scenes between the children, far more than the almost cartoonish creature of Pennywise. I’m currently most of the way through Dr Sleep, and what’s scariest to me is not the fantastical elements, not the ghosts, but the prospect of Danny falling back into alcoholism.
So what do we mean by horror as an element or subgenre? We mean that it exists in the novel and is effective as a horrifying force, but it is not the novel’s main purpose. For example, thrillers may contain torture scenes. These scenes, if we are to count them as horror scenes and not just an opportunity to show how tough or smart the protagonist is, should trigger an emotional reaction from the reader. A great example is Bond’s naked torture scene in Casino Royale. It’s gruesome, it’s painful to watch… but we know Bond will get through it and, by the end of the film, will defeat the bad guy and remain unscathed. If it was a horror story rather than an action/thriller the scene would likely end with Bond mutilated, even if he survived. The experience highlights the differences between Bond and Le Chiffre’s characters, and Bond appears a stronger person for having gone through it. It brings tension and contrast to the film, and performs many of the functions we identified earlier. But Casino Royale is not a horror film, and we know that no matter how bad things get Bond will emerge triumphant. The same is true of the scary parts of the Harry Potter series, or of Dahl’s children’s stories, or the suffering endured by Russell Crow’s character in Gladiator. They are all works in other genres that use horror as an element.
So if we introduce horror to our writing, how do we stop that writing from then becoming a work of horror? There are three factors to look at.
Consistency would be my first consideration. If the novel is a sci-fi or a thriller or a Western, or whatever, you should ensure that not too much time is spent on the horror. The horror should support character, setting and theme, not dominate it. The author should introduce enough horror, enough visceral detail to achieve the effect you want; but do not dwell on it. In the start of The Tor, I introduce James Immola, a character who meets a very sticky end. It’s not just gruesome, it’s protracted. Intentionally so. I don’t shy away from any detail. One reviewer commented that the scene was so drawn out it made her physically uncomfortable to read through it all. The imagery of that scene clouded her reading of the rest of the novel, and every time the character responsible for this torture arrived on the page, the image of what that character had done to James flashed in front of her. As a horror author, I consider that a job well done. If I’d intended to write, say, a fantasy novel and despatched a character in that fashion I would have failed in my task. The horror would have been more powerful than the fantasy.
Secondly, and linked to ‘consistency’ I would argue for restraint. Even within a horror novel you don’t need to go ‘all out’ in your depictions. It can become wearing. It can lose its potency. The genre in which you are writing should determine how strong your horror elements are. To go back to the example of the rom-com, all you need to do is show how lonely your character is in their empty flat, contrast it with how happy a partnered-up friend is, and make it clear how desperate your character is to have someone special in their life. You wouldn’t spend pages and pages with your character mired in depression and loneliness. In the case of a gangster novel, a single scene of a mobster torturing a subordinate to find out who talked to the police is enough… unless you need to show the cops torturing a confession from someone, perhaps to draw out the similarities between the good guys and the bad guys. Whichever; one scene of each is enough to make the point. The horror in non-horror novels should be limited to certain characters and certain scenes, and left there. It does not need to wind through every scene and chapter.
The final consideration is the outcome. In a non-horror novel, there is generally a happy ending, particularly in genre novels. In more literary novels the case is not so clear-cut. 1984 and Of Mice And Men are good examples of non-horror novels that end on a negative note – although now I think about it there is a good case for arguing that 1984 is almost as much a horror novel as it is a political allegory. In stories bad things will always happen to good people. It’s what makes them interesting. Indiana Jones will get beaten up by the bad guys, but he’ll pull through with no ill effects. Even American Psycho, one of the most notorious novels of the 90s, ends with Patrick Bateman in much the same position as we first met him. If your novel is not a horror, all the horror elements should be neatly tied up and left behind by the time the reader turns the final page. Contrast this with Herbert’s Rats. The epilogue shows us a single rat survived, giving birth to a new litter. The horror has not ended with the novel.
At the start I alluded to Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker as almost the parents of written horror. In the modern, novelistic sense of the word, this is probably true. But horror has much older roots. European folk tales, which became fairy stories in their watered-down versions, have been traced back to our roots in the Bronze age. If that seems a little far-fetched to you, the links are below. Many of them contained horrific elements. The wolf eating Little Red Riding Hood’s granny, and then her; the woodsman cutting them out of the wolf’s belly. Cinderella's stepsister cutting her toes off to try and get the glass slipper to fit, whilst the other cuts off her heel. It goes on. Which is one of the reasons I’m always puzzled when people turn their noses up at horror. It’s in our heritage. It’s in our bones. And, if it’s in your writing, you’d be surprised at how important it can be.
“Fairy tale origins thousands of years old”, BBC, Jan 2016
“25 dark and disturbing original versions of fairy tales”