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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

Today’s Art (29th April 2020)

Well, I was in the mood for making some gothic horror art – not to mention that I also wanted to experiment with some digital brushes I’d discovered in this awesome open-source image editing program.

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

“Mansion” By C. A. Brown

Three Thoughts About Writing Sci-Fi Horror

Well, I thought that I’d talk about the sci-fi horror genre today. This is mostly because I’m currently reading a sci-fi horror novel (“Alien: Out Of The Shadows” by Tim Lebbon) that not only blends these two genres really well, but also helped me to see a few general themes and techniques I’ve noticed in other sci-fi horror novels (such as Nick Cutter’s terrifying “The Deep“) but hadn’t really thought about in depth before.

So, here are a few thoughts about writing sci-fi horror.

1) Mystery: When science fiction is at it’s best, it fills the reader with a feeling of awe and curiousity. It gives the reader a feeling of either exploring new planets, using new technology and/or visiting a fascinating futuristic world. It usually doesn’t explain literally everything about the story’s “world”, instead giving the reader just enough details to make them feel curious, but keeping things mysterious enough to give their imagination room to come up with the rest. Not only does this make these stories compelling, but it also allows the stories to seem much larger than they actually are.

Needless to say, this can also be used as a brilliantly chilling source of horror too. After all, the fear of the unknown is one of humanity’s strongest fears.

A lot of the best sci-fi horror stories rely heavily on mystery and uncertainty. In other words, they hint at more than they actually show. They provide enough horrifying details to let the reader know what could await them, and then they let the reader scare themselves with their own imagination. After all, the universe is a large place and most of it is unknown to science…. So, who knows what could lurk out there?

Plus, like in the classic sci-fi horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, there’s also the possibility that whatever the characters discover could be so strange and unworldly that it isn’t even possible to understand it. That trying to understand something so incredibly, terrifyingly inhuman could actually cause psychological damage to the characters. This, again, only works when there is a strong element of mystery in the story and when lots of details are left to the reader’s imagination.

This focus on mystery and implication also allows for a lot of extra tension and suspense too, because science is all about uncovering and studying the unknown. However, if the “unknown” is dangerous, then there’s tension between scientific curiousity and the basic instinct for self-preservation. By putting these two things in conflict with each other, you can really make your reader feel extremely nervous πŸ™‚

2) Competent characters: One of the main differences between scary sci-fi horror and fun, but not frightening, sci-fi horror is what the main characters’ skills are.

In short, if your main characters are scientists, programmers, engineers etc.. then your sci-fi horror story will be scary, because they will have to rely on their minds in order to survive whatever dangers they face. If your main characters are burly, heavily-armed space marines, then your sci-fi horror story will be a lot of fun to read, but not that scary because your characters have both the skills and means to directly fight whatever they encounter.

But, more than anything else, your characters have to be competent, skilled and intelligent people. Since your story is a sci-fi horror story, they need to have a good practical understanding of science and technology. They also need to have a good level of general intelligence and resourcefulness too. Yes, they obviously still need to have emotions and the ability to feel fear, but it is very important that the reader gets the sense that they know what they are doing.

Why? Well, it is all to do with suspense. In short, if a character only has the intelligence of the average slasher movie background character, then the reader will probably expect them to make some foolish mistake that will result in their grisly demise. But, if the characters are a bit smarter, then the reader will have more of an expectation that they will survive – allowing for a lot more suspense and tension. Likewise, because the characters have to rely on their minds (rather than on weapons, physical strength etc…) to stay alive, then the story will be a lot less predictable too.

You can also use this as a source of character-based horror too. If a character has an over-inflated sense of their intelligence or focuses too much on scientific/technological intelligence at the expense of their emotional, social, moral etc.. development, then you’ve got the basis for a really creepy villain character. Just remember to write these types of characters in a subtle, realistic way if you want them to actually be scary, rather than hilariously cartoonish.

3) Social satire: I can’t remember who first said it, but there’s a brilliant quote that points out that science fiction is actually about the present day rather than about the future. In other words, it is a genre that allows writers to comment about current topics and issues in a more imaginative and complex way than realistic journalism can.

Needless to say, this can also be used as a source of horror too. A lot of the creepiest works of sci-fi horror will often include some level of social satire or critique, warning the reader about the horrifying direction that the world could go in if current problems aren’t resolved.

To use a famous example, George Orwell’s chillingly dystopian sci-fi novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was first published in 1949. This was a time when the horrors of fascism were still fresh in people’s memories and anxieties about Soviet communism were also starting to grow too. By focusing on the chilling similarities between these two political extremes (eg: surveillance, cruelty, propaganda, ideological rigidity etc…), Orwell imagined a nightmarishly bleak future that made a lot of points about this stuff whilst also being inherently creepy in its own right.

