Three Differences Between 1980s And 1990s Horror Fiction

Well, whilst reading the late 1990s horror novel that I plan to review next (“Warhol’s Prophecy” by Shaun Hutson), I started to notice some differences in tone and style to Hutson’s 1980s horror novels. This, of course, made me think about some of the more general differences between 1980s and 1990s horror fiction.

After all, whilst horror fiction temporarily declined in popularity during the 1990s (with publishers turning away from it and many horror authors writing non-horror fiction), there is still horror fiction from the 1990s out there and – surprisingly – it is very different from 1980s horror fiction.

So, here are a few of the general differences.

1) Psychology, realism and suspense: Whilst 1980s horror fiction certainly included psychological horror and suspense, those novels often tended to have a supernatural element to them. On the other hand, 1990s horror fiction not only focused more on realism (with characters, society and/or situations providing the scares) but also on both psychological horror and suspense, as opposed to the gory horror and monsters that 1980s horror novels often favoured.

In part, this seems to have been a little bit of a marketing gimmick. Because publishers in the 1990s decided that horror fiction wasn’t fashionable and, with other genres like crime and thriller fiction also becoming more popular, horror novels from this time were often labelled as “psychological thrillers” in order to reach a larger audience. And, in order to keep up this pretence, they often had to ditch the creatures, ghosts etc… that used to be a mainstay of the genre.

Of course, being the “edgy” 1990s, these psychological thrillers often tend to have a slightly grittier edge to them than the more traditional-style atmosphere and suspense favoured in modern mainstream horror fiction. For example, Shaun Hutson’s 1999 novel “Warhol’s Prophecy” stars a bickering couple and is also punctuated by chilling descriptions of historical serial killings too. So, whilst 1990s horror fiction was moving more towards the more “respectable” status horror fiction has today, it still retained some of the cynical punk attitude of the 1980s too 🙂

2) Urban fantasy and monsters: Although traditional monster-based horror fiction fell out of favour amongst publishers in the 1990s, readers still enjoyed reading about monsters and other traditional parts of the genre during the 1990s.

However, these monsters were often found in the horror genre’s close relative, the urban fantasy genre. Although some hints of this genre existed during the late 1980s with novels like Nancy A. Collins’ “Sunglasses After Dark“, it only really started to become a major genre thanks to early-mid 1990s novels like Laurell K. Hamilton’s 1993 novel “Guilty Pleasures” and 1990s TV shows like “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”.

Although the urban fantasy genre includes elements of horror and a plethora of familiar monsters (eg: vampires, werewolves etc…), it generally tends to have more thriller-like pacing, narration and storylines than horror fiction does. These novels also often – but not always – tend to have a slightly lighter or more comedic emotional tone than traditional horror fiction too.

Likewise, although nuanced monster characters can also be found in 1980s novels like Clive Barker’s “Cabal” (and probably go all the way back to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” too), the “monsters” in urban fantasy fiction are more likely to be sympathetic characters than a source of horror.

This focus on presenting monsters as sympathetic characters also played into a general trend during the 1990s to “innovate” or to “reinvent” things. Postmodernism and cynicism were major trends in the 1990s too, with people eager to rebel against tradition in a vaguely punk-style way. So, this shift from monster horror towards genre-savvy urban fantasy makes total sense in this context.

3) Intelligence, genre and extremity: Although horror fiction still wasn’t a “respectable” mainstream genre in the 1990s, it was a more intellectual genre than it was in the 1980s and it also used shock value in a slightly different – and arguably more effective – way too.

In general, 1990s novels like “American Psycho” by Brett Easton Ellis, “Exquisite Corpse” by Poppy Z. Brite and some parts of “Word Made Flesh” by Jack O’Connell seem a lot more “extreme” than 1980s horror fiction thanks to their increased focus on more “realistic” sources of horror (such as serial killers), their focus on evil characters and a greater emphasis on disturbing and cruel situations/events presented in a more “understated” way that adds to the chilling feeling of realism. Sometimes in these novels, the concept of what is happening is actually more disturbing than how it is described.

In addition to this, these novels are also a bit more “high brow” than you might expect. Yes, 1980s horror fiction certainly included things like satire too, but 1990s horror novels will often try to have a little bit more intellectual depth or make a wider range of satirical criticisms. Likewise, there was a bit more flexibility in the genre too – with two of the novels I mentioned in the previous paragraph (“American Psycho” and “Word Made Flesh”) not even technically being “horror novels”, despite containing some very extreme horror elements.

