Horror Fiction And Expectations – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d look at one of the best ways to make your horror fiction a bit creepier or more disturbing. I am, of course, talking about playing with your audience’s expectations. Like how a joke is funny because the punchline is different to what the listener expects to hear, horror fiction tends to be at it’s most frightening when the audience expects one thing but finds something else instead.

This was something that I ended up thinking about whilst reading the horror novel that I plan to review tomorrow. I am, of course, talking about Guy N. Smith’s 1983 novel “Accursed” (mild-moderate SPOILERS ahoy).

If you’ve never read British horror fiction from the 1980s, then it is a gloriously fun genre that is often wonderfully over-the-top (even down to the gloriously melodramatic cover art and titles). This is a type of horror fiction that is gloriously lurid, gleefully cynical, ridiculously ultra-gruesome and often filled with all sorts of melodramatic monsters and other such things.

When it is at it’s best, it is like heavy metal music in book form or some kind of cheesy late-night “video nasty”. It is a really cool and just generally fun genre (see Shaun Hutson’s 1986 novel “Deathday” for a good example) but, to the experienced horror fan, it is very rarely actually scary.

Yet, whilst reading part of Smith’s “Accursed”, I actually found myself feeling – if not scared – then at least slightly disturbed. On the surface, the novel contains all of the things you’d expect from a 1980s horror novel – a melodramatic title, some cynical cold war-era social commentary, a fairly “realistic” setting and even a cursed amulet. Yet, this novel actually evoked feelings of fear in me. But, why?

Well, it’s mostly because the parts I’ve read at the time of writing contained some very different types of horror to the ones that you’d typically expect from a British 1980s horror novel. Instead of buckets of blood or a “scary” monster, the novel instead focuses a lot more on things like psychological horror, ominous paranormal forces, character-based horror, a feeling of claustrophobia, religious/mythical horror etc… (eg: the type of genuinely scary stuff that modern horror novels use all the time). And it is scary because it is something that you wouldn’t typically expect from a horror novel of this type.

But, although this is a fairly large-scale example (requiring background knowledge of one genre, in one place, in one decade) of how playing with audience expectations results in scarier horror fiction, the same thing can work in all sorts of more subtle ways too.

For example, a sudden scene of gory horror can be genuinely shocking in a novel that – up until this point – has focused on more subtle or psychological types of horror. Another example might be a sudden scene of genuinely disturbing tragic horror or character-based horror in a cheesy ultra-gruesome zombie novel. I could go on, but suddenly introducing a new and unexpected type of horror (as long as it fits into the context of your story) can be a great way to frighten more jaded or complacent readers.

Ironically, this sort of thing actually works best in non-horror novels. A great example (moderate SPOILERS ahead) is Lee Child’s 2015 novel “Make Me“.

For the most part, this is a typical suspense/detective/action thriller novel with the only nods to the horror genre seemingly being the gradual introduction of some darker and bleaker subject matter. But, it is mostly just a typical thriller novel… until you reach the ending. There are entire horror novels that are less horrifying than this short part of the novel. And it is such a brilliantly, unforgettably horrifying ending because the reader doesn’t expect to see proper horror fiction in a modern mainstream thriller novel 🙂

But, you can scare your audience by playing with their expectations in other ways too. One good way to do this is through tone and style – for example, a scene of unsettling paranormal dread will actually be scarier in a novel that uses a modern, informal and fast-paced narrative voice than it will be in a novel that uses a very formal, gothic and slow-paced style of writing. With the latter, you actually expect this sort of thing to happen just from the writing style alone. So, it is less surprising than it would be in a novel that uses a more modern style.

Of course, there are lots of other ways you can play with your audience’s expectations (and the best way to learn them is to read lots of horror, and non-horror, fiction etc…) but audience expectations are something that is always worth thinking about if you want to make your horror story a bit scarier.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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