And this is probably a good thing to remember. Although social satire can make a sci-fi horror novel creepier, you must never forget that you are writing a horror novel. In other words, you need to write your story in a way that – even if the reader doesn’t care about the issues you’re talking about – they will still be disturbed by the actual events of the story.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a good example of this. Even if you don’t think about 1940s politics or modern mass surveillance, the novel is still very chilling thanks to the setting and characters. It is set in a stark, utilitarian world that is racked with poverty and in a constant state of war. It is a world where the highlight of every day is either drinking cheap gin or spending two minutes screaming in fury at a cinema screen. A cruel secret police force constantly lurks in the background, ready to drag anyone who thinks for themselves away to face the cruel tortures of Room 101. Even without the political subtext, it is a horrifying place.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Review: “Strange Practice” By Vivian Shaw (Novel)

Well, it’s been a little while since I last read anything horror-related. So, I thought that I’d take a look at Vivian Shaw’s 2017 novel “Strange Practice”. This is a novel I found a couple of months earlier when shopping online for second-hand books. Intrigued by the plot summary, I ordered a copy there and then. Then, I got distracted by other books for a couple of months. So, this review has been a while in the making.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Strange Practice”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Strange Practice” that I read.

The novel begins in modern London with Dr. Greta Helsing, doctor to the undead, visiting her vampire friend Edmund Ruthven. He has called her over because another friend of his, Sir Francis Varney (of “Varney The Vampire” fame), is in trouble. Fanatical garlic-spraying monks have broken into Varney’s house and stabbed him with a cross-shaped blade. He barely managed to escape alive.

Greta treats Varney’s injuries before extracting a mysterious substance from the stab wound. Thinking that it is probably poison of some kind, she decides to get it analysed. Meanwhile, London is reeling in fear from a series of Jack The Ripper-style murders and, in a dark chamber somewhere, a badly-burned man goes through a strange initiation ritual…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it has a really cool premise and is probably one of the most original novels I’ve read recently. It’s this really interesting blend between the horror, urban fantasy, detective, thriller and medical drama genres that not only contains a good mixture between chills and comedy, but is also absolutely crammed with old-school horror fiction references too πŸ™‚ Yes, it wasn’t quite as much of a fast-paced thriller as I’d hoped, but I really loved the style and concept behind this novel πŸ™‚

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it is a little on the old-school side of things. In addition to a bit of gothic horror, it also contains suspense, paranormal horror, horrifying injuries, grisly murders, religious horror, character-based horror, psychological horror, gothic horror and even a few subtle hints of Lovecraftian sci-fi horror/ weird fiction too πŸ™‚ Although this novel isn’t outright scary, the horror elements really help to add atmosphere, depth and creepiness to the story πŸ™‚

In the classic urban fantasy fashion, the novel’s “monsters” (vampires, ghouls, demons, mummies etc..) aren’t actually the villains in this novel. Instead, Greta has to help protect them from a group of fanatical monks with glowing blue eyes. If you’ve ever played an old computer game called “Blood“, you’ll know that evil monks are one of the funniest and most gloriously melodramatic types of horror villains out there – and it is an absolute joy to see them here πŸ™‚ Seriously, I bought this book purely on the basis that it contained evil monks πŸ™‚ Plus, this novel also contains an adorable baby ghoul called a “ghoullet” too πŸ™‚

And, in the classic urban fantasy fashion, this novel also has a little bit of a mythos too. Although this is slightly more of a background detail, the fact that the story makes a distinction between “vampires” and “vampyres” and also comes up with a rather clever twist on the classic “heaven and hell” thing really helps to add a bit of uniqueness, depth and atmosphere to the story πŸ™‚

The novel’s detective and thriller elements are a little bit understated, but work reasonably well. Most of the novel is structured more like a drama and a detective story, with suspenseful thriller elements in the background. Although this suspense works well and the novel has a suitably dramatic climax, the fact that a lot of the novel takes place in Ruthven’s house means that the thriller elements weren’t always as fast-paced as I’d expected.

Even so, the fact that the house is presented as a bunker-like refuge from danger helps to build suspense and add realism to the novel, plus it makes the novel’s relatively few action-packed moments stand out more in contrast. These are reasonably good and mostly work well. However, despite being set in London, one fight scene has a very US-style moment where Greta fends off an attacker with pepper spray. Although this scene is very suspenseful and dramatic, it will probably seem a bit incongruous (given that the only people allowed to carry or use this particular weapon in the UK are the police).