So, 1990s horror fiction tended to be more “intellectual” than 1980s horror fiction was, with its shocking moments also feeling more “edgy” and “extreme” (despite containing less gory descriptions) thanks to things like their more understated presentation, scary protagonists and/or heavier focus on the concept of various horrifying events. Likewise, horror fiction in the 1990s wasn’t afraid to include elements from other genres too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Four Reasons Why Horror Novels Are Similar To Heavy Metal Music

Well, since I couldn’t think of a better idea for an article, I thought that I’d look at some of the reasons why horror fiction is the literary equivalent of heavy metal music 🙂

After all, although the two things do reference each other occasionally, such as the various Iron Maiden references in Shaun Hutson’s novels or the fact that Cradle Of Filth’s “Midian” album was partially inspired by Clive Barker’s “Cabal“, there are some other interesting parallels between these two awesome genres that are worth looking at 🙂

1) They were both popular during the 1980s (and are still going): Although I was technically around during part of the 1980s, I was unfortunately too young to really experience this awesome decade properly. But, in about 2001/2, I discovered both heavy metal music and horror fiction (seriously, it was one hell of a year 🙂 ) and – surprise surprise – most of the old Iron Maiden, Judas Priest etc.. albums and second-hand Shaun Hutson, James Herbert etc.. novels I found were all from the 1980s.

It absolutely blows my mind that there was actually a decade where both of these things were actually popular mainstream things, that you could easily find in major bookshops or possibly even hear on the radio. And, surprisingly, both also shared the same fate during the early-mid 1990s too – whether it was how grunge music took heavy metal’s mainstream popularity or how 1980s-style horror fiction pretty much disappeared.

Of course, both genres adapted to this sudden loss in popularity by either focusing more on die-hard fans and/or by changing themselves to fit into the mainstream. Whether it was the fact that many classic metal bands had built up enough of a loyal fandom during the 1980s to keep going despite the lack of publicity, whether it was less radio-friendly sub-genres of metal becoming more popular amongst metal fans (eg: industrial metal, death metal etc..) or even the Nu Metal fad of the late 1990s/early 2000s that briefly placed metal back into the mainstream, metal survived in one form or another.

On the other hand, horror fiction mostly survived by hiding itself in the psychological thriller, urban fantasy and crime genres during the 1990s. Plus, of course, a few classic 1970s-80s horror authors – such as Stephen King, Anne Rice and James Herbert – still had enough of a large fanbase to still keep publishing horror fiction during the 1990s too.

And, in the present day, both genres are still going strong – albeit in a fairly different form to how they were during the 1980s. Modern horror fiction has achieved some level of “respectability” and actual scariness by focusing slightly more on traditional suspense, psychological horror etc… rather than shock value (eg: novels like Nick Cutter’s “The Deep” and Adam Nevill’s “The Ritual). Likewise, although a newly-formed metal band is more likely to be a small independent band with a dedicated fanbase these days, there are still a lot of metal bands being formed these days (seriously, look on Youtube). Not to mention that many of the great – and timeless – classic metal bands are still going too 🙂

2) Sub-genres: If there’s one thing to be said for both heavy metal music and horror fiction, it is that they are a lot more complex than non-fans of these genres often tend to think. In short, both things have a lot of different sub-genres that can be so different to each other that they can almost seem like totally different genres.

Whether it is ghost stories, zombie stories, splatterpunk fiction, vampire fiction, psychological thrillers, sci-fi horror stories, weird fiction, gothic fiction, slasher/serial killer fiction and so many other genres, horror fiction can be a surprisingly multi-faceted thing where there is something for everyone. Even so, things are a bit less cut-and-dried than they might seem – given, that for a horror story to be truly scary, it needs to keep the reader on their toes by including multiple types of horror. Still, many horror stories will focus slightly more on one of many different types of horror.

Although genre-mixing is a little less common in heavy metal music, the genre has more sub-genres than I can possibly list here. And new ones are being created all of the time – whether it was the increase in popularity of pirate and viking-themed metal bands during the 2000s, or the way that some modern metal bands include electronic elements in their music (eg: trance metal bands like Rage Of Light etc..) or the fact that there are modern metal bands that make new music inspired by 1980s metal (eg: Iron Spell, Monument, Cauldron, Unleash The Archers etc..), metal is a constantly-evolving genre.

