Three Ways To Make Familiar Horror Monsters Scarier

Well, since I’m reading a surprisingly creepy vampire novel (“The Hunger” by Whitley Strieber) at the time of writing this article, I thought that I’d talk about the horror genre again.

In particular, I thought that I’d talk about how writers can turn the familiar monsters of the genre (eg: vampires, werewolves, zombies etc..) into something a lot scarier and more disturbing. So, here are a few tips.

1) Parallels: One of the creepy things about Strieber’s “The Hunger” is that the opening scene of the novel actually plays out more like something from a slasher movie or a crime thriller. In essence, the novel portrays vampires as serial killers and this makes them even creepier.

By drawing a parallel between these two types of monsters, the story is able to create twice the horror that you would expect because it messes with the reader’s expectations. After all, “The Hunger” is clearly labelled as a vampire novel, so the reader isn’t expecting to read something that seems to fit more into the slasher genre. Yet, because the two types of monsters have some similarities with each other, the difference isn’t large enough to make the reader feel cheated.

Good horror is all about subverting expectations and lulling the audience into a false sense of security. So, finding parallels between different types of monsters and using these in unexpected ways can be a great way to add some extra fear to your story.

2) Sympathy and revulsion: Although making the monster the protagonist is hardly a new technique, the trick to making this genuinely disturbing to read is to find exactly the right balance between sympathy and revulsion.

For example, in Strieber’s “The Hunger”, one of the main characters (Miriam) is a vampire. She is also utterly amoral, cruel and sociopathic. But, whilst this alone would make her a really creepy character, the novel takes it a step further by including several dream sequences that show tragic episodes of Miriam’s past, in addition to several descriptions of how lonely and empty the life of a vampire can be.

This means that the reader is torn between feeling sorry for Miriam and fearing her. Because the balance between these two things is so carefully handled, the reader ends up feeling freaked out at themselves that they are actually feeling sympathy for a character like this. This is a difficult balance to get right but, when it works, it works!

For a contrasting example, take a look at Clive Barker’s “Cabal“. Whilst “Cabal” is probably one of the best monster novels ever written, the main character (Boone) is presented in a much more clearly sympathetic way and is also contrasted with a “100% evil” villain too. As such, whilst he is a well-written character, he isn’t really a source of horror in the way that Miriam from “The Hunger” is because the reader doesn’t really feel torn between sympathy and revulsion.

3) Other types of horror: I’ve mentioned this at least a couple of times before, but it’s always important to remember that good horror stories will often contain multiple types of horror.

In other words, if you want to make your story’s monster scary, then you can’t just rely on “Aaargh! A monster!” style horror. After all, this gets old fairly quickly.

So, look for ways to include other types of horror. These can include things like suspense, psychological horror, gory horror, scientific/medical horror, character-based horror etc… There are lots of different types of horror out there and, the more of them you include in your story, the less predictable (and more scary) it will be.

Seriously, if you look at pretty much any well-known horror novel, it will usually contain several different types of horror. So, be sure to do this too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Today’s Art (20th July 2019)

Woo hoo! I am very proud to present the first comic in “Damania Reheated”, this month’s four-comic webcomic mini series. You can find links to lots of other mini series featuring these characters on this page.

And, yes, this comic update was inspired by real life. Specifically, visiting a large bookshop in Petersfield last summer only to find that there was literally no horror shelf. Seriously, not even the token single row of shelves filled with 30-50% Stephen King books that was common in large bookshops during the ’00s.

As usual, this comic update is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Reheated – Horror Shelves” By C. A. Brown

How To Use Misdirection In The Horror Genre – A Ramble

Well, it’s been a little while since I last wrote about the horror genre, so I thought that I’d talk about misdirection in the horror genre today. This is not only because I recently happened to read a (surprisingly disturbing) horror novel in disguise but also because I ended up re-playing a few levels of a wonderfully fun horror-themed mid-late 1990s computer game called “Blood“.

Both of these things don’t initially seem to be that scary. Sure, they both contain some ominous early moments, but one is a novel from a very well-known author of thriller fiction and the other is an over-the-top late 1990s “Build Engine” first-person shooter game. Yet, once you spend some time with both, you’ll start to feel more and more creeped out.

Since I don’t want to spoil the plot of the novel, I’ll talk about how “Blood” achieves this. In short, the cartoonish graphics, ludicrous gibs, dark humour and well-established horror tropes/references initially trick you into thinking that it’s a joyously silly love letter to the horror genre.

But, in addition to some wonderfully gloomy lighting and some ominous background music, the game uses it’s difficulty to become creepier than you might initially expect. It is a fiendishly difficult game. This gradually lends the game a tense and suspenseful atmosphere that is actually slightly closer to old survival horror games than the kind of gloriously silly action game you would expect.

It’s also a testament to the power of misdirection in the horror genre too.

In short, the scariest types of horror will catch the audience by surprise. The most primitive form of this is the “jump scares” that used to be all the rage in films during the early-mid ’00s. If you’ve never seen a jump scare before, it’s a literal “boo!” moment when something scary suddenly appears on the screen (usually accompanied by a loud sound effect).

Although it is only scary for a few seconds, it’s more of an effective tool for creating horror than you might have been led to believe, since it leaves the audience feeling tense and apprehensive for a while afterwards. Even so, it’s fairly primitive.

A much more effective and sophisticated way to create truly powerful horror stories, comics etc… is through misdirection. This is when the audience are led to believe that something is less scary than it actually turns out to be. However, I should probably point out that there is one very important thing that you must remember when doing this. There should always be some small hint of horror fairly early in the story. I cannot emphasise this enough!