The novel’s detective elements are fairly good too, with a strong focus on both scientific/library research and old-fashioned investigation. Likewise, the solution to the mystery of the monks is one of the most inventive that I’ve seen a while – containing a good mixture between psychological, paranormal and scientific horror that makes the novel feel a little bit like a Lovecraftian episode of “Doctor Who” at times πŸ™‚

In terms of the characters, they’re really good πŸ™‚ Not only do Greta and her supernatural friends come across as complex, realistic people – but their friendship not only allows for quite a few “feel good” moments that leaven the story’s gothic gloom, but also for a few moments of drama and subtle comedy too πŸ™‚ The villains also get a decent amount of characterisation too, which really helps to add to the horror. My only criticism of the characters is that there is slightly too much emphasis on Varney’s melancholic brooding. Yes, it adds depth to his character and even allows for a few obscure Victorian literature references too, but it happens just slightly too often.

As for the writing, it is excellent πŸ™‚ The novel’s third-person narration is written in a formal enough way to add a gothic, Victorian-style flavour to the story whilst also being informal and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving at a decent pace. Not only does this writing style emphasise the glorious strangeness of Victorian vampires living in modern London, but it also helps to add a lot of atmosphere and personality to the story that really helps to set it apart from the crowd too πŸ™‚

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. At 353 pages in length, it doesn’t feel too long. Likewise, although you shouldn’t expect a fast-paced thriller, the novel still moves at a reasonable speed (and never really felt “slow-paced”). Likewise, the mixture of suspense, drama and mystery helps to keep the story reasonably compelling. Even so, at least half of the novel is spent inside Ruthven’s house – and, although these scenes can sometimes feel a little less thrilling than the rest of the novel, the novel as a whole is still fairly compelling.

All in all, whilst this novel isn’t always perfect, I really loved the concept behind it πŸ™‚ Not only is it one of the most original horror/urban fantasy novels that I’ve read in a while, but it is a must-read for anyone who loves stories that revolve around gothic vampires or evil monks too πŸ™‚ Yes, you shouldn’t expect a fast-paced thriller, but if you like suspense, horror, urban fantasy, Victorian literature and/or detective fiction, then this novel is worth reading.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

Review: “Doctor Who – The Feast Of The Drowned” By Stephen Cole (Novel)

Well, due to the hot weather when I was preparing this review, I was still in the mood for an easy-reading “feel good” sci-fi novel. So, I thought that I’d finally take a look at the other “Doctor Who” novel (than this one) that I found in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield several months earlier. I am, of course, talking about Stephen Cole’s 2006 novel “Doctor Who – The Feast Of The Drowned”.

Although this novel tells a new story that is set during the second series of the modern version of “Doctor Who” (which starred David Tennant and Billie Piper), it can still pretty much be read as a stand-alone novel if you haven’t seen series two of the TV show.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Doctor Who – The Feast Of The Drowned”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2006 BBC Books (UK) hardback edition of “Doctor Who – The Feast Of The Drowned” that I read.

The novel begins on board a navy ship called H.M.S Ascendant which has suddenly and mysteriously started sinking in the middle of the North Sea. A sailor from the ship’s stores, Jay Selby, tries to save another sailor called Barker before he is suddenly swept overboard and dragged underwater by something.

In London, Rose Tyler is visiting her friend Keisha after spending a year travelling through time and space with The Doctor. Keisha is in floods of tears, mourning her brother Jay – who has recently been listed as missing in action by the navy. When The Doctor shows up a little while later, he suggests getting fish and chips. But, shortly after he leaves, Jay’s ghost suddenly appears in Keisha’s flat and gives Rose and Keisha a cryptic warning…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was quite enjoyable to read πŸ™‚ It’s kind of like an extended, high-budget “lost episode” from series two of the show and, best of all, it is also a horror-themed “episode” too πŸ™‚ Since the show is often at it’s very best when it includes a bit of horror, it was great to see this here πŸ™‚

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements. It contains a really good mixture of monster horror, ghost horror, body horror, psychological horror, disaster horror, drowning-based horror, suspense, death-based horror and even a few hints of the zombie genre too πŸ™‚

Although this novel probably won’t be that scary to experienced horror novel readers, these elements certainly add a lot of extra drama and atmosphere to the story. Not to mention that, being a novel rather than a TV show episode, not only do the creatures look a lot more “realistic”, but this book can also include a slightly more intense level of horror than is probably allowed on early-evening television too πŸ™‚

The novel’s monster design is brilliantly inventive and very well thought out too πŸ™‚ The “monster of the week” here is a giant collective of microscopic alien creatures called The Waterhive, who can travel through and manipulate water, can influence people and can also affect everything at the atomic level too.

In addition to turning people into zombie-like creatures, they can also drain the body-water of surrounding people in order to create ghost-like hallucinations that will lure their victim’s loved ones into a watery grave. They can also turn into wonderfully Lovecraftian slime monsters and/or pearl-eyed walking corpses too. Seriously, as “Doctor Who” monsters go, these are one of the creepiest and most formidable that I’ve seen in a while.

Not only that, the monsters are given a realistic motivation for their actions and they also follow a series of “rules” which are used to great effect, which brings me on to the novel’s sci-fi elements. These are excellent as ever, with every “paranormal” event in the story having a scientific explanation which the main characters have to learn about. This focus on solving an ominous scientific mystery also helps to keep the novel fairly compelling too.