But, if there’s one word that unites the two genres, it is “complexity” or possibly “sophistication”. Although both genres were seen as “low brow” during their 1980s heyday, they will often express more creativity, complexity and variety than you might expect.

3) Awesome painted cover art: Ok, this is much more of a 1980s thing than a modern thing. But, if there’s one thing that both horror fiction and heavy metal albums had in common with each other at the time, it is that their cover art often had some really awesome similarities.

In short, both genres often used really dramatic “realistic”/highly-detailed paintings that would be filled with all sorts of dramatic visual storytelling. In addition to this, they were also one of the few places where new Tenebrist art appeared regularly – whilst updating this old genre slightly by contrasting brighter colours against the traditional gloomy backgrounds.

As works of art, these 1980s book and album covers really didn’t get the popular recognition that they deserve. And, although this cover art style grew out of the limitations of the time (eg: CGI graphics and photo-editing were a bit more primitive or expensive back then), one of the cool side effects of it was that it gave both genres a very distinctive “identity” too.

Or, to put it another way, in the early 2000s, when I only used 56k internet infrequently and smartphones didn’t exist (well, for me, they still don’t 🙂 ), my younger self could easily identify interesting-looking heavy metal albums and old horror novels in second-hand shops by literally just glancing at the cover art. Even though I might never have heard of a particular band or author before, I could tell if they were someone I might like just from the style of the cover art. Can you think of any modern genres, in this age of photo-based cover art, CGI etc… which this is true for?

Plus, of course, when I got into making art, these types of cover art probably had more than a little bit of an influence on how I handle things like lighting and colour – even if my art often tends to have slightly more of a sci-fi/cyberpunk theme to it.

“Dereliction Heights” By C. A. Brown

“Computer Parade” By C. A. Brown

“Between Floors” By C. A. Brown

4) Shock value and a sense of humour: One of the cool things about both old-school heavy metal and old-school 1980s horror fiction was that they both had fun with shock value. Whether it was the ultra-gruesome descriptions in the average splatterpunk novel or the hilariously stupid moral panic about heavy metal in mid-1980s America, both genres knew how to rebel and shock.

But, the awesome thing about this is that it was almost always done in a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek fashion. Whether it is the gloriously over-the-top unrealistic silliness of the average “gross out” ’80s splatterpunk novel (see later “giant vermin” novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Breeding Ground” and Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion” for great examples of this) or all the hilariously creative and gloriously silly outfits that metal bands used to wear during the ’80s, their sarcastic liner notes/backwards messages about the mid-1980s heavy metal controversy, their on-stage stunts like the giant puppets of Iron Maiden’s “Eddie” mascot or Judas Priest’s Rob Halford riding a motorbike on stage etc..

Neither genre takes all of this “shock value” stuff entirely seriously and this lends both genres a cool, timelessly rebellious and uniquely fun atmosphere that hardly ever turns up anywhere else (I mean, the only other examples I can think of are a few 1990s first-person shooter computer games like “Doom” and “Blood”),

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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 🙂

Three Things I Learnt From This Month’s Horror Novel Marathon

Well, since I’ve spent the past month reviewing about 10-12 horror novels, I thought that I’d look at some of the things that this experience has taught me. Although I’ve probably mentioned some of these things in previous articles, I felt like writing something of an overview article too.

Anyway, here are some of the things that I learnt from the horror marathon:

1) Balancing spontaneity and planning: The horror marathon was something of a spontaneous “wouldn’t it be cool if I did this?” kind of idea. Sometimes, these kinds of ideas can work really well (I mean, how do you think this site started?) but they should probably be paired with some level of planning too.

For example, one of the largest problems with the horror marathon was probably finding enough reading matter for it without reading more than one book by any particular author. In the end, about half of the novels I ended up reading were ones that I’d already read 10-15 years ago. It wasn’t like I had a shortage of horror novels, it was just that most of the novels I had that would have been perfect for the series were ones I’d already reviewed within the past few months. If I’d have known about the series then, I could have saved them up for this month.

