Two Terrifying Tips For Writing Extreme Horror Fiction

Well, although I’ve already talked about splatterpunk horror fiction a few times before, I thought that I’d talk about a similar – but slightly different – genre of horror fiction today. I am, of course, talking about extreme horror fiction.

This is mostly because, at the time of writing, I’m reading an absolutely amazing surreal noir detective novel (“Word Made Flesh” by Jack O’Connell) that also includes some brilliantly disturbing extreme horror elements too. Needless to say, this article will contain some SPOILERS for the earlier parts of this novel.

Although there’s a lot of overlap between splatterpunk horror fiction and extreme horror fiction, I’d argue that the two things are at least somewhat different. In short, whilst splatterpunk horror fiction is often “gruesome for the sake of gruesome”, extreme horror takes the unflinching attitude of splatterpunk fiction and uses it in a way that is a lot more insidious and disturbing. In other words, whilst extreme horror might be gruesome, this isn’t the sole source of horror that the reader is confronted with.

So, here are a couple of tips for writing extreme horror fiction.

1) It’s not what is shown, it is how it is shown:
The horror/detective novel I mentioned earlier (“Word Made Flesh”) begins with one of the creepiest and most disturbing prologues that I’ve ever read. It’s the kind of prologue that, due to it’s sadistic, cruel, ultra-violent and grotesque nature, probably shouldn’t be described in too much detail here.

Yet, although this sounds like it would be a typical scene from a splatterpunk horror novel, this prologue does a few things differently to the average splatterpunk novel – which make the horror of this scene about ten times more disturbing.

For starters, the prologue sometimes shows relatively little in the way of gory detail. Instead of spending numerous paragraphs describing the grisly events that happen, the prologue will – for example – spend a couple of paragraphs talking in great depth about how a group of murderers carefully crafted their scalpels in accordance with various traditions. This evokes a sense of deep horror by contrasting beautiful things (eg: tradition, timeless artefacts, creativity) with the grotesquely cruel use that the scalpels are put to.

Likewise, when the scene in question does include gory detail, it will often leave some elements and details to the imagination. In other words, it will describe enough to make you wince with disgust but it won’t always go into the level of hyper-specific detail that a traditional splatterpunk novel typically would. By showing some grisly detail, then leaving some of it to the imagination – it creates the impression that some elements of the scene are too horrific to show. And, since what the reader does see is pretty gross, it makes them think that the details they don’t see are ten times worse.

Finally, the narrative tone of the scene adds an extra level of extremity to the horror. The scene in question is narrated in a casual, poetic and occasionally informal way (with the narrator even making the occasional macabre joke or talking directly to the reader). Although this sounds like it would lessen the horror of the scene, it actually makes the scene in question considerably more disturbing because the narrator is able to be so relaxed, awe-struck and/or happy in the presence of something so cruel and horrific. In other words, it makes the reader feel like they’re listening to someone very, very evil.

So, yes, extreme horror isn’t about what you show, it’s about how you show it.

2) Taboos: One of the other things that sets extreme horror fiction apart from splatterpunk horror fiction is the genre’s willingness to focus on taboo subject matter.

A good example of this is an incredibly disturbing chapter in “Word Made Flesh” where an old taxi driver talks about suffering bigotry and violent prejudice during his youth. Even though most of this chapter isn’t exactly easy reading, it finishes with one of the most unsettling, creepy and just generally disturbing passages of text I’ve read in quite a while.

After the taxi driver has talked about his tragic history, he then gives a chillingly “matter-of-fact” description of the psychology of the people who committed these crimes. Not only does this tap into some fairly disturbing subject matter, but it also examines these taboo subjects in a level of philosophical and psychological detail that is genuinely disturbing. In other words, this scene takes an unflinching look at taboo topics (like the psychology of evil ) that are too disturbing to think about in detail.

So, the difference between extreme horror fiction and splatterpunk horror fiction is the fact that whilst splatterpunk might be willing to take an unflinching look at gruesome fictional events, extreme horror is willing to take the same attitude towards real taboos. And this makes extreme horror about ten times creepier than splatterpunk horror.

Yet, this also makes extreme horror considerably more difficult to write than splatterpunk horror. After all, taboo subjects are usually taboo for a good reason.

So, not only do these scenes have to be written extremely carefully but they’re also likely to provoke strong reactions in audiences and publishers. So, yes, taboo-based horror is probably one of the most difficult elements of extreme horror fiction to get right.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Nostalgia vs. Memory – A Ramble

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Although this was supposed to be an article about creating things (art, fiction etc..) that are inspired by the past, I ended up spending all the article talking about my own experiences with the difference between nostalgia and memory. Likewise, I wrote the first draft of this article before I wrote these short stories. Still, this might help you to think about the differences between the two things more clearly.

