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 🙂

Today’s Art ( 17th February 2020)

Well, although the composition of this digitally-edited painting wasn’t as good as I’d hoped, I had a lot of fun making it. In addition to being a stylised “1990s nostalgia” painting, it’s also a cartoon about how horror fiction really didn’t get the level of prominence/publishing/shelf space that it should have during the 1990s/early-mid 2000s.

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

“It Came From The Horror Shelf” By C. A. Brown

Three Reasons Why Horror Stories Are Set In The Past

Before I begin, I should probably point out that the vast majority of horror novels are set in the time that they were written. The main reason for this is that a “modern” setting gives the story a much greater feeling of realism and immediacy, which makes the scenes of horror feel even scarier (as if they could really happen to you, right now…).

Older and historical settings generally tend to be more common in visual media, like horror films and videogames, where the emphasis is on making locations that look scary. And since old-looking places are a good way to create an atmosphere of decay or to ominously hint at a scary or tragic history, then they show up in visual media a lot more.

Even so, you can still sometimes find horror novels that are intentionally or unintentionally set in the past. But, why? Here are a few of the possible reasons:

1) Accidental ageing: There is usually something of a time gap between when a novel is written and when it is published. This was probably slightly more of a thing in the past than it is today, but it is still something that can result in a “modern” horror story being set further in the past than it was originally intended to be. Since this gap is often just a year or two, it usually isn’t that noticeable. But, sometimes, it can result in some unusually-aged horror fiction.

A great example of this is the novel that I’m reading at the moment – Gary Brandner’s 1980 novel “Death Walkers” (also known as “Walkers”). This was a novel that I originally bought because it was an ’80s horror novel, only to suddenly discover upon reading the opening chapter (which, amongst other things, includes a “Saturday Night Fever”-style disco dancer) that it is very much a ’70s horror novel – even down to the general atmosphere/style of the book and the fact that what I’ve read so far focuses more on traditional-style paranormal/scientific/gothic/macabre horror rather than the ultra-gruesome splatterpunk horror that became synonymous with the 1980s.

So, if there are major social or cultural changes in the gap between writing and publication, then this can result in a horror story unintentionally feeling like it is set in the past.

2) Suspense was better in the olden days: One of the most essential ingredients of any good horror story is suspense, the feeling of creeping dread that something evil lurks nearby or something terrible is going to happen. And, well, suspense was a lot better in the olden days than it is in the modern day.

After all, if a character finds a creepy old cursed amulet these days, they can just search for information about it online or take a photo of it and post it on social media. In the olden days, learning about it would require the characters to do lots of long, suspenseful library research which gradually revealed more and more clues, each one creepier and more menacing than the last.

If there’s an ominous abandoned building, a modern character can probably either find a website about it or some online footage of someone else exploring it. If one main character finds themselves separated from the other main characters, then a quick text message will keep them in touch with each other. If the main character finds themselves lost in the woods, GPS will come to the rescue. If someone glimpses something ominous or bizarre, the smartphone footage of it will probably go viral….

I could go on, but as wonderful as some of this stuff probably is in real life, it is terrible for horror fiction. So, setting your horror story in the past can be a great way to add a lot more suspense to your story.

3) Inspirations, nostalgia and cynicism: This is the most obvious one. In short, most people are inspired to write horror fiction by older horror stories. Whether it is gothic 19th century ghost stories or the many novels from horror fiction’s popular heyday during the 1980s, pretty much everyone who wants to write horror fiction has been inspired by older horror novels. So, this inspiration can sometimes explain historical settings in horror stories.

In addition to this, don’t discount good old fashioned nostalgia. One of the cool things about both reading and writing fiction is that it is one of the closest things to time travel that we all have. Because books are immersive things that can contain lots of detail and require the reader to use their imaginations, they can literally throw us back in time in a way that movies, comics, games etc… can only dream of. So, wanting to revisit the past can be one reason why horror stories (and detective, thriller, romance etc.. stories) can be set in the past.

Of course, this nostalgia can also be paired with a certain level of cynicism, an impish desire to creep the reader out by adding some ominous creepiness or bleak realism to the rose-tinted visions of the past that linger in their imaginations. So, sometimes horror stories are set in the past because there is nothing more fascinating, intriguing and grimly amusing than taking some beloved part of the past and turning it into something a bit more nightmarish.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

How Gory Should Your Horror Story Be?