So, yes, whilst a spontaneous “wouldn’t it be cool?” moment is a great way to build motivation for a project, you also need to think about planning too. Although your initial burst of enthusiasm will carry you into a project, you also need to think about how you are going to keep going when this passes. In other words, some level of long-term planning and/or advance planning is usually a good thing.

2) Variety is the spice of life: During the marathon, I read two novels (P.N.Elrod’s “Lifeblood” and Tess Gerritsen’s “The Apprentice” ) that weren’t, strictly speaking, horror novels. Sure, both of them contained elements from the horror genre, but they were closer to the detective genre than the horror genre. This was due to more than just running out of traditional horror novels to review. I needed a break from horror fiction.

Reading nothing but horror fiction isn’t as awesome as it may initially seem. In short, if you just read horror fiction then it becomes a little bit more predictable and mundane after a while. This means that scenes of horror don’t really have quite the same dramatic impact that they might do if you read novels from other genres in between each horror novel.

This, by the way, is also important if you’re planning on writing any horror fiction. Many of the best horror novels I read during the marathon also took inspiration from other genres. Whether it is the dystopian sci-fi elements in S.L.Grey’s “The Mall“, the disaster movie-style elements in James Herbert’s “The Rats“, the thriller novel elements in S.D.Perry’s “Resident Evil: City Of The Dead” etc… the best horror fiction often takes inspiration from outside of the horror genre.

3) Modern vs. old horror fiction: Although I focused on 1970s-90s classics fairly heavily during the marathon, I also read about three modern horror novels too. Still, a focus on the classics also made me think more about the modern horror novels that I’d read in the months before the marathon. It reminded me of how the two types of horror fiction differ from each other.

And, yes, horror novels are still being written these days. They’re usually scarier too. This is mostly because, whilst 1970s-90s horror novels do include multiple types of horror, there often tends to be more of a focus on less scary things like monster horrror and gory horror. On the other hand, modern horror novels will often place more emphasis on scarier things like atmosphere, psychological horror, suspense etc…

A good example from the marathon is probably Adam Nevill’s 2011 novel “The Ritual“. This is a novel about four hikers who are trapped in an abandoned forest and hunted by something. Yet, the novel is much scarier than a 1980s monster novel for the simple reason that there is a lot of focus on things like suspense, the fraying sanity of the hikers and atmospheric descriptions of the scary forest.

So, yes, although the classics are still awesome, don’t overlook modern horror fiction. It’s usually a lot more scary than you might think.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Why Your Horror Story Needs To Include Moments Of Wonder

Well, I thought that I’d take a quick look at a slightly old-school (and very much overlooked) ingredient in truly great horror fiction. I am, of course, talking about wonder. This is when the reader is left feeling awe-struck by something. When a story goes from being mere words on a page to being something almost magical. And, although this element might seem more at home in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, it can be used really well in horror fiction too.

A brilliant example of this is the horror novel I’m currently reading (“The Vampire Armand” by Anne Rice). Although this novel has some moments of horror and some disturbing story elements, the first half also includes a lot of moments of wonder (such as exquisitely evocative descriptions of Renaissance Venice). Seriously, this novel has a lot more wonder than you might expect in a horror novel.

Another awesome example is Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes“. This novel is written in such a wonderous, atmospheric and poetic way that the reader is left feeling both fascinated and scared by the creepy events of the story. It is difficult to describe, but the writing style is what turns this story from a “silly” story about a creepy funfair into something altogether more memorable, fascinating, powerful and profound.

Yet another example can be found in the horror and dark fantasy fiction of Clive Barker. For example, novels like “Cabal“, “The Scarlet Gospels” and “Weaveworld” will often include delightfully bizarre locations, fascinating distortions of reality, inventively unearthly creatures, beautiful narration etc… in addition to scenes of horror.

But, why is wonder such an important part of horror fiction? Well, there are several reasons for this. The first is that it helps to create atmosphere, which is essential for good horror. Showing the reader something wonderous draws them further into the world of your story. It is such a break from the mundane world that it will linger in their imagination for long after they finish a reading session.

Secondly, it is unexpected. Although good horror fiction relies on surprising the reader with unexpected horrific things, horror readers will usually expect scenes of horror to appear. So, delighting the reader occasionally can really catch them off guard. It means that, rather than just waiting for the next horrific thing to happen, the reader is genuinely uncertain about what to expect next.