Which brings me on to this novel’s thriller elements πŸ™‚ It’s kind of like a fast-paced episode of the TV show, with a really good mixture between suspenseful sneaking, large-scale set-pieces, chilling disaster drama (as London slowly succumbs to The Waterhive’s brainwashing), fast-paced survival drama scenes and even a couple of brief fight scenes too. One of the cool things about novels is that they don’t have the budgetary or practical restrictions that films or TV do and the “special effects” tend to seem a lot more realistic too, and this novel uses this fact to full advantage here πŸ™‚

Plus, another cool thing about this novel is it’s mid-2000s atmosphere too πŸ™‚ This is mostly achieved through a lot of subtle moments – such as mentions of “Disk Doctors” in computer shops, no mentions of social media, comments about fish and chips no longer being wrapped in newspaper etc… and it really helps to add a little bit of nostalgia to the story when it is read today.

In terms of the characters, this novel is fairly good. Although you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, there is enough here to make you care about the characters. For the most part, Rose, The Doctor and Mickey also seem fairly close to their TV show counterparts, with the only possible difference being a couple of jokes that seem very mildly “out of character” for The Doctor.

A lot of this novel’s characterisation also comes from the interactions between the characters and this mostly works well. However, there is a vaguely soap-opera style sub-plot involving a past affair between two characters, which almost gets annoying. Thankfully though, every time the novel begins to feel a bit more like “Eastenders” than “Doctor Who”, the arguing characters are usually interrupted by ghosts and/or a zombie pirate πŸ™‚ Did I mention there was a zombie pirate in this novel? πŸ™‚

In terms of the writing, this novel is fairly good πŸ™‚ The novel’s third-person narration is written in a reasonably fast-paced, informal and “matter of fact” style that fits in well with the atmosphere of the TV show, in addition to allowing for a few humourous moments and a very readable story too πŸ™‚ Even so, whilst the novel’s fast-paced narration keeps everything moving at a decent speed, it comes at the slight cost of the extra atmosphere that you get from having more moments of formal/slow narration. Still, this is a small criticism – especially given that the novel’s locations, “special effects” etc… all seem a bit more impressive than those in the TV show.

As for length and pacing, this novel is also really good too πŸ™‚ At an efficient 249 pages in length, this novel never really feels bloated. Likewise, the novel moves at a reasonably similar pace to a good episode of the TV show, with relatively short chapters and a decent amount of of mystery, action, horror and/or drama to keep everything compelling πŸ™‚

All in all, this is a really fun “Doctor Who” novel that is kind of like an extended, high-budget “horror” episode of the TV show πŸ™‚ If you want an enjoyably relaxing and readable sci-fi horror mystery or are just feeling nostalgic about the mid-2000s, then this novel might be worth taking a look at.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

Today’s Art ( 7th April 2020)

Well, today’s digitally-edited painting turned out better than I’d expected was kind of inspired by a moment of nostalgia about those wonderful years in the early-mid 2000s where Japanese horror movies (and Hollywood remakes of them) were a popular genre πŸ™‚

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

“The Ghost At The Window” By C. A. Brown

Three Ways To Make Vampires Scary

A while before writing this article, I was reading a vampire novel (“Vittorio, The Vampire” by Anne Rice) and was delighted to find that it contained much more horror than I’d been expecting πŸ™‚ After all, although vampires are a fairly traditional part of the horror genre, they aren’t always presented in a very frightening way.

Whilst there are some good creative reasons for this – including everything from exploring the themes associated with vampirism, because vampires are one of the coolest types of monster in the horror genre (see the “Blade” and “Underworld” movies, Jocelynn Drake’s “Dark Days” novels etc… for good examples) and/or because the gothic melodrama traditionally associated with them is a brilliant source of comedy (see the TV show “What We Do In The Shadows” for a hilarious example of this), there’s also something to be said for scary vampires too. If only because they are a great way to surprise jaded readers.

So, how can you make vampires scary?

1) Other types of horror: Most of the scariest vampire fiction out there will often include other types of horror that aren’t traditionally associated with vampires. For example, the opening segments of Whitley Strieber’s “The Hunger” present the vampire characters in a way reminiscent of the serial killer villains in slasher movies.

Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” takes a hint from Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” and presents the vampires in a very zombie-like way, allowing for a level of ultra-gory, fast-paced apocalyptic horror that you don’t typically see in the vampire genre. Yes, zombies aren’t very frightening – but including elements of this genre creates a chillingly bleak, nihilistic and grim atmosphere that you really don’t see that often in the vampire genre.

An especially creepy example of including another type of horror in the vampire genre (SPOILERS ahoy!) can be found in Anne Rice’s “Vittorio, The Vampire”.