Well, I thought that I’d talk about writing horror fiction today. In particular, the question of how gory a horror story should be. The short answer to this question is, of course, “it depends on the story you are telling”. But, I thought that I’d look at this topic in more detail, since the horror novel I’m reading at the moment (Shaun Hutson’s 2015 novel “Monolith”) reminded me of some interesting modern developments in this area.

In short, with the one exception of the zombie genre, modern horror novels often tend to focus less on gory horror than 1980s horror fiction did. This isn’t to say that they are completely bloodless, but gory moments aren’t usually the main focus of many modern horror stories in the way that they often were in the 1980s. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main one is that other types of horror (eg: psychological horror, suspense, character-based horror etc..) are a lot scarier than gory horror.

Nowhere can this be seen better than in the first half of a modern Shaun Hutson novel called “Monolith” that I’m reading at the moment. Unlike Hutson’s 1980s splatterpunk novels (such as “Erebus“, “Deathday” and “Breeding Ground) that revelled in page upon page of detailed gory descriptions, the first half of “Monolith” tends to focus more on mystery, suspense, bleakness etc… with the relatively few gruesome moments so far being both shorter and less detailed than they would have been in one of his 1980s novels.

Yet, the novel’s gruesome moments still have a similar level of impact since they tend to focus more on the characters involved in these scenes (and their fear of death etc..). So, whilst “Monolith” doesn’t try to gross the reader out as much as Hutson’s older novels do, this is actually replaced with some more psychological horror. Likewise, there’s often a fair amount of suspense in these scenes too – since you know that something horrible is going to happen, but you don’t know what or when. It’s a really interesting example of how the horror genre’s attitude towards gory horror has changed over the years.

Of course, just because modern horror fiction is often less gory than 1980s horror fiction doesn’t mean that you can’t include gory horror. Pretty much every “serious” modern horror novel will include some level of gory horror – however, it is also often handled in a different (and perhaps more effective) way than it used to be during the splatterpunk heyday of the 1980s. In short, modern writers have realised that gory moments are at their most shocking when they appear less often. In short, if the reader has just read four grisly scenes, then the fifth one won’t really be that much of a surprise to them.

It’s a bit like the old rule about using profanity in fiction. You can use as much of it as you like but, every time you use it, the next time will have slightly less impact. So, gory descriptions tend to be at their most horrifying when the reader isn’t expecting one. In other words, choose your moments carefully. A great example of this is a horror novel from the 1990s called “In The Miso Soup” by Ryu Murakami. This novel only really has one gruesome moment, but it is a lot more horrifying than you’d expect because of when and how it happens.

The best way to think of gory horror is that, these days, it is just one of many tools that a horror writer can use. Truly scary horror fiction relies on keeping the reader on their toes by using lots of different types of horror. Gory horror is one of them, but don’t forget that things like psychological horror, body horror, cruel horror, character-based horror, paranormal horror, bleak horror, gothic horror, suspense etc… matter just as much these days.

Still, saying this, you should still read old 1980s splatterpunk novels (by authors like James Herbert, Shaun Hutson, Clive Barker etc..) because not only do they offer a brilliant education in how to write effective and shocking gory descriptions but they also show off some of the effects of including lots of gore in your horror story.

In short, whilst the gruesome parts of these old novels stop becoming shocking after a few chapters, they still add a lot of horror to the story because the sheer amount of gruesome moments creates a bleak, grim and nihilistic atmosphere (comparable to something like “Game Of Thrones”) which leaves the reader in no doubt that they’re reading a horror novel.

Interestingly, the same effect is still used in modern zombie fiction. Seriously, if you’re writing a modern zombie novel, then you still need to include lots of gory horror. It’s pretty much a mandatory part of the genre because of the nihilistic feeling of bleakness that it evokes (which goes really well with zombie apocalypses).

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Things Writers Can Learn From 1980s Shaun Hutson Novels

Well, since I’m re-reading another classic ’80s horror novel by Shaun Hutson (“Deathday”, if anyone is curious), I thought that I’d talk about what these books can teach us about writing. However, I should probably start with some background information before getting on to the main part of the article.