Although the idea of writing a light-hearted story in another genre that suddenly turns into full-on horror might sound hilarious, it is a rather cruel joke to play on the audience and it will have the opposite effect to what you might want. Yes, they’ll recoil with horror, but they will probably also feel cheated or angry.

So, be sure to include a small amount of horror early in the story. A little bit of mild horror which tells the audience “there is horror here“, so that those who don’t like horror can look at something else (and not feel cheated) whilst those who are fans of the horror genre will be both intrigued and lulled into a false sense of security.

When done well, this is one of the most effective ways to create truly scary horror. But, remember, you need to give your audience a tiny amount of warning first!

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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 🙂

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 🙂

Four Reasons Why 1970s/80s Horror Fiction Is So Cool

Well, although my next book review will be of a more modern horror novel (“Empire Of Salt” by Weston Ochse), one of the cool things that I’ve re-discovered after getting back into reading regularly are 1970s/80s horror novels (like Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus“, Richard Lewis’ “Devil’s Coach-Horse” etc..).

Back when I was a teenager during the 2000s, I absolutely loved reading second-hand copies of novels like these and I considered them to be the coolest genre of fiction in the world. And, even as a slightly more jaded and cynical adult, I still think that these novels are pretty cool. But, why are they so cool? Here are a few reasons:

1) The cover art: One of the awesome things about old 1970s/80s horror novels is that you can always tell when you’ve found one. Why? Because they have some of the coolest and most distinctive cover art that I’ve ever seen. They look like this:

And, yes, the Shaun Hutson cover is a 2000s reprint. And I haven’t reviewed “Cabal” yet – mostly since I already read it twice when I was younger [Edit: Expect a review of “Cabal” in mid-August].

Not only do these novel covers understand the value of good visual storytelling (seriously, something dramatic is happening in each of them!) but they also use lighting in a really cool way too.

If you’ve done any reading into art history, you’ve probably heard of Tenebrism before – this is a historical style of art (used by artists like Caravaggio and Joseph Wright Of Derby), milder forms of this style also are often called “chiaroscuro”.

Anyway, this is where an artist deliberately adds lots of darkness and shadows to their art in order to make the light/lighting stand out much more boldly by contrast. You can also see this technique on some old heavy metal album covers too. And it looks amazing 🙂

As a side note, although I’m painting realistic landscapes at the moment [Edit: Expect ordinary paintings to start returning more regularly from mid-June onwards], if you ever want to know where I learnt my approach to lighting in most of the art I’ve posted here during the past couple of years, then one of the major influences has been old horror novel covers. So, yes, the cover art from these awesome books can be very inspirational:

“Metal Returns” By C. A. Brown

“Haunted Mansion” By C. A. Brown

2) Splatterpunk: I’ve talked a lot about the splatterpunk genre recently and it never gets old. If you’ve never heard about splatterpunk before, it is a term for a trend within horror fiction during the 1970s-90s that involved moving away from leaving stuff to the reader’s imaginations and towards describing all of the gory details instead.

And, yes, these 1970s-90s splatterpunk novels are gruesome. Seriously, some of them make the “Saw” movies look like Disney films by comparison. But, why is splatterpunk fiction so cool?

There are a few reasons. The first is that it was a brilliantly rebellious reaction to the stricter film censorship of the 1980s (eg: the “Video Nasties” moral panic in the UK). The second reason is because this emphasis on gruesome horror often lends the stories a surprisingly timeless quality (again, modern horror movies seem fairly tame in comparison to some splatterpunk novels).

The third reason is because splatterpunk fiction had an influence on the horror genre as a whole. The fourth reason is because they often had a rather rebellious/subversive attitude towards authority. Finally, they combine the atmospheric narration of traditional horror fiction with the slightly more fast-paced storytelling of an old-school thriller novel.

3) Their popularity: If you’ve done any online reading into the history of horror fiction, you’ll have probably heard of the “horror boom” of the 1970s-90s. This was a time when horror fiction was actually a popular genre of fiction.

And, if you ever saw the woefully slender “horror” shelf of a major UK bookshop during the 2000s/early 2010s (or the way it is sometimes lumped in with “sci-fi & fantasy” – both of which should also get their own dedicated shelves- these days, if it even appears at all), then this history will fill you with both sorrow at the current state of the genre and the hope that one day it will return to it’s former popularity, like a zombie rising from the grave.

Plus, it’s just cool to read horror novels from a time when they were almost mainstream literature 🙂 Seriously, I still can’t get over how cool this is 🙂

4) They’re still very readable: Although some 1970s/80s horror novels haven’t aged well, most of them have aged surprisingly well. One of the really interesting things about a lot of old horror novels is that they rarely seem that “retro”. They often read like more modern stories that just don’t include modern technology.

Although a few of them seem either wonderfully retro or horribly dated when read these days, most of them stand the test of time surprisingly well. This is because, at their core, they are often timeless tales of human drama and/or survival. Likewise, they are often structured in a vaguely similar way to an old-style thriller novel (albeit with a few different narrative techniques) which really helps to keep these stories compelling.

In addition to this, the writing style used in many of these older horror novels is descriptive enough to be atmospheric but “matter of fact” enough to be read at a reasonable pace. Although this writing style is probably a little bit “formal” when compared to modern horror/thriller novels, it is still astonishingly readable even to this day.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting