By Kerstin Hall
Holidays are coming up, but the work never ends. Guess that’s life.
Next semester, Ink is looking to focus more on the elements of editing, rewriting and approaching agents/publishers. After the holidays, our most keen and loyal members will have completed the Nano Wrimo: Campus Edition challenge. So, theoretically, all of them will have produced some kind of workable novel. Exciting stuff.
On a personal note, I will be interning at Random House Struik during the vacation. I’m really proud of myself for organizing that. The guy I have been in touch with is so nice; I think it will be an awesome and hopefully enlightening process. I’ll be there for three weeks. Wish me luck!
Onto the focus of today’s post.
I love horror novels. It’s kind of a guilty pleasure. I read most of the Point Horror paperbacks interspersed between the fantasy books at my local library when I was thirteen; most of it was really, really bad fiction. And the majority of it wasn’t even particularly frightening. I can’t remember a single title now.
So while I might have experienced a juvenile enjoyment reading about ghosts and zombies and whatever else (which, to be honest, I haven’t outgrown), let’s make the assumption that these books were perhaps not the pinnacle of literary achievement.
Off the top of my head, three horror books that genuinely scared me jump to mind. These are the ones that stuck with me and I’ll explore why in a moment. The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding, The House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordan by Stephen King.
The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray is young adult fiction and not especially well-known as far as I’m aware (it only has 39 reviews on Amazon). However, in my research for this post I discovered that there exists a metal band called Alaizabel Cray. Some of their songs include: “Virgin Dismemberment”, “Gorified (sic) Impalement” and “Embryonic Necrosis”. Cheerful stuff.
Back to the book. I read it in the Cedarberg while on holiday and I distinctly remember being terrified in broad daylight while devouring it. Perhaps I am romanticizing it, but I think it was kind of brilliant. I was about twelve at the time, but the messages of the novel have stuck with me till today. There is a scene in which a serial killer is speaking to Alaizabel and he says something to the effect of:
“I am a monster, Miss Cray. But even monsters want to live.”
My twelve-year-old self was mind blown by this. And it demonstrated to me just how much more interesting villains are when they aren’t flatly ‘evil’. It didn’t make the serial killer any less scary. But it gave him an implied interiority.
Moving on to the bit about horror then. The book features various supernatural beings, collectively known as “wych-kin” (because misspelling things is cool). I read this a quite a few years ago, but some of these monsters stuck in my head in particular. The creepy sea monsters the characters encounter in the sewer system freaked me out. And then – finally coming to the point – there was the “Rawhead-and-Bloodybones” amalgamation.
Artistic interpretation of Rawhead courtesy of Creepypasta. I picked the least disturbing image.
Based loosely on Celtic mythology, this/these demonic creature(s) stalk(s) its/their prey from behind. The victim is safe, unless they look backwards three times. Which is what you are generally inclined to do, when you can hear something following you. After glance three, you die. I don’t think it is explained how exactly you meet your demise, but the implication is that it is unpleasant. It creates a sense of oppression; both the reader and the character know that something invisible is waiting for them to make a mistake. The blog, Books, Tea and Piracy puts it quite succinctly: “Once you have read The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, you will never look behind yourself more than twice when walking at night, no matter what you might hear”.
But why should this be scary…?
Next is undoubtedly the most terrifying thing I’ve read to date, The House of Leaves. This book is brilliant and very, very weird. Some people hate it, some people find it ridiculously long (the thing is like a brick) and some people call it pretentious. It is by no means an easy read due to the structure of the novel. I’ll try and keep this description simple.
You have two parallel story lines. One is from the perspective of a self-confessed unreliable narrator, Johnny Truant. He apparently gradually goes insane over the course of the novel and his deterioration and outright lying is utterly bewildering to the innocent reader.
Then you have the Navidson Record. Which is supposedly a film/documentary. Only, even in the text, the film doesn’t seem to exist. You only have accounts of it, written from the perceptive of a blind man named Zampano. Johnny reads Zampano’s research about the film, which references real people, places and events. All the evidence points towards the film existing. But no one can find it.
This explanation is already longer than intended. Bear with me.
