With the great writers, horror lives somewhere behind the words, like a fire in the root system of a tree, writes Nick Cutter
What scares people is individual to them. Sure, there are broad fears: heights, enclosed spaces, insects, ghosts, zombies, serial killers. And there are those more nuanced, existential fears: growing old, losing a child, going insane, dying unloved, discovering that some essential truth about the world is in fact false. But what scares one person often doesn’t scare someone else; when I see a YouTube clip of some lunatic swimming with a great white shark or hanging off a cliff by his fingertips, I am forced to reckon with the fact that there is a segment of humanity whose brains are wired differently and who fail to register fear as I do. When my fiancée wakes up shivering from a dream of being pursued by demons, I am sympathetic but I don’t share that fear. Fears are like fingerprints that way.
So, if you’re sitting down to write with the intent to scare people, it’s best to acknowledge off the bat that you won’t scare everyone. If you try to hammer on all those fears – say, a demon shark haunted by the ghost of a serial killer that randomly turns into an enormous vampire spider – chances are you’ll crash and burn. The most effective horror books isolate one or two fears, often ones that play off each other, and nurse them to a point of unbearable tension.
It’s a difficult emotion to engender, fear. I can’t say if that’s because the world we occupy holds its share of real-life horrors, if we’ve become more cynical or inured to fear as a society, or if it’s always been hard. It is hard to explicate our fears, I find. They’re swimmy and kind of embarrassing, haunting the peripheries of our hearts and minds, lurking in those shadowed pockets of our psyche where we either cannot look or don’t want to. They are profoundly ungrippable – and if you can’t grip them yourself, how do you instill them in others?
When I sat down to write my first horror stories, I thought back to those books that scared me. How did they kindle that fear? What were the techniques, on a purely technical level? This is part of a writer’s job, I think, as it would be a painter’s or a director’s job: you look at the works that shaped you, scrutinizing them, trying to strip them apart and see how they tick. I see myself as a mechanic: I’m taking apart an engine, the precision of which I greatly admire, looking at it not as a driver (reader) but as a craftsman with the ambition to build my own. Once you peel it down to its gears and pistons, can you see how it all fits? If so, can you fashion your own engine with that knowledge?
To an extent, yeah. But to a deeper extent the true masters of the form – your Shirley Jacksons and H.P. Lovecrafts and Stephen Kings – are sui generis. They are elemental forces possessed of a genius that is perhaps only properly grasped when you make the attempt to do what they appear to do instinctively and with baffling ease. What I have found is this: with those writers, the horror lives somewhere behind the words. It is like a fire burning in the root system of a tree: you can feel its heat and it can burn you, but it is not visible on the surface.
Take for example a scene in Stephen King’s second book, ’Salem’s Lot. Two workmen deliver a crate to the Barlow house, a ramshackle manse on the edge of town. The scene is three or four pages long. Nobody is killed. Nothing is particularly out of order. And yet … and yet. The dread those men feel – the undeniable sense that something is wrong, an unnaturalness that pings on the knot of cells in their lizard cortex – coupled with their inability to grapple with it, the urge to push it away as unreasonable, creates a thrilling tension and a cotton-mouthed sense of fear. And when nothing happens, well, so much the better because as a reader we known something will later.
There are certain prosaic tactics a writer can use to scare a reader. Perhaps most importantly, make readers care about the characters. A truism of all horror is: if you don’t care about the characters, it is unlikely you will care what happens to them. Let them get disemboweled by zombies or carried off into the night by ectoplasmic banshees: who cares! Good riddance. And yes, certain narrative devices have always been effective. Isolating your characters is a good one.
Does this sound very paint-by-numbers? If so, understand that most genres – thrillers, crime fiction, fantasy, romance – have their tested and true formulas; it’s about finding new glosses. If a reader picks up a horror book, the assumption is they want to be scared. There’s no use trying to reinvent the wheel, because the wheel resists reinvention. What scares us is what has always scared us. You can’t hammer it into an entirely new shape.
Some writers have an innate ability to flick our fear switches. I don’t know how they do it precisely, but I am in awe. Me? Well, I’m still tinkering. I’ll keep stripping those glorious engines apart, staring at their guts, then taking what I’ve learned and building an engine of my own. And that puppy’ll run. On a thimbleful of peanut oil and a prayer, maybe, but it’ll run.