In this historical vampire story, the main character flees from his ancestral castle after surviving a vampire attack and finds sanctuary in a nearby town called Santa Maddelena. Initially, the town appears quiet, friendly and idyllic… too idyllic. With a series of brilliant hints and subtle moments, Rice gradually reveals the blood-curdling secret behind this town’s joyous faΓ§ade. It is a brilliantly unexpected use of the “flawed utopia” trope (typically found in the sci-fi genre) and it is used to exquisitely chilling effect here πŸ™‚

So, the lesson here is to incorporate other types of horror into the vampire genre, to read widely (eg: not just horror fiction) and surprise your reader with scary stuff that they won’t usually find in a typical vampire novel.

2) Moral horror: One of the things that separates “feel good” vampire fiction from genuinely scary vampire fiction is how the morality of vampirism is presented. In “feel good” stories, the vampires will either just be “100% evil” villian characters or, if they’re the good guys, then they will drink synthetic or donated blood, bite in a non-lethal fashion etc… In short, these “feel good” vampires are presented in a way that doesn’t conflict too much with the reader’s moral sensibilities.

In scarier vampire stories, the vampires will be the protagonists, but will actually have to bite and kill other characters. These vampire characters are complex, ordinary people who have been forced into a cold and grim life of repetitive murder because of either a tragic accident, an unexpected vampire attack and/or a misunderstanding of what it is to be a vampire. How the characters reconcile themselves to this evil life and how it changes them can be a potent source of subtle, creeping horror that can really catch the reader by surprise πŸ™‚

Interestingly, the very best example of this type of morality-based horror can actually be found in a computer game. I am, of course, talking about “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines“. In this game, you play as a newly-created vampire and have a lot of freedom to make decisions. Although the game may not feel or look very frightening at first, expect to feel a slow, creeping sense of horrified revulsion shortly after your first session with the game, when you actually think back on all of the evil decisions that you made in order to survive and/or thrive in the game’s harsh and seedy world.

3) Realism: One of the simplest ways to make vampires frightening is just to add a bit of realism to your story by thinking about the life of a vampire in practical terms. This can work in so many ways.

Whether it is adding elements of science to the vampires (eg: vampirism working like a disease, scientists wanting to study vampires etc…), whether it is just presenting your vampire characters as being ordinary and unremarkable people (giving the reader the impression that anyone could be a vampire, waiting to drink their blood!), whether it is showing a vampire protagonist trying to cover up evidence of their crimes and/or being chased by the police or whether it is just showing all of the gory after-effects of a vampire biting someone, one of the best ways to make vampires scary is to add a bit of realism to your story.

Yes, the idea of a hidden world filled with gothic vampires who read poetry, drink absinthe, visit cool nightclubs, have passionate romances etc… is one of the central appeals of the vampire genre πŸ™‚ It is really cool. But, at the same time, it isn’t very scary for the simple reason that it isn’t very realistic – it is an escapist fantasy, rather than a terrifying nightmare.

Horror is often at it’s very scariest when it is grounded in the real world, when the reader really thinks “this could happen!” and shudders at the thought. So, if your vampires exist in a stylised gothic world, then they are going to be less frightening than if they just live down the road from wherever your reader happens to be.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Three Reasons Why Gruesome Horror Fiction Isn’t Scary

Well, although I’ve written about the topic of gruesomeness in horror fiction before, I ended up thinking about it again after watching a few episodes of a hilarious comedy horror TV show called “Ash Vs. Evil Dead”. Although television and prose fiction are two very different mediums, one of the interesting things about “Ash Vs. Evil Dead” is that it is almost as cartoonishly ultra-gruesome as many classic 1980s British horror novels are. And, seeing this level of gruesomeness in a visual medium rather than a written one made me think of more reasons why gruesomeness isn’t inherently scary in horror fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, horror fiction can and should be gruesome. When used well, gruesome moments can really intensify any other types of horror that your story uses. Likewise, gruesomeness not being inherently scary can actually be a good thing sometimes – especially in the comedy horror genre or for those moments when you want to sneakily dial back the scariness in order to make your readers feel more courageous and/or to lull them into a false sense of security.

Gruesomeness in horror fiction isn’t a bad thing. But it isn’t scary either, and here’s a few reasons why:

1) Spectacle, shock and craft: This is a bit like the old rule about using profanity in fiction – you can use as much of it as you like, but every time will have slightly less dramatic impact than the previous one. In other words, gruesome horror fiction isn’t scary because the audience gets used to it fairly quickly. It goes from a horrifying unexpected thing to just an ordinary part of the story.

And, when this happens, the audience is more likely to see these moments as spectacle rather than horror. Yes, they can still be dramatic, but it will be in a more theatrical way than the “realistic” way you should be aiming for if you want to write scary horror fiction. In other words, because the audience no longer feels shocked, they are much more likely to pay attention to the craft behind these scenes. And this reminds the audience that they’re just reading a novel or watching a film. In other words, something artificial that cannot scare them.