Thirdly, it is all about contrast. By including moments of delightful wonder in your horror story, your moments of horror will appear even more horrific in comparison.

Plus, you can also contrast wonder and horror in some really clever ways too. The classic example of this is the splatterpunk fiction of authors like Shaun Hutson, James Herbert, Clive Barker etc… who will often describe horrific, gruesome and grotesque things in the kind of poetic, formal and/or “beautiful” way that you’d expect to read in a scene of wonder. This works really well when you want to gross out the reader 🙂

Finally, it is about tone and atmosphere. Traditional horror fiction is often about “good vs evil”, about “good” characters encountering the forces of evil and emerging victorious thanks to their moral principles, courage, scientific knowledge etc… Needless to say, this type of story tends to be very stern and gloomy in tone.

So, adding some moments of delight and wonder to your horror story shows your reader that you’re telling a more interesting, and less predictable, type of story. By making your reader feel emotions like happiness, joy, amazement, relaxation, desire etc… you are showing your reader that this isn’t a stern old-fashioned horror story. That they’re entering a fictional world where the old “rules” don’t apply and things are about to get interesting….

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Reasons Why Horror Writers Shouldn’t Just Read Horror Fiction

If you’re interested in writing horror fiction, you’ve probably heard the old piece of advice about how you shouldn’t just read horror fiction (and, yes, reading regularly is an important part of being a writer).

Anyway, deciding to have a horror marathon for this month’s book reviews reminded me of this advice. Especially since my reaction to focusing on horror novels rather than my usual mixture of genres (eg: sci-fi, detective, historical, urban fantasy/dark fantasy, thriller and horror fiction) was a bit different than I’d expected. So, I thought that I’d offer a few reasons why horror writers shouldn’t just read horror fiction.

1) It’ll make your stories more interesting: This has been said before by many other people, but it’s one of the main reasons why horror writers shouldn’t just read horror fiction.

In short, many of the best horror stories often take inspiration from outside of the horror genre. They’re frightening, creepy, unpredictable, compelling or dramatic because they also borrow elements from other genres.

For example, one of the scariest horror novels I’ve read in recent months is Nick Cutter’s “The Deep“. Whilst this novel uses a lot of horror genre techniques to great effect, it’s also interesting and unsettling because of the sci-fi elements that it includes.

Yes, sci-fi and horror are hardly a new combination (for a reverse example, read “Blood Music” by Greg Bear – a sci-fi novel with some horror elements) , but it adds a lot more potential and possibilities to a horror story than just the traditional settings of old buildings, gloomy streets etc…

Another example is the novel I’m reading at the moment, “Lifeblood” by P.N.Elrod (the sequel to Elrod’s “Bloodlist). Although this novel isn’t really particularly scary, it’s a really cool blend of the vampire genre and the hardboiled detective fiction of the 1920s-50s (eg: Chandler, Hammett, Spillane etc..). This alone makes it much more creative and interesting than the average vampire novel.

In short, if you want to make your horror novel more interesting, then you need to read other genres. Not only that, reading other genres will also teach you techniques that you might not learn from horror fiction alone. For example, if you want to learn how to write suspense and/or fast-paced scenes, then read thriller novels. If you want to learn how to add atmosphere, then read historical fiction. If you want to learn how to make modern technology terrifying, read dystopian sci-fi etc….

2) Variety is the spice of life: In short, I’d expected this month’s horror marathon to be easy. After all, I read a lot of horror fiction when I was younger. But, it is proving to be a bit more of a challenge than I’d initially expected.

Whilst I still enjoy horror fiction and hope to continue the marathon, reading so much of it in such a short space of time has made me aware of the limitations of just reading one genre. Some things become easier to predict, it’s easier to feel jaded and you start seeing the same types of characters/situations again and again. After a while, it makes you crave some variety.

I mean, one of the reasons why I’m currently reading a detective novel that only has a vague connection to the horror genre is because, out of the three vampire novels I’d thought about reading, P.N.Elrod’s “Lifeblood” seemed the most different from a typical horror novel. I needed a short break.

But, why? Simply put, horror fiction “works” by surprising the reader. It works because it is so different to many other genres. But, if you just read horror fiction, then it becomes ordinary, mundane, humdrum…. So, taking a break and reading something different can make the horror genre feel fresh again when you return to it. In short, reading other stuff reminds you of why the horror genre is so awesome.