If you haven’t heard of Shaun Hutson before, he is one of several horror authors who rose to prominence during the splatterpunk trend in horror publishing, where horror novels could finally include things like ultra-gruesome descriptions and cynical social commentary.

Although Hutson didn’t really get the “household name” fame of some other 1980s horror authors, he still has a loyal fanbase and – like many great horror authors – is still writing fiction these days (returning to horror fiction after writing several gritty thriller novels during the horror publishing drought of the 1990s/2000s). Even so, I’ll mostly be focusing on his “classic” 1980s horror novels in this article.

Even though I only discovered Hutson’s 1980s novels quite a while after they were published (eg: during my teenage years in the early-mid 2000s), they were one of the main things that made me a lot more interested in both reading and writing at the time. And, returning to them again more recently, I’ve started to notice all sorts of interesting writing lessons hidden within them.

Needless to say, this article may contain some SPOILERS for “The Skull”, “Relics”, “Deathday”, “Erebus” and his later novel “Exit Wounds”.

1) Familiarity and difference: One of the cool things about old Shaun Hutson novels is how he’s able to use both familiarity and difference to reward fans of his novels. In short, each novel tells an interestingly different story- but there are enough familiar features, references and “easter eggs” for fans to spot too.

These include things like familiar descriptive words (eg: “mucoid”, “liquescent”, “coppery”, “scapula”, “cleft” etc…), occasional heavy metal/rock references or the fact that the main character’s love interest will almost always be a blonde woman who wears jeans. Although these things might sound like they would make each novel repetitive, the fact that the plot of each novel differs quite a bit means that they are a bit more like an artist’s personal style or the distinctive tones of a musician’s favourite instrument. In other words, they are something that tells fans that “yes, this is a Shaun Hutson novel” 🙂

In addition to this, he also does clever stuff with his previous novels in order to keep fans on their toes. For example, his 1986 novel “Relics” initially seems a bit like an enhanced remake of his 1982 archaeological monster novel “The Skull“, before going in a different and more dramatic direction.

Likewise, there’s this brilliant scene in one of the earlier parts of his 1986 novel “Deathday” where two gardners tasked with clearing an overgrown part of a graveyard finally dig up a stubborn tree stump, only to be confronted by a giant slug lurking beneath it. At the time that this novel was first published, readers would probably have thought “Cool. This is a sequel to ‘Slugs’ and ‘Breeding Ground“, two of Hutson’s earlier monster novels about giant slugs. However, in a genius twist, the giant slug is swiftly killed with an axe and the novel then goes in a very different direction.

So, in short, having familiar features can be a good way to give something extra to your fanbase. However, in order for these to work well, they also have to be paired with creativity, difference and a willingness to catch your audience off-guard.

2) Genre-mixing: Another cool thing about Shaun Hutson’s 1980s novels is how he’s able to blend familiar horror tropes in all sorts of creative ways. For example, his 1984 novel “Erebus” is technically a vampire novel. However, the novel’s vampires – whilst still displaying some vampiric traits – actually act and look more like zombies than vampires. This makes the novel more interesting, and unpredictable, than either a traditional vampire or zombie story would be.

This is expanded upon in “Deathday”, where an ancient curse turns it’s victims into a hybrid of light-sensitive vampires, undead zombies, red-eyed demons and slasher movie serial killers. This blending of horror monsters not only provides a good contrast between familiarity and novelty, but it also means that the reader is genuinely curious about the monsters too. As such, they seem a bit more formidable than just another zombie, vampire etc… would be.

You can also even see this in some of Hutson’s later novels, such as when he temporarily moved away from writing horror fiction (probably because publishers turned their back on the genre) and wrote gritty thriller novels instead. Not only did some of his older horror novels (“Relics”, “Deathday”, “Assassin” etc..) include elements from the crime/detective genre, so that the change wasn’t too jarring – but he also included some elements from the horror genre in his thriller novels too.

For example, his 2000 thriller novel “Exit Wounds” memorably ends with an extended 15-20 page gunfight scene that is as grisly and brutal as something from one of his horror novels. Compared to the faster-paced and slightly more sanitised violence you’d expect to see in a typical action-thriller novel, this can really catch you by surprise.

