Three Lessons Writers Can Learn From 1980s Horror Fiction

Ah, 1980s horror fiction šŸ™‚ Although I was somewhat late to the party when I discovered books from this awesome period of literary history in second-hand bookshops and charity shops as a teenager during the early-mid ’00s, I felt like writing about them today.

This is mostly because I’m currently re-reading one of these awesome books (Clive Barker’s 1988 novel “Cabal”) at the moment, and because some of my visits to charity shops in the months before writing this article have shown me that these awesome books seem to have fallen outside the usual 1-30 year delay between new books and charity shops.

Anyway, I digress. So, what can 1980s horror novels teach us about writing?

1) Don’t be afraid to be intelligent: Although 1980s horror novels have something of a reputation for being a “trashy” genre of fiction, they are a lot more descriptive and linguistically sophisticated than you might think. Even though you’ll find that older novels in general tend to have a more extensive and formal vocabulary than popular modern novels do, this is especially true in 1980s horror fiction.

To give you an example, here’s a random description from Clive Barker’s “Cabal”: ‘The sun gleamed on the mausoleums, the sharp shadows flattering their elaboration.‘ This almost sounds like something from a revered 19th century novel, yet it is from a novel that looks like this:

This is the 1989 Fontana (UK) paperback edition of “Cabal”

So, what can this teach us? In addition to showing us how contrasting “beautiful” formal descriptions with scenes of horror can make these scenes more dramatic, it also reminds us that it’s ok to use long words and well-placed formal descriptions. Your readers are smarter than you might think. Remember, these horror novels were “trashy” popular entertainment during the 1980s.

2) Don’t self-censor: At the time of writing this article, I was still in the middle of a longer horror fiction project of mine and I was starting to worry that the scenes of horror were too gruesome. Then, I started re-reading “Cabal” and I realised that what I was writing was actually pretty tame compared to a typical 1980s horror novel. In other words, what I’d described in a couple of sentences or paragraphs, an 80s horror novel would devote at least half a page to.

So, the lesson here is don’t self-censor. Although, thanks to things like slightly less repressive film censorship, modern fiction doesn’t really have the same impetus or reason to be ultra-edgy that it did during the 1980s, it is always important to remember that fiction is one of the most free and open storytelling mediums out there.

In other words, if what you are writing is essential to your story, then keep it in and don’t self-censor. After all, you aren’t making a film or a videogame, you’re writing a story and the written word has more freedom than other storytelling mediums do.

3) Presentation matters: I’ve talked about this before, but one of the many awesome things about 1980s horror novels is the fact that they are works of art. Almost without fail, the cover art will be a wonderful piece of dramatic, high-contrast art that wouldn’t look out of place on a film poster or a heavy metal album cover. Seriously, old horror novel cover from the 1970s-90s (and maybe the early-mid 2000s) just look really cool:

And, yes, the Shaun Hutson cover is a 2000s reprint, but it looks awesome nonetheless.

Likewise, some old horror novels will do cool things like – in many of Shaun Hutson’s novels – including dramatic epigrams featuring everything from historical quotes to (if the publisher can afford it) quotes from heavy metal song lyrics. Likewise, old horror novels from the 1980s will often have really dramatic-sounding titles too, like “The Undead”, “Scorpion”, “Plasmid” etc.. too.

So, yes, although the story itself is the most important thing, presentation also matters too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful šŸ™‚

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