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.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