So, yes, Shaun Hutson novels can teach us quite a bit about the value of genre-mixing. If you want a memorable story that will both surprise and appeal to fans of a particular genre, then don’t be afraid to blend in stuff from other genres too.

3) Do your own thing: One of the cool thing about Hutson’s 1980s horror novels is that you really get the sense that he was having fun writing them and that he was writing the kinds of stories that only he could write.

Whether it is the occasional reference to his favourite music (eg: an Iron Maiden song plays in the background of one scene in “Breeding Ground”, there are song-lyric epigrams in some novels etc..), the way that his brilliantly cynical attitude towards the world emerges in his stories or even the rural southern English settings, most of Hutson’s 1980s novels really feel like his own distinctive thing.

And, you should try to do the same. In other words, look for the things that really fascinate you, which make you you etc.. and then find a way to incorporate them into your novel whilst also telling an interesting story at the same time. Yes, even if you think that you are “boring” or “ordinary”, then do this nonetheless – there will be readers out there who will either find it fascinatingly different or fascinatingly familiar.

I mean, when I was a teenager, there was nothing more amazing than finding an author who not only wrote horror stories set in the kind of places I knew fairly well but who also had the same favourite heavy metal band as I do 🙂 So, yes, even if you feel that you are “ordinary” or whatever, then you should still do your own distinctive thing. There will be readers who are interested in it.

4) Don’t be afraid to be intelligent: One of the cool things I noticed when re-reading Shaun Hutson’s 1980s horror novels is that, whilst they tell the kind of fast-paced, focused stories that are relaxingly enjoyable, they are also written in a more sophisticated, formal and descriptive way than you might expect.

In other words, despite probably being considered a “low-brow” author during the 1980s, Hutson’s writing is sometimes more “literary” than you might expect. Here’s a descriptive sentence from “Deathday” to show you what I mean: ‘The sky was heavy with clouds, great, grey, washed out billows which scudded across the heavens, pushed by the strong breeze.’ It’s a long and formal descriptive sentence, yet it is placed within a fast-paced horror novel. And it works 🙂

What I’m trying to say here is that, even though there is a trend towards narration in fiction becoming more streamlined and informal these days (to compete with smartphones, the internet etc..), don’t be afraid to show off your writing talents. It’s ok to use long words, formal descriptions etc… occasionally if they are interesting or if they add something to the story.

Not only that, don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence either – I mean, although I didn’t consciously notice all of this formal stuff when I first read “Deathday” when I was a teenager, I still really enjoyed the thrilling fast-paced horror story it told. In fact, from everything I’ve read, most of Hutson’s fans first discovered his novels when they were teenagers. So, yes, slightly sophisticated or formal moments in stories are something that most readers can easily handle.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Shock Value And Storytelling Mediums – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d talk about shock value and storytelling mediums today mostly because, early this year (I write these articles quite far in advance), I happened to read a few online articles about a controversial play in London which apparently made an audience member faint. This made me remember when I saw a “shocking” play quite a few years ago.

It was a recreation of several short late 19th/early 20th century Grand Guignol plays that was performed at the 2009 Abertoir film festival. Although it told the kind of melodramatic vintage horror stories that wouldn’t be that scary or shocking in most other mediums, it was about ten times more shocking for the simple reason that the play’s horrors actually appeared to take place in real life. So, this made me think about whether shock value works better in different mediums.

But, whilst mediums that place less distance between the audience and the story (eg: theatre, videogames etc..) can shock the audience slightly more easily than mediums where the audience feels slightly further away from what is happening (eg: film, comics, novels, music etc..), shock value can be achieved in every medium. However, I’d argue that shock value probably has more to do with both the audience and their expectations than the medium itself.

I mean, the Grand Guignol play was shocking for the simple reason that I’d never seen a play in the horror genre before. On the other hand, I’ve seen quite a few horror movies, played several horror computer/video games and read numerous horror novels etc.. so, these things have to be especially shocking in order to elicit this reaction in me. So, what your audience are used to plays quite a large role in how much shock value something has.

