After a horrid turn of events at the day job, I’m in a definite funk. There’s nothing cheery happening in my head but I don’t want to leave readers huddled behind the scratched plexiglass panes, waiting for that bus that’ll never come…so, today I’m sharing some thoughts on horror. In my current foul mood, that’s all the company I’m fit to share. If the Easter Bunny hopped by today, we’d eat fricasee tonight. With peep salad.
I love monsters. Especially those with tortured morals and consciences that rear up at unexpected moments. Creatures that are phsyically beautiful but prone to evil actions provide excellent conflict. Entities both enticing and repulsive offer so much possibility to explore. None of those soft, furry, cutesy, don’t-get’em-wet kinda monsters on today’s menu. I prefer the graphic, multi-appendaged, mouth-goes-dry, heart palpitating beasts that scuttle through your nightmares and elevate your blood pressure even while standing in the middle of a sunny hayfield.
Most of my favorite tales center on old-fashioned simplicities like the noise in the dark, the bump of a heel on a wooden floor, the creak of a board in a room supposed to be empty. I never tire of ghost stories, especially those that stretch sticky fingers inside my psyche. There’s nothing like the sense of atmospheric concentration jangling nerve endings to the limit, triggering autosomal central nervous system responses as we react to countless millennia of conditioning when first we hear the scrabbling of claws.
That’s some scary stuff.
I’m not talking about the slasher, slice-and-dice splashing of blood across the screen and page. I get that’s a style all its own, but it strikes me as being overly dependent on shock. I enjoy the peeling away of comfort zones, one delicate shiver at a time. A good fright is energizing. The urge to hurl as steaming warm intestines spill out of a carcass…uh, no.
For me the most inspiring scenes of fear occur when writers tap into our shared experiences and poke at our common discomforts. I like the resulting tension. That spinal tap against our collective hypochondria is fun. Consider what might happen on a lonely stretch of road…
Everyone prefers their meal flavored to their taste, and for me, a good scary story is liberally sprinkled with contrasts. It’s easy to stab a butcher knife in someone’s back (metaphorically speaking), but much more difficult to make the flesh crawl along the reader’s arms in anticipation of a shadowed figure intent on mayhem. Suggestion is powerful.
Which is creepier, the full-frontal view or catching just a glimpse of a shape? Nudity often works the same for me, I like a little left to the imagination. Our minds are clever, filling in details with what we like, prefer, and desire. Too much detail and too much information can reduce the intensity.
Remember when the audience glimpsed just the leg of an alien in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs? The sense of motion is almost inferred. There’s barely enough time for our brain to register the movement of a not-human leg disappearing into the rows of corn. If you’ve never been in a cornfield you might not realize just how creepy that setting can be…thick stalks swaying overhead, the rustling movement, the fluttering sounds, the humidity and fecund smells of soil and growth.
That visual raised my hackles and stretched the tension to an unbearable point. In another scene the sounds of footsteps pounding over the rooftop while the family panicked inside the house where they’d always felt safe and sheltered spoke to viewers.
I like to be tantalized, and without taking this analogy too far, remind you that foreplay is important. As writers we build intrigue, escalate tension, and empower atmosphere, but then we must deliver on those promises.
Wish I could turn that into a clever acronym, but right now I’ll I’ve got to offer is a black and white visual of Peter Lorre extracting the liver from some poor schmuck’s violated corpse. De-livered. Sorry. My bad.
Writers often fail to complete the scenery, especially when it comes to horror, and remember the folks who read this style of writing want to feel horrified. This is a challenge. In retrospect I can always find ways I could have drawn out the tension, increased the pressure on the reader, twisted and yanked until they writhed in anticipation. Hindsight.
Taking the commonplace, the mundane and regular aspects of daily life, and turning them into something that pulls at our instinctual fears is at the core of horror, at least for me. Figuring this out has helped me look at other writing styles with more clarity.
I’ve decided genres develop and shift as the result of expectations. People want to be thrilled and intrigued as they solve the mystery of who killed blind old Mr. McGillicuddy for his private papers. Readers want to be romanced and charmed as they fall in love with the spirited governess who catches the eye of the dastardly handsome Earl of Stonecroft. Some of us can’t wait to discover what sort of monster has been devouring the unwary on the cobblestoned paths of nineteenth century Austria.
Care to opine about your preference in monstery bits? Lots of people don’t like scary stuff – offer up a reason for that. Do you have an all-time favorite beast from the bayou?