A couple of days before I wrote this article, I went through a bit of a musical nostalgia phase. Whilst I can’t remember exactly what prompted it, I ended up looking through my collection of old CD singles again (anyone remember those?) for songs that made me feel nostalgic about the 1990s.

Whilst I bought relatively few CD singles during the 1990s (since I was a kid then, and I tended to listen to the radio and to audio cassettes more), I later went through a phase of buying every interesting old CD single I could find in charity shops when I was about seventeen. So, this wasn’t exactly my first musical nostalgia phase.

The interesting thing was that the songs that made me think about the 1990s the most were pretty much the last ones I expected. Whether it was Geri Halliwell’s surprisingly good cover of “It’s Raining Men”, “Beautiful Stranger” by Madonna or “Brimful Of Asha” By Cornershop, most of the songs that instantly made me vividly remember the 1990s weren’t exactly the kind of “retro” music I usually listen to these days.

In fact, the only songs that genuinely remind me of the 1990s that are close to my current tastes in music are probably a couple of punk songs from The Offspring’s “Americana” album. This, of course, makes perfect sense given that, although I discovered the punk genre in the late 1990s, I didn’t discover the heavy metal genre until about 2001 or the gothic rock genre until 2008. When I was a kid during the 1990s, the only music I listened to was what was easily available in the charts and/or on the radio.

Yet, if you were to ask me to think of “nostalgic 90s music”, I’d probably think of all sorts of cool bands that – to me now – seem very “1990s” but which I hadn’t actually heard during the 1990s. This, of course, is the difference between nostalgia and memory.

But, it’s not just music, it’s lots of other things too. Whenever I try to imagine a 1990s setting for a short story, comic or painting – my first thought is often about old American TV shows from the 1990s. Yet, I’ve never actually been to America. When I want to make something “look 90s”, I think of movies and music videos from the era that I never actually saw back then. When making “1990s style” art, I also tend to think of fashion designs that were a lot more common across the pond than over here.

I think that part of this is due to the fact that my nostalgia about the 1990s is a relatively recent thing. Even up until about 2008 or 2009, I was much more fascinated with the 1980s than the 1990s. So, I’ve had to do a lot of research into a decade that hadn’t quite fully entered mainstream nostalgia. Of course, American TV shows, movies, journalism, fashions etc.. tend to be a lot more well-documented online. So, they tended to turn up a lot more during my research.

Yes, in some ways, this is a little bit annoying. Because, from what I can remember and from everything I’ve seen later, the culture of 1990s Britain was really cool. It had more of a punkish rebelliousness to it than ’90s America did.

Whether it was ‘edgy’ TV shows like “Bits” or “Queer As Folk“, whether it was the cynically humourous attitude of (print) game journalism back then, whether it was the watered-down punk attitude of the Spice Girls (compared to modern pop bands, they were practically punk! One of their music videos from 1997 is also cyberpunk too!) or whether it was gleefully rebellious celebrities like Tracey Emin (I may not be a fan of conceptual art, but she was one of the coolest artists of the 90s) the 90s was a much more edgy, hedonistic, rebellious, creatively free and generally cool decade in Britain than in America. It’s just a shame I wasn’t old enough to truly enjoy or appreciate it back then!

But, is this disconnect between nostalgia and memory an entirely bad thing? No. I really like the stylised “nostalgic” version of 1990s America that I’ve built within my own imagination. It’s excitingly different to the more mundane everyday memories of 1990s Britain that I have. It’s really fun to make things (like this comic) that are based on this imagined version of another decade in another country.

But, at the same time, it doesn’t really have the same level of personal intensity as things that are actually based on memories. Making things that are based on memories, rather than nostalgia tends to have a level of vividness that doesn’t come from trying to conjure up an imagined version of the past. It feels like you are revisiting the formative parts of your imagination.

So, yes – like fantasies and reality, nostalgia and memories can be two vastly different things. But, they can both be good sources of creative inspiration.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Making Comics Vs Writing Fiction – What Are The Differences?

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Well, although I’m busy making this year’s Halloween comic at the time of writing, I thought that I’d talk about some of the differences between making comics and writing fiction.

Although I come from a writing background (eg: I’ve studied creative writing etc..), most of the storytelling that I’ve done over the past few years has been in comic form. Even though I got back into writing short fiction last year and wrote an interactive novella the year before, I’ve probably had more webcomic-making experience than writing experience within the past couple of years. Still, I’d like to think that I know enough about both mediums to be able to compare them.

So, here are a few of the major differences:

1) Art vs written descriptions: Whilst this sounds like a really obvious difference, it’s worth looking at. This is mostly because art and written descriptions both have their fair share of strengths and weaknesses. Although they fulfil the same role (eg: letting the reader know what everything looks like), they can do this in radically different ways.