On a side note, this is also probably why Raven Gregory’s “Return To Wonderland” was such a shocking horror comic to read. Leaving aside the ultra-gruesome artwork and disturbing storyline, horror comics are nowhere near as common as they apparently were in the genre’s 1940s-50s heyday (before they got censored by the Comics Code and were replaced with superhero comics). So, when I happened to read this comic a decade or so ago, it was a genuine shock because I hadn’t really seen many horror comics – let alone more modern ones- before.

But, the best types of shock value play with audience expectations in interesting ways and this is something that can be done in pretty much any medium. Of course, there many ways to achieve this type of shock value – but the best of these involves leading the audience to expect something mildly “shocking” and then giving them something even more shocking. This works for the simple reason that it makes the audience feel like they are tough or unshockable, only to catch them by surprise later.

So, whilst some mediums have a slightly easier time achieving shock value than others, it can still be achieved in pretty much any medium since it has more to do with the audience than the medium itself.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂

Why Good Horror Novels Include Comedy

Well, although I’ve talked about the topic of comedy in horror fiction before, I thought that I’d return to it today after I started reading a horror novel from the late 1950s called “The Haunting Of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson (mild SPOILERS ahoy).

Although the novel starts in a fairly sombre, ominous and morose way, and I’d worried that reading it was going to be an extremely miserable experience, there is a surprising amount of comedy in the first half of the novel. Most of this consists of amusingly irreverent dialogue, quirky characters, dark comedy and even some hilariously obscure literary humour (eg: a reference to how Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel “Pamela” is, as I can personally remember from my university days, dull enough to quite literally send the reader to sleep).

Yet, this comedy compliments the novel’s horror elements really well. It slightly tempers the ominous bleakness of the story, whilst also coming across as a disturbing sign that the characters are trying to protect their sanity when faced with the prospect of living in a creepy old house. After the unsettling early parts of the novel, the first moments of humour are brilliantly unexpected and can really catch you off-guard. Not only that, all of the humour seems to be a natural product of the characters and the setting, which allows it to fit in with the rest of the story really well.

But, why is it there in the first place? Why do horror novels often include moments of comedy? After all, the two genres are supposed to be complete opposites.

Well, there are quite a few reasons for this (that I’ve mentioned in previous articles), including how both genres rely on similar techniques, how it adds personality to the story, how the contrast between horror and comedy heightens the impact of both things, how it shows the reader that the author is a fan of the horror genre (to the point where they can joke about it) and because “100% horror 100% of the time” makes the reader feel jaded and less easy to scare.

But, the most important reason is probably to do with the emotional tone of the story. In short, adding a bit of comedy to your horror story tells your reader that they can’t be certain of what to expect. After all, horror stories are traditionally grim, sombre and bleak things that are filled with misery, death and other such things. So, including a bit of comedy tells your reader “Nope. This isn’t one of those stories.” It tells them that this is a different type of horror story.

Although this probably worked better in older horror novels (I mean, I was genuinely surprised that a horror novel from the 1950s could be funny), it is still effective in modern horror novels. If anything, it’s practically a requirement these days. After all, what better way is there to tell a reader that a new horror novel will give them something different from the old ones?

Of course, to do this properly, the comedy in a horror novel has to feel like a natural part of the story. This is easier to do than you might think. In short, if your story has vaguely interesting characters and/or a slightly strange premise, then this can be used for comedy as effectively as it can be used for horror.

A good modern example of this is probably Robert Brockway’s 2015 novel “The Unnoticeables“, where the fact that some of the main characters are 1970s punks means that there is plenty of room for irreverent, crude and/or gross humour that is a really good “fit” with the rest of the story.

Another good modern example is S. L. Grey’s excellent 2011 novel “The Mall“. Although this novel can best be described as what a mixture of “Saw” and “Silent Hill” would look like if it was set in a South African shopping centre and directed by David Lynch, some of the bizarre moments that make this story so unsettling are also used as a vehicle for some utterly brilliant social satire and/or weird humour. Because the humour emerges from things that, when seen another way, would be incredibly disturbing, it is a really good fit with the story.

So, although humour in a horror story needs to feel like it has emerged organically from the characters, story and/or settings, it is an essential ingredient in good horror fiction for the simple reason that it tells the reader that they can’t be entirely certain of what to expect if they keep reading. And, of course, unpredictability is one of the most important parts of effective horror.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