The Navidson Record is about a family that moves into a new house. And then all sorts of weird things start happening. Like walls shifting a few centimetres every now and again. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound very scary. But it is. You can tell that something is not quite right. And then things escalate. There is a scene where a character is exploring a passage in the dark. He is feeling disorientated because he cannot find the way back out. If he moves, he risks becoming even more lost. So he is considering his options. And then he hears a low growl.
That is all. There is no attack. The character runs away and finds his way out of the passage. Whatever growled, it did not reveal itself. In the entire novel, it is unclear whether there is a growling monster at all. It could simply be the sound of the house moving. The question of whether the characters are alone in the house is never decisively answered, but there are other instances where it is hinted that maybe there is something there. But maybe not. The Minotaur in the maze may even start appearing in the parallel narrative, stalking Johnny. There is a website specifically dedicated to discussing this book and its mysteries. Gleeful participants posit their theories, with a frighteningly good knowledge of the smallest details of the text. And then there are websites that half-joke about it.
What did that have in common with Rawhead-and-Bloodybones?
Finally, Steven King. This seemed inevitable in a discussion about horror. But to be honest, I found The Girl who Loved Tom Gordan to be the least scary of the books here listed. Blasphemy! But I did remember it.
It’s pretty straightforward. Girl gets lost in the woods. Girl tries to find her way out of the woods. Girl eventually succeeds. It’s pretty gritty though, she has to eat raw fish to survive. And there is something in the woods following her and leaving a trail of animal corpses in its wake. In the climax, you see this monster; it is some kind of giant bear creature. I can’t remember too well. I haven’t read much for fun since university started and English gave me more than enough to cope with.
What did these books do to set themselves apart in terms of being scary?
I think the simple answer is that, for the most part, the evil creature in question is in some way rendered invisible to the characters and reader.
Let’s think of horror movies. Which is scarier, Resident Evil or The Ring? Chucky or Paranormal Activity (In both cases, take the first one, not the endless spinoffs.)? The Hills Have Eyes or The Blair Witch Project? In my opinion, it is always the later. Why? Because they feature enemies you can’t see. And if you can’t see or touch them, you cannot fight them. The enemy is unknowable and inexplicable. You can only run.
In the case of The Hills Have Eyes, once you know that it’s only some psycho hillbilly mutants after you, you can blow up your caravan and destroy them. Or set your unfortunate dog on them. Or just straight-up shoot them. You might be in a position of lesser power, but you have the means to resist and survive. Resident Evil has zombies, oh-so-many zombies, but you can burn them with fire and make a speedy escape.
Shame, he just wants a hug.
How does Samara kill people in The Ring? Where are the students disappearing to in The Blair Witch Project? Why, in the name of all that is holy, does the door keep moving in Paranormal Activity? The unknown is what has the greatest potential to scare because the mediums of film and writing cannot compete with the boundless possibilities of the human imagination. We are best at scaring ourselves.
Once you can see the monster clearly, that mystery is dissolved and it can only be as scary as what is visible. Horror movies and even novels will try to compensate for this, typically by way of bucket loads of gore and shock tactics. Or, if they are smart, the uncanny.
The uncanny is the next best thing to the invisible. You can see the monster, but something about it is so disturbing that you are unable to process what you are seeing. It is something familiar, and yet deeply wrong. There is a reason for the plethora of horror flicks that use child monstrosities. Or almost-human aliens. Or clowns. Or dolls. We are conflicted – we want to protect the monster and yet we fear it. In some way, the monster is like us. We cannot understand it.
So, if you are writing a story and you want it to be scary, consider these tactics. Less is sometimes so much more. Do not answer all the questions. Do not reveal your monster in its entirety.
After that novel of a post, let’s get onto a practical task.
- Write a scene in which your aim is to create a description of the most terrifying and awful monster in all of creation. Your monster has to be present and visible. Don’t try and be clever and just describe an ordinary person. We aren’t getting that deep up in here.
- Write a second scene in which a person is in a position where they cannot experience the monster directly. The monster does not touch them and the protagonist cannot see the monster. This may sound strange, but describe what the monster does in the environment and how the character responds to these inexplicable things.
Have fun! Feel free to share what you created.