In the case of a TV show like “Ash Vs. Evil Dead”, this will probably mean that you’ll end up thinking “Wow! I wonder how many gallons of stage blood they used in this scene?” or “Was that blood spatter CGI?” rather than “Oh my god! An evil zombie!“. In a horror novel, it will probably mean that you’ll pay more attention to the – surprisingly poetic – descriptions and turns of phrase that are a hallmark of old-school British splatterpunk fiction and/or to any characteristic phrases that the author uses in these scenes (eg: Shaun Hutson’s frequent use of words like “coppery”, “putrescent”, “mucoid”, “liquescent”, “orb” etc…)

So, frequent gruesome moments in horror fiction are less scary than you might think because not only do they lose their shock value quickly, but they also focus the audience’s attention on the craft of the scene – which can break their immersion in the story.

2) Slapstick, exaggeration and realism: By their very nature, the kind of ultra-gruesome descriptions that you’ll see in horror fiction or the special effects you’ll see in a gruesome horror film, are unrealistic. After all, they have to be as gruesome as possible to shock or gross out the audience. And this usually lends these scenes a certain level of exaggeration and melodrama that can often come across as a more macabre form of slapstick comedy. This is, of course, absolutely great for things in the comedy horror genre (like “Ash Vs. Evil Dead”), but it makes “serious” horror feel a bit less serious.

After all, truly scary horror – the type that will haunt the reader’s nightmares for days afterwards- relies on verisimilitude. The feeling that the story could actually happen. To you.

However, outside of a Halloween party, no-one is going to see a gruesome zombie or monster lurching towards them. Likewise, although horrific things unfortunately do happen in real life, the chances of actually seeing or experiencing them are thankfully relatively low (despite the frightening impression that reading or watching the news may give you).

In other words, gruesome moments of horror will seem unrealistic (and therefore less scary) because not only will most people be lucky enough never to see anything like it in real life, but also because the only way to write “shocking” gruesome moments is to exaggerate them to the point where they almost seem like a grim type of slapstick comedy.

3) Focus and consequences: Most gruesome horror isn’t scary because of what it focuses on. In other words, it focuses more on the messy physical consequences of horrific events rather than the much more disturbing emotional and psychological consequences of them.

For example, one of the most genuinely shocking and disturbing “gruesome” moments I’ve read in a novel during the past couple of years is actually less “gruesome” than a typical scene in a splatterpunk horror novel. I am, of course, talking about the opening chapter of Jack O’Connell’s “Word Made Flesh” (read it at your own peril. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!).

Although this scene is fairly gruesome, it is genuinely disturbing because – instead of just devoting page after page to gory descriptions – the chapter also focuses on things like the horrific concept of what is happening, on the agony a character suffers and on the chillingly cold cruelty of several other characters. It is also narrated by a creepy fourth wall breaking narrator who will callously crack jokes about what is happening in a way that makes it feel like someone very very evil is sitting right next to you. It is a chapter that you won’t forget reading.

And, yet, it is technically less gruesome than a splatterpunk novel. Yet, it is more shocking because of what it chooses to focus on. So, gruesome horror fiction usually isn’t that scary because it often focuses on the least scary elements of horrific moments and events.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Three Tips For Blending The Horror And Thriller Genres

Well, after reading a horror thriller novel that managed to be both grippingly thrilling and suitably scary, I thought that I’d talk about how to blend the horror and thriller genres today.

After all, this is something that is very easy to get wrong – resulting in either a horror-flavoured thriller novel (that is thrilling but not that scary) or a scary novel that is more like an old-fashioned slower-paced thriller than the kind of fast-paced thriller readers might be expecting.

So, how can you blend the two genres well? Here are a few tips.

1) Suspense and mystery: Both the horror and thriller genres rely heavily on suspense and mystery. So, use this to your advantage! Whether it is the suspense of someone facing almost-certain death or a chilling mystery that the main character has to unravel even though they know that the answers will haunt their nightmares (and the reader’s) for many nights afterwards, it is very easy to use these two things to create a story that is both thrilling and scary.

So, why do people get this wrong? Well, the main reason is that they forget that both genres can use these things at the same time. In other words, they might include suspenseful moments that are thrilling but not scary, mysteries that are scary but not thrilling etc… This tends to result in a novel that is more like one genre than the other.

The trick here is to look for mysterious and suspenseful things that contain elements from both genres at the same time.

Let’s start with suspense. Thriller novel suspense revolves around the a character suddenly finding themselves out of their depth (eg: outgunned, outnumbered, outfunded, outwitted etc…) and the clever way that they survive or avoid this danger by thinking on their feet. Traditional horror suspense tends to revolve around slow, creeping dread – with the character gradually becoming more and more threatened by something terrifyingly unstoppable.

