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 🙂

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Three Ways To Survive A Horror Publishing Drought

Well, since I’m focusing on the horror genre more than usual this month, I thought that I’d look at a rather dark period in the genre’s history – because it provides some interesting lessons about what to do when no-one seems to want to publish horror fiction.

Anyway, some context. Between the mid-1970s and the early-mid 1990s, horror fiction was apparently an incredibly popular genre. Numerous authors published horror novels and, from the sheer number of old horror novels I found in second-hand shops/charity shops during my teenage years in the ’00s, they were read a lot more widely than they are now.

But, at some point during the 1990s, horror fiction fell out of fashion in publishing. In fact, it’s only within the past decade that modern horror fiction actually seems to be gaining some vague level of popularity again. Even so, finding a dedicated “horror” shelf in bookshops today is more difficult than it used to be – even when horror fiction was at it’s least popular. At best, horror is often lumped in with sci-fi & fantasy these days.

But, despite this, authors from the heyday of horror fiction kept publishing new books when the genre was in decline. So, how did they survive?

1) Related genres: In 1980s Britain, two of the biggest names in horror fiction were Clive Barker and Shaun Hutson. Although there was apparently some antagonism/rivalry between the two authors during the 1980s, they both wrote splatterpunk horror novels during that decade. And, when horror fiction fell out of fashion, both of them dealt with this crisis in a vaguely similar way.

They looked through their own fiction for any other genres hidden in there and focused more on those genres.

For example, Shaun Hutson’s 1980s horror fiction often has a strong “gritty realism” element to it. So, during the horror drought of the 1990s/early-mid 2000s, he took this element and used it to write several grim, gritty, ultra-violent crime thrillers instead (eg: “Exit Wounds”, “Deadhead” etc..). Since this genre seems to be eternally popular, Hutson was still able to write stories that were similar in tone to his classic horror fiction at a time when many publishers avoided horror fiction.

On the other hand, Clive Barker’s 1980s horror fiction often has a strong dark fantasy element to it. This meant that, when horror fell out of fashion, he was still able to write several novels that included his distinctive interpretation of the fantasy genre (in addition to a couple of general fiction novels) – even though it wasn’t until the 2000s that he was able to reintroduce more horror elements into his fiction (with novels like “Coldheart Canyon” and “Mister B. Gone”).

The lesson in all of this is that, if you write horror, then you’ve probably also got another genre hiding in your fiction too. So, if you find it difficult to publish horror fiction, then focus slightly more on that other genre.

2) Fame:
When I was a teenager during the early-mid ’00s, one thing that I’d always see on the shockingly slender “horror” shelves in major bookshops were several Stephen King novels. At the time, this used to really annoy me (since I expected a wider variety of authors). But, in retrospect, this offers a really interesting lesson in how to survive a horror publishing drought.

In short, fame can be extremely useful during a horror drought. Yes, this is probably the most difficult way to survive a horror drought (since you also need a horror boom in order to get that fame in the first place) but it can work. I mean, thanks to numerous film adaptations, regular publications and being a household name, Stephen King was still able to put out new horror fiction during a time when publishers were apparently reluctant to even consider printing stuff in this genre.

Likewise, the next novel I plan to review (“The Vampire Armand” by Anne Rice) was first published in 1998. This is a gothic horror novel about vampires that was published at a time when horror fiction wasn’t a popular genre. How and why did this book get around this obstacle? At a guess, it’s probably due to both the famous 1994 film adaptation of Rice’s “Interview With The Vampire” and the fact that Rice is a very well-known author with a lot of fans. So, yes, fame can be useful during a horror drought.

3) Smaller presses and/or self-publishing: Although mainstream publishing’s interest in the horror genre can vary over time, there is always going to be an audience for it. As such, smaller presses can help to keep the horror genre alive during publishing droughts. Not to mention that, these days, self-publishing is much easier than it probably was during the 1990s/early-mid 2000s too.