3) Your horror story needs other stuff: If you’ve read horror fiction, then you’ll know that it isn’t 100% horror 100% of the time. Yes, more scary stuff than usual happens in a horror novel, but this isn’t 100% of the novel.

Even the most frightening horror novel will also include things like humour, drama, suspense, romance etc.. in addition to scary characters, monsters and/or situations. But, why? Well, a horror story is still a story. It can’t just be a random collection of frightening moments. In order to “work”, a horror story needs to tell a story. And stories usually include non-horror elements too. Because real life does.

There’s also the fact that good horror relies on clever pacing. It relies on the contrast between frightening and non-frightening moments. It relies on making the reader care about the characters (via characterisation, drama etc..). I could go on for a while, but horror stories need non-horror elements. And you’ll learn how to write these well by reading a wide range of novels.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Innovative Scares To Use In Your Horror Story

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.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Basic Tips For Writing Gruesome Horror Fiction

Well, I ended up thinking about the topic of gruesome horror fiction recently after a couple of things. Firstly, one of the short story practice projects (that I probably won’t post here) that I finished the day before writing this article ended up being somewhat different from the more sanitised style of horror fiction that I seem to have drifted towards writing during the past decade. Secondly, I’m also reading another zombie novel (“Plague Town” by Dana Fredsti) at the moment too.

So, I thought that I’d offer a few basic tips for writing gruesome horror fiction.

1) Read it!: I cannot emphasise this enough – to write gruesome horror fiction you need to have read a lot of it.

And, yes, if you’re feeling put off by the idea of this, then this type of horror fiction isn’t for you (and you should probably focus on something like gothic horror or ghost stories or something like that instead). If not, then it is well worth reading several gruesome horror novels before you think about writing this type of fiction.

It’s probably best to start with the splatterpunk classics of the 1970s-90s. The books I’d recommend starting with are “Erebus” by Shaun Hutson, “The Rats” by James Herbert and/or any of “The Books Of Blood” by Clive Barker.

If you want something more modern, then just look for pretty much any zombie novel published within about the past two decades (since this is the closest thing to the splatterpunk genre still around in the present day).

When you read gruesome horror fiction, you’ll start to notice that each author has their own style, vocabulary etc.. for describing scenes of gruesome horror. And, like finding your own narrative “voice”, the best way to learn how to write gruesome horror is simply to read lots of different authors who write this type of fiction.

2) Pacing and frequency: There are two main approaches to this and each have their advantages and disadvantages. So, the best way to handle how often your gruesome scenes appear is probably to aim for something between both of these approaches.

The classic splatterpunk approach to writing gruesome horror fiction is simply to overload the reader with frequent grisly descriptions. This has the advantage of creating a grim, macabre and nihilistic atmosphere, where horrific death is never more than a few pages away.

On the downside, this lessens the shock value and/or horror value of your story’s gruesome moments, since the reader will get used to them fairly quickly. Yes, this makes the reader feel “tough” or “fearless” (since they aren’t feeling shocked or horrified) but it also severely reduces the impact of any individual gruesome scene.

The other approach is to carefully ration your story’s gruesome moments. To only include a small number of them, but to make each one especially horrific or grotesque and to build up to each one using a lot of suspense.

The main advantage of this approach is that these scenes will have a lot more dramatic impact (for a good example, read “In The Miso Soup” by Ryu Murakami). On the downside, this approach to writing gruesome horror fiction is a lot more difficult to get right than the classic splatterpunk approach.

3) Other types of horror: On it’s own, gruesome horror isn’t scary. It can be disgusting, grotesque, repulsive, macabre or grim. But, it isn’t really scary. So, you also need to include other types of horror too. Seriously, don’t just rely on gruesome horror if you’re writing a horror story.

Fortunately, most of the situations where gruesome moments of horror are likely to happen are also situations where other types of horror are to be expected.

For example, if one of your characters is about to be eaten by a monster, then this is the perfect place to add a bit of suspenseful horror. Likewise, if your story is set during a zombie apocalypse, then this is the perfect place to add some tragic horror, bleak horror and/or disease-based horror.

But, the most important thing to remember is that gruesome horror isn’t inherently scary. So, when something gruesome happens in your story, you also need to pair it with other types of horror if you want to make the scene truly shocking or frightening.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Tips For Writing Reassuring Horror Fiction

Well, I recently ended up thinking about the topic of reassuring horror fiction recently. And, yes, I know that this sounds like a contradiction in terms – but, horror fiction can be reassuring.

A day or so before I wrote this article, I was stressed out by various things and I also realised that I had to start reading another novel if I wanted to post a review here tomorrow. I’d planned to read a more high-brow novel, but I just didn’t feel in the mood for it.

So, I started reading a sci-fi horror novel (“Aliens: Rogue” by Sandy Schofield) instead. This was the kind of cheesy horror novel I used to read all the time when I was a teenager and it just felt reassuring to be reading this type of fiction again. Like watching a favourite old film or playing an old computer game you really love.

So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips for writing reassuring horror fiction because, yes, horror fiction can be reassuring. So, let’s get started:

1) Unrealistic horror: One of the first ways to write reassuring horror is to make sure that the horrors in your story are clearly unrealistic.

Whether they’re zombies, monsters, vampires etc… the trick here is to come up with a story that will be grippingly suspenseful but, when it is over, your audience will have no reason to keep feeling afraid. This helps your audience to feel tough and fearless and, as such, will make your story feel considerably more reassuring.

And, yes, familiarity helps a lot here too. A classic cinematic example of this is the first “Nightmare On Elm Street” movie. The film itself contains some inventively macabre moments and some nail-biting suspense, but the horror doesn’t linger afterwards for the simple reason that Freddy Krueger is such a pop culture icon. He’s an over-the-top, fantastical monster who is conceptually scary (eg: the idea of a monster who haunts people’s dreams) but, because he’s so well-known, he isn’t likely to shock or disturb the audience too much.

A good literary example is probably Clive Barker’s “The Scarlet Gospels“. This novel is an incredibly gruesome, fast-paced horror thriller – but it isn’t really that scary for the simple reason that the novel’s main villain is such a well-known horror monster (after all, Clive Barker created the “Hellraiser” franchise). So, the reader gets to experience a grisly trip to hell and back without feeling too scared because, chances are, they’ve already seen at least one or two of the “Hellraiser” films and know what to expect.

But, of course, if you’re writing your own horror fiction, then you’ll either have to come up with your own horror monsters (make them witty, over-the-top, slightly silly etc..) or use popular types of monsters that aren’t copyrighted (eg: vampires, werewolves, zombies etc…).

2) Tough protagonists: Real, frightening horror is all about vulnerability. It’s about being alone at night and hearing something approaching. It’s about finding yourself out of your depth. It’s about bleakness, hopelessness and sorrow. It’s about facing certain and inevitable death. All of this stuff is, as you might have guessed, not particularly reassuring.

So, a good way to make your horror fiction a bit more reassuring is to give your protagonists the means and skills to confidently fight back against the horror.

For example, I recently read a novel called “Patient Zero” by Jonathan Maberry. It’s a military action-thriller novel with zombies in it. It was quite a lot of fun to read, but not particularly scary for the simple reason that – even when the main character is unarmed – he’s a well-trained soldier with lots of martial arts experience. As such, whilst the novel is certainly gruesome and suspenseful, you get all of the drama of a horror novel without any of the lingering unease or fear.

The best examples of this sort of thing can, of course, be found in computer and video games. For example, the reason why horror-themed first-person shooter games like “Doom II“, “Left 4 Dead 2“, “Quake” etc.. aren’t very scary is because you’re usually playing as either a well-armed soldier or part of an expert team.

By contrast, a game like “Silent Hill 3” is about fifty times more terrifying for the simple reason that your character is a lone teenager who isn’t very good with weapons (and the game’s combat system is deliberately slow and imprecise to reflect this fact).

So, if your main character is tough and has the means to confidently fight back against the horrors they encounter, then your horror story will be a lot more reassuring.

3) Gory horror: This might sound counter-intuitive but, just because you’re writing a reassuring horror story, don’t be afraid to make it really gruesome. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First of all, gruesome horror is only scary when it also includes other forms of horror too. So, if you don’t include those, then you can make your story as gory as you want whilst also making your audience feel brave and tough because they aren’t feeling too scared by it.

For example, compare the films “Shaun Of The Dead” and “Saw III” – both films contain buckets of stage blood, but “Shaun Of The Dead” is a comedy about zombies. It’s gory, but it isn’t frightening because there are no other types of horror present.

On the other hand, “Saw III” is a scary, shocking, disturbing and unsettling film (people actually fainted when it was shown in cinemas) for the simple reason that all of the film’s gory scenes are accompanied by “realistic” examples of several other types of horror – such as vulnerability, cruelty/sadism, hopelessness, certain death, psychological horror etc….

Secondly, over-the-top gory horror isn’t inherently scary if it is presented in a clearly unrealistic context. In essence, the less likely something is to actually happen in real life, the less genuinely frightening it will be (and the more “fearless” your audience will feel whilst reading it).

This is why, for example, an ultra-gruesome zombie apocalypse novel probably won’t be very scary, but something like a short description of realistic horrors (eg: warfare, disease, violent crimes, natural disasters etc..) will be disturbing. So, if your horror story takes place in an unrealistic context, then you can make it as gruesome as you want without disturbing your audience too much.

So, yes, reassuring horror doesn’t have to mean sanitised horror.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Tips For Finding Your Own “Style” Of Horror Fiction

If you’re interested in writing horror fiction, then one of the things that can really surprise you is when the type of horror fiction that you enjoy reading isn’t the same as the type that you are best at writing.

So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips for finding your own “style” of horror fiction.

1) Experimentation and introspection: As any evil scientist will tell you, nothing beats good old-fashioned experiments. Simply put, the best way to work out whether a particular type of horror fiction really works for you is simply to try writing some of it. In addition to showing you what you are good at, it’ll also show you what doesn’t work for you.

And, as I mentioned earlier, this might catch you by surprise. The things that you enjoy as a reader might not be the same things you really thrive at writing. This can happen for a number of reasons – perhaps it was written in a different context to the one you’re writing in? Perhaps you don’t know enough about your favourite genre of horror to feel confident enough about writing it? Is the stuff you enjoy reading too intellectual or not intellectual enough? Who knows?

Once you’ve got over the shock of “I can’t write this, but I really enjoy reading it”, try to work out why. As soon as you work out the reasons for this, then you can either take steps (eg: research, writing practice etc..) to get better at the genre of horror you want to write or, more interestingly, you can use what you’ve learnt in order to find genres of horror fiction that do work for you.

2) Other influences: Another way to find your own style of horror fiction is just to look at your other influences and see if you can find a way to add a bit of horror to them. And, yes, you should have influences from outside the horror genre too. In fact, you almost certainly already do.

I mean, unless you’ve spent your entire life watching nothing but horror movies, reading nothing but horror novels, playing nothing but horror videogames and listening to nothing but the growlier types of heavy metal then you’re going to have other influences, whether you know it or not. And this is a good thing.

Why? If you want to come up with your own unique, distinctive “style” of horror then you’re going to have to introduce stuff from outside the horror genre. After all, fans of the horror genre are already familiar with everything within the horror genre. So, if you want to create horror fiction that’s a bit more unique and a bit more “you”, then you’re going to have to look outside the genre at the things you love for inspiration.

And, sometimes, the style of horror fiction you thrive at writing might be different to the type you enjoy reading. One reason for this can simply be that the greatest influences on your writing come from outside the horror genre. So, try to find a way to add some horror to them rather than just trying to copy the horror novels you enjoy reading.

3) Your own fears and sensibilities: Although the old advice to write about what actually scares you might seem simplistic at first glance, it’s actually really clever advice – if you put some thought into it first. In other words, instead of just copy-pasting your phobias and nightmares onto the page, try to work out why they scare you so much.

Once you’ve worked this out, you can take the basic underlying idea and apply it to much more interesting and imaginative situations. You can give your story a level of personality and depth that a simple monster story cannot.

And, yes, many of the famous tropes of the horror genre started out this way. For example, although zombies might be grotesque-looking walking corpses, this usually isn’t the main source of horror in a good zombie story. In a good zombie story, the zombies will often be a metaphor for some other, more realistic, fear – such as disease, loss of individuality, societal collapse, mortality, bereavement/grief, existential meaninglessness etc…

So, yes, do a bit of introspection and work out why your fears exist – then take that knowledge and use it in a new and imaginative way.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