The main strength of art in comics is that it allows the audience to instantly see what is happening. In addition to this, it also allows you to give your comic a unique atmosphere by using an “unrealistic” art style. When people read books, they usually tend to imagine the settings and characters in a fairly “realistic” way – regardless of how unique the author’s narrative voice might be. But, with art, you have the freedom to make everything and everyone look a bit more stylised.

Likewise, being able to alternate between art and dialogue in a comic gives you a greater level of control over the pacing of your story. If you want a scene in your comic to be slightly slower-paced, then you can add lots of dialogue and/or intricate art. If you want a scene to be faster, you can cut back on the dialogue and background detail slightly, and focus the reader’s attention on the actions that are taking place.

The only downside to all of this stuff is that, unless you hire an artist, you’ll actually have to learn how to draw and/or paint. This is worth doing, but it can take quite a bit of practice to get even close to good at it. In addition to this, you need to be at least vaguely competent at visual storytelling (eg: hinting at a story through visual details) because art lacks one of the strengths that written descriptions have.

That strength is that written descriptions can contain a lot more depth than art does.

For example, if you see a painting of a city, then you can only see whatever is in the painting. If you read a good written description of a city, then you might learn some of the city’s history, you’ll be told what life in that city is like, you might meet a couple of people who live there and/or you’ll get to take a close look at a few parts of it. In other words, you’ll get a much deeper understanding of the city.

Another strength of written descriptions is that they allow a lot more room for audience interpretation. A painting looks like whatever the artist wants it to look like. A description “looks” like whatever the audience imagines it to look like. By giving the audience a bit more control, it means that they are more emotionally invested in the story that you are trying to tell. After all, even though they might be following your instructions, they’re still building it for themselves within their own imaginations.

2) Dialogue: Dialogue in comics and dialogue in prose fiction might seem similar on the surface, but they are two radically different things that require two radically different skills to write well.

Due to the limited space in each comic panel, comic dialogue often has to be a lot shorter and more “functional” than dialogue in fiction does. Whilst there are some notable exceptions to this rule (eg: a webcomic called “Subnormality” by Winston Rowntree), most lines of dialogue in comics are often only about 1-3 sentences long.

You need to be able to do things like showing a character’s personality through phrasing and word choice (eg: the difference between “That was good!” and “Absolutely splendid!”) within a relatively small space. Likewise, you can sometimes use the dialogue for storytelling too (but beware of wordy descriptions standing in for things that should be shown via the artwork).

Comic dialogue is short, minimalist and functional. It has to be almost haiku-like in order to work well. After all, it’s only there to tell part of the story since you can also use the art for storytelling too, In many ways, it’s probably closer to writing the dialogue in a movie or a TV show than writing dialogue in prose fiction.

Prose fiction, on the other hand, gives you a lot more freedom with the dialogue. As long as it’s relevant to the plot in some way, your characters can have much longer and more naturalistic conversations. It’s easier to show a character’s personality through the dialogue and there’s a lot more freedom to use the dialogue to convey background information and story information. It’s easier and more intuitive to write than comic dialogue is.

On the other hand, unlike comics, prose fiction is read one word at a time. A comic panel might allow the reader to, say, read a line of dialogue and look at the art at the same time. With fiction, the reader can only read dialogue or descriptions at any one time. So, you have to pay a bit more attention to getting the mixture of dialogue and descriptions right.

3) Time and complexity: Comics are designed to be read quickly. A single webcomic update can be read in seconds, whereas a short story might take a few minutes to read. Since comics have less of a time cost, they can often be more attractive to audiences.

For example, last Christmas, I read a really cool 50-100 page graphic novel called “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Dust To Dust” by Philip K. Dick, Chris Roberson & Robert Adler. It was the second half of a longer story and I blazed through the whole thing in the space of about twenty minutes.

That Christmas, I also read a 243-page novel called “Brighton Belle” by Sara Sheridan. It took me about 4-6 hours, spread across several days, to read it. Even accounting for length differences, the comic was a much quicker read.

The irony is, of course, is that the time differences are reversed when you are actually making comics or writing fiction. A single webcomic page that shows a small part of a slightly simpler story might take you 1-2 hours to make if you’re inspired. A 500 word segment of a written story (that tells a slightly more complicated story) might only take you 20-30 minutes to write if you’re feeling inspired.

Likewise, because of all of the things that I’ve mentioned earlier in this article, prose fiction is more well-suited to telling more complex stories. Comics, on the other hand, are at their best when they are telling slightly more focused and streamlined stories.

Both mediums require at least a slightly different approach to storytelling and, like with writing dialogue, these two types of storytelling require surprisingly different skills. A story that works well in a novel might not work well in a comic and vice versa. They really are astonishingly different mediums, despite some similarities.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