For example, even though horror fiction was probably slightly more popular during the late 2000s, one of my enduring memories of that time period was seeing books from a slightly lesser-known publisher/imprint called Abaddon Books on the horror shelves of major bookshops.

Although this smaller press only really seemed to last a couple of years, they mostly published horror novels (with collections like the awesome zombie-themed “Tomes Of The Dead” collection) and it was really really cool to actually see new horror novels in bookshops back then.

So, yes, smaller presses and/or self-publishing can certainly be an option whenever the mainstream publishing industry loses interest in the horror genre.

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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 🙂

Review: “The Rats” By James Herbert (Novel)

Well, for the next novel in this month’s horror marathon, I thought that I’d re-read an influential novel in the history of modern horror fiction. I am, of course, talking about James Herbert’s 1974 novel “The Rats”.

In addition to being the forerunner of the splatterpunk genre, it also sparked something of a trend for stories about giant vermin in British horror fiction during the late 1970s and the 1980s, with novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Slugs” novels, Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion“, Richard Lewis’ “Devil’s Coach-Horse” and Guy N. Smith’s “Crabs” novels all taking inspiration from “The Rats”.

Like pretty much everyone who has read “The Rats”, I first read it when I was about fourteen or so. I also read the two sequels (“Lair” and “Domain”) around that time too. But, although I had thought about re-reading “Domain” (seriously, it’s almost as bleakly terrifying as “Threads), I’d been meaning to re-read “The Rats” for ages.

So, let’s take a look at “The Rats”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1991 New English Library (UK) paperback reprint of “The Rats” that I read.

The novel begins with a brief and ominous description of an abandoned house in London. Then, the novel tells the tragic tale of a man called Henry Guilfoyle who was driven out of his office job by homophobic bullying from his colleagues after they found out about his relationship with one of the new hires called Francis. Driven to alcoholism by this harrowing experience, he eventually becomes homeless and, after getting drunk on a bottle of cheap gin, is devoured by giant rats.

After this, the story mostly focuses on an art teacher called Harris who grew up in East London and has decided to teach there, despite the area’s rough reputation. After trading witty repartee with his rowdy class, he happens to notice something wrong with one of the troublemakers – he has been bitten by a rat…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it does show it’s age, it’s still a surprisingly compelling and horrific story. In a lot of ways, it is more reminiscent of a disaster movie or possibly even late 19th/early 20th century “Invasion Literature” novels than anything else. The mid-late parts of the story were also much more of a fast-paced thriller than I remembered too 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they are really well-written. Whilst this novel isn’t quite as gory as the later splatterpunk novels of the 1980s, it’s still surprisingly grisly and/or shocking for the time it was written. This is mostly because of the focus on the vicious cruelty of the flesh-eating rats and the vulnerability of many of their victims (eg: babies, puppies, children, homeless people etc..).

This gory horror is also paired with other types of horror like monster horror, medical horror, suspenseful horror, atmospheric horror and economic horror. This is a grim, gritty novel that is mostly set in the overlooked poorer parts of 1970s London, where WW2 bomb sites still lay unrepaired, where slums were replaced with impersonal council flats and where no-one really cared about the many homeless people.

To add to the horror, there are a lot of short side-stories and vignettes showing the rats attacking random people, which lends the novel a much grander sense of scale. This is, of course, a technique which would later go on to be used in many 1980s splatterpunk novels. Likewise, whilst authority is shown to be competent sometimes, there’s enough criticism of it to see where the splatterpunk genre got it’s “punk” elements from. As I said, this novel was pretty influential.

Earlier, I likened this novel to a thriller or a disaster movie and this is one of the most surprising parts of the story. Although it is a little slow to get started, it contains numerous suspenseful and/or fast-paced scenes that still remain gripping to this day. The focus on the official response to the giant rats and the occasional pitched battle with them make this novel more thrilling than you might expect.

In terms of the characters, they’re interesting. Although Harris is a fairly ok protagonist, the novel’s characterisation is at it’s very best when Herbert is describing many of the random people who get devoured by rats. Many of these people either live drearily ordinary lives or have tragic backstories and this really makes you care about what happens to them.

