Well, I thought that I’d take yet another look at the horror genre today. This is mostly because I’ve seen a few brilliantly unsettling or startling techniques used in various novels (including non-horror novels) I’ve read over the past few months.
Although these techniques will only scare, unsettle or shock the reader for a relatively short amount of time and should be used in conjunction with many other types of horror, they can be brilliantly effective when used well.
However, I should point out that this article will contain SPOILERS for “Relics” by Shaun Hutson, “Zombie Apocalypse! Horror Hospital” by Mark Morris, “And The Rest Is History” by Jodi Taylor and “Transition” by Iain Banks.
1) Jump scares: Although it’s pretty much impossible to re-create the startling shock of “jump” moments in horror movies using the written word, I recently saw a pretty clever attempt at it in an old horror novel from 1986 called “Relics” by Shaun Hutson.
In short, the novel uses a change of font in order to startle the reader. You’ll be reading a scene about a character’s daughter making creepy drawings of some monster-based nightmares that she’s been having and then, when the character leans in to take a closer look at the drawings, the words “HIS TIME IS COME” appear in the middle of the page in giant scrawled letters! Given that the rest of the book uses a smaller font, this moment is surprisingly startling.
But, as much as I hate to say it, this technique is one that would probably work better on a screen than in a traditional book. This is mostly because, in the edition of “Relics” I read, the giant scrawled text appears on the right-hand page, meaning that you’ll see it from one or two pages away. Yes, it’ll still startle you, but it’ll happen earlier than it should. So, in traditional books, keep these types of moments to left-hand pages.
An intriguing variant on this technique can also be found in a more modern horror novel called “Zombie Apocalypse! Horror Hospital” by Mark Morris. This novel contains several greyscale illustrated pages, at least one of which features a picture of a gruesome zombie.
However, given that the greyscale pages stand out when looking at the edge of the book, curiosity is probably going to get the better of readers long before they encounter these illustrations as part of the story. So, again, this technique probably works best when used on a screen.
2) Catchphrase twists: This one only works in stories with a well-established storyline and mythos, but it can be surprisingly effective.
Basically, once your readers are familiar with a catchphrase or familiar feature of your story, briefly do something unsettling with it. Whether you change the thing itself or just the context that it is used in, this can be a really brilliant way to shock and/or unsettle your reader.
A really good example of this can be seen in a non-horror novel from 2016 called “And The Rest Is History” by Jodi Taylor. This is a comedy/drama/sci-fi/thriller novel that revolves around time travel. Since it is the eighth novel in the series, the reader will be very familiar with the fact that – whenever a character activates a time machine – a blinding flash of white light (usually described as “everything went white” or something like that) shows that the characters have jumped through time.
So, when the novel’s villain blows up the room where the time machines are stored, killing several beloved characters and almost killing the narrator – who only survives by hiding in a time machine – this exact description is used to describe the flash of the explosion. It’s a really shocking moment because it plays with something that the reader is really familiar with.
3) Perspective shifts: This technique only works in third-person perspective novels, but one way to emphasise the horror of a horrific event is to show it again from an unexpected perspective. This technique plays on the reader’s memories of earlier parts of the story and it can be extremely disturbing or shocking when used well.
An extremely creepy example of this can be found in a sci-fi novel from 2009 called “Transition” by Iain Banks, which revolves around people jumping between parallel universes. An earlier scene in the novel shows part of a character’s backstory, where he exacts vicious deadly revenge against his girlfriend’s violent father.
In it’s own right, this scene is incredibly unsettling – given that the extreme drawn-out cruelty of it actually makes the reader feel sorry for an unsympathetic character. But, in an even creepier twist, the killer later finds himself in a parallel universe where he is the father. If I remember rightly, the scene ends just as an alternate version of his younger self approaches him. Since the reader already knows what will happen, this scene becomes even more disturbing than the original scene was.
So, yes, showing a familiar story moment from an unexpected perspective can be a really good way to startle, shock or unsettle your reader.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