So, to blend these two things, you might want to – for example – introduce a thriller-style immediate threat (eg: a horde of hungry zombies) whilst also hinting at a much greater threat (eg: the zombies look like the plucky band of survivors the main character met two chapters ago, hinting that everyone will eventually turn into zombies). Or you could show a character surviving a dangerous situation in the short term, only to slowly realise that they have placed themselves (or someone else) in even more danger.

As for mystery, both genres usually focus on the main character investigating some kind of nefarious and/or evil series of events. In a thriller, the villains are more likely to have “practical” motivations/goals (eg: money, power, revenge etc..) and will use “realistic” methods to get these things. In a horror story, the villains’ motivations are likely to be a bit more twisted, strange and/or disturbing, and they are also more likely to resort to crueller and/or more bizarre methods too.

So, the trick here is to blend both of these things – to come up with a mystery revolving around an evil scheme that has a practical purpose, but has chillingly evil horror-style motivations or methods behind it (or vice versa).

2) Characters: Thrillers and horror stories are at odds with each other when it comes to characters. In a thriller, the main focus is on the plot – with the characters being more of a secondary thing. In a genuinely scary horror story, the characters are usually more important than the plot. Good horror relies on good characters, good thriller fiction relies on a good plot.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. To write a good horror thriller novel, you have to devote more time to characterisation than you would in a thriller novel and more time to the plot than you would in a horror novel. But, unless you want to write a giant tome, how do you do all of this in a sensible number of pages?

There are several ways of doing this. One way is to include a lot of characterisation for one or two characters (usually the main character and the villain), but slightly less for the other characters. Another way to do this is to make the characters’ personalities and backstories the main driving force behind the complicated events of the main plot. Yet another way is to use personality-filled first-person narration that allows you to focus on the plot whilst also frequently showing the narrator’s reactions/thoughts about what is happening.

In short, both the characters and the plot are important in a good horror thriller story.

3) Violence: One of the easiest ways to blend both the horror and thriller genres is to take a horror genre approach to the scenes of violence in a thriller story. In thrillers – especially action thriller novels – violence is often a fast-paced and sanitised thing that is designed to “look” spectacular and/or get the reader’s adrenaline flowing. In horror stories, violence tends to be a much more painful, drawn-out and ugly thing with extremely grisly immediate consequences and much longer-lasting psychological consequences. It is written in a way that is meant to be horrifying to read.

So, is it just a simple matter of blending the two things? Yes, but…

One common mistake that you’ll find in horror-flavoured thriller novels is that they will just focus on the gory elements of horror-genre style violence. Yes, adding lots of blood and guts will make a thriller story feel grittier and more intense – but it won’t be particularly scary. If you want a more balanced blend of the horror and thriller genres, then you also need to give equal emphasis to all of the other horrifying effects of violence too (eg: pain, suffering, fear, psychological after-effects etc…).

So, if you want a good horror thriller story, then you’ll need to do more than just make your thriller novel a bit more gruesome.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Review: “Carrion” by Gary Brandner (Novel)

Well, after enjoying Gary Brandner’s “Death Walkers” a few weeks ago, I decided to look online for any other books by him and ended up buying a second-hand copy of his 1986 novel “Carrion” (mostly thanks to the wonderfully melodramatic title and gruesome cover art). And, since I haven’t read a 1980s horror novel in a while, I thought that I’d take a look at it.

So, let’s take a look at “Carrion”. I should warn you that this review may contain some SPOILERS.

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I read the 1987 Arrow (UK) paperback edition of “Carrion”, but eventually decided against including a scan of the cover art, since I worried that – in the unlikely event that any non-horror fans are reading this – it would be considered “too gruesome”. For reference, it’s a dramatic “realistic” close-up painting of a bloodied zombie standing behind a broken window and screaming (which also makes very effective use of a green/red colour scheme too). Seriously, I love the fact that horror novels actually looked like horror novels during the 1980s πŸ™‚ .

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The novel begins in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles, with a man called McAllister Fain who makes a living doing phony tarot readings. After a profitable day’s work, his girlfriend Jillian Pappas visits him and points out that she’s seen his recent “master of the occult” advert in one of the local tabloids. They have dinner and talk for a while. It is an ordinary evening like any other.

Meanwhile, a rich old man called Eliot Kruger is mourning his younger wife Leanne. Being interested in cryogenics, Eliot had bought a cryonic chamber for himself, but now Leanne lies preserved inside it after dying from a blood clot. One of the servants brings him a local paper and points out Fain’s advert. Racked with grief and with nothing to lose, Eliot summons Fain and offers him tens of thousands of dollars if he can attempt to bring Leanne back from the dead.