In terms of the writing, it’s really good. Although the novel’s third-person narration does contain some hints of a more formal and old-school style, a lot of the novel is written in a surprisingly fast-paced and “matter of fact” way. This seamless mixture of styles works really well, since it adds atmosphere to the story whilst also keeping the story fairly gripping and/or gritty when it needs to be.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a gloriously efficient 186 pages in length, this novel makes me pine for the days when novels were expected to be short 🙂 Likewise, whilst the earlier parts are relatively slow-paced and suspenseful, the story picks up the pace and becomes a much more grippingly fast-paced novel than you might initially expect 🙂

In terms of how this forty-five year old novel has aged, it both has and hasn’t aged well. Yes, there are a few awkwardly dated moments but, on the whole, there are less of these than I’d expected from a 1970s novel. Plus, although the opening chapter is clearly set in a more narrow-minded age, it hasn’t aged quite as badly as you might expect, thanks to Henry being a reasonably sympathetic – if tragic- main character in this chapter. Yes, this chapter hasn’t aged 100% well, but – for a 1970s novel – it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

The story’s thriller and horror elements have aged absolutely excellently though and this novel is still as grippingly compelling and horrific as it probably was in 1974 🙂 Not only that, the grim run-down 1970s setting of the story also helps to add to the horror too.

All in all, this is a compelling and influential horror novel. Yes, it’s a bit dated at times, but it is still a surprisingly gripping, atmospheric, suspenseful and horrific horror thriller novel that retains a lot of it’s drama and power to shock. If you like disaster movies, enjoy the splatterpunk fiction of the 1980s or just want to see why so many other 1970s/80s horror novels included plagues of giant creatures, then read this book. Yes, the lesser-known third novel in the series (“Domain”) is much scarier, but this novel is still a horror classic.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five. After all, it’s “The Rats”. I can’t give it any less than this.

Three Tips For Making Your Horror Stories Re-Readable

Well, since I seem to be re-reading a few horror novels this month, I thought that I’d talk about re-readability today. After all, a horror story is at it’s most frightening when the reader encounters it for the first time. They don’t know what to expect, so they are more likely to feel shock or nervousness. Fear of the unknown is, after all, one of the most powerful types of fear out there.

But, if you want people to re-read your horror story, then what can you do? Here are a few basic tips.

1) Shock tactics: This is the crudest and least reliable way to get readers to come back to your horror story, but it can work sometimes.

This technique involves including something so shocking that it will linger in the reader’s memory long after they have forgotten everything else about your story. Whilst this will put some readers off from ever re-reading your novel, it may also spur morbid nostalgia in some other readers and make them want to re-read the story years later to see if it is as shocking as they remember.

Again, this is a very crude way of adding re-readability and it will probably backfire with a portion of your audience. But, don’t underestimate the value of “Is this really as shocking as I remember?

2) Atmosphere: A more sophisticated way to make your horror story re-readable is to include things that don’t rely on startling or shocking the reader. In other words, things like atmosphere, creepy background details, thematic elements, unseen horrors and stuff like that.

If you are able to create an ominous sense of dread, then this is probably going to “work” even when your reader already knows how the story’s plot will turn out.

This is why, despite some fairly dated elements, the vintage horror fiction of H.P.Lovecraft not only has an enduring fanbase but has also inspired many other horror writers too. Instead of relying on cheap shocks, Lovecraft tends to focus more on things that are creepy no matter how many times you read them (eg: psychological horror, unseen monsters, atmospheric descriptions etc..).

Likewise, if you create a suitably original, atmospheric and creepy fictional location for your story, then this place is going to linger in your audience’s imaginations. And, with the courage that comes from knowing how a story ends, your reader might even get nostalgic about this place.

A good videogame-based example of this are the first three “Silent Hill” games. Not only do these three game have an incredibly unsettling atmosphere that remains scary no matter how many times you play them, but the nightmarish locations are so creative that you’ll probably want to re-visit Silent Hill every now and then just out of morbid nostalgia.

3) Hidden depths: An even more sophisticated way to make your horror story re-readable is to add hidden depths to it. To add themes, subtext, humour etc… that only really becomes obvious when the reader already knows what to expect. In other words, put something behind the scares and shocks that your reader will only notice when they return to your story more well-prepared for it.

A great example of this is Chuck Palahniuk’s short story “Guts”. This is, upon first reading, an incredibly gross story that will make even the most jaded horror fans grimace and wince with horrified revulsion. It is a story with an inventively grotesque final act that you can’t un-read. It is the kind of story where having the fortitude to finish a first reading of it is probably something worth bragging about.

Yet, when I re-read it a year or two later, I found it hilarious. Because I knew what to expect, I didn’t feel shocked by the story’s events. So, all of the dark comedy hiding in the background was a lot more obvious than it had been the first time round. The immature stupidity of the characters, the common theme between the story’s three acts and the exaggerated nature of the story’s events are extremely funny. But, you’ll probably only notice this when you re-read the story.

So, yes, hiding a lot of interesting stuff behind your horror story’s more obviously frightening or disturbing elements can be a great way to give your readers some “added value” when they re-read your story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

How Formal Should The Narration In Your Horror Story Be?

Well, I thought that I’d talk about formal and informal narration in horror fiction today. This is because each type of narration does different things in horror stories and choosing how to blend both of them can have a huge impact on how your story affects your reader.

But, first, how do the two types of narration differ from each other?

Complex, slow-paced formal narration is perfect for scenes where you want to create an ominous atmosphere, gross the reader out with horrific descriptions and/or build suspense. The main advantage of formal narration is that it can be used to render events, locations, emotions etc… in a much greater level of detail, albeit at the cost of reading speed.

On the other hand, simple fast-paced “matter of fact” informal narration is perfect for scenes where you want to get the reader’s adrenaline pumping. If you want to add a sense of frantic immediacy or gritty realism to a scene in your horror story, informal narration is best. Likewise, because there are fewer details and descriptions, the reader’s imagination has to “fill in the gaps”. You can exploit this fact to add even more horror to your story.

Of course, most modern horror stories will use a careful blend of these two things. After all, too much slow-paced formal narration can get in the way of the story and too much fast-paced informal narration can make the story seem light, generic and/or superficial.

So, the best approach is to know when to use each type. A good modern example of this is the novel I’m reading at the time of writing this article – “The Ritual” by Adam Nevill. This is a novel about a group of hikers who find themselves stranded in a dangerous forest.

When Nevill describes the forest, he’ll sometimes use the kind of elaborate formal narration that allows the reader to picture it really clearly. Then, when he shows the characters reacting to the events of the story, he’ll sometimes switch to shorter sentences and more “matter of fact” informal narration. Yes, there are some notable exceptions to this rule, but it is used to great effect – especially in the earlier parts of the story.

The contrast between these two types of narration works really well because the descriptive formal narration emphasises the harsh beauty of the forest, whilst the gritty informal narration shows the characters’ intense struggle to survive physically and emotionally. By using slightly different narration for different types of scenes, Nevill is able to shape how the reader reacts to the story.

Another good example can be found in classic British splatterpunk fiction from the 1980s. In these stories, scenes of everyday life, dialogue, drama etc… will often be written in a relatively informal way in order to to add a realistic atmosphere and keep the story moving at a decent pace. But, whenever anything gruesome happens, it will often be described in a very formal, poetic and descriptive way.

Not only does this combine beauty and horror in a really unsettling way, but the formal narration also adds a lot of extra emphasis to the gruesome moments too. In other words, the contrast between these two types of narration makes the story seem even more gruesome than it might do if it only used formal or informal narration.

The common thread in all of this is that each type of narration has to be used for a good reason. The contrast between each type of narration also matters a lot too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