Despite misgivings from both Jillian and Kruger’s son, Fain accepts the offer – reasoning that he can just put on a good show for the old man and still get the money anyway. But, since it has to look convincing, he decides to do a bit of research and eventually finds a Voodoo priest called Le Docteur who, to Fain’s surprise, senses some supernatural power in him. Le Docteur tells Fain that – because of this – he is obliged to teach him how to raise the dead, but warns him against actually doing it.

The next day, Fain wakes up with little memory of what Le Docteur taught him. His apartment is filled with strange candles and powders. So, he decides to use them as props for his “performance” later that day. And he makes a really good show of it, using every magic trick in his repertoire to make it look dramatic. Then, some kind of instinct takes over and he recites an ancient incantation. Leanne returns to life. News of this “miracle” begins to spread and Fain finds that he has become famous…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, like with Brandner’s “Death Walkers”, it’s also a rather innovative take on the zombie genre πŸ™‚ And, although this novel is slightly more of a slow burn than you’d expect from a 1980s horror novel, it is a fairly compelling tale of the macabre πŸ™‚

So, I should probably start by talking about the novel’s horror elements. Despite the gruesome cover art, there is relatively little gory horror here. Instead, this novel relies more on a mixture of occult horror, psychological horror, social horror, sexual horror, fame-based horror, death/decay-based horror, character-based horror etc… in order to slowly build up an ominous sense of inevitable doom and dread.

Unlike the traditional horror movie zombies, the undead here are a lot creepier than you’d expect. Instead of mindless shambling monsters, the returned dead are initially just ordinary people who slowly become more evil and more afraid of light as their bodies gradually decay and their desire for revenge against their resurrector grows stronger. This is handled really well here, with the zombies’ gradual decline affecting loved ones who were initially overjoyed to see them return and also mirroring changes in Fain’s personality too.

As I said earlier, this novel is a bit of a slow burn, and this is mostly because it allows this element of the story to be used in the most effective way possible πŸ™‚ Not only are the occasional scenes of horror in the early-mid parts of the novel made even more dramatic in contrast to the scenes of ordinary life, but the slower progression of the story also allows the horror of the story’s slowly-changing undead to sink in a lot more deeply than it would do in a faster-paced novel.

Like with Brandner’s “Death Walkers”, this novel also has a humourous and satirical edge to it too. Although some of this humour probably seems a bit cheesy or dated these days, one of the most compelling parts of the novel is watching Fain become more and more famous. This not only allows for a lot of satire of both the media and of fame (in a way vaguely reminiscent of something like Chuck Palahniuk’s 1999 novel “Survivor), but it also shows the corrosive effect that it has on Fain as he becomes richer and more egotistical. Likewise, the scenes involving a scandal about Fain’s powers are not only even more chilling in this controversy-obsessed age, but also sometimes mirror traditional zombie movies (where angry mobs of outraged people try to get Fain) too.

In terms of the characters, they’re mostly fairly well-written. Fain gets the bulk of the novel’s characterisation and is an amusingly rogueish anti-hero who slowly becomes more of a tragic figure as the novel progresses. He comes across as a fairly realistic and complicated character, which really helps to keep the novel compelling. Likewise, several of the background characters also seem like fairly realistic people with motivations and personalities too. However, a few of the background characters will probably seem at least mildly dated and/or stereotypical by modern standards.

In terms of the writing, this novel is reasonably good. For the most part, this novel’s third-person narration is written in a relatively informal and “matter of fact” style which is very readable and keeps things moving at a reasonable pace too (which also helps to counteract the relatively slow plot progression). Brandner also has a fairly distinctive writing style, which also helps to give the story humour and personality too. In short, if you’ve read other 1980s horror novels, then you’ll probably enjoy the writing in this novel πŸ™‚

As for length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 265 pages in length, this novel never feels bloated. Likewise, this novel also gradually builds up suspense and drama in such a way that the later parts of the story feel about ten times more dramatic than they would do in a faster-paced novel (even if at least one plot twist seems to almost come out of nowhere). Not only that, although the story progresses more slowly than you might expect, both the reasonably “matter of fact” writing style and numerous carefully-placed moments of drama, humour or horror help to keep the “slow” early-middle parts of the story compelling, whilst also ensuring that they move at a decent pace too.

In terms of how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it both has and hasn’t aged well. On the one hand, the novel’s horror elements are still creepy, the story is still compelling and the novel’s themes/satire are also fairly timeless too. On the other hand, the general “atmosphere” of the novel often feels more like the 1960s/70s than the 1980s and several parts of this novel would probably also be considered “politically incorrect” these days too.

All in all, this was a fairly enjoyable retro horror novel πŸ™‚ Yes, the story is more of a slow burn than you might expect, but I really enjoyed the characters, the setting, the chillingly inventive version of the zombie genre and the fact that this novel doesn’t take itself 100% seriously. And, although I slightly preferred Brandner’s “Death Walkers” to this novel, it’s still really cool to see another interestingly different zombie novel by this author πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would probably get a four.